What is internationalism anyway?

To celebrate their 40th anniversary, New Internationalist held an event at Amnesty International UK HQ called ‘What does it mean to be an internationalist today?’ An impressive panel of speakers was tasked with answering the question: Jessica Horn, Asad Rehman, Dan Smith, John Hilary, Mariéme Jamme, Nitasha Kaul and Jonathan Glennie.

I wrote a summary-cum review of the event for the New Internationalist blog but to see the speakers themselves check out the videos from the night, also the great blog series ‘The Internationalists‘.

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More from the New Internationalist website…

I’m now into my last month at New Internationalist. I’ll be sad to leave but who knows what exciting things the future may hold – I don’t yet!

Things have been busy on the website and I’ve been out and about blogging. Here’s some of what I’ve been up to:

I spent two days in London covering G8 mobilisations on the day of David Cameron’s Hunger Summit and the Carnival Against Capitalism. I also headed to the People’s Assembly in Westminster on 22 June, as did New Internationalist co-editor Vanessa Baird.

I also wrote  a post on a new campaign to raise awareness of FGM in Oxfordshire, spearheaded by writer and campaigner Abigal Muchechti.

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.

Rubber barons are robbing Cambodia and Laos

This post was originally published on the New Internationalist website on 13 May 2013…

A new report from campaigning NGO Global Witness has revealed how big-name financial institutions, International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Deutsche Bank are subsidizing Vietnamese land grabs in Cambodia and Laos.

‘Rubber Barons’, published alongside a short film on Monday 13 May, is critical of a culture of secrecy around plantation investments. Two of Vietnam’s largest companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) have acquired more than 200,000 hectares of land through deals with the Cambodian and Laos governments. Deutsche Bank has significant holdings in both companies, while the IFC invests in HAGL.

Cambodia and Laos have seen more than 3.7 million hectares of land handed over to companies since 2000, 40 per cent of which is for rubber plantations. The report explains a culture of corporate secrecy and shady connections with élites which mean that companies like HAGL and VRG get away with breaking the rules.

Land grabbing has accelerated in Cambodia over recent years, and so has the violence that surrounds it. By the end of 2012, 2.6 million hectares of land had been leased by the government, 20 per cent of which Global Witness says has been allocated to five of Cambodia’s powerful tycoons.

Laos has experienced a growing economy over the last decade that has attracted attention from foreign agribusiness looking to cash in on the quantity of arable land and cheap labour available. According to Global Witness, almost 20 per cent of all villages in Laos have been affected by at least one land grab. Forests are disappearing, along with journalists and activists who speak out.

Megan MacInnes, who heads the Land Team at Global Witness says that HAGL and VRG are adding to the human rights threat in the region: ‘Often, the first time people learn of a plantation is when the company bulldozers arrive to clear their farms,’ she adds.

Local people have complained of increased food and water shortages, loss of livelihood without compensation and poor employment conditions. Indigenous communities have lost burial grounds and sacred forests. Those who protest say they face violence, intimidation and arrest. ‘Rubber Barons’ outlines non-payment of compensation and routine use of armed security forces to guard plantations in HAGL and VRG’s operations.

The environmental impacts are also significant; the report accuses both companies of involvement in illegal forest clearance, beyond their concession boundaries.

‘Rubber Barons’ says that HAGL and VRG’s financial involvement lies behind an intricate web of shell companies, which allows them to disguise the fact that they have exceeded Cambodia’s legal limit on land holdings. Global Witness is calling for HAGL and VRG to be prosecuted for their illegal activities and for their plantation concessions to be cancelled.

‘Until governments bring in and enforce regulations to end the culture of secrecy and impunity that is driving the global land-grabbing crisis, international banks and financial institutions will continue to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses and deforestation they are bankrolling,’ says MacInnes.

Podcast: Why is housing in such a state?

April’s New Internationalist podcast looks at the state of shelter – from Europe to the Philippines.

My most recent New Internationalist podcast features co-editor Dinyar Godrej in the Netherlands and Iris Gonzales in the Philippines.

Dinyar Godrej chatted with me about the causes of the global housing crisis, ‘generation rent’ and a worldwide wave of homelessness – as well as the need to rethink the dream of property ownership.

I also spoke to regular New Internationalist contributor Iris Gonzales who discusses the forced, and often violent, evictions of the residents of informal settlements in the Philippines. She explained what can happen to these displaced communities once they are removed, and how people are taking direct action for better housing rights.

If you’re interested in any of the issues around housing, why not take a listen here at the New Internationalist website?

Interactive timeline: 40 years of New Internationalist

One of my latest projects at New Internationalist has been an interactive timeline, covering 40 years of highlights…

New Internationalist is 40 in 2013 so we thought we would pull together some of our milestones into an online timeline.

40 years of New Internationalist

Click through to the full timeline here.

It was great to be able to look back over such an impressive history of independent journalism as it documented some monumental social movements.

Thanks to Charlie Harvey who used Timeline.JS to build a really easy to use template for me to put the editorial content into.

Taking on the benefits blame game

This post was originally published on New Internationalist on 3 April 2013.

It may have been April Fool’s day but while Twitter announced it was going to begin charging for the use of vowels and Virgin launched a glass bottomed plane, big changes to the British welfare system began to bite in what is far from a comical prank.

One of the most high profile of these changes, which began to kick in on Monday 1 April, is the bedroom tax. If a claimant’s house is defined as having one spare bedroom or more they will lose 14 to 25 per cent of their benefit money. 660,000 people face losing hundreds of pounds a year and the threat of eviction if they can’t pay the rent. Two thirds of people hit by the tax are disabled, and single parents and foster families will also be among the hardest hit.

Opposition has been vocal: MP Frank Field has called for landlords to brick up windows and doors or knock down walls to help tenants facing the tax which he describes as ‘grossly unfair.’ Bedroom tax protests have already been held across the country and UK Uncut has promised ‘mass civil disobedience’ on Saturday 13 April, ‘bringing the cuts home to millionaire misery-makers.’

Also part of the welfare overhaul is the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance and major changes to legal aid which means thousands may lose access to legal services and be forced to represent themselves in court.

On 15 April the welfare benefit cap will be introduced to four London boroughs and is expected to be rolled out nationwide by the end of September. It is predicted that 80,000 households will be made homeless as expensive cities like London see a deepening of social cleansing.

There are now more billionaires across the world than before the global financial crash. But while the ‘feral rich’ get wealthier, 20 per cent of children in Britain already live in poverty and families increasingly need to use foodbanks to sustain themselves.

Meanwhile the ‘workers and shirkers’ demonization of benefit claimants, immigrants and disabled people by the government and the media has taken hold among those who feel that while they are working as hard as ever and getting less in return, somebody should be made to pay.

A 2012 poll by the Trades Union Congress found that while people mistakenly thought that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently (the government’s figure is 0.7 per cent), the most hostility was among those who knew the least about the benefits system.

In this climate, newspapers like the Daily Mail can publish a front page (3 April 2013) calling a man found guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children a ‘product’ of the welfare state and still sell plenty of copies. Claiming benefits does not make people more likely to cause the death of their family.

Where do we go from here? Local and national anti-austerity groups have been campaigning relentlessly across the country – networks like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut have mobilized thousands. Some mainstream media are trying to counteract the propaganda machine. But people need to be presented with more than the facts and protest; they need to be truly convinced that blaming benefit claimants and immigrants for their problems is not helpful, fair, or accurate.

However, the deeper austerity goes, the more people will see those close to them affected. Anti-austerity Britain is growing in size and anger. Over 420,000 people have now signed a petition to challenge Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 ($80) a week after he said on national radio he thought he could do it while defending cuts to benefits.

What’s key is a cohesive, accessible and communicative groundswell from the grassroots. Party politics is enough to leave people in despair as politicians jump aboard the blame train conducted by UKIP. Initiatives such as the People’s Assembly may be part of this, as long as they reach further than the usual suspects.

We also need to tell people’s stories, not just in the media, but to our friends and family, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And while we fight to keep what we have and strengthen community resilience to austerity, we need to show that we will stand by our neighbours when the blame game comes knocking at their door.