Sunday, 13 March 2016

Remembering Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres on the banks of the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of Western Honduras. The river is a source of water, food, medicine and spiritual identity for the indigenous Lenca people/Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Berta Cáceres, the vocal and brave Honduran environmental and indigenous rights activist, was gunned down last week at her home in La Esperanza, Intibuc. Her murder has prompted a flood of tributes and an international outcry, as well as investigations supported by the United Nations and the FBI. 

Cáceres, who is a member of the Lenca indigenous group, the largest in Honduras, was one of the leading organizers for indigenous land rights in Honduras. In 1993, she co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. For years, the group faced death threats and repression as they stood up to mining and dam projects that threatened to destroy their community.

Last year, Cáceres, 44, won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a sort of Nobel for grassroots environmental activists, for her work opposing the Agua Zarcao dam, one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects.

Since the right-wing coup against Manuel Zelaya in 2009, activists have been  persecuted by the Honduran government, making Honduras one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an activist or community organiser.
This was certainly true for Cáceres.
Police said the killings occurred during an attempted robbery, but the family said they had no doubt it was an assassination prompted by Cáceres’s high-profile campaigns against dams, illegal loggers and plantation owners.

“I have no doubt that she has been killed because of her struggle and that soldiers and people from the dam are responsible, I am sure of that. I hold the government responsible,” her 84-year-old mother said on radio Globo at 6.

Cáceres stood up to corporations and helped delay the construction of the Agua Zarca dam, which, if built, would destroy her community's land and the Gualcarque River in Honduras. 

“She was a fearless environmental hero. She understood the risks that came with her work, but continued to lead her community with amazing strength and conviction,” said John Goldman, President of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.

“We mourn the loss of an inspirational leader, and will honor her life’s work by continuing to highlight the courageous work of Goldman Prize winners like Berta,” said Goldman. “She built an incredible community of grassroots activists in Honduras, who will carry on the campaign she fought and died for.”

I’ve been interviewing Goldman Environmental Prize winners for many years and, like Cáceres, they are truly amazing people. Most are ordinary men and women, full of energy and passion, who are totally committed and take great personal risks to protect the environment. The Prize amplifies their voices and affords them some protection, although sadly not enough in Cáceres’s case.

Cáceres’ death should not be in vain. You can join COPINH and call on the FMO (a Dutch Development bank) to withdraw financial support for this project immediately.  Pressuring the largest investor to pull out of the dam will encourage other backers to divest.

To support their call for justice in Honduras, you can donate to COPINH via their trusted partner, Rights Action (scroll to the bottom of the page). This fund will also support Cáceres’ family at this difficult time.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Trouble in Paradise: Solomon Islands’ traditions foster inequality

Solomon Islands/ credit: olli0815 /

Solomon Islands, the string of paradise-looking green islands tucked away in the South Pacific, is a place of exotic beauty where life flows at a gentle pace.  But it also a country with one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.  And the violence is widely accepted as "the way things are".

A new report by the Equal Rights Trust shows that strong traditions, such as Kastom (Pijin for custom) and Wantok ('one talk') reinforce clan ties, but also emphasise differences and foster discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

In particular, the report highlights widespread discrimination against women, which is directly connected to Kastom - in this case, the patriarchal attitudes and gender stereotypes typified by the Bigman culture, whereby communities look to a strong male figure to provide leadership and consider women as inferior to men.

Members of Solomon Islands YWCA march during International Women’s Day in Honiara by DFAT/Credit:Jeremy Miller

“We found that women are effectively second-class citizens in Solomon Islands; they are invisible in all areas of politics and government and do not participate equally with men in any area of life. Violence against women is alarmingly widespread and widely accepted by both men and women,” said Executive Director of the Equal Rights Trust, Dr Dimitrina Petrova.

Statistics highlighted in the report are startling: more than half of all women experienced sexual violence by an intimate partner and 64% of women between 15 and 49 suffered violence at home.

During a focus group discussion for the report, one woman summarised male attitudes towards women in these terms: “You women are here on earth to give birth and work for us men, and we are your bosses; so do as we say.”

In travel guides, the former British protectorate south-east of Papua New Guinea is presented as a friendly melting pot of cultures and traditions, but the report found serious discrimination between those of different Wantok, community groups based on shared linguistic and cultural heritage.  “Our research found compelling evidence of concern amongst Solomon Islanders that those in positions of power abuse their authority and make corrupt decisions in favour of their Wantok group,” says Petrova.

In addition, the report found that people with disabilities are perceived as “cursed” and denied equality of participation in education, employment and healthcare. And lesbian, gay and bisexual persons are subject to severe social stigma.

The report argues that if Solomon Islands is to move on from the civil unrest, which brought the country to the brink of collapse between 1998 and 2003, its people must stand up and fight traditions which exacerbate difference on the basis of ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation. 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Women refugees face assault, exploitation and sexual harassment journeying through Europe

These women and girls have fled war in Syria and Iraq, walked for days across  hostile terrains, put their lives in the hands of ruthless traffickers, crossed seas on flimsy dinghies and finally made it to Europe.  Safe at last? No, these women and girls who have fled some of the world’s most dangerous areas, faced assault, exploitation and sexual harassment at every stage of their entire journey, including on European soil, according to a new report by Amnesty International released this week.

Amnesty interviewed 40 refugee women and girls in Germany and Norway last month. They had travelled from Turkey to Greece and then across the Balkans. All the women, who had endured the horror of war in their countries, said they felt threatened and unsafe during the journey. Many reported that in almost all of the countries they passed through, they experienced physical abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees. 

“Nobody should have to take these dangerous routes in the first place. The best way to avoid abuses and exploitation by smugglers is for European governments to allow safe and legal routes from the outset. For those who have no other choice, it is completely unacceptable that their passage across Europe exposes them to further humiliation, uncertainty and insecurity, says Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director Tirana Hassan said:

Women and girls travelling alone and those accompanied only by their children felt particularly under threat in transit areas and camps in Hungary, Croatia and Greece, where they were forced to sleep alongside hundreds of refugee men, according to the report. In some instances women left the designated areas to sleep in the open on the beach because they felt safer there. 

Women also reported having to use the same bathroom and shower facilities as men. One woman told Amnesty that in a reception center in Germany, some refugee men would watch women as they went to the bathroom. Some women took extreme measures such as not eating or drinking to avoid having to go to the toilet where they felt unsafe. 

It is shameful that governments and aid agencies cannot give basic protection to these women and girls who have risked everything to find safety in Europe. It seems extraordinary that they cannot provide at the very least single-sex toilets and safe sleeping areas.  

Monday, 4 January 2016

2015 - another deadly year for journalists

The passing year has been another deadly one for journalists, with at least 109 journalists and media staff killed in targeted killings, bomb attacks and cross-fire incidents, according to the annual report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).   Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’ annual round-up puts the figure at 110 – in addition to 27 citizen-journalists also killed in 2015.  In total, 787 journalists have been killed since 2005, according to RSF.

The very high number of journalists killed in 2015 (although there was a slight drop from 2014) reflects the increasingly deliberate use of violence against journalists. It is also indicative of the failure of initiatives designed to protect journalists and of the near absolute impunity for such crimes.

2015 was marked, in particular, by an increase in targeted terrorist attacks against journalists. French journalists paid a disproportionately high price when terrorists gunned down media workers at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. In the United States, the killing by a disgruntled ex-employee of two former colleagues at US TV WDBJ in Virginia took place in front of a global TV audience during a live transmission.

The IFJ 2015 list names the 109 journalists and media staff killed across 30 countries, together with 3 who died of accidental deaths.

This year, the killing of journalists in the Americas topped the toll, at 27 dead. For the second year in a row, the Middle East comes second, with 25 deaths. Asia Pacific comes third, with 21– a drop on last year due to the big fall in violence in Pakistan. Africa is in fourth place with 19 dead, followed by Europe with 16.

In response to the increasing violence against journalists, Jim Boumelha, IFJ President, is calling for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the heads of UN agencies to enforce international laws protecting journalists. “The attacks in Paris shocked the world and put on the world stage the tragedy of the drip-drip slaughter of journalists worldwide, which are today the only professional group that pays so dearly for just doing the job… Journalism is put daily to the sword in many regions of the world, where extremists, drug lords and reckless warring factions continue murdering journalists with impunity.”

The Federation is urging the UN to take concrete measures through its Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists and take a strong stand against impunity for crimes targeting journalists. The IFJ ran a three-week campaign this year to hold governments accountable for the lack of investigation of crimes against journalists, which leads to the erosion of freedom of expression across the world. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Meet the Queen Mothers of Ghana: taking back their power and driving change in Africa

  Dogkudome Tegzuylle I, Pognaa (Queen Mother) of Lyssah /Credit:Nyani Quarmyne

This summer, we spent a couple of weeks with some truly amazing women in Ghana. They are the Queen Mothers – women who recently reclaimed their ancestral power and are now taking leadership roles in their communities. There are some 10,000 Queen Mothers in villages and towns across the country. They form a remarkable, but little known, network, bringing tangible social and economic development to the country and the continent.

Thanks to a grant from the European Journalism Centre, we (a filmmaker, photographer, TV producer and myself) were able to spend time with Queen Mothers in Lawra Traditional Area, a vast, rural territory in the upper western corner of the country, and in Ho, a town in the Volta region. We wanted to see how Queen Mothers worked at grassroots level. We found strong, warm, charismatic women who managed to accomplish so much with so little.  I often think of them…

And for a more immersive experience, watch our multimedia "The Formidable Queen Mothers of Ghana".

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Gallery Olympe de Gouges in Paris honours women's rights pioneer

Olympe de Gouges Gallery/credit: Veronique Mistiaen


These red letters  (in French) on a large poster in the window of the new art gallery rue de l’Odéon in Paris 6th stopped me in my tracks.

I read the poster: it was about an avant-garde woman who cherished freedom and opposed discrimination, violence and oppression in all its forms.  And she wrote the remarkable “Declaration of the rights of woman and the female citizen” in 1791. Her name was Olympe de Gouges.   I am ashamed to say that I didn’t know her.

Intrigued, I stepped inside. The lovely gallery’s manager, Victoria Otero, told me that Olympe de Gouges was a political activist and one of France’s first feminists. Although she was born in a modest family, she found her political voice by writing an astonishing number of pamphlets and posters that she freely disseminated around Paris.  Her pamphlets promoted bold, new ideas, such a total equality between sexes, female emancipation and abolition of the death penalty and slavery.  Ahead of her time, she was guillotined for her ideas in 1793.

The Olympe de Gouges gallery was conceived by a French entrepreneur whose offices were in the old building where Olympe de Gouges lived - on Servandoni street near St Sulpice Church, in the heart of the historic 6th arrondissement. To pay tribute to her,  he not only placed a commemorative plaque on the façade of his building, but decided to open an art gallery a few steps away. 

Olympe de Gouges's house/credit: Veronique Mistiaen

New in the golden triangle of Parisian galleries, the gallery Olympe de Gouges wants to “reinstate Olympe de Gouges,  talk about this woman too avant-garde for her time and pay tribute to her strength and convictions,” says Otero.

The gallery features artists who, like Olympe de Gouges, have a critical view on our contemporary world, fight against all forms of inequality and are not afraid to take risks.  As the art market tends to favour men, they also want to provide a space for women artists.  Exhibitions change monthly, which allows the gallery to showcase a wide variety of artists from all over the world.

Until November 11, the gallery featured the Sino-Irish artist Mia Funk. One of her most famous – and controversial – piece, "An Audience with the Queen" (Price Thames and Hudson 2010),  shows the British monarch and Lucian Freud seated naked on a couch sipping tea and eating Pot Noodles.  The work was meant to be exhibited in Dublin for the Queen’s first state visit, but  had to be quickly taken down following protests.

Their November exhibition will focus on immigration with Marc Bellini, a French photographer artist of Corsican origin, who through herbarium photograms traces the routes of migrants to Europe.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

On International Day of Peace, Brussels' landmark becomes Manneken Peace

On International Day of Peace this Monday, September 21, Brussels turns its famous landmark, Manneken Pis, into Manneken Peace.  

Manneken Pis is a tiny 17th-century bronze fountain statue of a little peeing boy. Locals love him and have many stories about why this statue was erected.   They celebrate festivals and draw attention to causes dressing the little boy in one of the 900 costumes his has acquired over the centuries. 

To mark International Day of Peace, CNAPD, a Belgium association of youth and educational groups for peace and democracy, will dress the Manneken (little man) in a bespoke peace outfit inspired by school children’s and students’ drawings.  More than 200 youngsters submitted drawings of pacifist outfits for the little boy and the best were integrated into a costume by a young designer.

On September 21 between 9 am and 2pm, members of the public will be able to admire the Manneken Peace, share a pintje (a pint) and if they feel inspired, propose their own creation around the theme of peace – a song, a poem, a drawing, a video etc.

In addition, during the week, 125 Belgian localities will fly a peace flag and call for the abolition of nuclear arms.

Each year the International Day of Peace is observed around the world on 21 September. The General Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.