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DEVELOPMENT: Foreign Aid Accountability Bill Unanimously Approved by Congress, Heads to the President for Signature

MFAN-logo-blue-e1447284681741
modernizeaid.net, July 6, 2016, original,
July 6, 2016 (WASHINGTON) – This statement is delivered on behalf of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) by Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette

The House of Representatives unanimously passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (H.R. 3766) last night, following unanimous passage by the Senate last week. This important, bipartisan legislation will now head to President Obama for his signature. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD), will help to increase the accountability of U.S. foreign assistance resources so that they can be tracked, measured, and allocated to have the most impact.

Specifically, the bill requires that detailed foreign assistance information be regularly updated on the ForeignAssistance.gov website, and that development and economic assistance be rigorously monitored and evaluated. We are particularly pleased that the bill extends this transparency and accountability to some aspects of security assistance, specifically the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which is something that MFAN has long called for.

“We are deeply grateful to the bill sponsors for their tireless efforts to work together across the aisle and across chambers in order to see this bill passed into law. This legislation has been introduced in each of the last three congresses and marks an important step towards making U.S. foreign assistance more effective,” said George Ingram, MFAN Co-Chair and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“By passing this bill, Congress has institutionalized the important gains that have already been made in the areas of transparency and evaluation. This legislation will help to ensure that our aid programs are being driven by evidence-based decisions and that our assistance is accountable to U.S. taxpayers and developing country stakeholders,” said Connie Veillette, MFAN Co-Chair and Senior Fellow at The Lugar Center.

“As the United States faces an ever-growing number of humanitarian and development challenges around the world, effective U.S. foreign assistance is more important than ever. Recognizing that our resources are limited, we must be doing all that we can to use them most effectively so that they can have the most impact on those in need around the world,” said Carolyn Miles, MFAN CO-Chair and President and CEO of Save the Children.

MFAN applauds and thanks the bill sponsors, as well as its partners in the development community, for all their work in getting this bill passed and to the President’s desk. With this legislation enacted, the progress that has been made on increasing transparency and improving monitoring and evaluation practices can be built upon when a new Administration and Congress are sworn in next year.

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HAITI, DEVELOPMENT: Red Cross Built Exactly 6 Homes For Haiti With Nearly Half A Billion Dollars In Donations

Even as the group has publicly celebrated its work, insider accounts detail a string of failures

THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF CAMPECHE sprawls up a steep hillside in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. Goats rustle in trash that goes forever uncollected. Children kick a deflated volleyball in a dusty lot below a wall with a hand-painted logo of the American Red Cross.

In late 2011, the Red Cross launched a multimillion-dollar project to transform the desperately poor area, which was hit hard by the earthquake that struck Haiti the year before. The main focus of the project — called LAMIKA, an acronym in Creole for “A Better Life in My Neighborhood” — was building hundreds of permanent homes.

Today, not one home has been built in Campeche. Many residents live in shacks made of rusty sheet metal, without access to drinkable water, electricity or basic sanitation. When it rains, their homes flood and residents bail out mud and water.

The Red Cross received an outpouring of donations after the quake, nearly half a billion dollars.

The group has publicly celebrated its work. But in fact, the Red Cross has repeatedly failed on the ground in Haiti. Confidential memos, emails from worried top officers, and accounts of a dozen frustrated and disappointed insiders show the charity has broken promises, squandered donations, and made dubious claims of success.

The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people. But the actual number of permanent homes the group has built in all of Haiti: six.

After the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled ambitious plans to “develop brand-new communities.” None has ever been built.

Aid organizations from around the world have struggled after the earthquake in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. But ProPublica and NPR’s investigation shows that many of the Red Cross’s failings in Haiti are of its own making. They are also part of a larger pattern in which the organization has botched delivery of aid after disasters such asSuperstorm Sandy. Despite its difficulties, the Red Cross remains the charity of choice for ordinary Americans and corporations alike after natural disasters.

One issue that has hindered the Red Cross’ work in Haiti is an overreliance on foreigners who could not speak French or Creole, current and former employees say.

In a blistering 2011 memo, the then-director of the Haiti program, Judith St. Fort, wrote that the group was failing in Haiti and that senior managers had made “very disturbing” remarks disparaging Haitian employees. St. Fort, who is Haitian American, wrote that the comments included, “he is the only hard working one among them” and “the ones that we have hired are not strong so we probably should not pay close attention to Haitian CVs.”

The Red Cross won’t disclose details of how it has spent the hundreds of millions of dollars donated for Haiti. But our reporting shows that less money reached those in need than the Red Cross has said.

Lacking the expertise to mount its own projects, the Red Cross ended up giving much of the money to other groups to do the work. Those groups took out a piece of every dollar to cover overhead and management. Even on the projects done by others, the Red Cross had its own significant expenses – in one case, adding up to a third of the project’s budget.

Where did the half billion raised for Haiti go? The Red Cross won’t say.

In statements, the Red Cross cited the challenges all groups have faced in post-quake Haiti, including the country’s dysfunctional land title system.

“Like many humanitarian organizations responding in Haiti, the American Red Cross met complications in relation to government coordination delays, disputes over land ownership, delays at Haitian customs, challenges finding qualified staff who were in short supply and high demand, and the cholera outbreak, among other challenges,” the charity said.

The group said it responded quickly to internal concerns, including hiring an expert to train staff on cultural competency after St. Fort’s memo. While the group won’t provide a breakdown of its projects, the Red Cross said it has done more than 100. The projects include repairing 4,000 homes, giving several thousand families temporary shelters, donating $44 million for food after the earthquake, and helping fund the construction of a hospital.

“Millions of Haitians are safer, healthier, more resilient, and better prepared for future disasters thanks to generous donations to the American Red Cross,” McGovern wrote in a recent report marking the fifth anniversary of the earthquake.

In other promotional materials, the Red Cross said it has helped “more than 4.5 million” individual Haitians “get back on their feet.”

It has not provided details to back up the claim. And Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s prime minister at the time of the earthquake, doubts the figure, pointing out the country’s entire population is only about 10 million.

“No, no,” Bellerive said of the Red Cross’ claim, “it’s not possible.”


When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, the Red Cross was facing a crisis of its own. McGovern had become chief executive just 18 months earlier, inheriting a deficit and an organization that had faced scandals after 9/11 and Katrina.

Gail McGovern (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Inside the Red Cross, the Haiti disaster was seen as “a spectacular fundraising opportunity,” recalled one former official who helped organize the effort. Michelle Obama, the NFL and a long list of celebrities appealed for donations to the group.

The Red Cross kept soliciting money well after it had enough for the emergency relief that is the group’s stock in trade. Doctors Without Borders, in contrast, stopped fundraising off the earthquake after it decided it had enough money. The donations to the Red Cross helped the group erase its more-than $100 million deficit.

The Red Cross ultimately raised far more than any other charity.

A year after the quake, McGovern announced that the Red Cross would use the donations to make a lasting impact in Haiti.

We asked the Red Cross to show us around its projects in Haiti so we could see the results of its work. It declined. So earlier this year we went to Campeche to see one of the group’s signature projects for ourselves.

Street vendors in the dusty neighborhood immediately pointed us to Jean Jean Flaubert, the head of a community group that the Red Cross set up as a local sounding board.

Sitting with us in their sparse one-room office, Flaubert and his colleagues grew angry talking about the Red Cross. They pointed to the lack of progress in the neighborhood and the healthy salaries paid to expatriate aid workers.

“What the Red Cross told us is that they are coming here to change Campeche. Totally change it,” said Flaubert. “Now I do not understand the change that they are talking about. I think the Red Cross is working for themselves.”

The Red Cross’ initial plan said the focus would be building homes — an internal proposalput the number at 700. Each would have finished floors, toilets, showers, even rainwater collection systems. The houses were supposed to be finished in January 2013.


The Red Cross promised to build hundreds of new homes in Campeche but none have been built. Many residents still live in crude shacks. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

None of that ever happened. Carline Noailles, who was the project’s manager in Washington, said it was endlessly delayed because the Red Cross “didn’t have the know-how.”

Another former official who worked on the Campeche project said, “Everything takes four times as long because it would be micromanaged from DC, and they had no development experience.”

Shown an English-language press release from the Red Cross website, Flaubert was stunned to learn of the project’s $24 million budget — and that it is due to end next year.

“Not only is [the Red Cross] not doing it,” Flaubert said, “now I’m learning that the Red Cross is leaving next year. I don’t understand that.” (The Red Cross says it did tell community leaders about the end date. It also accused us of “creating ill will in the community which may give rise to a security incident.”)

The project has since been reshaped and downscaled. A road is being built. Some existing homes have received earthquake reinforcement and a few schools are being repaired. Some solar street lights have been installed, though many broke and residents say others are unreliable.

The group’s most recent press release on the project cites achievements such as training school children in disaster response.

The Red Cross said it has to scale back its housing plans because it couldn’t acquire the rights to land. No homes will be built.

Other Red Cross infrastructure projects also fizzled.

A Red Cross effort to save Haitians from cholera was crippled by internal issues. “None of these people had to die,” said a Haitian official.

In January 2011, McGovern announced a $30 million partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The agency would build roads and other infrastructure in at least two locations where the Red Cross would build new homes.

But it took more than two and a half years, until August 2013, for the Red Cross just to sign an agreement with USAID on the program, and even that was for only one site. The program was ultimately canceled because of a land dispute.

A Government Accountability Office report attributed the severe delays to problems “in securing land title and because of turnover in Red Cross leadership” in its Haiti program.

Other groups also ran into trouble with land titles and other issues. But they also ultimately built 9,000 homes compared to the Red Cross’ six.

Asked about the Red Cross’ housing projects in Haiti, David Meltzer, the group’s general counsel and chief international officer, said changing conditions forced changes in plans. “If we had said, ‘All we’re going to do is build new homes,’ we’d still be looking for land,” he said.

The USAID project’s collapse left the Red Cross grasping for ways to spend money earmarked for it.

“Any ideas on how to spend the rest of this?? (Besides the wonderful helicopter idea?),” McGovern wrote to Meltzer in a November 2013 email obtained by ProPublica and NPR. “Can we fund Conrad’s hospital? Or more to PiH [Partners in Health]? Any more shelter projects?”


Jean Jean Flaubert says the Red Cross promised to transform his neighborhood. “Now I do not understand the change that they are talking about,” he said. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

It’s not clear what helicopter idea McGovern was referring to or if it was ever carried out. The Red Cross would say only that her comments were “grounded in the American Red Cross’ strategy and priorities, which focus on health and housing.”

Another signature project, known in Creole as “A More Resilient Great North,” is supposed to rehabilitate roads in poor, rural communities and to help them get clean water and sanitation.

But two years after it started, the $13 million effort has been faltering badly. An internal evaluation from March found residents were upset because nothing had been done to improve water access or infrastructure or to make “contributions of any sort to the well being of households,” the report said.

So much bad feeling built up in one area that the population “rejects the project.”

The Red Cross says 91% of donations went to help Haitians. That’s not true.

The group’s failures went beyond just infrastructure.

When a cholera epidemic raged through Haiti nine months after the quake, the biggest part of the Red Cross’ response — a plan to distribute soap and oral rehydration salts — was crippled by “internal issues that go unaddressed,” wrote the director of the Haiti program in her May 2011 memo.

Throughout that year, cholera was a steady killer. By September 2011, when the death toll had surpassed 6,000, the project was still listed as “very behind schedule” according to another internal document.

The Red Cross said in a statement that its cholera response, including a vaccination campaign, has continued for years and helped millions of Haitians.

But while other groups also struggled early responding to cholera, some performed well.

“None of these people had to die. That’s what upsets me,” said Paul Christian Namphy, a Haitian water and sanitation official who helped lead the effort to fight cholera. He says early failures by the Red Cross and other NGOs had a devastating impact. “These numbers should have been zero.”


So why did the Red Cross’ efforts fall so short? It wasn’t just that Haiti is a hard place to work.

“They collected nearly half a billion dollars,” said a congressional staffer who helped oversee Haiti reconstruction. “But they had a problem. And the problem was that they had absolutely no expertise.”

Lee Malany was in charge of the Red Cross’ shelter program in Haiti starting in 2010. He remembers a meeting in Washington that fall where officials did not seem to have any idea how to spend millions of dollars set aside for housing. Malany says the officials wanted to know which projects would generate good publicity, not which projects would provide the most homes.

“When I walked out of that meeting I looked at the people that I was working with and said, ‘You know this is very disconcerting, this is depressing,’” he recalled.

The Red Cross said in a statement its Haiti program has never put publicity over delivering aid.

Malany resigned the next year from his job in Haiti. “I said there’s no reason for me to stay here. I got on the plane and left.”


Transitional shelters like these on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince, paid for by the Red Cross, typically last three to five years. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

Sometimes it wasn’t a matter of expertise, but whether anybody was filling key jobs. An April 2012 organizational chart obtained by ProPublica and NPR lists 9 of 30 leadership positions in Haiti as vacant, including slots for experts on health and shelter.

The Red Cross said vacancies and turnover were inevitable because of “the security situation, separation from family for international staff, and the demanding nature of the work.”

The constant upheaval took a toll. Internal documents refer to repeated attempts over years to “finalize” and “complete” a strategic plan for the Haiti program, efforts that were delayed by changes in senior management. As late as March 2014, more than four years into a six-year program, an internal update cites a “revised strategy” still awaiting “final sign-off.”

The Red Cross said settling on a plan early would have been a mistake. “It would be hard to create the perfect plan from the beginning in a complicated place like Haiti,” it said. “But we also need to begin, so we create plans that are continually revised.”

The Red Cross says it provided homes to more than 130,000 Haitians. But they didn’t.

“Going to meetings with the community when you don’t speak the language is not productive,” she said. Sometimes, she recalled, expat staffers would skip such meetings altogether.

The Red Cross said it has “made it a priority to hire Haitians” despite lots of competition for local professionals, and that over 90 percent of its staff is Haitian. The charity said it used a local human resources firm to help.

Yet very few Haitians have made it into the group’s top echelons in Haiti, according to five current and former Red Cross staffers as well as staff lists obtained by ProPublica and NPR.

That not only affected the group’s ability to work in Haiti, it was also expensive.

According to an internal Red Cross budgeting document for the project in Campeche, the project manager – a position reserved for an expatriate – was entitled to allowances for housing, food and other expenses, home leave trips, R&R four times a year, and relocation expenses. In all, it added up to $140,000.

Compensation for a senior Haitian engineer — the top local position — was less than one-third of that, $42,000 a year.

Shelim Dorval, a Haitian administrator who worked for the Red Cross coordinating travel and housing for expatriate staffers, recalled thinking it was a waste to spend so much to bring in people with little knowledge of Haiti when locals were available.

“For each one of those expats, they were having high salaries, staying in a fancy house, and getting vacation trips back to their countries,” Dorval said. “A lot of money was spent on those people who were not Haitian, who had nothing to do with Haiti. The money was just going back to the United States.”


Soon after the earthquake, McGovern, the Red Cross CEO, said the group would make sure donors knew exactly what happened to their money.

The Red Cross would “lead the effort in transparency,” she pledged. “We are happy to share the way we are spending our dollars.”

That hasn’t happened. The Red Cross’ public reports offer only broad categories about where $488 million in donations has gone. The biggest category is shelter, at about $170 million. The others include health, emergency relief and disaster preparedness.


After the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled plans to “develop brand-new communities.” None has ever been built. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

It has declined repeated requests to disclose the specific projects, to explain how much money went to each or to say what the results of each project were.

There is reason to doubt the Red Cross’ claims that it helped 4.5 million Haitians. An internal evaluation found that in some areas, the Red Cross reported helping more people than even lived in the communities. In other cases, the figures were low, and in others double-counting went uncorrected.

In describing its work, the Red Cross also conflates different types of aid, making it more difficult to assess the charity’s efforts in Haiti.

For example, while the Red Cross says it provided more than 130,000 people with homes, that includes thousands of people who were not actually given homes, but rather were “trained in proper construction techniques.” (That was first reported by the Haiti blog of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.)

The figure includes people who got short-term rental assistance or were housed in several thousand “transitional shelters,” which are temporary structures that can get eaten up by termites or tip over in storms. It also includes modest improvements on 5,000 temporary shelters.

The Red Cross also won’t break down what portion of donations went to overhead.

McGovern told CBS News a few months after the quake, “Minus the 9 cents overhead, 91 cents on the dollar will be going to Haiti. And I give you my word and my commitment, I’m banking my integrity, my own personal sense of integrity on that statement.”

But the reality is that less money went to Haiti than 91 percent. That’s because in addition to the Red Cross’ 9 percent overhead, the other groups that got grants from the Red Cross also have their own overhead.

In one case, the Red Cross sent $6 million to the International Federation of the Red Cross for rental subsidies to help Haitians leave tent camps. The IFRC then took out 26 percent for overhead and what the IFRC described as program-related “administration, finance, human resources” and similar costs.

Beyond all that, the Red Cross also spends another piece of each dollar for what it describes as “program costs incurred by the American Red Cross in managing” the projects done by other groups.

The American Red Cross’ management and other costs consumed an additional 24 percent of the money on one project, according to the group’s statements and internal documents. The actual work, upgrading shelters, was done by the Swiss and Spanish Red Cross societies.

“It’s a cycle of overhead,” said Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press reporter in Haiti at the time of the earthquake who tracked post-disaster spending for his book, The Big Truck That Went By. “It was always going to be the American Red Cross taking a 9 percent cut, re-granting to another group, which would take out their cut.”

Given the results produced by the Red Cross’ projects in Haiti, Bellerive, the former prime minister, said he has a hard time fathoming what’s happened to donors’ money.

“Five hundred million dollars in Haiti is a lot of money,” he said. “I’m not a big mathematician, but I can make some additions. I know more or less the cost of things. Unless you don’t pay for the gasoline the same price I was paying, unless you pay people 20 times what I was paying them, unless the cost of the house you built was five times the cost I was paying, it doesn’t add up for me.”


A resident in a Port-Au-Prince transitional shelter paid for by the Red Cross. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

This story was co-published with NPR. Mitzy-Lynn Hyacinthe contributed reporting. Design direction by David Sleight, production by Hannah Birch.

Read about how the Red Cross botched key elements of its mission after Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in PR Over People: The Red Cross’ Secret Disaster. And about how the Red Cross’ CEO has been serially misleading about where donors’ dollars are going.

If you have information about the Red Cross or about other international aid projects, please email justin@propublica.org.


author photoJustin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. Previously, he was a reporter at Salon.com and TPMmuckraker and news editor at Talking Points Memo.

Laura Sullivan is a NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country’s most disadvantaged people.

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THIS FRIDAY: Michael Sheridan to Present at ACM Annual Conference

ACM_web_header_551x2791Michael Sheridan, director and founder of Community Supported Film, will join Anthony Riddle, BRIC Brooklyn Public Network, and Bonnie Schumacher, St. Paul Neighborhood Network, to speak about building documentary programs at the Our Town Annual Conference of the Alliance for Community Media.

Friday, August 19 • 4:30pm – 6:00pm, Westin Hotel, 425 Summer St, Boston, MA 02210 (next to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)

Requires Registration

Building Documentary Programs

Community media has a place in documentary traditions and history, but recently community media centers have created programs that systematically seek to build the tradition in their communities. Some have created filmmaking programs, learning cohorts, film festivals and other ways to support documentary practice. We’ll talk about how to develop these programs, what works, and how these programs contribute to social change, community building and supporting local film communities.

Register here

 

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HAITI, DEVELOPMENT: U.N. Accused of Cover Up as Cholera Ravages Haiti-wnyc.org

Haitians wash clothes in a stream January 8, 2011 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Haitians wash clothes in a stream January 8, 2011 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
(Mario Tama / Getty)

Since cholera first broke out in Haiti five years ago, Doctors Without Borders estimates that it has killed as many as 30,000 people, and another 2 million have survived the disease.

Journalists and scientists have traced the disease back to a U.N. compound that was housing peacekeepers from Nepal. The cholera outbreak was sparked after the compound began disposing of raw sewage in a nearby water way.

The U.N. has never taken responsibility for the outbreak or the deaths, but Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said the U.N. has “a moral responsibility” to help end the spread of the disease.

In a letter, the second highest ranking U.N. official promised the organization would fulfill “its human rights obligations” in Haiti, but U.N. efforts to fight the disease are less than 20 percent funded, meaning the disease is likely to continue to claim more lives.

Here, The Takeaway speaks with Jonathan Katz, author of “The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.” He was the first journalist to report the U.N.’s role in Haiti’s cholera outbreak.

“The U.N.’s position essentially hasn’t changed for five years now,” Katz says. “At the very beginning, they were extremely actively involved in a cover up — literally destroying evidence and putting out press releases disclaiming any possibility that they could be responsible, [all] based on evidence and assertions that just weren’t true.”

But Katz says that evidence has come to light that definitively links the U.N. to this deadly cholera outbreak.

Click Listen to get the full story. 4 minutes

wnyc.org   The TakeawayThe Takeaway
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AFGHANISTAN, DEVELOPMENT: What the future holds for Afghan women-aljazeera.com

Afghanistan-womenAl Jazeera speaks to Noorjahan Akbar, a human rights activist, about the immense challenges facing Afghan women

aljazeera.com, By Liz Guch, 5/26/16

Afghanistan’s women have made significant gains in recent years, with more girls attending school and more women working outside the home.

But fear still overshadows the lives of many.

A resurgent Taliban recently provoked outrage by publicly executing two women, but as this 101 East documentary shows, the greatest threat many women face comes from loved ones at home.

Activist Noorjahan Akbar talks about the challenges in overcoming conservative attitudes in the face of rising “anti-woman propaganda”.

Al Jazeera: How would you describe the current state of women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Noorjahan Akbar: Like the current state of the country, the current state of Afghan women is tumultuous and unstable. While – since the US-led intervention – Afghan women have made a considerable amount of progress, with [today’s] increased insecurity, economic inequality, and radicalism, we are afraid that our accomplishments will be threatened, and the few civil rights and individual freedoms we have will be taken away from us.

Since 2009, the number of Afghan women working has increased, but a large number of female activists and journalists have left the country due to fear of violence.

When I talk about the threat of violence, I don’t just mean the Taliban – even though they are largely responsible for targeting and killing female teachers, police officers, journalists, and activists.

On a daily basis, Afghan women face harassment in public spaces. In fact, nine out of 10 women say they have faced harassment at some point on the way to work or school, and out of those, 14 percent say they stopped going to school because of it. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women have faced verbal, sexual or physical violence at home.

The vast majority of cases of violence against women, even the public targeted assassinations, are not met with any legal consequences.

Despite all this, Afghan women are teachers, ministers, parliamentarians, musicians, writers, journalists, photographers, vaccinators and more, and we are working hard to make things better for ourselves and the country.

But in order for us to really participate in rebuilding Afghanistan, our security should be a priority for our government. When our bodies are fair game, when it is always open season on women, when we are fearful of losing our lives on a daily basis, how can we move the country forward?

Al Jazeera: The Taliban recently publicly executed two women – one of them in an apparent honour killing – in northern Afghanistan, according to news reports. Are you concerned that this could signal a downward spiral for Afghan women?

Akbar: The harsh reality is that even though this case caught the eye of the international press, these ‘honour’ killings are not out of the ordinary. Whether by the Taliban or family members, Afghan women are killed regularly for the simple fact of being born female or choosing their own husbands. However, what these specific public executions tell me is that the rule of law has further deteriorated in Afghanistan and that is not good for anyone.

Al Jazeera: Many Afghan women suffer domestic violence at the hands of their family. How difficult is it to change attitudes towards women?

Akbar: It is extremely difficult to change attitudes towards women and decrease gender-based violence anywhere in the world, but in Afghanistan it is hard also because radicalism, Talibanism and gender-based violence at home are all related and perpetuate one another.

Especially in the last few years, there has been an increase in radical anti-woman propaganda in the big cities. Local mosques that were once moderate and somewhat accepting of women’s rights, now spend entire sermons on how women shouldn’t be allowed to work, study, or even speak in public.

In addition to using public executions to make a show of women’s punishment and terrorise women into silence and into the margins, today’s radicals use televisions, social media, sermons, and even schools to perpetuate and sanctify violence.

Al Jazeera: Impressive gains have been made in the number of girls attending school in Afghanistan. Is there a danger that these rights could be eroded?

Akbar: Yes, and we are seeing the erosion right now. In 2014, 163 schools were attacked in Afghanistan.

The majority of these schools were girls’ schools. This year, these attacks have increased. In January, a girls’ school was torched in Kabul – something that hasn’t happened in the capital city since the Taliban took power in 1996.

In February, the Ministry of Education said 700 schools were closed due to insecurity depriving thousands of girls and boys of an education. Just this week, 20 school girls were poisoned in Ghor province.

These attacks are terrifying, not just for those who have faced the violence themselves, but for the country as a whole.

Al Jazeera: International organisations have raised concerns that women’s rights activists are being deliberately targeted. How difficult is it for activists to stand up and demand change?

Akbar: I don’t know any human rights activist working for gender equality who feels safe in Afghanistan.

We have seen our sisters killed and asked for justice only to be threatened and sidelined more. We have called for the prosecution of those who killed Malalai Kakar, Hanifa Safi, Safia Ahmed Jan, Zakia Zaki and many more journalists and activists killed for being outspoken women and we have been told to shut up.

We are told on a daily basis that we shouldn’t talk about the issues we face, the rape threats we get, the violence women around us face because it will bring shame to our country.

The reality is that the fact that these injustices exist is a matter of shame – not people demanding an end for it.

Al Jazeera: Afghan women still face numerous challenges in their daily lives. Are you optimistic about the future? 

Akbar: Yes. I am optimistic because I see the passion with which young women are working for change inside the country and because I know that despite the heartache, the threats and the disappointments this fight are worth it.

Being pessimistic will not help us. It will only discourage us from working. I prefer not giving up. Afghanistan belongs to me and my peers as much as it belongs to the radicals advocating for violence, and we will not surrender the country to them – not without a fight at least.

@liz_gooch, Liz Gooch is a journalist covering Southeast Asia.

Click here to watch the 101 East documentary, “Afghanistan: No Country for Women”.

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/05/noorjahan-akbar-future-holds-afghan-women-160526080228426.html

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