Nepal earthquake devastation still felt one year on

This article was published by SBS World News on April 26, 2016.

Women and children have borne the brunt of Nepal’s devastating earthquake as recovery efforts over the past year moved at a snail’s pace.
The government of Nepal’s overall relief and reconstruction response in reaction to the April 2015 quake – or lack thereof – has been widely criticised.
Multiple speakers at a disaster management conference held in Kathmandu recently lamented the lack of attention to women’s issues in particular.

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Crocodile smiles and con tricks

This article was published in the March issue of New Internationalist Magazine

In Nepal’s remote mountain villages, an insidious force has for two decades been destroying young lives and tearing families apart. 

The devastation visited on these villages is no natural disaster, but one of human making. 

It usually comes in the guise of a well-dressed man carrying a briefcase and the promise of education and a new life for the children. 

But these children’s new realities are far from the dreams their parents held for them: behind the traffickers’ crocodile smiles lies a life of sexual slavery, forced labour, or destitution as a commodity in the huge orphanage industry.

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What does the Australian republic movement mean for young Australians today?

This article was published by The Vocal on February 19, 2016.

When you travel, almost the first question you get asked is, “Where are you from?”

For Australians, producing a satisfactory answer can be a struggle because it is not necessarily based on the nationality of your passport. Australians’ diverse ethnic backgrounds don’t always match expectations; the outside understanding of national character is frequently at odds with the individual. What does it mean to be Australian?

A little more than a century ago, it no longer seemed logical for Australia to be ruled by a monarch on the opposite side of the globe. Sounds sensible enough. The thing is, at the time of Federation the King was still a hot favourite, so a constitutional monarchy was created. The British Crown remained the head of state, but Australia governed itself.

The Australians got to create their own laws: one of their favourite policies was the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act – colloquially known as the White Australia Policy, leaving little room to ponder just how racist a policy this was – which aimed to limit non-European migration, at times including non-British “white aliens”, for more than 60 years, while they paid for the British to move to Australia.

But the world caught up and the White Australia Policy was no longer tenable. The 1960s heralded the beginning of a golden age for Australia, when people of all the colours of the human rainbow settled in, with their wonderfully diverse foods and cultures and genes. But Australia’s struggles relating to identity, history and culture, however, are still front and centre today.

But let’s go back to where it all began

About 230 years ago, the British invaded the land they would later name Australia. Going against their own policy of only taking terra nullius (unoccupied territory), the Brits killed a bunch of the black folk they found-but-didn’t-find-coz-there-were-no-people, rounded up and interred/enslaved those they didn’t kill, took their children and went about their business of creating a penal colony for the poor folk from their own lands they couldn’t fit in their over-stuffed jails full of other poor people. For many happy years the white folk, with the British Crown as their head honcho, did as they pleased with their giant colony.

In the space of a century or so, Australia went from being a colony to being self-governing. The transition didn’t require a violent revolution – something of a rarity. But the move to independence was not absolute. In 2016, it makes bugger-all sense for Australia to remain an outpost of a washed-up empire. So where to now?

whitlam

The Australian head of state is still to this day the British crown. It might seem weird that a democratic country has an unelected head of state – even stranger, one who attains the position by bloodline.

This, according to the Australian Monarchist League (championed by none other than RWNJ Alan Jones) safeguards Australian democracy. “[T]o remove the Crown from our Constitution will be to eliminate the main safeguard against absolute control by politicians,” the league argues. A president elected either directly or via parliament would necessarily have to be involved in politics – which is bad, you understand. “Our present system may not be perfect, but it is far superior to a political republic, which is what we would become,” the monarchists believe.

Equally, the league says Britain’s influence on Australia’s political structures means it is “a beacon of democracy in the world. Becoming a republic would negate much of this.” They say the Queen offers her protection to all, making no distinctions between her peoples, before making a point that is at the heart of the debate: “Republicans want Australia to be completely independent of the UK but this has definitively been the case since 1986. The UK has no involvement with Australian government at all”.

So, if the crown doesn’t have any power in Australia, why become a republic?

It’s high time Australia removed itself from the bosom of its old colonial masters and created a new identity for itself. The Australian Republic Movement say they’re not against the Queen, but her position is preventing Australia maturing from its teens to adulthood.

Despite Australia’s multiculturalism, its image is that of a bastion of the British. “The Queen represents British values, British spirit and represents the United Kingdom to the world,” the movement argues.

“We need someone who can do for Australia what the Queen does for the UK… [W]ho we are as a nation is important for our long-term unity and health as a community, as well as sending a strong message about our pride as a people and our standing in the world.”

The post-referendum years

You might remember way back in 1999, talk of a referendum around this issue. The referendum failed because the political model put forward was unpopular – despite this, more than 45 per cent voted in favour of it. The question was not “should Australia become a republic?”, but whether people wanted to replace the Queen as head of state with a President appointed by the parliament.

The concept of an Australian republic is now neither a radical idea, nor a political one – it carries bipartisan support. Every Premier and Chief Minister in Australia, bar one, has signed a petition calling for a republic. Many of the most high-profile federal politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was a founding member of the Australian Republic Movement, and Opposition leader Bill Shorten, are right into full independence.

The old argument that Australia will suffer economically or politically from removing the British crown as the head of state is erroneous. The Queen herself seems aware Australia will fly the nest one day and doesn’t appear vengeful – not that she has any control over the United Kingdom’s parliament or military.

And the republic movement advocates remaining in the Commonwealth of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation members join voluntarily, much like the United Nations. Ceasing to be a Commonwealth realm (a country with the monarch as head) won’t preclude Australia from the Commonwealth of Nations – India, for example, became fully independent in 1950 but retains economic and political ties via its membership.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” argument is just lazy. This argument only takes into account political structures, and relegates the issue to the too hard basket instead of making changes that are as inevitable as death and taxes. Claiming the system works and shouldn’t be messed with overlooks the wider social implications of retaining the British monarch. The institution responsible for the decimation of the First Australians’ societies, and the corresponding values that led to decades of a White Australia, remains the nominal head of state.

And sure, old Queen Betty has a few fans, and seems nice enough, with her co-ordinated suits and hats, and her corgis. They say any republic debate should wait until she dies, out of respect. That could swing things in the republic’s favour, as the next in line to the throne, Prince Charles, seems less popular with the punters. But this isn’t a popularity contest. This is a much-needed conversation about the future of an ever-diversifying country and its 24-odd million citizens.

“I will lend my voice to the republican movement in this country. It is time, I think, to at least revisit the question so that we can stand both free and fully independent among the community of nations” – David Morrison, Australian of the Year 2016

What worked in 1901 at the time of Federation doesn’t work now, obviously. It’s kind of like those religious texts that were written millennia ago and include social norms that have long disappeared. The system as it stands creates an us-and-them dichotomy: The whites rule the roost and everyone else gets to stay at their beneficence.

This extends to a community that is often over-looked in the republic debate: Indigenous Australians. In a moving speech on whether racism is destroying the Australian dream, journalist Stan Grant said racism was “there at the birth of the nation. It is there in terra nullius. An empty land. A land for the taking. Sixty thousand years of occupation… None of it mattered because our rights were extinguished because we were not here according to British law.”

Imagine what a new political model could do for the reconciliation process. Indigenous Australians would no longer have to live under the tokenistic hand of the people who trashed their communities, cultures and languages. An intended referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition has split the community, with some opposing it on grounds it takes the focus off a treaty establishing rights and recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. Others, such as Reconciliation Australia, believe references to race must be removed from the document for the benefit of the Indigenous community.

But a republic, while unable to change current ethnic ratios or rewrite history, could present a chance to more fully incorporate Indigenous people into Australia’s political and social structures – some suggest by mandating an Indigenous head of state. Jakelin Troy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research director at University of Sydney, supports recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and a treaty prior to, or as part of, the move to becoming a republic. “[A republic is] an opportunity to finally recognise and enshrine our sovereign rights, by developing a 21st-century treaty that gives the original Australians a political and legal platform that includes us in its leadership in perpetuity,” Prof Troy said. “Let’s draw on this energy and together lift Australia to a position of world leadership in human rights.”

Anita Heiss, Wiradjuri woman and author of ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’, praised Stan Grant’s speech for its ability to rally people. “Words can be powerful,” Dr Heiss said. “They can make us change the way we think. They can help us understand and feel empathy, but what are words without actions? I think the real power will come now, post Stan’s speech in a call to action to all those tweeting and Facebooking to actually do something!”

Important historical changes don’t occur when people sit on their hands and say “uff I dunno, that seems like a lot of work”. It’s time to create a nation that puts First Australians, and those who followed, on an equal footing. It’s time to again consider the chance to form a truly independent national identity.

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How social media is redefining our narrow representation of beauty

This article was published by The Vocal on November 18, 2015.

Do you have brown eyes? Wild, curly dark hair? A wide nose, brown skin or small eyes? Do you feel there’s something about you that makes you different? Do you live in the West but look like you come from somewhere else? Then you may never have seen someone with similar features advertise beauty products, adorn the cover of magazines, flaunt the latest couture, or be the object of desire for hormonal teens across the land.

Who or what is the cause of this narrow representation of beauty? And what is being done to put all types of faces and bodies in the spotlight?

Culture-tinted glasses

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but eyes see what culture socialises, psychology of race and ethnicity lecturer Mikhail Lyubansky says.

Beyond individual assessments of beauty, he says, are “cultural messages about what is and is not attractive”. Lyubansky was writing in response to the controversial evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa’s article ‘Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?’. Kanazawa drew on a study that rated the physical attractiveness of subjects, concluding the data proved black women were considered the least desirable of all the races. Lyubansky criticised Kanazawa for failing to consider the backgrounds of respondents.

“Standards of beauty, like most other beliefs, are socialised and change not only from place to place but also over time,” he said. “In both the United States and England, (where Kanazawa lives and works), standards of beauty are essentially ‘White’ standards, because whites comprise the majority of the population and have disproportional [sic] control over both media and fashion.”

Those who control the media, then, have greater cultural control over the versions of beauty we see.

Enter social media

Criticised by many – most recently Instagram starlet Essena O’Neill – for presenting a distorted view of reality, others are using social media as a way of changing the messages of what is beautiful. Far from being a tool that promotes one version of beauty, social media provides alternate versions which, to the surprise of the mainstream, are proving wildly popular.

In September, four girls living in North America created a hashtag that trended across the world.

“Growing up I never saw a woman who looked like me on TV, and because of that I felt like I wasn’t beautiful,” Palestinian-American Sara Mahmoud, 17, said.

“I felt that my looks weren’t normal and weren’t okay because all the girls on TV would be pretty, blonde, thin girls with blue eyes. Middle Easterns and North Africans don’t get enough representation in American pop culture and American media.” Co-creator Maryam Alhajebi said the tag helped display and appreciate different versions of beauty around the world. “It showed us that it’s okay to not all look the same, it’s okay for us to be different,” she said. “We need to come together as one to break stereotypes.”

Not fair, but still beautiful

Skin colour prejudices don’t just exist in the West. About six years ago Indian group Women of Worth launched Dark is Beautiful, to campaign “against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin”. Several prominent Bollywood actors have joined them, including Nandita Das, who spearheaded the group’s 2013 ‘Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful’ campaign.

In a recent blog post, The Times of India senior journalist Shuma Raha praised the success of the campaign. “We need more public interest movements like that,” she said. Raha railed against the pan-Indian preference for fairness as “our ancient and atavistic intolerance towards dark skin, an intolerance that’s spawned a [$635 million] skin-lightening cream industry”.

Raha says the skin-whitening product industry kicked off in 1975 with Hindustan Lever’s Fair and Lovely cream, and has been breeding brands and fans ever since. “Notice,” says Raha, “the racism implicit in the nomenclature too — these are skin ‘whitening’ creams, promising to turn us brown skins into the superior white variety.” Women, especially, are susceptible to the pressure of cultural beauty ideals. “In India, they have to deal with a double whammy – they must not only be beautiful, they must also be fair,” Raha said. “Indeed, society conditions us to believe that the one is impossible without the other.”

“I would say that regardless of what the media says, you define your beauty. There’s a whole community out here on social media ready to help you embrace said beauty.” – Sara Mahmoud

The new normal The social media community was discussed in the recent Women in the World panel Selfie: The High Cost of Low Confidence. Renowned psychoanalyst Susie Orbach argued social media was having a negative impact on girls’ self-esteem because it had “democratised beauty”. In the pursuit of ‘likes’, girls’ self-portraits had become carbon copies, Orbach said, because looking the same as everyone else was a requirement to belong in society. But fellow panellist and selfie academic Terri Senft argued social media gave people control over their images and how they were portrayed. Senft said girls understood that when it came to social media, “body image” was “about 88 per cent ‘image’”.

 

Chantelle “Winnie” Brown-Young’s modelling career began when she was ‘discovered’ on social media after featuring in a news story on YouTube. Winnie has the rare skin condition vitiligo, which causes pigments to lose colour. Last year she was chosen to compete in America’s Next Top Model and is now “redefining the global definition of beauty”. Women in the World mediator Laverne Antrobus asked Winnie how looking different was being discussed in the modelling industry. “I think it’s kind of new, to be honest, so I don’t know if it’s quite a discussion yet, or it’s history being made,” Winnie said. “I think it’s probably something that will be spoken about in the future, but it’s something that is new.”

The result is an increasingly diverse array of looks

Swedish designer Iman Aldebe is using fashion as her method of countering prejudices against non-mainstream beauty. Aldebe, born to Jordanian parents, is pushing both Islamic and Western boundaries with her range of designer turbans and modest couture. While Lyubansky says cultural definitions of beauty change over time, Aldebe isn’t prepared for society to catch up. “I could not wait for another 100 years until things changed in Sweden,” she said. “I realised very early on that it would take a long time to solve problems and come up with solutions via political means … I felt that via fashion we can solve many issues and become more accepted in society.” And Aldebe is succeeding: her one-off turbans are proving popular with non-Muslims and conventionalising head coverings.

Rather than being a force for evil, the “democratisation of beauty” is offering the spotlight to those traditionally overlooked. Madeline Stuart has become the face of a cosmetics company, walked the catwalk at New York Fashion Week – and is considered the first professional adult model with Down’s Syndrome. She has half a million Facebook followers from across the world. The 18-year-old is “changing society’s perceptions of beauty – one photo shoot at a time”. Madeline’s mum says her daughter’s success is not just about modelling. “[T]his is about changing the world, this is about creating inclusion, stopping discrimination and breaking down those walls of confinement”.

In the world of social media, the walls that hide the non-conventional are circumventable. Diversity is on display. The democratic nature of social media means when a hashtag trends or a community becomes active enough, the mainstream takes notice. Cultural fashions and preferences aren’t stagnant, but they can take time to change. But social media offers people the opportunity to, quite literally, be the change they want to see.

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Nepal facing ‘humanitarian crisis’ as fuel shortage continues

This article was published by teleSUR English on November 9, 2015.

Protests against Nepal’s new constitution by communities on the Indian border, coupled with what many have labelled an unofficial economic blockade imposed by India, have restricted the flow of goods, including essentials such as fuel and cooking gas.

Responsibility for the fuel shortage is disputed, but few are denying its impact.

Non-government organizations have been unable to source critical building materials or transport resources to earthquake-hit regions.

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake urged all involved parties to consider the long-term impact the crisis could have on Nepal.

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Direct, collective action can make a difference for Syrian refugees

This article was published by The Vocal on September 7, 2015.

Tonight, dozens of community action groups and tens of thousands of people across Australia will turn out onto the streets in cities and towns to tell the Abbott Government, and the world, they welcome refugees.

“The image of the Syrian child’s lifeless body washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach brought the world to its knees. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he was just three years old… We will shine a light in the dark to remember Aylan Kurdi. We will stand in solidarity with people across the world who are forced to ask for protection, and in protest of Australia’s abandonment of the world’s most desperate.”

That’s from the GetUp! call to action for tonight’s #LightTheDark events. Thousands have already pledged to light a candle to show their support, either in person or online. A similar #LightTheDark mass vigil was previously held in 2014 to honour the life of Reza Berati, an Iranian asylum seeker who was murdered in the Australian run detention centre on Manus Island and to honour the many asylum seekers who have suffered under our watch.

After more than four years of civil war, Syrians have been forced to leave their homes in their millions, most recently desperately trying to reach the European Union. Like little Aylan, many have died in the attempt. Meanwhile, the Abbott Government has been actively turning its back on the world’s refugees. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has echoed Amnesty’s calls for Australia to provide refuge to a further 20,000 Syrians.

I want to do something. Will this make a difference though?

That question was quietly, and sincerely, posed by Jess on the Melbourne #LightTheDark Facebook page. And it drew equally genuine responses. It’s a question we all ask ourselves – is there anything I can do in the face of this horror to make a difference? Is it enough to join a street movement? Will anyone listen? Will anything change?

Many shared their experiences of how they became politically active, why they believe small actions can have positive consequences, and how those actions can force governments to listen to the people. Lucy said she felt empowered after marching for the first time about four years ago.

“That’s what I see this [#LightTheDark] event as being about,” she said. “I think there’s something beautiful about gathering together alongside others who have been struggling on this issue, if for nothing else but to collectively express that ‘these people [the government] don’t represent us’.”

Angie also believes collective action can make a difference.

“It’s important we show the government and the public that we care because these decision makers CAN make a difference – but they won’t unless they have a reason or are pushed to. I live by the fact that doing something, is always better than doing nothing. I mean, I know I first started to care and take interest in the issue when I saw and listened to other passionate people.”

quote-Refugee-piece

In the last fortnight alone, Australians have shown people power possesses just that: power. Just 30 minutes after protesters forced the cancellation of a press conference about a planned Border Force operation that would search for people without valid visas, Victoria Police announced the whole operation was being called off. The community outcry was widespread and politicians could not ignore it. It didn’t take long for social media to kick in and re-brand the whole thing to Border Farce.

The ASRC claimed victory in June when they rallied concerned citizens against the Use of Force Bill that would have given “detention guards virtually unchecked power to use force against asylum seekers, largely without recourse”.

There are plenty in Australia who feel compelled to act in support of refugees, and who believe their actions can make a difference. Here are some thoughts expressed by people on the Melbourne #LightTheDark Facebook page, about why they’re taking action:

“Just desperate to do something…”

“[T]his is a start to what we can do”

“The tide is turning. Our elected leaders can no longer harm these desperate people for political gain. Australians are compassionate and welcoming people. Let’s now make our government reflect our will.”

“I’m not really the rallying type, but I think we’re at a point where something has to change with our dire political positioning on asylum seeker issues.”

“Anyone free on Monday night who does not agree with our country’s stance on refugees? Come and show respect to those people who are forced from their homes and then turned away from ours.”

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Rubbish revolution: How social media sparked mass protests in Beirut

This article was published by The Vocal on August 31, 2015.

In the sweltering heat of the Lebanese summer, increased electricity demands on an already strained system mean frequent power outages in addition to scheduled rolling cuts, while water becomes a scarce and precious commodity. This summer was no different. But in recent weeks, another burden was hoisted on residents of the capital, Beirut. Rubbish. Rubbish, everywhere. Piles and piles of the stuff, rotting away in the baking sun and choking even those perched on their apartment terraces.

Lebanese started tweeting about the rubbish crisis and the government’s incompetence using #YouStink. They took to the streets around the Grand Serail, the Prime Minister’s HQ. This displeased those in power. On August 20, the peaceful protests turned into violent clashes. One protester has died, hundreds more have been injured and arrested. The military erected a blast-proof wall to keep the unwashed masses away from the politicians. Lebanon’s hipsters made short work of it – within a few hours it was covered in slogans and caricatures reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. The Prime Minister quickly ordered its removal. On Saturday tens of thousands (some say up to 250,000) gathered in Beirut: the YouStink group demanded the resignation of the environment minister, accountability from the interior minister and security forces who fired on protesters, and a resolution to the garbage crisis within 72 hours; others called for revolution.

FYI: In 2005 we didn’t have social media. In Beirut or not, this is our biggest weapon against their bullets and batons.

25-year-old Lebanese freelance journalist Ilija Trojanovic, who is based in the Gulf, posted that statement on Facebook on Monday. The 2005 Cedar Revolution was an uprising of more than 1 million Lebanese, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, to demand Syria end its decades-long occupation. Lebanon’s youth believe their power to unite now lies largely in social media. The excitement is palpable, the sense of optimism and the hunger for change are tangible. And it’s not confined by geographical borders – Lebanon’s huge diaspora are taking part in the movement online and in their cities. “In 2005, when virtually the entire country congregated in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist (FB did, but it wasn’t what it is now),” Ilija told me. “It was a historic moment in Lebanon’s history. What we are witnessing with the #YouStink protests is Lebanon’s first nationwide show of civil disobedience where social media is playing a major role.” Videos and photos of clashes between police and protesters have been shared worldwide. “As the brutal crackdown of protesters by Lebanese security forces continue, the movement spearheaded by Lebanon’s youth can count on social media as its biggest weapon to hit back with,” Ilija says. “As long as this continues, and as long as the movement grows, it will become more evident to everyone that this is not only about the garbage situation in Lebanon, but more so with the continuous corruption that has plagued the country for so long.”

Social media has allowed members of the movement to maintain control of their aims and message when they could have been derailed. Lebanon’s media has been criticised by many as being on the authorities’ side. The French-language daily newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour called violent protesters “scum” who “infiltrated” the peaceful protest, in an article headlined: Who unleashed the dogs at the protests?, Ilija told me. Class issues also arose when some implied those using violence were from the lower socio-economic strata of Lebanese society. But social media provided a platform for campaigners to discuss these issues and rectify rifts. “I think most people who relate to this cause are worried about sustaining the momentum of this movement, and social media is crucial in this regard, as it is the only platform where people who aren’t politically affiliated can organise and coordinate their efforts,” Soraya said. “This doesn’t happen a lot, and most of us are ‘rookies’ when it comes to resorting to the streets to advocate for our rights.”

Sectarian party alliances based on protesters’ political allegiances formed after the Cedar Revolution. But Ilija says Lebanon’s youth want to avoid that. “After a decade of sectarianism blighting Lebanon, an important factor is that the majority of the protesters are vehemently against fragmenting the movement along these sectarian lines,” he said. And revolts and revolutions in other Middle Eastern countries are providing inspiration. “From the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square to the demonstrations in Gezi Park in Istanbul, the power of social media is unmistakably clear,” Ilija says. “But there still needs to be a strategy. As the days go by this movement is showing its real potential in actually achieving some much needed change in Lebanon.”

“Exciting things are happening beyond the #YouStink campaign, people once again believe in collective action and alternative groups are starting to form and collaborate, groups with a broader vision, striving for social justice and an eradication of the sectarian regime,” Soraya said. “These groups will not be silenced, and will not be intimidated by state violence.”

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