New ideas…

This is my first blog post in a ridiculously long time, so I feel quite sheepish in writing it. I’ve been thinking long and hard about how exactly to carry out the pledge I made last summer: to do my bit in the fight against sexual abuse against women, both in Egypt and around the world. Noble intentions, yes – but some serious planning and refinement of those ambitions is needed to really make that happen.

I hugely enjoyed helping Unreported World with the production of their 20-minute documentary, ‘Egypt: Sex, Mobs, and Revolution’ broadcast in November on Channel 4. As for my own documentary, I’m in regular contact with the producer who I’ll be working with, and progress is indeed being made. As I outlined some months ago, getting it funded, commissioned, and fitting it all in around the producer’s incredibly busy schedule will take time. But it will happen!

Anyway, whilst working on new TV projects has given me invaluable experience, I’m itching to do more for womankind. Particularly after being inspired by coverage of a new documentary, “Brave Miss World” – please DO look it up.

I, along with billions of people worldwide, was deeply shaken and disturbed by the horrific Delhi gang-rape case (and the more recent devastating rape and murder of 3 Indian sisters). My instinct was to blog about it. But then I thought…what can I say? What can I possibly write in a blog post that billions of people around the world aren’t already saying? I started to focus more on what I could do.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about what exactly to do. Sexual violence against women is such a truly global phenomenon that it’s difficult to highlight its occurrence in one part of the world without appearing to neglect all those women suffering in the Congo, in Syria, in Pakistan, in America, in France, in the UK…and in every country on Earth.

So, do I make a documentary on every country in the world? Do I gradually work my way through a list of misogynistic global hotspots? And, standing next to the plethora of existing NGOs and charitable organisations designed to fight the sexual abuse of women, what can I bring to the table?

I’ll stop with the (possibly irritating) rhetorical questions now and cut to the chase. As a British young woman, I’ve decided to hit home with this global problem. I want to develop my own documentary that will resonate with young men and women growing up in the UK. I want a UK audience to see that sexual violence and discrimination against women is as relevant at home as it is abroad – just in different ways.

So, my aim is to highlight to a UK audience that sexual abuse is not confined to far-flung countries like India, Syria, or Egypt; nor is it confined to the Jimmy Savile era, the horrors of which are, disgracefully, only now being brought to light; nor is it confined to abuses carried out by priests in the Catholic Church. Sexual abuse plagues the younger generation of Brits in a far quieter, subtler, yet equally deplorable way.

Needless to say, we all know that rape occurs in the UK – it affects nearly 70,000 women every year. But I really don’t think we’re open enough about it. To a degree, I don’t think young men necessarily realise that rape jokes might not count as “banter”, and I don’t think young women necessarily realise that they have a right not to laugh at them without being branded that most unfashionable of things: a “feminist”. I could go on to talk about the widely-discussed controversy over telling women “don’t get raped” rather than telling men not to rape, and the pervasive “blame the victim” culture, but I feel these points have been very widely discussed already on the internet (and I may end up ranting for hours).

I must, though, express my admiration for the Home Office’s anti-rape ad campaign. But what concerns me are the general attitudes of young men and women – towards rape and who is to be held responsible – that necessitate such an ad campaign.

Telling women how they should dress and behave to avoid rape – note Tory MP Richard Graham and Joanna Lumley’s blunderous comments – only serve to further inflame this debate.

To round up, I don’t want to give too much away, and it’s very early days for this project. I’m putting out feelers to see how this documentary could work, so please do get in touch with any feedback or further ideas.

Thanks for reading this delayed and horrendously long post!

One more step in the fight against sexual harassment in Egypt

I have now completed my article and it will soon be published by Fair Observer, once the editors edit it and the web designers format it to look neat and pretty. Woohoo!

I have also been able to complete my MA unexpectedly in the past 2 weeks. I never imagined I’d be able to complete it this year after my attack forced me to abandon the unfinished documentary. I will admit, I am rather proud of myself.

It was quite a challenge to fit so many moving stories and viewpoints into such a tight word count. I soon came to realise that sexual harassment in Egypt needs much more extensive coverage, which has inspired my decision to create some kind of web resource for women to share their experiences of sexual harassment, and their ideas about tackling the problem. This will also provide me with room to share the stories I have already featured in my article in greater depth. The idea is in its infancy at the moment, but I’ll keep you updated.

It’s deeply satisfying to be connected to the cause of fighting sexual harassment. It’s raised my awareness of the plight of women in so many regions of the world who suffer in different ways every single day simply because they are women, which makes them vulnerable. I feel the plight of women in the Congo (who I will be running 10K for on Sunday), Egypt, India, Honduras and many other regions demands much greater media coverage in order to capture the attention of women in Britain and elsewhere. As cliched as it may sound, I have begun to feel a much deeper bond to womankind – a kind of sisterhood that motivates me to do much more to defend women’s rights globally.

I’ve now got a 10K run on Sunday that I am nowhere near physically fit enough to complete with ease; I anticipate that I’ll be crawling across the finish line. But the cause is so incredibly worthwhile and I’m very glad to be part of it.

Then I’m off to Oxford for my 2-week internship with Unreported World. I cannot wait. It’s going to be a fantastic experience – I’m sure of it. I’m so happy to be interning for a programme that I feel so genuinely enthusiastic and passionate about. I hope I can bring oodles of positive energy to the team without being annoying.

Today is a good day!

Refugee Week

My latest Fair Observer article: an insight into the plight of victims of war as refugee week commences on June 18.

Background

The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, [and] who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” including both Arabs and Jews. Combined, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and Israel’s invasion and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 six-day-war prompted over 1 million Palestinian refugees to flee to neighbouring states.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) have since offered aid both to displaced Palestinians and their descendants. As of 2012, there are an estimated 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, many of whom struggle as second-class citizens in Arab states.

Following its liberation from a seven-month Iraqi occupation in March 1991, Kuwait expelled 450,000 Palestinian Arabs. The expulsion was in retaliation to the decision of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to align himself with Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait in August 1990. These refugees sought shelter in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and other Gulf states. The majority have not returned to Kuwait and have struggled to settle elsewhere.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq triggered widespread outbreaks of violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.7 million Iraqis have since been displaced or have fled to Jordan, Syria and other Middle Eastern states to escape continued bloodshed. The volatile security situation prevents millions of expatriates and those internally displaced from returning home.

The Rwandan Civil War of 1990-1993 reflected decades of ethnic tension between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. After government-backed militias carried out the genocide of the Tutsi population in 1994, Tutsi rebels fought back and defeated the Hutu regime. This drove around two million Hutu refugees to flee to neighbouring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Congo in what is commonly known as the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis.

The international community responded with one of the largest ever humanitarian relief efforts. However, when Hutu troops infiltrated and militarised the camps to attack the Tutsi-led Rwandan Popular Front government, many aid organisations withdrew their support.

The Rwandan government continues to push for a UN-backed programme to repatriate Rwandan refugees.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo became embroiled in the Tutsi-Hutu conflict after thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees escaped to Congo following the genocide, allied themselves with Mobutu’s government, and began attacking Congo’s Tutsi population. Rwandan-sponsored Tutsi rebels then instigated attacks against the Congolese government and the Hutu population in the east. Recent reports indicate that several thousand Congolese refugees have crossed over to Rwanda and Uganda in the past two months alone to escape sustained conflict.

Why is Refugee Week Relevant?

Refugee Week is an annual celebration of the continued cultural, academic, and artistic contributions of refugees to the United Kingdom. It was established in 1998 to counter increasing hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. Though a national event, the integration and treatment of refugees is of international relevance.

The 2011 Libyan civil war drove approximately 750,000 thousand refugees to Chad, Egypt, Tunisia, and Mediterranean countries – often to a hostile reception. Many have since returned willingly to Libya, despite continuing violence.

The ongoing conflict in Syria, meanwhile, drives tens of thousands of civilians each month into refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The International Committee of the Red Cross warns that 1.5 million displaced Syrians are still in desperate need of extensive humanitarian aid as thousands more stream across the border.

The commonality of the hostile reception received by refugees in host countries highlights the global need for greater understanding of the mutual benefits – cultural and economic – that integrating refugees can have for host countries.

The rise and fall of Kony 2012

 Cynics call it clicktivism; believers say they can change the world. Natasha Smith asks how much further the Kony 2012 campaign can really stretch before it reaches its glass ceiling.

“We will turn this digital revolution into something more”. The words of San Diego-based charity Invisible Children (IC) in its latest video on the Kony 2012 campaign, ‘Part II: Beyond Famous’.  The question is, what is that “something more”? With global support already dwindling, how much more can this digital movement really achieve?

Only one month ago, the internet was swarming with links and references to the Kony 2012 campaign video. It landed more than 100m views in less than one week, becoming the most viral video of all time. Yet according to YouTube the second video, released last week, has barely exceeded 1.5 million views – despite winning round former critics with its more balanced, in-depth portrayal of the situation in central Africa.

“Clearly even a viral success (in large part spurred by controversy) does not translate into sustained online engagement or offline action”, said Katrin Verclas, co-founder of internet activist group MobileActive.org. Controversies thwarting the campaign so far include the public mental breakdown of the former President of IC Jason Russell, and reports in the Huffington Post that the charity has accepted funding from anti-gay Christian groups.

So, in the face of widespread criticism and controversy, just how much has Kony 2012 managed to achieve? The overwhelming global response to the campaign indicates it has fulfilled its primary objective of raising awareness of Joseph Kony and his crimes. “I’m very impressed with this worldwide effort”, said Jason Farr, Councillor of Hamilton, in Canada. “I hope it achieves what it intends to achieve: to make Kony famous.”

Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony is wanted by the ICC for abducting and conscripting children into his ranks as leader of rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and selling young girls as sex slaves. According to the BBC, the LRA is accused of the rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of civilians across central Africa. The group was active in Uganda until forced out due to international pressure in 2006. It has since been carrying out attacks in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, which Invisible Children hopes to stop once and for all through global advocacy and awareness.

Value of awareness

On April 20, IC invites the world to ‘Cover the Night’, decorating the streets with imagery promoting the campaign. However, many remain critical, suggesting that such events will bring minimal long-term results. “Clicks and views do not equal action, and particular actions, like their “Cover the Night” event, do not equal the desired change,” said Kate Otto, founder of Everyday Ambassador, a group promoting global citizenship. “These things in fact can be a distraction that pushes us away from understanding the roots of the problem.”

Jedidiah Jenkins, Head of Ideas Development at Invisible Children, defended the value of spreading awareness. “That’s the challenge: awakening people to global empathy and then providing thoughtful action, steps, and tangible results,” Jenkins told me via Twitter. Invisible Children’s team at the University of Southern Indiana explained that organising local events helps spread “awareness and compassion”. “The more both are spread, the more we can affect action”, a group member tweeted to me.

TMS Ruge, the co-founder of Project Diaspora, a scheme to engage and mobilise young Africans to social action, disagrees. “I wish we wouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking awareness fixes problems”, he explained. “It doesn’t. Action, by the right actors – civil society and local government – does.”

Since the Kony 2012 campaign began, the international community has responded with increased efforts to bring Kony to justice. The African Union, in conjunction with the UN, has now committed a 5000-strong military force to capture Kony. In the US, senators and congressmen and women have put forward bi-partisan legislation to catch him. Additionally, the ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has assured the public that Kony will be arrested in 2012, thanks to the global interest generated by the campaign.

The UK Foreign Office is supportive of these efforts. “Kony2012 has achieved its aim of raising awareness of Kony/LRA”, a spokesperson told me. “The AU, UN and US military effort is appropriate at present.”

But a whirlwind of scandals surrounding the campaign have also provoked widespread scepticism about Invisible Children’s ability to solve this problem. “They lack credibility among the press, NGO community, and African experts”, said Mary Joyce, founder of digital campaign group meta-activism.org. “If they retain credibility with their young American base that will allow them to mobilize in the US and to raise money, but it is unlikely to be enough to actually capture Kony.”

Kate Otto feels the charity should shift its efforts to target more achievable aims. “I wish that the IC team would leave conflict-resolution and development in Uganda to the professionals”, said Kate, “and instead form a socially-minded film company, applying their communication skills to issues like halting global warming or ending AIDS – issues that do require participation of the masses to achieve.”

Domino effect

Kony 2012 has fuelled media interest in another African war criminal:  Bosco Ntaganda. The Congolese army general and former rebel group leader was indicted by the ICC in 2006 for conscription of child soldiers and the rape, murder and mutilation of civilians allegedly carried out by his forces, but, according to Channel 4 News, has not yet been arrested due to fears of jeopardising a fragile peace agreement in the DRC. “Interestingly, the ICC is getting renewed attention, as well as other elusive war criminals under indictment – both by the public and lawmakers”, says Katrin. “So maybe the attention given to Kony 2012 is yielding something.”

However, with the Twitter hashtag #BoscoNtaganda2012 receiving far less attention than #Kony2012, the chance of copycat digital campaigns against other tyrants appears unlikely. “It was just a perfect storm of conditions that allowed the first video to go viral, and it would be hard to replicate”, said Matt Brown, Associate Director of Communications at the Enough Project – one organisation collaborating with IC on the campaign.

Digital activism has become increasingly powerful in its reach and potential to enact change. Recent examples include the online blackout held in protest against the SOPA/PIPA legislation in January, the online petition urging Florida police to arrest the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – which has secured more than two million signatures – and the Arab uprisings of 2011. However, with Kony 2012, digital activism may be receiving a reality check.

The fall in the campaign’s popularity could signal its demise, and ‘Cover the Night’ may prove to be its swansong. As new footage of Invisible Children’s Jedidiah Jenkins joking about keeping $900,000 of a $1m grant sweeps the internet, IC appear to be dangerously close to isolating former supporters through a barrage of irresponsible mistakes. Internet activism through social media has yielded spectacular results, yet resolving an African conflict that spans a quarter of a century is perhaps beyond the capacity of a relatively immature charity struggling to handle such unprecedented publicity. Kony 2012 has been phenomenal, but with popularity sliding, it seems doubtful that it will be either sustained, repeated, or that Kony will be caught in 2012 at all.

Double standards: Kony vs the Terminator

I’m shaking my head in disbelief. After submitting an article on Joseph Kony for publication, I thought I’d developed quite a thorough insight into the position of major international organisations and world powers towards warlords accused of horrific atrocities. Then, earlier tonight, I turned my attention to Channel 4 News and felt like a damn fool. Who on earth, I ask myself, is Bosco Ntaganda, aka “The Terminator”? And why haven’t I even picked up on this notorious rogue leader until now? I blame myself for remaining ignorant; I could take the easy way out and blame “the media”, but I know that I could, and should, have done more to find out before now.

Bosco Ntaganda was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in 2006, though his arrest warrant was only made public in April 2008.  The parallels between Ntaganda and Joseph Kony are uncanny: child soldiers were abducted to fill his ranks; civilians massacred, raped, and mutilated – all under his orders as chief of military operations for a militia group during internal conflict in the north-east Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet, in sharp contrast to Kony, he’s been hiding in plain sight ever since.

Ntaganda stands accused of “the enlistment, conscription and active use of children in 2002-3” in the northeastern district of Ituri, when he headed the military operations of an ethnic Hema militia group, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). Note – he was a close associate of Thomas Lubunga, a fellow Congolese rebel leader who became the first recipient of a verdict from the ICC; he was found guilty of conscripting child soldiers into the UPC) in 2009 and is yet to be sentenced.

After leaving the UPC in 2006, Ntaganda assumed his current position as military chief of staff of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in the Congo, led by Laurent Nkunda. According to Human Rights Watch:

The CNDP is considered responsible for serious abuses against civilians in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo. But on January 23, 2008, the Congolese government signed a peace agreement in Goma, North Kivu, with 22 armed groups, including the CNDP. Under its terms all parties agreed to an immediate ceasefire and committed to respecting international human rights law… 

… Ntaganda is the fourth Congolese rebel leader sought by the ICC for war crimes. Three other Congolese defendants – Thomas LubangaGermain Katanga, and Mathieu Ngudjolo – are already in ICC custody.

Special envoys from the African Union, the European Union, the United States, the United Nations, and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region played a vital role in brokering the Goma peace agreement. A number of these diplomats meet regularly with CNDP representatives as part of the peace process. Human Rights Watch urged them to use their influence to pressure CNDP officials to swiftly hand over Ntaganda to the ICC.

Unfortunately, efforts to arrest Ntaganda and put him on trial in the Hague have failed to bear fruit. As Channel 4’s Jonathon Miller explains:

…since the arrest of Lubanga in 2005, forces under the command of Bosco Ntaganda are accused of mass killings during a rebellion three years ago – according to a United Nations report.Yet today, General Bosco lives openly in the eastern city of Goma where he is in charge of 50,000 Congolese soldiers. The 17,000 UN peacekeepers stationed in the country are powerless to apprehend him. Their spokesman told us they cannot arrest him without an order from the president. As a signatory of the ICC, Congo is legally obliged to arrest a suspect indicted by the court.

But President Kabila has not done so… Witnesses and victims who have spoken to Channel 4 News accuse General Bosco of continuing to rape, torture, murder and recruit child soldiers – a reign of terror which, they say, carries on to this day. The ICC is aware of these allegations…

Under a peace deal which ended the 2008 rebellion, Bosco Ntaganda’s forces were reintegrated into the Congolese national army. He was promoted to the rank of general in January 2009 and was, say well-placed sources, instrumental is getting President Joseph Kabila re-elected at the end of last year, by securing votes in the east.

“Bosco Ntaganda is a man at the peak of his power at the moment,” said Anneke van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch

“He drives around Goma without a care in the world. He goes to the top restaurants. He plays tennis. He shows up at his office. He wines, he dines. This is a man who doesn’t think anyone is ever going to lift a finger to arrest him.”

Unbelievable. Perhaps I’m just incredibly naive, but it frustrates me beyond belief that this is the way the world works. The whole affair gives a very dark sheen to the concepts of bureaucracy and diplomacy, and casts a dark shadow on the whiter-than-white image of Western citizens promoted in the Kony 2012 campaign. This all feels, to me, like a long-overdue wake-up call.