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rights in humanitarian crises
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Fri, 01/14/2011 - 1:12pm.
Looking at Haiti one year after the January 12, 2010, earthquake is deeply disturbing. The life of a Haitian earthquake survivor in Port-au-Prince is precarious, difficult, and a constant struggle. The failures of the aid organizations, the vacuum that exists in government, and the reluctance of donors to make good on their pledges are all problems of this particular disaster. This is all made much worse by the cholera epidemic in the north of the country that has now claimed 3,600 people's lives and the disputed elections that have caused violence and unrest and insecurity. Gangs have moved into this gap, further increasing insecurity for people.
But these things have not just happened as a matter of course; they are not even inevitable. They were not inevitable results of the devastating earthquake in China in 2008 or even the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. That 2005 earthquake in particular was not a shining example of disaster response, but survivors were much further along one year later than they are in Haiti. Disasters do not make a clean sweep, but they bring into clarity the fault lines in societies. The earthquake laid bare the inequities in Haitian society with breathtaking clarity, and the passing of time has only highlighted them.
Since this is a blog and not a book, let's just look at one factor that contributes to the disaster of the disaster response, the shelter emergency. A year later, the fact that 1.4 million people are still living in tents almost numbs us through repetition. But why are they still in tents? That question can be quickly answered by saying the aid agencies did not provide temporary housing, and they are not moving into reconstruction. But why aren't they? That question leads down to the fault lines.
You cannot build temporary housing without raising issues about land use. In a small, overcrowded island nation with a highly skewed distribution system and a corrupt political system, land ownership and land use are explosive issues. The peasant organizations have highlighted the issues around rural landlessness but urban land use is just as skewed. Many neighborhoods are on occupied land, using squatters' rights. Others are charged high rents for small pieces of land. The landlords know that the earthquake is a moment this could be shaken up. It's happened in other countries; people have moved on to land and stayed.
Temporary housing is more permanent than tents — it's much harder to remove, which makes it easier for people to claim their space by virtue of being there. Aid agencies are not building temporary, let alone permanent, housing, because the government and the landlords will not let them. Our partners tell us that the government won't let people go back to two main areas of land near the center of the city, Fort Nacional and Bellair, although people are ready to do so. The only places the government has allowed temporary housing to be built on a large scale are the sites outside of Port-au-Prince that they want to relocate people to.
The Chinese saying that disaster equals opportunity works a number of ways. The earthquake could open a crack of opportunity for people in the city slums to get more adequate housing than they ever have had, built by foreign aid monies. Or it opens a crack of opportunity for the government and the landlords to clear unwanted squatters off their land permanently. The marginalized in Haiti who flock into Port-au-Prince do not have resources to rent decent housing. Their right to decent housing is not only ignored by the government; the government works against it. As far as the government and the wealthy landlords are concerned, the slums of Port-au-Prince should be removed and they should control this land; the earthquake could provide them that chance. And so in no way can temporary housing be built, because it opens the crack of opportunity for the marginalized, not for those that hold power — these are the real fault lines in Haiti.
Submitted by Kara Smith on Thu, 01/13/2011 - 7:44am.
At the urging of a number of organizations working with displaced women in Haiti, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recently issued groundbreaking recommendations to the government of Haiti to address and prevent gender-based violence (GBV) in displacement camps.
KOFAVIV (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, which translates to the Commission of Women Victims for Victims), a UUSC partner, has been courageously confronting the growing prevalence of sexual violence in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. Donations to the UUSC/UUSA Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund have supported KOFAVIV's services to survivors of violence, which includes training GBV agents to work in the camps and conducting education and awareness activities. They have also been at the forefront of documenting cases of GBV and the fight to protect survivors.
In coalition with other Haitian organizations protecting women from GBV, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and legal organizations, this work has resulted in an unprecedented set of recommendations to the Haitian government from the IACHR.
The IACHR granted the following measures:
1. Ensure medical and psychological care is provided in locations available to victims of sexual abuse of 22 camps for those internally displaced. This precautionary measure decision, in particular, ensures that there be:
a. privacy during examinations;
b. availability of female medical staff members, with a cultural sensitivity and experience with victims of violence sexual;
c. issuance of medical certificates;
d. HIV prophylaxis, and;
e. emergency contraception.
2. Implement effective security measures in the 22 camps, in particular, provide street lighting, an adequate patrolling in and around the camps, and a greater number of security forces patrolling in women and in police around the camps;
3. Ensure that public officials responsible for responding to incidents of sexual violence receive training enabling them to respond adequately to complaints of sexual violence and to adopt safety measures;
4. Establish special units within the police and the Ministry Public investigating cases of rape and other forms of violence against women and girls, and;
5. Ensure that grassroots women's groups have full participation and leadership in planning and implementing policies and practices to combat and prevention of sexual violence and other forms of violence in the camps.
Submitted by Kara Smith on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 12:24pm.
This is the time of year when we reflect back on the past year — what has happened, what we did, and what we want to do differently. As I watched the 2010 year-in-review news programs, most of them began by recounting the tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti, one year ago today, and the bleak events that followed — a lack of and disorganization of aid, the cholera outbreak, and election turmoil.
Seeing the shots of babies being plucked out of rubble, the wounded on cots that barely resembled hospital beds, and people living in makeshift tents, I once again began to feel the overwhelming weight of the feeling that says: There is nothing that I can do. This crisis is just way too big.
While it is true that this crisis is way too big and complicated to be fixed by one person, one organization, one government entity, I know that each of us comes to a moment like I did one year ago and says, "What can I do?" Each of us has a different answer, our partners included.
For the director of Camp Oasis, the answer was, "I can protect 40 orphaned girls from a life of prostitution."
For the staff of Konbit Fanm SAJ (KFS), it was, "We can assist 75 women earthquake survivors to become economically independent."
For the executive director of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), it was, "We can create temporary employment opportunities through community-service projects for over 1,200 people."
For the staff of Other Worlds, it was, "We can support a multimedia education and movement-building collaborative that lifts up the voices of grassroots Haitians."
For the women of KOFAVIV, it was, "We can help protect women and girls from gender-based violence in the camps for displaced people."
And for me, it was to make a donation to the UUSC-UUA Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund. It was to make sure that my representatives in Congress know that I am expecting them to act on behalf of the Haitian people. It will be to get involved with a volunteer trip to Haiti. And it will be to work diligently with my colleagues at UUSC to help our members and supporters feel like there is something that they can do. Because no matter how difficult the news is coming out of Haiti, I know that all of us working on what we can do will help create a just recovery for the people of Haiti.
Submitted by Daniel Karp. on Fri, 01/07/2011 - 1:21pm.
In 1988, the plight of a young, poor, and seemingly invisible community living in tenements, amidst gang violence and deeply systemic racism, was broadcast far and wide. This was personally transformative and pulled the curtain on living conditions theretofore unrecognized by a privileged white kid from affluent Connecticut. By the way, that kid was me.
In pursuit of a way out, six young men from Compton, Calif., better known as N.W.A, told the story of their lives through sampled beats and rhythmic spoken word — some call it rap. The wick they lit followed the worldwide release of their inflammatory protest song called "F**k tha Police."
Sweeping vitriolic response to the song surprised few in the music world. The FBI and the U.S. Secret Service sent letters to Ruthless Records and began surveillance on rappers Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre. Concert dates were canceled. Police increased pressure in Compton, Inglewood, and Watts. For many black urban youth, the situation seemed to go from bad to worse.
Today, I read the "Gaza Youth's Manifesto for Change" and again felt the powerful sensation of standing on a levee torn asunder by tidal forces. Though often tenuously constructed and with generously sprinkled vulgarities, the Gaza youths' plea for sanity displays striking commonalities between disenfranchised youth in Los Angeles circa late 1980s and those living in the occupied territories of Palestine today. The shared vernacular is unmistakable and demands acknowledgement of lives bound by concrete walls and doomed to inferiority complexes from an endemic denial of basic human rights.
The daily struggle for Palestinians is also different and in many ways incomparably worse than life around Compton in the years before Rodney King and Reginald Deny were plucked from anonymity. You'd be hard-pressed to find many rap songs about two hours of daily electricity and little access to clean water. Nor would many urban youths accept the indignity and injustice of daily, armed, and often tense check points.
Nonetheless, rights in name are rights in vain when whole communities are denied their full measure of social justice. Racial double standards have long existed in the United States. In Israel, where institutionalized racism is quickly becoming the order of the day, one rule exists for Jews and another for Arabs.
No matter where the injustice, speaking truth to power is and always will be a revolutionary act requiring a certain level of sacrificial resignation. Will I be punished for my actions? Will I be silenced for telling the truth?
The Gaza Youth Breaks Out group has courageously pulled the curtain back on Palestinian suffering and shattered the hegemony of various power structures quartering the occupied territories. Now its members wait to see from where and how swiftly the storm of retribution arrives.
Is the manifesto terse and uncomfortable at times? Yes. Is it inflammatory, angry, and immature? A bit. Is it exactly what the world needs to finally accept that the occupied territories of Palestine represent a collective failure so universal that we each shoulder a small measure of blame for the suffering of nearly four million stateless people? Without any doubt.
Twenty-some years ago, N.W.A. brought the streets of Compton to life for millions. I think they'd be happy to know that in Gaza today, young people are picking up where they left off, sounding back with an answer to Dre's line, "Why don't you tell everybody what the f**k you gotta say?"
Submitted by Gretchen Alther. on Thu, 01/06/2011 - 8:38am.
The Watan card.
Imagine you're a peasant farmer in rural Pakistan and massive floods have destroyed your modest mud-brick home, devastated your crops, and carried away all of your possessions. If you were lucky, you spent a few months in a camp where aid agencies provided a place to sleep and basic meals. Now you've returned home — perhaps with a tent and some blankets, but maybe not — and you're trying to find a way to feed your family and rebuild your life.
A rapid infusion of cash right now could be very helpful. Then you could prioritize and get the things you most need: maybe some seeds, food, blankets, perhaps some medicine.
This is the basic idea behind the prepaid debit cards, called Watan ("homeland" in Urdu) cards, issued by the Pakistan government to people living in flood-affected areas. This system is intended to deliver much-needed support directly to flood survivors, ensuring speed and transparency. The cards initially are charged with 20,000 Pakistani rupees (about US$230). Additional installments will be made, though it's unclear when and how much.
Because your residency is registered in the government's database, you're eligible for a Watan card. You get this card, but no one explains the system to you. Like the majority of people you know, you've never learned to read, and you probably don't have a bank account. You don't need an account to use your card, but it means you've never used an ATM — and those require reading skills. Furthermore, ATMs are few and far between in rural Pakistan — you'll have to go to a large town to find one, and then you'll have to ask someone to help you. Hopefully, you'll find a person who'll explain the Watan card to you, help you withdraw the full amount, and then tell you to keep your card for when the next installment is made.
But perhaps you'll come up against the kind of thing we heard stories about on our recent assessment visit to Pakistan: people helping survivors withdraw cash for a fee, people buying cards from uninformed survivors, people keeping survivors' "used" cards, and landowners demanding cards or cash from tenant farmers.
Or maybe you're a survivor of the floods, but you're originally from somewhere else and you never registered your new residency with the government. In this case, you're likely out of luck. The process for establishing your residency after the fact is unclear and arduous at best. Or perhaps your husband was registered — you were not — and he has since passed away. You, also, are likely out of luck. And if you're an Afghan refugee who's home in Pakistan was destroyed in the floods? Sorry, you were never able to get on the list in the first place.
The Pakistan government is aware of the problems with the Watan cards, and surely some officials are trying to overcome the enormous system challenges. No doubt, for some people, Watan cards are making a critical difference. But for many, at best, they're frustrating and confusing, and at worst, they're actually pushing people further away from recovery. UUSC is working with local organizations in Pakistan to help those survivors who are at risk of being pushed further down the ladder of recovery because of gender, class/caste, religion, nationality, and geography. Help us help by supporting our Pakistan flood relief efforts.
UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crises team — Martha Thompson and Gretchen Alther — visited flood-affected areas of Pakistan in December. Check back for forthcoming blog posts and updates.
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Fri, 12/10/2010 - 9:45am.
As we take time to contemplate the state of the world this Human Rights Day, I sat down with Martha Thompson, manager of UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program, to hear about the latest on our work around the world with marginalized communities in recovery from war and natural disasters.
UUSC staff were just in northern Uganda as part of the Witness to a Return Home JustJourney, during which participants learned about the inspiring work that has — after just two years of support — helped more than 12,000 Acholi resettle 29 villages in 2 parishes. And those 29 villages are serving as magnets, drawing other displaced people back. After up to 20 years living in camps during the war with the Lord's Resistance Army, there is much healing and rebuilding involved in returning home. As the Acholi people reestablish their lives, they are not only rebuilding their homes and land but also reweaving their culture and reintegrating former child soldiers into villages to create cohesive communities.
UUSC has pioneered work with Architecture for Humanity and the American Friends Service Committee to develop low-cost appropriate ways to repair houses in Gaza that were damaged during Operation Cast Lead, a three-week military conflict in late 2008 and early 2009. It's not just about fixing structural damage, though, it's about restoring human dignity. With our partners, we've finalized a report that catalogs the damages and outlines repair strategies. And now we're sharing it with other organizations in the shelter cluster in Gaza who have funds to act on the information.
As we approach the one-year commemoration of the earthquake in Haiti, we've used approximately 40 percent of our Haiti Relief Fund to support survivors in myriad ways. One of the projects we're excited to see succeeding is the work with the Trauma Resource Institute of training a corps of 80 Haitian grassroots community organizers who will work as trauma resilience counselors. Next year, 20 of those 80 will become trainers themselves. We're also supporting and increasing safety for unaccompanied children in camps, since they're at high risk for sexual exploitation and child slavery. And through KOFAVIV, we're working against gender-based violence in the camps as well — they're in the process of training 100 camp activists on the issue.
Our work in Darfur has spread to North Darfur, where we're partnering with UNIFEM to train police in northern Darfur and work with the U.N. gender officers the way that we did in South Darfur. While Darfur is too often left out of mainstream news coverage, we're still weaving a web of protection for women and girls in camps for internally displaced persons.
As UUSC staff takes off for an assessment visit to Pakistan, we're continuing to work with our partners there, Bedari and Barakat. With Bedari, we're setting up women's centers for people that are displaced within their villages. In the areas we're working in, mainly in the southern provinces of Punjab and Sindh, many displaced people are in debt slavery. Young girls are sometimes used as assets in paying off debts and denied any rights whatsoever — and at a time like this, when people's livelihoods have been destroyed, there will be a likely rise in this practice. So we're focused on looking at how we can protect women and girls from this and how we can support people rebuilding their livelihoods.
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Tue, 11/23/2010 - 2:22pm.
Talking to Gretchen Alther, a senior associate for UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program, the other day, I got an updated sense of what's going on in Pakistan and how partner work is progressing.
In northern Pakistan, people have mostly returned to their land, though their homes and lands are largely destroyed. In the south, large areas of farmland are still flooded and many people are still living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Throughout the country, more than 1 million IDPs are living in almost 5,000 different sites. Because of flooded routes and washed-out bridges, difficulties in distributing aid continue — which makes it that much more important for us to be working hand in hand with local organizations.
In terms of international aid, the World Food Program pipeline is threatened with interruptions, which would result in food shortages and ration cuts. The United Nations has made its biggest appeal yet — $2 billion — but it remains drastically underfunded at only 45 percent.
The circumstances are overwhelming and dispiriting, but our partners are carrying out exciting and essential work that gives us hope. We've heard from Lyla Hardesty of Barakat that their livelihoods project has started, beginning with a survey of market carpet weavers to determine needs and ways to offer support, while they also work on getting children, especially girls, into school. At the same time, Bedari is working on ensuring that women and children in camps get access to services and information. They are also supporting and empowering the voicing of women's concerns in recovery, both in district-level and regional assemblies.
With the generous donations of members and supporters to the UUSC-UUA Joint Pakistan Flood Relief Fund, we're looking to expand our work into the hard-hit and underserved areas of Sindh, a province in southern Pakistan. And in early December, Gretchen and Martha Thompson, manager of the Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program, will be traveling to Pakistan for an assessment visit. In addition to offering technical assistance to our partners there, it will be a chance for UUSC to learn firsthand the situation on the ground and find out how best to stand in solidarity with our partners and the flood-affected people of Pakistan.
Submitted by Gretchen Alther. on Fri, 11/19/2010 - 12:01pm.
This little boy stands in his home in Gaza City. The wall behind him was blown open during Operation Cast Lead, the three-week military conflict in late December 2008 and early January 2009.
Nearly two years later, his home has yet to be repaired. Inside his home, the kitchen sink is in ruins — destroyed by the shelling. The solar water heater on the roof? Also destroyed. No one in his family is employed; they all depend on limited international aid for their survival.*
Today, much of Gaza remains in ruins. A severe, Israeli-imposed blockade continues to keep out most of the materials needed to repair and rebuild homes, schools, hospitals, and universities. UUSC, along with many other organizations around the world, has called this situation a crisis of human dignity.
In response to this crisis, UUSC began working with youth in Gaza to reconstruct their communities and homes. That project of small-scale home repairs has now grown into a detailed evaluation of the most common and critical damage to residential homes, followed by suggestions for viable, safe, and dignified repair options that use locally available tools and resources.
The key concern in this work is dignity, rather than the costs of damages and repairs. What damages most impact people's ability to live in dignity and safety? What repairs will most quickly restore some measure of dignity and safety to people's lives? Those repairs are our priority.
We recently released this information in a report — Gaza Repair Strategies — which is permanently available on the Open Architecture Network, an online, open-source site for innovative design. We will share this information widely with those who can make a difference in Gaza. We hope this will continue to raise awareness about the situation in Gaza and increase the access that communities there have to the resources they need to repair homes and restore dignity.
* Recent U.N. reports shows that over 75 percent of families in Gaza suffer food insecurity. Unemployment remains high. Nearly 90 percent of water is unsafe to drink. Every day, up to 82 million gallons of raw sewage is being dumped into the sea.
Submitted by Lauralyn Smith on Thu, 11/18/2010 - 11:30am.
I had the pleasure of volunteering with many others during a recent interfaith alternative gift fair in Falmouth, Mass. Originally started by two members of the UU Fellowship of Falmouth, the event now has a steering committee with members from five denominations in the area. This particular event hosted 21 different projects, exhibited at tables that fair attendees visited to learn about the work of the organization and to choose to "buy" an alternative gift. They received a certificate announcing the gift and a card to use to send the certificate.
UUSC featured our Pakistan Flood Relief project, offering gift levels of $6 to provide free medical care for a woman or child; $20 to enable 20 women to receive free trauma counseling and help making her concerns heard by the humanitarian community; or $47 to help reunite a child with his or her family.
The positive and genuinely thoughtful energy in the room was inspiring. People at the tables talked with one another, learning about what other human-rights efforts were represented. The organizers gathered a diverse group of local and global projects by various organizations. Seated next to me was a project to assist displaced persons in Zimbabwe, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. Around the room were organizations that supported local work to prevent hunger, education efforts in Vietnam, and health-care accessibility in western Africa — and UUSC's fair-trade partner Equal Exchange was there, too, advocating for the Coffee Project.
Read more about the event in a recent Cape Cod Times article. I highly encourage other UUs to consider adding alternative gifts to their annual holiday fairs or to gather with other faith organizations to host a stand-alone event like this one! In its fourth year, it has increased in size and volume of donations every year. If you are part of a group that is already doing this, please share your stories with us! The need is everywhere — and apparently, the desire and will to advance human rights is, too! As always, UUSC provides materials and support to help in these efforts.
Submitted by Kara Smith on Wed, 11/17/2010 - 2:12pm.
When reading articles about Hurricane Tomas, I keep seeing the phrase "very lucky" to describe the fact that Hurricane Tomas did not make a direct hit on the island nation of Haiti. Though they were "spared" the kind of destruction created by a full-force hurricane, the effects of 85-mile-an-hour winds and 10-15 inches of rain is a harsh reminder of just how vulnerable the people of Haiti are.
The winds and rain ripped through camps where many of the 1.3 million people displaced by the earthquake are living. Tents — the only shelter that many people have — have been destroyed, camps and agricultural land have flooded, and standing water left by the storm has created more breeding ground for the cholera bacteria.
While the death toll from this hurricane was relatively low, the havoc that it has wreaked on the lives of the earthquake survivors is tremendous. The only remedy is a just recovery effort.
Although this dire situation seems almost too complicated to comprehend, there are a few essential first steps that will begin to address it:
- A reconstruction plan that puts the needs of the Haitian people first must guide the recovery process.
- Grassroots organizations that are supporting the people of Haiti need to be funded and supported.
What you can do about it:
- Send a personal message to your Representative urging him/her to co-sponsor the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance, and Rebuilding (HEAR) Act. Make sure they pass the bill before Congress adjourns!
- Make a donation to the UUSC-UUA Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund, which facilitates UUSC's integrated strategy supporting Haitians marginalized by traditional relief efforts and funds grassroots organizations in Haiti. This fund is matched by 3 for 1 by the Shelter Rock congregation in Manhasset, N.Y.
UUSC and our partners are doing what they can to mitigate the effects of the recent storm and support a long-term just recovery effort. We need your help to make that possible.