Womens Rights

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Recovering Post-ISIS: What it's like to be a woman in Mayadin, Syria

By Aline Yacoubian, EFSVL Policy Officer, Oxfam in Syria

This is to all men, women and children fighting for survival.

Two years after the ousting of ISIS from Mayadin, east of Deir ez-Zor in Syria, the situation is dire. As I travelled through the town, I couldn’t fail to notice the devastating impact of the conflict. The intense fighting has left it in in total ruin. Among the shattered buildings, destroyed water and electricity infrastructure and broken streets – you can sense life is slowly returning. Hanging laundry lines amid rubble and ash, poorly stocked shops opened in the remains of buildings and children playing with whatever makeshift toys available, from empty tin cans to metal pieces left behind.

Mayadin witnessed a major turn of events as ISIS grasped control over the town in mid-2014, making it their ‘safe haven’ and financial capital. For three years, people in Mayadin lived under ISIS’s rule of terror. Though thousands fled from Mayadin, some people could not escape. I stood in the middle of what once was the second most populous town in Deir Ezzor and sensed the emptiness. Before ISIS, Mayadin was known for its agricultural production, filled with vast acres of fertile, green lands and rich livestock. Located on the western bank of the Euphrates River, Mayadin was once the breadbasket of nearby towns and it thrived on its wealthy agro-economy.

But all that changed under ISIS, particularly for the women there. They were forced to stop school and work. Hawra* is among the many women who was forced to quit school and marry. “I had a real passion for education. I had big dreams of becoming a nurse. Now, I channel that passion into growing our garden’s orange trees. That’s all I have left,” Hawra told me.

woman farming in rural Syria
Hawra, working on her family’s farmland in Mayadin’s Anneba, rural Deir Ez-Zor. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

The constant fighting under ISIS and continuous bombardments paralyzed the productive economic sectors of Mayadin, with burnt agricultural lands and demolished irrigation channels. Combined with drought, water has become scarce, and safe, clean water has become a commodity. Two years after ISIS, there has been some improvement. Agriculture production is slowly gaining momentum, but the farming communities in the town remain distressed. Mayadin inhabitants are at the brink of food insecurity due to dwindling production, shortage of functional bakeries, and high food prices.

The destroyed waste management systems have further added to the struggle, with serious health concerns on the rise, such as Leishmaniasis, a skin disease caused by a microscopic parasite spread by sand flies, widespread in Mayadin today. Medical facilities are almost non-existent, and access to healthcare has become rather impossible. Khansa, a 34-year old woman shared her story of how expensive healthcare has become as most inhabitants, who must travel to the city of Deir Ezzor, around 40 kilometres, to access medical services. “Travelling to and from Deir Ezzor city costs around 3,000 SYP (approx. USD $3), and the doctors charge around 2,000 SYP for a regular check-up. I don’t have that kind of money, so I only prioritize my son’s doctor visits,” she explained. Khansa used to work on her family’s farmland. Their land was destroyed under ISIS. Today, only a small portion of their land is suitable for farming. “We live off of debts throughout the year and pay them off during the agricultural seasons when we sell our produce,” she continued.

woman holds her son on farm in rural Syria
Khansa, 34, stands in her family’s farmland in rural Deir ez-Zor, holding her son. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

Conversations with women in Mayadin were bittersweet. Bitter to hear what they went through. Sweet to hear how they made it and their willingness to survive. These women are very resilient. “You are probably wondering how I am still smiling. This is what makes me want to fight for life,” said one woman, carrying her 10-day old baby wrapped in wool blankets to protect from the cold.

Despite the hardships, I sensed the women’s urge to rebuild their lives. Though living in Mayadin has become a game of survival, its women have become warriors. Of all the stories heard, the most beautiful are the stories of persistence. You can see it on their faces – these women can turn tides. They don’t give up, they pull through despite everything. They believe in second chances and silver linings.

#9YearsofWar

*Name changed to protect identity.

International Women’s Day: How Oxfam is helping to redress the political gender imbalance in Malawi

March 8th is International Women's Day – and at Oxfam, we believe that gender equality means more than giving women and girls the same opportunities to learn and earn as men. It also means ensuring that more women are in leadership roles and encouraging more women to become politicians.

In 2018, we launched the 50:50 Elect Her campaign in Malawi to increase the number of women going into politics. We profiled female MPs in the media to inspire more women to get involved in political life and we visited their constituencies to bring our campaign messages to their communities.

Oxfam’s Lingalireni Mihowa (left) presents bikes to gender activists. Photo: Oxfam in Malawi

We provided volunteers with information on gender laws, kitted them out with bags and clothes branded with our messaging, and gave them bicycles so they could spread the word. All of this led to the first-ever Malawi Women’s Manifesto, media campaigns that reached one million people and community awareness campaigns involving 20,000 participants.

More women stood for positions than ever before, with 310 women contesting Malawi’s 2019 election, up from 261 in 2014. More than three-quarters of constituencies had a female candidate for parliament.

The visibility provided by the Elect Her campaign improved women’s chances of being elected and delivered big gains – last year, 23 percent of MPs elected in Malawi were women, up from 16.5 percent in the 2014 election. Malawi’s parliament elected its first woman speaker, while 25 percent of ministerial portfolios are now in the hands of women – up from 20 percent.

Honourable Shanil Dzimbiri with Oxfam Ireland Chief Executive Jim Clarken and Oxfam Ireland Board member Dr Mary Murphy dance during the Elect Her community campaign to increase the political representation of women in Malawi. Photo: Oxfam in Malawi

Meanwhile, in the local elections, 669 women stood as councillors in 2019, compared to 419 in 2014. Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, elected its first female mayor, and 67 women were elected out of a total 456 councillors. Out of 36 councils, six women were picked to be council chairs and 10 as vice chairs.

Such enormous institutional changes reflect real impact and progress towards achieving gender equality.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go.

While more women in politics is an important achievement, to fully succeed it must be accompanied by policies that deliver real behavioural change in those same institutions and in wider society.

But the successes of 50:50 Elect Her gives much cause for optimism that, with your support and those of our partners, we can beat poverty and injustice for good.

So, this International Women's Day let’s take a moment to celebrate the strides we have made together in the fight for equality.

Read our submission to the Citizens’ Assembly here

International Women’s Day: Why some don’t have time to care

It’s often said that “a woman’s work is never done” – and judging by our recent inequality report on the millions of hours of unpaid care work undertaken by women and girls, that old adage is truer than ever.

As we prepare to mark International Women’s Day this Sunday, it’s worth revisiting the findings of our Time to Care report, which was launched earlier this year. We revealed that care work is the “hidden engine” that keeps the wheels of our economies, businesses and societies turning.

In many parts of the world, women and girls are the ones responsible for housework and caring for children or elderly relatives. As a result, they have little or no time to get an education, earn a decent living, become leaders in their communities or have a say in how our societies are run.

Melody Mutsauki does her family’s laundry at a lake a few kilometres from her home in Misvago region, Zimbabwe. Photo: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville / Oxfam

Women and girls undertake more than 75 percent of unpaid care work in the world and make up two-thirds of the paid care workforce. They carry out 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day. When valued at minimum wage this would represent a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year, more than three times the size of the global tech industry.

At home, we learned that Ireland has the fifth largest number of billionaires in the world, relative to its population, the vast majority of which are men. Women in Ireland, meanwhile, put in 38 million hours of unpaid care work every week, adding at least €24 billion of value to the Irish economy every year. This is equivalent to 12.3 percent of the Irish economy.

Mother-of-four and shop owner Arlene Cinco from the Philippines also cares for her husband, Eduardo, who suffered a stroke in 2016. Photo: Jed Regala/Oxfam

In Northern Ireland, carers’ support is valued at £4.6 billion a year – but this comes at high personal cost. In addition to the financial cost of their caring role, carers often face loneliness and social isolation, as well as increased health problems of their own.

Carers NI recently estimated that one in five people in Northern Ireland provides care for a family member or friend, over 58,000 more than the 2011 census. And over half of all carers in Northern Ireland are women.

Around the world, the pressure on carers, both unpaid and paid, is set to increase as the global population grows and ages. An estimated 2.3 billion people will need care by 2030, an increase of 200 million since 2015.

So, in the run-up to International Women’s Day 2020, it might be worth considering another saying – one that reflects the true value of all this work: “If women stop, the world stops.”

Read our submission to the Citizens’ Assembly here

Our next government must think outside the ballot box

As 8th February fast approaches, it’s almost crunch time in this snap general election. Ireland’s election cycles are short, but five years can make a big difference in times of massive change.

We want to see Ireland tackle the most important issues of our time, like climate change, gender inequality and tax justice – issues that affect all of us, not just in Ireland, but around the world. If this country leads the way, others will follow. Yet this kind of leadership requires politicians who think outside the box – way beyond the ballot box and the next election cycle. With the global community lurching from one crisis to the next, short-sighted policies are no longer an option from the political leaders of any country.

Oxfam climate march
Oxfam staff at the COP25 climate march in Spain in 2019. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

As an island nation with a huge potential to harness the power of renewable energy, Ireland could show the kind of leadership the world really needs. We want the next government to take faster, fairer action in tackling climate change and supporting poorer countries already experiencing extreme weather events. Drought and floods have wreaked havoc on the communities we work with, destroying livelihoods and the chance for families to have a brighter future. Wealthier nations like Ireland must now step up and take responsibility for our emissions.

We need to live more sustainably so developing the circular economy, which eliminates waste and the continual use of resources, would be a win-win for both the environment and our climate. It would help tackle big polluters like the textile industry, which soaks up vast quantities of water – our most precious resource – every day and creates a throwaway society where millions of tonnes of clothes are dumped in landfill every year. We’re calling on the next government to incentivise the circular economy by slashing VAT for services that extend the lifetime of products and creating a waste prevention plan for the textiles industry.

We also want the new government to address economic inequality and the care economy, which mostly affects women and girls. Right now, the world’s 2,153 billionaires own more wealth than 4.6 billion people worldwide. While poverty rates fell in the last two decades, recent evidence suggests that the pace of poverty reduction has actually slowed down.  And Ireland is mirroring this global trend when it comes to wealth inequality – we have the fifth largest number of billionaires per capita in the world!

One way that our upside-down economic system deepens inequality is by chronically undervaluing care work – usually done by women, who are often left little time to get an education, earn a decent living or have a say in how our societies are run, and are therefore trapped in poverty. Across the world, women and girls are putting in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, such as looking after children and the elderly, which amounts to a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year – more than three times the size of the global tech industry.

In Ireland alone, women spend 38 million hours a week carrying out unpaid care work, adding at least €24 billion of value to the Irish economy every year. We’re asking the next government to value and invest in our care system to find real solutions to the disproportionate impact unpaid care work has on Irish women.

To tackle inequality head on, we’re encouraging the next government to help overhaul the global corporate tax system. By not paying its way, big business deprives poorer nations of vital funds that could be spent on services like health and education. While Ireland has made some efforts to tackle tax avoidance, it hasn’t gone far enough. We want multi-national companies to be more transparent in how they operate and to report on their activities at an EU level. Profits should not be shifted away from the countries they were generated – otherwise, the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow.

 

To tackle all these issues, we want the next government to:

  • Implement faster, fairer climate action to meet Ireland's commitments to address the climate emergency and support poorer countries to cope with climate change
  • Support sustainability through developing the circular economy
  • Invest in our care system to help address gender inequality
  • Support a fundamental reform of the global corporate tax system

Our Asks to the Public - General Election 2020

South Sudan: What it means to love yourself

You can keep girl from school, but you can’t keep a girl from dreaming. Oxfam teamed up with photojournalist Andreea Campaneau to bring the hopes of young women in Nyal into focus. She taught them basic photography skills, so they could learn to document their own stories.

young woman smiling
Rose, 16, is one of the Noura Nyal Kids, a group of young women from Nyal, South Sudan. Photo: Noura Nyal Kids/Oxfam

According to 2017 reports, South Sudan is the worst place in the world for girls’ education. As many as 73% of school-age girls don’t even get to attend primary school. In South Sudanese society, there is an expectation that women are defined by marriage, rather than education or career. Oxfam research found that in Nyal—a town in the northern part of the country--in particular, rates of early and forced marriage are among the highest in the world.

The young women Campaneau worked with refer to their collective as “Noura Nyal”—Noura” meaning “love yourself’ in the Nuer language. They shared their desires to leave domestic sphere, become educated, and share in the same opportunities as their brothers. Read their aspirations below in their own words.

Mary, 16

Photo: Noura Nyal Kids/Oxfam

“I want to be a ruler one day. I want to be a queen, a strong queen. Right now, I feel like playing the jumping rope makes me strong. That’s why I love playing it and I want to have my picture taken with it.”

Nyadak, 16

Photo: Noura Nyal Kids/Oxfam

“I am 16, but I have never been to school. This is why I want my picture to be taken in a classroom, next to a blackboard. I live a in small island off the main town of Nyal, and it would take for me at least an hour to go from that island to the school in the main town.

“The boys in the island still get to go to school. Their parents would send them. But, as a girl, I have to stay in the island, help with the household chores, and sometimes look for food in the swamps like fish and water lilies.”

Nyakuma

Photo: Noura Nyal Kids/Oxfam

“At night, after a hard day of hard work, fetching water, cleaning the house, and cooking, I always stop and think about what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be a doctor so I can help the sick people.

I also want to be a driver. I want to drive my own pick-up car so I can see places outside Nyal. I want to drive to different corners of South Sudan and meet new people.

I hope I will be able to finish school. I also hope that there will finally be peace in my country so that girls like me can have an opportunity to do business. I hope for peace because it means I can drive safely across the country without fear of being attacked.”

Rose, 16

Photo: Noura Nyal Kids/Oxfam

“School is everything to me. It’s a very special place because I am surrounded by other kids like me and we get to play my favorite sport, which is volleyball. In school, I can see that I can be a leader because other kids look up to me. I am good in a lot of subjects, especially science, so other kids follow my lead. I know that if I finish school, I can be who I want to be. And I want to be a pilot. I want to be a pilot, like those men driving those big planes, coming to Nyal to deliver goods… maybe even become a pilot who travels the world to see different places.

I love school and how it makes me feel. When I arrive home, I need to start cleaning the house, do the laundry, fetch water from the borehole, cook. Sometimes, I envy my brothers when I see them play outside with their friends. As the girl in the family, I have so many responsibilities that I can’t even do my homework. I hope I don’t have to marry; that could mean I won’t have time to go to school.”

Grace, 16

Photo: Noura Nyal Kids/Oxfam

“I love Nyal, but I feel like Nyal can be better. If there’s peace in the country, maybe Nyal can be better, and then the situation will also be better for us girls living here.”

Spreading the love for the Noura Nyal Kids

These photos taken by the Noura Nyal Kids were displayed as part of Oxfam’s “Love Yourself: the Girls of Nyal, South Sudan” exhibit at Photoville NYC in the USA in September 2019. Oxfam America asked people who stopped by the exhibit to write a letter of encouragement to the young women in the series. Hundreds of visitors participated, and in October, they shipped the letters to Nyal.

Letters from visitors at Photoville NYC to the Noura Nyal Kids. Photo: Oxfam

One letter reads: "Your voice, your vision is so needed. We see you. We hear you. We need to keep speaking through your art. Keep going. Keep creating. Keep being exactly who you are!"

The women rebuilding Nepal

They’re recovering from an earthquake and coming back even stronger. From the woman training and employing women to weave, to the women building houses and bringing clean water to their communities. Nepalese community members spoke with two amazing women from the UK, Hifsa and Jacqui, about how life has changed for them since the disaster.

How are farmers using polytunnels to make a decent living?

How are farmers using polytunnels to make a decent living in Nepal? | Oxfam GB

Local farmers growing cabbages, broccoli, potatoes, tomatoes, chillis and more talked to Oxfam supporter Jacqui about their farming techniques.

“This is something completely new that we are doing,” said farmer Kamala, who farms tomatoes in the Arghakhanchi district of Nepal.

This woman trains others how to weave

This woman trains others how to weave in Nepal | Oxfam GB

Sunita, who lost her business after the Nepal earthquake has now reestablished it – with support from Oxfam and Fair Trade Group Nepal. She employs ten women.

“We give them looms and provide training as well as work,” Sunita said.

Engineers in Nepal have come up with this gravity fed water system

Engineers in Nepal have installed this new gravity fed water system | Oxfam GB

Looking out over deep, deep valleys in Nepal, local engineers tell Oxfam supporter Jacqui about their community water tanks.

“We lost many things in this place. We were struggling for a long time to fix the problem of proper water supply,” said Sushila, who lives in a village in the Dhading district of Nepal, where the earthquake made the underground water supply move and the existing water supply completely dried up.

“The engineers came up with this fantastic gravity fed water system where there’s no pumps required. It doesn’t matter if it rains or not, the water still comes from underground.” supporter Jacqui said.

This community built a space that helps empower women

This community in Nepal built a space that helps empower women | Oxfam GB

Women in the Nepalgunj district of Nepal sing songs about empowerment. They spoke with Oxfam supporter Hifsa about their women’s group, which is supported by Oxfam’s partner Social Awareness Concerned. Social Awareness Concerned work to reduce child marriage and violence against women, to protect and empower women and girls. Sita Pun, a member of the Sathi Community Discussion Centre said, “when women get married at a young age, we face and suffer many difficulties. We do not want to see our children suffering.”

“We are happy.” These women in Nepal are building houses and bringing in clean water tanks

These women in Nepal are building houses and bringing in clean water tanks | Oxfam GB

Women on local management committees in Nepal told Oxfam supporter Hifsa about what they are building.

One woman, 25 year-old Kopila is the Treasurer of the Water User Committee in a village in the Dhading district in Nepal. She said, “before, water came directly from the pipe. We drank dirty water. Now we will be able to drink clean water directly from the tank.”

Reflecting on their conversations in Nepal, Oxfam supporter Hifsa said, “I don’t want to leave a world for my children and my grandchildren where they are still having to worry about the rest of the world. I want to start creating a world that is a lot more fair because I think it’s our duty.”

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Philippines: Too young to marry

MARAWI CITY, Philippines – It was long past midnight, and Fatima* was awake. She had been awake 10 nights. She lay on a mattress on the floor of a rickety wooden shack in the village of Olawa Ambulong in Marawi City, listening to the breathing of the man beside her.

Outside, the occasional tricycle rattled down the muddy alley. Inside, Fatima watched the rise and fall of the man’s chest. She had braced herself up for what could happen when he opened his eyes. She was ready, every time, to slap away the hand that reached across the pillow she had shoved between them.

There were nights when she would drift off to sleep, and wake up with a start, terrified. On those nights, she would rise quietly, her steps light as she made her way to the small kitchen for coffee, the scalding liquid burning down her throat. Most nights she stared up at the ceiling. She would wait bleary-eyed until morning, when he stood and dressed for work. Safe, she would think, safe for one more day.

On the 11th night, when the man across the pillow reached over to touch her, Fatima was asleep. He was inside her before she could protest. She never said a word. She closed her eyes and prayed, until he pulled on his clothes again, rolled over, and fell asleep. Fatima lay awake, weeping quietly, beside the man she now called her husband. She was 14 years old.

Young girl up close
Photos and editorial courtesy of Rappler, as originally published on Rappler.com

A futile fight

Anywhere else in the Philippines, young people like Fatima are permitted by the Family Code to marry only after reaching the age of 18. Muslim minors are an exception. Presidential Decree (PD) No. 1083, or the Code of Muslim Personal Laws, allows Filipino Muslim males the right to marry at the age of 15. Muslim females, provided they have begun menstruating, are allowed to marry as young as 12, provided there is permission from their male guardian, or wali.

There are many reasons these marriages occur at an early age. Some girls are married off because their elders hope to ease the financial burden of their upbringing. Others marry to protect their honor, as any suspicion of premarital sex brings shame to families.

According to an Oxfam International survey on child marriage conducted in 2016, 51% of respondents in Lanao del Sur, where Fatima lives, had gone through arranged marriages, compared to 22% in the nearby province of Maguindanao. Only 14% of females in Lanao del Sur said they gave their full consent to the marriage, while the figure is much higher for men at 89%.

The situation was further compounded by fighting in Marawi, Lanao del Sur’s capital, a year after the study was conducted. The once-prosperous capital was left in shambles after 5 months of clashes between homegrown terrorists and government troops. While no numbers are available, displaced residents and local non-governmental organization (NGO) workers say poverty and uncertainty in the aftermath of the siege led to an increase in early marriages among the Maranao youth.

The wedding

Fatima discovered she was to be married three days into 2019. The war had been over for more than a year. She and her family had been allowed to return to Olawa Ambulong, a Marawi village spared from the violence that had ravaged large swathes of the city. It was the same home Fatima had lived in since she was orphaned just after her birth.

Isha*, Fatima’s aunt, had raised Fatima since her parents’ early death. Fatima was one of many: 4 of the children she called siblings were Isha’s own, while 7 others, like Fatima, were adopted. She called Isha ommi, or mother.

Fatima woke up early on January 3. The sun was up, but it was dark inside the two-story shanty where she lived. Her small siblings were piling their folded mattresses into a corner of the loft. Fatima ate breakfast and played with the children as Isha looked on. Their laughter rang through the house, until Fatima saw her grandmother striding up the muddy path leading to their front door.

Fatima stood to greet her. There were few pleasantries before the elderly woman spoke directly to Fatima. The words were a shock to the young girl.

“I was told to get ready because I was getting married,” Fatima said.

She was told her prospective husband was 8 years her senior. His name was Omar*, a 22-year-old distant cousin whom Fatima had never met. Omar’s father had been searching for a bride for his son. He had arrived earlier that morning to seal the marriage. The details had been decided between Fatima’s wali, her uncle, and Omar’s family.

The wedding was scheduled for later in the day.

“I didn’t want to get married yet,” Fatima said, her voice cracking. But she said nothing on the day she was told. She was too afraid to disobey her grandmother.

The matriarch explained the marriage was a way to help ease the burden on the shoulders of Fatima’s mother. Isha had been widowed 6 years before. Her sari-sari store had been destroyed in the siege, and much of their living came from the vegetable garden Isha tended in the backyard.

It was only after her grandmother left that Fatima told Isha she was afraid. Isha consoled the young girl, then stepped out of their home to follow Fatima's grandmother. Throughout the day, Isha bargained – with Fatima’s grandmother, with Fatima’s wali, with Omar’s parents, with anyone who would speak to her.

Please, she said, stop the wedding. They told her no.

Please, she asked, could they postpone the ceremony a few days? She would like time to buy Fatima a gown. They told her no.

Please, she asked, conceding, could Fatima and her new husband live in Isha’s home after the wedding? Could her daughter still come home?

Yes, they told her.

There was a reason Isha stood up for the girl she called her daughter. Isha herself was married young, forced by her own family to bind herself to another stranger at the age of 13.

“Deep in my heart then,” Isha said, “I kept on asking myself, what will happen to my daughter? Will married life be hard for her? Will her husband or in-laws quarrel with her? Because she had no idea what would happen then.”

The vagaries of consent

“Mutual consent of the parties freely given” is among the “essential requisites” of a Muslim marriage mandated by PD 1083. This means a minor Muslim female must give permission before her wali approves of any marriage.

Muslim scholars – like Anwar Radiamoda, director of the King Faisal Center for Islamic and Asian Studies in the Mindanao State University, and Macrina Morados, dean of the University of the Philippines-Diliman Institue of Islamic Studies (UP-IIS) – say no wedding should take place if the minor says no.

“The female has to be consulted first. If she really doesn’t want to get married, then it’s not allowed by Islam. Forced marriages in Islam is prohibited,” said Radiamoda.

But PD 1083 is not explicit about how consent is given prior to the wedding ceremony. Fatima did not oppose her family’s decision. And so Fatima’s silence – like the silence of many other child brides like her – was read as consent to the marriage.

“They are reared to be modest,” said Morados of UP-IIS. “They are reared to have modesty in public. If you want to accept the marriage, you wouldn’t say yes out loud. It would be a negative to you.”

Morados believes that a number of child marriage practices are rooted in culture, and do not always adhere to Islamic teachings. Fear and respect of their elders, whose decisions are treated like law, stifle Muslim girls and women.

Treating silence as consent to marriage is based on what Morados called a cultural context of shame among Muslim women. A Muslim woman who agrees to a marriage offer traditionally stays silent, in an attempt to mask her eagerness. A Muslim woman who is against a marriage offer can, and should say no. But the reality shows otherwise.

Yet coercion, intimidation, and physical abuse, said Morados, are not sanctioned by Islam. “We really need education,” she said. “Even PD 1083 is not popular. If you go to the province, most of the people, they haven’t heard about the provision on marriage, about the essential requisites.”

There are pending bills in the 18th Congress that seek to declare as “public crimes” the facilitation and solemnization of child marriages. If passed into law, the measure would repeal the exemption that PD 1083 grants to Filipino Muslims to marry below the age of 18. It would also punish those who facilitate early marriages.

But imposing these punishments may not be so simple. PD 1083, authorizing the wali to arrange a marriage on behalf of the women, was guided by the provisions of the Quran and the prophetic tradition.

Morados said that while UP-IIS and the Anak Mindanao party-list group are advocating to raise the Muslim marrying age to 18, any amendments to PD 1083 must come from the community. Their consultations take into account the crucial role that ulama or Muslim religious leaders play in the process.

“We cannot criminalize those parents who opted to marry their children at a younger age,” Morados said. “Because in Islam, you cannot say this is haram or this is prohibited when the Quran allows it.”

Shariah law, said Morados, asks parents to consider the best interests of their children when considering a marriage proposal. It is this that can permit the raising of the marrying age.

Radiamoda also cited the Islamic principle of building a righteous family. “One of the Prophet Muhammad’s statements is, ‘Teach your family before marriage,’” he said. “That means you have to study first. Prepare for your marriage first – emotionally, financially, and economically. This is what Islam says: You have to teach first yourselves before you marry.”

Smiling for the camera

On the day of her wedding, Fatima sat quietly as her cousins dabbed powder on her cheeks. They brushed shadow over her eyes and lined them with care, in an attempt to mask the swollen lids. They dressed her in an abaya – the loose, robe-like dress traditionally worn by Islamic women. This one was special, a gift from her new father-in-law. It was black with a strip of black sequins at the hem. Her hair was covered with a pale pink hijab and secured by a golden brooch pinned just below her cheek.

The wedding was to be held in her uncle’s home, just a short walk away from where Fatima lived with Isha. Her uncle’s house saw a flurry of activity, as Fatima’s relatives rearranged the furniture to make way for the wedding ceremony. Pots and pots of food were being prepared. Isha refused to leave her own home. She could not stop the wedding, but she would not be a witness to it.

Fatima stepped into her uncle’s home. She saw her groom for the first time and saw Omar wearing a white sherwani and turban. She became his wife on the same day they met.

Fatima is shy around strangers, and timid even in the company of her friends. Her hands fidgeted, her eyes darted from Isha to the floor and back. She let her mother speak for her. When she did speak, her voice was faint, almost apologetic.

“I said I didn’t want it to happen,” said Fatima. “But I had no choice.”

Isha kept two photos of the wedding. In one, Fatima and Omar stood side by side, both of them smiling, surrounded by cousins dressed in their wedding finery. In the other picture, Fatima and Omar sat on monobloc chairs. Omar’s right hand was draped around Fatima’s shoulders. She was still smiling.

“There were so many thoughts running through my head then,” Fatima said. “Of course I was scared.”

The debate

The United Nations Children's Fund, or Unicef, puts at 650 million the number of women and girls alive today who were wed before their 18th birthday. In the Philippines, 2018 data from the UN counts about 15% of women aged 20 to 24 years old, who were first married or entered a union, before they turned 18.

Those campaigning to end child marriage argue that regardless of culture, the practice robs young girls – and even boys – of their freedom to choose whom to marry at a time when they are not physically, emotionally, psychologically, and financially ready to make such a decision.

In 2016, Muslim religious leaders and legal experts in Mindanao endorsed a new fatwa – a formal legal opinion – urging marriage only when the necessary conditions of “mind-maturity” and “intellectual-integrity” are met.

They put the appropriate marrying age for males at 20, and females, at 18. The fatwa also said that a virgin woman who has reached the age of puberty with sound mind and integral intellect will not be compelled to marry without her consent.

The same fatwa, however, still interprets the woman’s silence as consent to the marriage. Advocates have gone as far as calling the practice of child marriage a human rights violation.

“At the end of the day, it is up to the communities, the people in the communities, especially the women and girls who have experienced it,” said Patricia Miranda, policy advocacy and communications manager at Oxfam Pilipinas. “They are the biggest champions and the strongest voice in changing the way we view child marriage.”

‘I’m sorry’

Three months after Fatima’s marriage, Isha heard about a week-long debriefing seminar offered by NGO workers to Marawi siege refugees. Isha decided to attend after learning there would be discussions about early and forced marriages.

The seminar was part of the “Creating Spaces to Take Action on Violence against Women and Girls” project. It was launched by Oxfam and its partners like Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation (AMDF), across 6 countries – including the Philippines – in 2016. The goal was to reduce cases of child marriages in 5 years by working with communities where the practice remains prevalent.

Isha remembers watching a video about her rights as a woman. She remembers the colored sheets of paper, where she was asked to jot down her reflections for the day.

“Everything I didn’t know when I was younger, I learned there instead,” said Isha with a smile. “If your child does not want to get married, her parents and relatives should not be forcing her to say yes. I only learned about that during the seminar.”

The Creating Spaces project also held a separate week-long youth camp for children. The lessons included awareness of the self, and effective communication with parents.

AMDF project manager Sitti Nur Mohamad said the lessons have had far-reaching effects. The young have gained the confidence to speak up, while parents have become more open to what their children have to say. One father thanked them, and said he realized he had “sinned against” his wife and children.

“The first thing I will do when I get home,” the father said, “is to hug my wife and to tell I’m sorry.”

Mohamad said she was lucky to marry on her own terms. She met her husband as an adult, while working in the development sector. She knows she is among the privileged.

“In my line of work, some people have already told me, ‘You’re a Muslim, you’re a Maranao, and you’re a woman, and yet this is your advocacy?’ They can’t seem to accept what I’m fighting for,” said Mohamad.

Young mothers

Fatima was 6 months into her marriage when she spoke to us. While the wedding was meant to ease financial burdens, survival was still a struggle, even under Isha’s roof. Omar, a tricycle driver, earned roughly P200 a day, or about US$4. He and Fatima have been forced to rely on assistance from relatives, most of whom live in post-war evacuation centers themselves.

What dowry Omar’s family paid to Fatima’s family went towards financing the wedding and Omar’s tricycle.

“It was hard to be with him at first, because I couldn’t accept I was married to him,” Fatima said, as she sat on a rumpled mattress in the humidity of a late June afternoon.

“We have grown to like each other,” she said.

Fatima has learned to live with Omar. She has learned to like him, perhaps love him. She appreciated the fact that he shared the household chores. She acknowledged he was kind. She was aware, as was Isha, that there may be no returning to school, even as Fatima turned wistful at the thought of becoming a teacher.

It was only when she spoke of her wedding day that Fatima began to cry. She remembered the date. She remembered the many days she fought sleep. Mostly, she remembered the night she failed.

Fatima looked down as she spoke. She ran a hand over her rounded belly. Her touch was gentle.
In 7 months, Fatima will be a mother. The child will be born after she turns 15.

*Names changed and photos edited to protect identities
This story was produced under the Creating Spaces Project, which seeks to end child, early, and forced marriages in the Philippines. The project is being implemented by Oxfam in partnership with Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation, United Youth of the Philippines-Women, Philippine Business for Social Progress, and the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development.

This story was originally published on Rappler.com, written by Mara Cepeda under the editorial supervision: Miriam Grace Go, Chay Hofileña, and Patricia Evangelista. Rappler interns Amiel Asehan, Arie San Pedro, Francis Acosta, Jessica Gaurano, Rommar Javier, Salvee Fontanilla, and Sophia Sibal helped in putting together this story.

Oxfam stages Women Alone – an event exploring key issues of our time at CADA NI’s One World Festival

EVENT NOTICE

Interactive theatre experience imagines a Northern Ireland devastated by disaster, displacement, conflict and poverty

WHAT:                          Women Alone – an interactive theatre experience by Joanne O’Connor

WHEN:                         Tuesday 22nd October from 7.00pm – 9.30pm

WHERE:                       Crescent Arts Centre, 2-4 University Road, Belfast, BT7 1NH

TICKETS:                     oneworldfestivalni.com/events/women-alone/  (Admission free)

As part of this month’s inaugural One World Festival, Oxfam Ireland will imagine a Northern Ireland overwhelmed by humanitarian disaster, displacement, conflict and poverty through an interactive theatre experience at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.  

On Tuesday 22nd October at 7pm, the international development agency will stage a thought-provoking play entitled Women Alone, inspired by the strength and resilience of the women Oxfam works with across its long-term development and humanitarian programmes. The drama is set in a contemporary Northern Ireland following an unspecified humanitarian emergency and brings home global stories of refugees and displacement, poverty, gender and conflict.

Playwright Joanne O’Connor, Oxfam Ireland’s Content Executive, said: “The play is inspired by two powerful first-person stories from women we work with from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda – women who have suffered unimaginable tragedy but overcame to help others survive and even thrive.”

Actor Eileen McCloskey plays the role of Rita, a former midwife who fled the violence in her home country when the war intensified and is now an Oxfam-assisted hygiene worker educating a refugee camp community on the importance of good sanitation. The role of Flonira – who was widowed during the conflict, and used funds earned from an Oxfam-supported cooperative to help pay for her son’s college studies – is played by Cathy Brennan-Bradley.

O’Connor continued: “The fictionalised versions of their stories will be told in familiar accents against a Northern Irish landscape to help bring home the faraway stories we hear again and again in the news – accompanied by images and stories from our own work around the world.

“Right now, there are over 70 million people on the move globally, forced to flee their homes because of conflict, persecution and war. This number is too big to comprehend – but with Women Alone, we hope to highlight the individual stories which reflect the often harrowing, at times triumphant lived experience of the one. The themes – family, separation, loss, hope and new beginnings – are universal and will hopefully resonate deeply with people here.”

The performance will be followed by a space to reflect on the important role women and local communities play in responding to poverty and disaster through a discussion chaired by former BBC broadcaster Roisin McAuley.

Admission is free and the event will take place on Tuesday 22nd October from 7pm – 9.30pm at the Crescent Arts Centre, 2-4 University Road, Belfast BT7 1NH. Tickets are available at oneworldfestivalni.com/events/women-alone/

The One World Festival will bring together more than 40 events in Belfast, Derry, Armagh and Lisburn from 16-27th October, exploring the world we share through a diverse line-up of talks, music, poetry, film, drama, debate and storytelling. The festival has been organised by the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies (CADA NI) – made up of 20 overseas development and humanitarian charities in Northern Ireland – to explore global issues and inspire action locally towards a just, peaceful and sustainable world.

A full list of the One World Festival programme events is available at oneworldfestivalni.com.

ENDS

Oxfam has spokespeople available for interview. For more information or to arrange an interview please contact: Phillip Graham on 07841 102535 / phillip.graham@oxfam.org

NOTES TO EDITORS

  • About Oxfam Ireland

Oxfam is a global movement of people working together to beat poverty for good. Around the globe, we work to find practical, innovative ways for people to lift themselves out of poverty and thrive. Together we save lives and rebuild communities when disaster strikes. We also speak out on the big issues that keep people poor, like inequality and discrimination against women. Oxfam Ireland is one of 19 Oxfam affiliates working as one in more than 90 countries. Oxfam has been supported by people across the island of Ireland, north and south, for over 60 years. We have over 2,000 volunteers, 140 staff and 47 shops throughout the island.

For more information about Oxfam, visit www.oxfamireland.org

  • About One World Festival

This new festival will run from 16th – 27th October 2019 across various locations and venues in Northern Ireland, to increase awareness about the Global South, promote understanding of issues that affect the lives of the poorest people and inspire action in our communities towards a just, peaceful and sustainable world.

Ticketed events can be reserved or purchased online at oneworldfestivalni.com

  • About CADA NI

CADA NI, or the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies Northern Ireland, is the umbrella organisation of overseas aid and development agencies with an active presence in Northern Ireland. Member organisations work to promote sustainable development, social justice and a fairer society in both local and global contexts. They support sustainable international development by enhancing awareness and a better understanding of development issues in Northern Ireland, and influencing policy at local, national and international government level.

For more information visit www.cada-ni.org

The Rohingya crisis: a matter of life and death

On 25 August 2017, the Myanmar military began a brutal crackdown on Rohingya communities causing more than 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh. Since then, refugees having been living in camps and Bangladesh communities with little hope for the future. Refugee and Bangladeshi communities are intertwined, and harmony between them is essential for the security and peace of mind. Elizabeth Hallinan, Oxfam’s Advocacy Manager in the Rohingya crisis explains why we must move beyond the emergency response in Bangladesh and give people better infrastructure and the chance to earn and learn.

For over a year, I have been working in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar where I have seen the refugee and host communities settle into a life together. One member of the Bangladeshi host community with a keen sense of history is Abu Jahed from the Teknaf area. His life story demonstrates the intertwined histories of Rakhine and Cox’s Bazar. 

Abu Jahed at his home in the Teknaf area. Photo credit: Mutasim Billah/Oxfam

Situated between the Bay of Bengal to the west and the Naf River to the east, Teknaf is a peninusula with paddy fields and river embankments from where you can see beyond to the high green hills of Myanmar. Two years ago, Bangladeshi villagers watched smoke rising from these hills and prepared themselves for the new arrivals. 

Safety in Bangladesh

Abu Jahed remembers those early days: “We could see the smoke of their burning houses from here.  They came, crossing the river – can you see how big that river is to cross? Many of them died doing so. Those that made it here had nothing – no food, no water, and barely dressed. I went to the main road to invite them to my house.”

This was not the first time refugees from Myanmar braved the Naf River to arrive here. The Government of Bangladesh currently hosts more than 912,000 refugees (https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/70585): about 710,000 of whom came in 2017, but about 200,000 have been here longer, since conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Refugees have come to Bangladesh, searching for safety, about a dozen times since Myanmar became a country in 1948.

The fight over natural resources

Like many places in Teknaf, refugees landing in Abu Jahed’s village, arrived quite literally in the host community’s backyards. They put up shelters in paddy fields, chopped down precious jungle forest, crowded the water pumps.

“We, the local people, are dependent on three things – the forest, the land and the river.  These people have chopped down our forest, they have taken our land, and now even the army does not let us cross the river for fishing and trade. You can see why people say that the Rohingya took everything from us. In no time at all, we were quarrelling.”

Poverty and limited social services

Cox’s Bazar is the second poorest district in Bangladesh; the host community was struggling even before the latest arrivals.  There are about 335,000 Bangladeshis, and nearly three times that many refugees. The strain is undeniable. 

I asked Abu Jahed why he decided to take people in?

“Let me tell you something about me,” he says.  “In 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War, I myself was a refugee in Myanmar. I was 10 years old when we woke in the night to find our houses burning, and we made the awful journey to Myanmar to save our lives. People there took us in. We had nothing, but we were safe there.

“To this day, we are very thankful to them and now feel a responsibility to pay them back for this kindness.”

Repaying the kindness

Many host community members have expressed this kind of sentiment to me.  Some were themselves displaced in the 1970s, others felt a bond with fellow Muslims or said that helping the refugees just seemed like the right thing to do. While many local community members expressed empathy for the refugees, they also see that the sheer scale of the new population is a larger issue.

Abu Jahed put it like this: “Let me tell you a story… Some boys were playing by a river where some frogs were floating. The boys started throwing stones at the frogs, when a passing village elder asked the boys what they were doing. ‘We are playing,’ they answered. Listening to the boys’ reply, the frogs called out, ‘Throwing stones at us might be a game for you, but our lives are at risk.’ The Rohingya people and the people of Cox’s Bazar are like the frogs of the story. The world is playing with us. This situation is a game for them, but for the hosts and the refugees living in these conditions it is a matter of life and death.”

Refugees need legal status

Refugees in Bangladesh do not have legal status, so they cannot work, move freely around the country or access a formal education.

This presents a huge problem, explained Abu Jahed: “It is undeniable that education is a must for everyone. If the government can find a way to support their education without causing more problems for us, everyone could support that. Otherwise, what can we expect of the next generation growing up in conditions where their rights are violated, and they have no proper education? We can’t expect anything good.”

International support is urgent

The Government of Bangladesh is under a huge amount of pressure to provide for the refugee population, while also managing the legitimate frustrations of the local communities hosting them.

It is a delicate line to walk, and Bangladesh needs support from countries around the world to continue to develop Cox’s Bazar.  For 2019, the response has only 36% of the funding it needs to help these communities [https://fts.unocha.org/appeals/719/summary].

Myanmar also needs to take steps to address the root causes of the conflict. It must implement the Rakhine Advisory Commission Recommendations, including equal access to  to citizenship for Rohingya while putting an end to movement restrictions and other discriminatory policies [http://www.rakhinecommission.org/the-final-report/].

Listen to the people

Abu Jahed told me, “I would urge our government and other countries to put pressure on Myanmar, so that they stop this and listen to what Rohingya people want to say. They are asking for their citizenship, nothing else. If Myanmar does not listen then the world should come forward to help Bangladesh.

“Remember the story I shared? It might be a game for them, but we are risking our lives.”

Oxfam has been working with Rohingya refugees since the beginning of the crisis. We have supported more than 266,000 people, providing them with clean drinking water, latrines, sanitation and hygiene, fresh food vouchers, lighting, and protection programs. Oxfam also works with host communities providing protection and livelihood opportunities. We advocate at the highest levels for the rights of refugees in Bangladesh and communities impacted by conflict in Myanmar. Oxfam will continue to support refugees, working with national and international partners, to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected and that they have access to basic services while working towards durable solutions to this crisis.  

 

Money does grow on trees for Rwanda’s cassava producers

Although women in Rwanda do most of the work on family farms, there was a time when they had very little control over the sale of crops or any money made at market. In recent years, however, women are breaking new ground in farming and food production – and lifting themselves out of poverty in the process.
 
One of those women is mother-of-three Madeleine, who sometimes struggled to feed her children and send them to school. The 40-year-old single parent grew potatoes and beans which she used to feed her family and sold the rest at the market. But her crops were sometimes destroyed by pests, leaving her without enough money to buy the basics.  
 
Madeleine harvests cassava leaves from her farm. Photo: Eleanor Farmer
 
“When you are a single parent, it is hard to feed your children,” says Madeleine, whose husband was imprisoned in 1997 and never returned. “One child this side can ask for school materials, when you don’t have money you become anxious. It is hard for a single parent to provide everything.” 
 
Then she heard about SHEKINA Enterprises, an Oxfam-supported co-operative in northern Rwanda which dries cassava leaves for export to Belgium, Canada, Sweden, the US and the UK. Although Madeleine had cassava trees growing on her land, she never thought about harvesting the leaves and usually threw them away. When she heard that you could sell cassava as a business, she was surprised and a little skeptical.
 
Then Madeleine received her first payment from the co-op. “I felt like I was dreaming,” she says. “I took it and said to myself, ‘Let me buy a hen so that I can have some eggs to sell and buy salt (household items)’.” She also decided there and then to expand her cassava crop from just 20 trees to more than 500.
 
Madeleine and her children, 10-year-old Denyne* and five-year-old Mytoni* with their cousin Irakoze*, also aged five. Photo: Eleanor Farmer. *Names changed  
 
Madeleine’s life has been transformed since that first transaction with SHEKINA. “Within three months, I harvested and made money, and out of it I took 30,000 RWF (€30/£26) and saved it with SACCO (the Savings and Credit Co-operative),” she explains. “I continued saving that amount until I achieved the goal that I had set.
 
“Before my life was all about sitting, feeling lonely and worrying about the future. But since I started to sell cassava leaves, I am fine… The ambitions I have for my children are that my younger children could pursue their studies, have good marks and go to advanced level.”
 
Another woman who has benefitted from SHEKINA’s presence in Rulindo District is Uwera, who used to rely on her mother for financial support. She got a job with the co-op and now works on production three days a week and collects cassava leaves from the farmers on the other two days.
 
SHEKINA employee Uwera Gisele is saving money to study business agriculture. Photo: Eleanor Farmer
 
“I like dealing with the farmers – it’s social. I tell them all the good things about cassava leaves. That’s a big part of my job. I am happy with everything,” says Uwera, 22. However, the most important thing for her is earning a salary.
 
She recently bought a cow but plans to use the rest of the money she is saving to go to college. “I want to study business agriculture,” says Uwera. “After studying I would have enough skills to set up my own business. Even if I could only employ two people, I would be happy.”

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