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Women in South Sudan plow forward in their fields—and in their homes

An Oxfam program supplies female farmers with the tools to manage their crops and to redistribute power in their households.

“When our leaders told us that Oxfam was coming to train us to use oxen to plow our fields, we protested,” says Lucia, a farmer from Wau County, South Sudan. “Our tribe does not know cows and even so, it is a man’s work to train them and lead them through the fields. This is not for us women at all!”

Yet, 12 months later, she’s changed her tune. Lucia grins from ear to ear as she shows off Malual—the young bull that tills her land. Women in Lucia’s community—as in most parts of South Sudan—typically shoulder a huge workload. They do all the domestic work and much of the agricultural tasks. For many, this means waking up early to collect water, light a fire, make tea, and cook lunch, all before heading to a small plot of land to cultivate crops.

Farming often takes from morning to evening, and even then, doesn't always provide enough food to feed the family. This was Lucia’s experience until last year.

That’s where Malual come in.

Traditionally, people in Lucia's community use malodas—small tools with a sickle-shaped head—to till the land, but because the tools are so small, it takes a long time to work the land. Using oxen and employing techniques like planting in rows means women can cultivate much larger plots of land in less time.

“I am growing sorghum, okra, and peanuts, and I have been able to increase the size of the land I plow from half a fedan [half an acre] to more than two fedans [two acres],” she says. “Some of the food I eat as soon as I harvest; some I save for the lean season to eat or to sell. I’m also saving some for planting later this year.”

In the past, Lucia and her family skipped lunch because they only had enough food to stretch between breakfast and dinner. “My children are much happier and I can see they are looking well,” she says.

Lucia is earning enough money to pay some bills, and the time she's saved using oxen is going into a side business selling cakes—all of which has earned her the deep respect of her husband.

As part of the same project, she and her husband took part in workshops focused on women’s rights. “Now he respects me so much more,” she says with a grin. “The way we are together is completely different. Now we share all the tasks in the household. He is cleaning more, mopping, bringing water, and washing clothes. I am able to rest a bit more now.”

A sea of change in the Philippines: local groups take charge in emergencies

Creating a more just and effective system of humanitarian response means helping local and national organizations step to the forefront.

When armed fighters laid siege to the city of Marawi, the Philippines, in 2017, hundreds of thousands of civilians fled for their lives. Many abandoned everything they owned, and in the clashes that followed, their neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and dust.

It’s been many months since the exodus, but for people displaced by the fighting, the pain is fresh.  When a visitor toured the camps near Marawi, they told stories of their flight and of the precious things they left behind.

“All my memories were left there,” said a young mother who recently delivered a baby in a tent camp. She cried as she talked about leaving home. “My parents were buried there.”

Yet, even as they rushed to safety, some took on a dangerous, life-saving task. “Many Muslims worked hard to protect their Christian friends and neighbors. They gave them places to hide and helped them get through checkpoints so they could escape the city,” said another mother. “For us,” she added, “it’s all the same if people are Muslim or Christian.”

Giving a boost to local groups

In a crisis, the urge to help your neighbor and your community is a powerful one, which is one reason local aid agencies can be so effective in emergencies. Not only are they often deeply committed to the communities they serve—their proximity enables them to act fast, and their understanding of the context can facilitate aid delivery in countless ways. But NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in poor countries struggle for resources, and the grants they receive from international sources often consign them to bit parts in emergencies, with little role in shaping the work they’re paid to carry out.

That’s wrong in every way, and Oxfam is trying to address the problem. We are helping lead a worldwide initiative to shift power, skills, and funds from international to strong local and national actors, and the Philippines has been a particular focus.

In 2015, Oxfam began working with Christian Aid and Tearfund on a three-year pilot project known as Financial Enablers, or FEP, to help Filipino organizations (organized into seven consortia) boost their capacity for humanitarian response and preparedness. The goal was more far-reaching than simply to build on skills: it was to strengthen leadership, so participants were encouraged to take charge from the start. Each consortium took on the responsibility of devising its own capacity-strengthening plan, for example, and the FEP followed its lead, issuing grants to make that plan a reality. Less experienced consortia used the money for basic trainings in emergency response, while a more seasoned group known as the Humanitarian Response Consortium (HRC) used it to create a quick-response fund, and to stock three warehouses with equipment and supplies.

A legal aid clinic near Marawi. “People who have lost everything have also lost their legal identities… They can’t access benefits they need, and they can be targeted with harassment and even violence.”-- Norman Golong of IDEALS, HRC’s legal aid organization and an Oxfam partner. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

An important milestone

As Oxfam readied its response to the Marawi crisis, the HRC announced it was launching a needs assessment—the critical first step in humanitarian response—and asked if Oxfam would like to support its intervention. In the effort to strengthen local leadership, it was a milestone: rather than Oxfam asking local groups to participate in our response, a highly capable local organization was taking the lead and inviting Oxfam to join in.

“In the space of six months, HRC twice led the way on emergency response,” said Rhoda Avila, Oxfam’s humanitarian manager in the Philippines. “This represents a significant transition, and we are really pleased.”

With help from its quick-response fund, HRC immediately canvassed the displaced families and learned about their most pressing needs. Once the team had solid information, it was able to cast a wider net for resources, and before long they had distributed essentials like plywood for tent flooring, hygiene kits, and kitchen utensils; set up communal kitchens and water and sanitation facilities; and begun handling sewage sludge disposal. HRC includes a legal aid organization, which hosted a radio show during the emergency to educate people about their rights, and offered clinics to help displaced people secure identification papers.

“HRC was a great help,” said Noraisah Arumpac, a mother who now lives in a tent camp. “They went from tent to tent to talk to us. They gave us everything we needed and made our lives easier.”

The consortium was not only able to move fast and create a comprehensive response; thanks to local staffers, its work built on knowledge of the local culture.

“I’m from Mindanao, so I understand some of the traditions and culture of the communities we’re serving, and I share their religion,” said Zahara Ibrahim, a hygiene promoter for HRC in the camps outside Marawi. “I find that people are more interested in talking about hygiene if I introduce it by reading verses from the Koran about cleanliness.”

Ivanhoe Arcilla, emergencies official in the town of Virac, Catanduanes, worked with HRC on the response to a deadly typhoon in 2016. “When HRC came, it was so timely. They showed up right after the typhoon. They called me and the next day they were here, and they immediately began an assessment and distributions.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

“The vision of the FEP is of strong, confident local organizations that work together to carry out effective disaster preparedness and response,” said project manager Jane Bañez-Ockelford, reflecting on the project before it drew to a close at the end of March.

Clearly, the vision has taken hold, and we’re hopeful that the knowledge and networks the FEP helped generate will continue to deepen and grow.

“The traditional way of implementing disaster response in the past has been that people from the outside controlled decisions and controlled the resources. Local communities affected by disasters were involved only marginally in decision-making,” said Milton Amayun, who works with the FEP-supported CHIC consortium (Capacity-building for Humanitarian Initiatives in Capiz). “What the FEP has done is shift decision-making to the local organizations they supported and the leadership of the communities. The results so far have been timely, culturally appropriate responses at very little cost.”

“When it comes to humanitarian response,” he added with a smile, “local leaders can do the job.”

By Elizabeth Stevens

Gaza is dying in front of everybody

Tim Holmes, Oxfam Program Manager, reports back on his recent visit to Gaza and reflects on the challenges people living there face in their daily lives.

A powerful smell hit me as I entered Gaza a fortnight ago. Not the smell of burning tyres from the ongoing protests, or the tear gas that has been used in response, but the smell of raw sewage. As I walked the few hundred meters through the wire cage corridor from the Israeli border security across the ‘access restricted area’ to the Palestinian border control, I crossed over a small stream of sewage slowly oozing from the Gaza Strip, under the huge turreted border wall, into Israel.

Why is this happening?

Well, a bunch of reasons. Without sufficient electricity or fuel, sewage treatment plants cannot function. What is left of the sanitation infrastructure that wasn’t destroyed by the last Gaza war in 2014, was designed for far fewer people than are now living in this small enclave. Expansion, operation and maintenance is difficult when there are multiple and severe Israeli restrictions on goods, including spare parts, entering Gaza.

The financial resources available for authorities responsible for sanitation in Gaza are woefully inadequate.

If people only had to cope with the smell of sewage and a collapsing sanitation system, perhaps life in Gaza would still be bearable. However, many people I met didn’t even refer to the sewage problem – there were too many other challenges to talk about.

Water is a key issue

More than 96% of water from the coastal aquifer where Gaza gets most of its water is undrinkable due to salinity. To access clean water, people often have to pay private water truckers who distribute water from small desalination plants – this costs six times as much as the regular water supply.  Part of Oxfam’s work in Gaza involves providing safe water by rehabilitating damaged water systems, but the task is ongoing.

Electricity has been a problem in Gaza for many years, but now it is out for 20 hours a day. This could be dismissed as an inconvenience but just imagine the stress and frustration of having to live without lights, refrigeration, access to the internet, or elevators in apartment buildings, let alone the far more serious disruption to hospitals, clinics, schools and water and sanitation services.

I was struck that the streets were so much emptier than when I was last in Gaza five years ago. I was told that this was because those who have cars couldn’t afford fuel and anyway people didn’t have enough money to go out for shopping beyond the basics. The Economist has estimated that people in Gaza are 25 per cent poorer today than they were at the time of the Oslo Accords, 25 years ago. More than 80% of the two million people in Gaza are currently receiving humanitarian assistance.

Staggering unemployment

I spoke to parents whose children are recent university graduates but they are sitting around at home getting more and more frustrated. According to the World Bank, unemployment in Gaza is at 44% – for those below 29 years, it is at a staggering 60%.

Oxfam is working with local partners to help people have better access to livelihoods, and with local farmers and producers to improve the quality of their produce and help them get it to market to improve their incomes. I spoke to the owner of a dairy processing unit that Oxfam has supported as part of its work to improve the dairy sector across Gaza.

I was told that the years of occupation, wars and blockade, combined with a new low in the economic and humanitarian situation in recent months, has meant that this is ‘now the worst time in our history’.

The level of despair and the lack of hope in the future was also striking in many of the conversations I had, and was much more pronounced than on my previous visits. As a result, I wasn’t surprised to learn that United Nations medical staff have recently referred to an ‘epidemic of psycho-social conditions’ in Gaza.

End the blockade

The people I spoke to shared with me their anger that the world is doing nothing to help them. I was told that even when help does come it is only in the form of insufficient albeit needed humanitarian assistance, rather than a resolution to the conflict, the end to the protracted occupation, the end to the illegal blockade of Gaza and having their right to self-determination fulfilled which is what people in Gaza really want.

Human rights organisations in Gaza told me of their exasperation that the Government of Israel and other parties to the conflict are not held to account under international law by the international community.

People I spoke to explained that because of this apparent impunity and the lack of alternative options, and despite the large number of deaths and injuries, they were generally supportive of the current protests continuing.

Some specified that they would only support non-violent demonstrations. I was told that ‘people in Gaza are doing their best to survive’ but that, despite this, ‘Gaza is dying in front of everybody’.

Violence in Gaza: Civilians are not targets - Alaa Aldali's Story

Oxfam’s policy positions on Gaza in general and regarding the recent protests:

•The blockade – now in place for more than a decade – has devastated Gaza’s economy, left most people unable to leave Gaza, restricted people from essential services such as healthcare and education, and cut Palestinians off from each other. Israel must end the blockade on Gaza, which is collectively punishing an entire civilian population.

•There must be a long-term solution to the crisis. The international community needs to redouble efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace based on international law, that brings security and development to all Palestinians and Israelis.

•Oxfam condemns the deaths and injuries of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza. Unarmed Palestinians have the right to make their voices heard and the right to freedom of assembly and expression. Israel must abide by its obligations under international law to protect life and exercise the utmost restraint in accordance with law-enforcement standards on the use of force.

◦According to OCHA, 104 Palestinians, including twelve children, have been killed by Israeli forces during the course of the Gaza demonstrations since March 30. As of May 14, the latest rounds of protests at Gaza border resulted in 60 fatalities (including 8 children) and 2,770 injuries as a result of live fire. The number of injuries since the beginning of the protests has been 12,600. Fifty-five per cent of these have required hospitalisation. One Israeli soldier was also lightly injured. This entry posted by Tim Holmes, Program Portfolio Manager at Oxfam GB, on 23 May 2018.

Photo: Destruction in Gaza. Oxfam and our partners’ humanitarian and development work helps around 350,000 people in Gaza impoverished by the Israeli blockade. Credit: Iyad al Baba/Oxfam

Rohingya refugees: Finding hope amongst the hopelessness

The impending monsoon rains are bearing down on the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and there's no getting around it - it’s going to be a really tough time.

I've just finished three weeks working for Oxfam's Rohingya crisis response team in Cox’s Bazar and can remember one moment, standing in the pouring rain in the Rohingya refugee ‘mega-camp’.

Everywhere I looked, ramshackle shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulins stretched into the distance.

People old and young were trying to find shelter from the downpour, and large puddles were quickly forming across the narrow brick road, with water running down sandy hillside paths.

As I was trying to take photos of a deep tube well Oxfam was drilling to provide clean water, numerous Rohingya refugees offered to take me into their shelters to stay dry, or brought me umbrellas.

Such was the kindness of people who had endured unspeakable horrors that forced them from Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh.

The camps are in what they call the pre-monsoon rains at the moment, where every couple of days a ferocious storm will hit for an hour or so.

This rain is nothing like I’m used to.

The falling water has an almost physical quality, beating down on you, and the rain can be so heavy you struggle to see the other side of a road.

Trees are often blown over in the wind, and almost immediately, huge puddles form everywhere, slowing cars and trucks on the sandy, brick roads and draining into refugees' flimsy shelters.

It's estimated that more than 600,000 people are living in the Rohingya refugee mega-camp alone - a bigger population than all of county Cork in Ireland.

How the full monsoon is going to impact this many people in such desperate living conditions is what’s top of mind for aid workers.

Yet despite this, I was struck by the way in which Rohingya refugees could find hope in what appeared to be a hopeless situation.

They are denied citizenship in their country – they feel they have nowhere they belong and have nowhere to call home right now. No-one knows what their future holds.

They're awaiting monsoon rains likely to bring floods, landslides and potentially deadly water-borne diseases. The United Nations (UN) estimates up to 200,000 people are living in at-risk areas of the camps.

As much as 2.5 metres of rain could fall on the camps over the next three months.

But, the refugees I met certainly weren't hopeless or despairing.

Parents were working hard to strengthen their shelters or volunteering for charities like Oxfam as community health trainers or with the UN as camp labourers helping prepare the camps for the coming heavy rain.

This included a young woman I met called Ayesha*, who was 18 years old. She fled to Bangladesh with her mother and three siblings after their father was killed in the violence in Myanmar.

Ayesha (pictured left). Photo: Dylan Quinnell/Oxfam

It took them nearly 5 days to get to Bangladesh by boat and foot; others weren’t so lucky and drowned when their boats sank.

Life is tough in the camps without a father or husband - women can get missed or sidelined at aid distributions, and culturally, young women are not supposed to go out alone.

None of this had dampened Ayesha’s spirit. She put up her hand to volunteer, and now runs community health trainings with her neighbours and other women. 

She told me, "Now I work as an Oxfam volunteer, I teach people how to maintain good hygiene and I tell people what to do to have a good life. I feel good about it".

As for the children, they played football wherever they could find space, and ran through the camps in happy bunches and practised English with aid workers - "goodbye, how are you, I am fine."

Oxfam is in Bangladesh, providing food and life-saving clean water to those fleeing Myanmar and the host communities that have opened their doors to them. But we desparately need your support as more and more traumatised men, women and children arrive in Bangladesh every day.

You can support Oxfam’s Rohingya Crisis Appeal at: https://www.oxfamireland.org/bangladesh

Dylan Quinnell was media manager for Oxfam’s Rohingya Crisis Response for three weeks in April/ May. He is senior media coordinator for emergencies at Oxfam Australia.

*not her real name

 

Kutapalong Rohingya refugee camp: preparations for monsoon season

Oxfam fears worsening humanitarian needs in Gaza

 

Oxfam today warned that prolonged closure of crossings into Gaza could cut Palestinians from essential goods such as fuel and food and threatens to further deteriorate what is already a dire humanitarian situation. 

Israel’s 10-year blockade of Gaza has caused infrastructure and services to collapse, provoking a humanitarian crisis for nearly two million people, mostly refugees, who have been effectively trapped inside. 

Some forty percent of Gaza's population struggle to get enough to eat.  Unemployment is over forty percent and over 23,500 have been displaced from their homes due to the aftermath of the last war in 2014.

Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland’s Chief Executive, said: 

“The vital Karem Shalom crossing, one of the only entry points for goods in and out of Gaza, was damaged three days ago and is now closed, or opening for limited goods. If this continues, this could spark a further fuel shortage which would hit agricultural irrigation. Oxfam is working to rehabilitate a number of irrigation wells in Gaza but we don’t have a Plan B at this stage. The knock-on inflation on food prices would hit poor families hard and quickly.” 

Any sudden fuel shortage would also hit Gaza’s vital desalination plants which ninety percent of the people of Gaza depend on. 

Mr Clarken said: "Oxfam condemns the killings of at least 58 demonstrators in Gaza. The international community must take strong and urgent action to end the violence and ensure restraint from all sides.  The killings should be investigated – independently and immediately – for any breach of international law and those found guilty be brought to justice. " 

Oxfam is currently helping 258,000 people in Gaza providing food and vital water and sanitation. 

-ends-

 

For more information or interviews, please contact Phillip Graham, Oxfam Ireland, on +44 (0) 7841 102535 or at phillip.graham@oxfamireland.org 

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