Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Twice Upon A Time by film-maker Niam Itani: for the refugee children of Syria and Lebanon

Lebanese film-maker Niam Itani - read a wonderful interview with her here - is working on a new documentary project about Syrian and Lebanese children, called Twice Upon A Time, which, as she tells me, "seeks to raise hope amongst refugees and parents of today." Itani has started a campaign page to raise post production funds for Twice Upon A Time and produced a trailer introducing viewers to Khalil, the charismatic and bright boy at the heart of the film:

There are only five days of the fundraising campaign left, and nearly $20,000 still to be raised for this important, humane and uplifting film project.

Niam Itani was born and raised in Beirut and Ghazzeh in Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War lasted 15 years, consuming 9 years of her childhood. "I witnessed several periods of unrest and violence in Lebanon throughout my childhood and adult life," she tells me. "I’ve had to abandon my city and home with my family several times due to these conflicts; the longest of which lasted five years in the Bekaa Valley - a rural area of Lebanon - in a village called Ghazzeh."

Twice Upon A Time is a film drawing together themes with both political and personal resonance, highlighting the universal impact of war on children and on entire communities. In the campaign briefing Niam Itani writes the following:

"In 1989, my parents left Beirut for a small village in the Bekaa Valley called Ghazzeh. I was eight years old.

"In 2012, Khalil's mother left Syria and took refuge at our house in Ghazzeh. Khalil was ten years old.

"This film tells the story of my friendship with Khalil, and our efforts to find hope and joy in the midst of madness and despair. It is also a personal reflection on childhood, nostalgia, home, belonging, memory and war."

Khalil & Niam assemble kites together, Spring 2013
"The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) left behind an estimated 120,000 fatalities. A study conducted in 1992 under the title 'Assessing War Trauma in Children: A Case Study of Lebanese Children' showed that 'on average a Lebanese child has experienced five to six different types of traumatic events during his or her lifetime; some events were experienced several times.' (Journal of Refugee Studies, 1992, Macksoud)

"Twenty-three years later, in what I'd like to think of as a civilized and sophisticated world that we live in, another armed conflict took the same trajectory as the Lebanese one, with more horrifying outcomes. By September 2013, less than three years after its beginning, the Syrian Crisis had left more than 120,000 fatalities and 2 million refugees. The numbers grow on a daily basis. [Read my own coverage of the Syrian humanitarian crisis here.]

"Seeing these two conflicts happen in such a short period of time in history and in two neighboring countries is heart wrenching for me. The most devastating part is that I am forced to watch more children grow in the same damaging conditions that my generation grew up with.

This is not another film about children who are orphaned, hungry or homeless seeking food and shelter during war. This is a film about children with caring and loving parents, coming from middle class families like most of us, but finding themselves in the cruellest human condition of all: war."

Khalil & his siblings pose for a photo before school, Spring 2013
"By telling this story, I hope to bring more understanding and awareness about this issue and to mobilize additional psychological and material support for children refugees around the globe.

"On July 31st, 2012, Khalil's family crossed the Syrian Border into Lebanon to flee the armed conflict in their country. My mother gave them refuge at our summer property in Ghazzeh, in the Lebanese countryside. That is where I met Khalil (12 years) who would later change the course of this project, and therefore, my life.

"But the journey of this film started much before the arrival of Khalil's family to Lebanon, and before the Syrian Crisis altogether.

"It began in 2010 as an attempt to fill memory blanks pertaining to my childhood during the civil war in Beirut. I was searching for "nice memories" during the period between 1980 and 1989, which seem to have vanished from my memory."

This photo of Niam was taken on May 4, 1984, one month before her sister 
Heba (mentioned in the video) passed away at the age of 9
"During our regular visits to Ghazzeh every weekend in 2012, I started to help my mother in providing food and shelter to refugee families. It didn't take long to notice that the plight of refugees in the village was too identical to our own strife in the exact same place, two decades earlier.

"Since Khalil's family technically lives with us, an unorthodox but very special friendship grew between me and him. My witnessing of his daily struggle in the beautiful locale of my childhood served as a wake up call for me. I felt that Khalil was re-living my past right in front of my eyes. And this time I could document it, not only for myself but for the whole world.

"Something was urging me to bring my camera and film the bond that was developing between me and Khalil. A bond built on sharing the war related traumas and many common personality traits. As in many other documentary projects, when I first started to film I didn't know what I was specifically after, but the pieces quickly started to fall in place."

Aya (3.5 years old) is a one of the Syrian refugees in Ghazzeh
All principal filming on Twice Upon a Time is now complete. To arrive at this point, Niam has used her own resources and those of her family, friends and friends of friends. The "urgency, intuitiveness and unfolding of the story on a day-to-day basis", she says, obliged her to focus on shooting the film rather than file applications for production support and/or waiting for financial backing from film funds or institutions (which is the classic route). The film team now need your support to raise a minimum of 35,000 USD for this project. These funds will cover part of the post production process and allow them to hire an editor, a sound designer and other artists and technicians to create a fine cut of the film. Once they have that fine cut, they can use it to apply for post production funds from regional and international film bodies.

Niam Itani has been campaigning and advocating for Twice Upon a Time, speaking on Al Jazeera about both her own history, Khalil's experiences and the project:

When I became aware of the project, via an introduction from film-maker Marian Evans, I had to find out more about this skilled and impassioned artist, who studied  for her BA in Communication Arts and a Masters Degree in Education from the Lebanese American University in Beirut, then pursued an MFA in Screenwriting from Hollins University in Virginia, USA. She made her first professional documentary in 2001 for a conference at university when she was an undergraduate. It was a short film entitled Ghareeb (Stranger). In 2005 Itani completed a second short documentary, Zakira Mubsira (A Foretold Memory). Between 2005 and 2010, she got the chance to expand her documentary skills while working at Al Jazeera Channel in Qatar as a Programs Producer. At Al Jazeera Itani worked as assistant producer on the critically acclaimed series Al Nakba and went on to make her first feature documentary, Rokam Al-Bared (Ruins of Al-Bared), a documentary about the destruction of a Palestinian refugee camp in North Lebanon. Her last short film, Super.Full. (2010), played at several film festivals including two Academy Award Qualifying festivals and the Venice Film Festival. Itani's feature narrative project entitled Shadow of a Man, is currently in pre-production and has been selected at multiple regional and international film venues. In January 2013 she co-founded placeless films, a film production company in Beirut, Lebanon. As part of placeless films, Itani also recently launched ScriptExperts, a specialised story & script service catering primarily to writers and filmmakers in the Middle East.

Niam Itani told me more about her intentions as the creator of Twice Upon A TimeBelow are selected quotes from her exclusive, honest and powerful interview:

"The original idea was a personal documentary project, that I started to work on in 2010 – a journey to document my own memories as a child, some of which were very vivid and some missing. I was going to interview family members mainly and try to fill in the memory blanks. This idea took a major turn; however, when Syrian Refugees started coming into Lebanon in 2012. The uncanny similarity of circumstances forced me to shift my focus to the “story” unfolding right in front of me in the present. A present that will be embedded in the memories of this new generation of children refugees. Twice Upon a Time was born."

"[As explained above,] the film is the story of my friendship with Khalil, a Syrian boy who had to leave Syria with his family in 2012, and took refuge in Ghazzeh (the village where we took refuge in 1989) as well. On a second level, it is the story of Khalil’s family and their recent experience of refuge and the story of my family’s experience of refuge 23 years ago and how similar are the challenges that we used to go through as children. On a third level, this is a film about hope, memories, childhood, nostalgia, and the notion of home."

"The film seeks to bring many issues to the fore. Some of them are everyday issues of refugee life like finding shelter, food, health-care, schools and a good environment to live in whether on the level of infrastructure or on a social/interpersonal level, and potential work and education opportunities for family members. Important issues that I want the film to call attention to is the children mental and psychological health during refuge, protecting them from witnessing additional trauma, and encouraging them to have hope, to give them opportunities to play and to pursue their education and bring their dreams closer to reality. Another major issue is the lack of compassion for the incoming refugees among host societies – Lebanon in particular. We won’t be delivering any of these messages to our audience but want them to see for themselves."

"The sources of hope for the Syrian children today lie within us, those who were children during times marked by war, hatred and destruction; and yet we made it to become successful and active individuals in our society today. I’d like to think that I give hope to Khalil when he appreciates what I do today and realizes that I lived most of my childhood years in conditions similar to what he is living through now. Hope lies in sharing the lessons that we learned from our own war, and stressing the importance of education, understanding others and working towards a better future."

"The film is a very personal and intimate story. In the film, the main people who speak are Khalil (he talks to me), myself (through narration and through talking to him), his mother, and my mother. We are exploring ways of partnering with International NGOs to carry this message through a concerted campaign, to raise awareness among both host societies and refugees, particularly across Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Syria. While this is the grand plan, we need more players and commitment to make this happen. On a more granular level, my sincere hope is that this film will touch people, irrespective of where they are, by sharing the message of understanding and compassion on a more individual human level."

"Mahatma Gandhi once said, 'If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.' I have witnessed war as a child. Once it marks you, it will be very difficult to erase that mark. So the best thing to do is to utilize that effect and make it a tool for peace, love and understanding."

"I would like for viewers to put themselves into the shoes of the refugees, even if it is only for one day or one hour, and take into account the life that they must’ve been forced to leave behind. Their arrival as refugees in a new town or a new country is marked mostly by more hardship and challenges at the very basic level. I want this film to break many stereotypes, to spur people in societies that have refugees to accept them as fellows in humanity, to smile at them – if not for anything else. Ideally, I want people to help refugees wherever they are, to encourage them and support them in any way possible. We were there yesterday, they are here today, nobody knows who it could be tomorrow."

"I would like to bring a future of stability and safety to the children of Lebanon and Syria. One where bombs and bullets are considered dangerous accidents, not everyday life happenings. I want them to have the luxury to play and study without being forced to grow up so fast and carry more responsibilities and burdens than they are forced to do now."

Niam Itani with Khalil
The fundraising campaign for Twice Upon a Time is here. There are just five days left. If you like what you've read here, please support this vital project, which speaks to all those across innumerable countries, generations and cultures who have suffered displacement, conflict, societal breakdown and the fallout of violence and find themselves having to forge new lives as strangers - often traumatised, often mistrusted - in new places. 

With gratitude to Niam Itani for granting me her time and wisdom. Quoted campaign text (c) Twice Upon A Time.  Bidisha is a 2013 International Reporting Project Fellow reporting on global health and development. 

Friday, 22 November 2013

Monday 25th November is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Trigger warning. From Karen Ingala Smith and all text (c) her:

Monday 25th November it is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I’ll be highlighting the UK’s shocking record of women killed through male violence in 2013.

Starting at 6.00am, on the twitter account @countdeadwomen, I’ll be going through the UK’s diary of women killed by men. I’ll be starting with the 2nd January when Janelle Duncan Bailey was strangled by ex-boyfriend Jerome McDonald, moving on to 3rd January at 6.10, when Akua Agyuman died, two months after being stabbed in the chest and abdomen by her husband Minta Adiddo. Every 10 minutes, I’ll move through the year to commemorate all the women who I have found who were killed though men’s violence. So far I know of 112 women killed this year, so I’ll still be tweeting at midnight.

Thank you all for your support. We’ve reached 2,500 signatures now but I'm still the one doing the counting. As I've said all along, I'll keep doing it, until I'm convinced the government is doing enough!

Images of some of the women killed by male violence in the UK at a rate of 2 per week

The text on the campaign page lobbying the UK government to Stop Ignoring Dead Women [please click and sign in solidarity] reads as follows:

On New Year’s Day, 2012, 20-year-old Kirsty Treloar got a text from her boyfriend Myles Williams:
Okay wer all gud now and my new yrs ressy is that I aint going to hit u again and I won't hit u 4 this yr next yr the yr after that the next yr after that.
The next day he broke into her family’s home, stabbed her brother and sister as they tried to help, then he dragged Kirsty into the back of his mother's car and drove her away. She was found dead 2 miles away, dumped behind a wheelie bin. Kirsty had been stabbed 29 times.

Michael Atherton, 42, also sent a New Year text. Shortly before midnight, he sent a text to his partner, Susan McGoldrick, saying he was going out and would spend the night away because he didn’t like her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, with whom she was spending the evening. But Susan and Alison came home before he had left. Atherton, who held a gun licence despite a history of arrests for domestic violence dating back 10 years, shot Susan, Alison and Alison’s 24 year old daughter Tanya, before killing himself.

On New Year’s Day, Aaron Mann, 31 repeatedly hit Claire O’Connor, 38, with a blunt object before smothering her with a pillow. Her badly beaten body was found wrapped in her son’s sleeping bag and covered in a sheet in the boot of her car on January 2.

On 3rd of January John McGrory used a dog lead to strangle 39-year-old Marie McGrory. Garry Kane, 41, killed his 87-year-old grandmother Kathleen Milward, though 15 blunt force trauma injuries on her head and neck.

So, by the end of the third day of January 2012, seven women in the UK had been murdered by men, three were shot, one was strangled, one was stabbed, one was beaten then smothered and one was killed through fifteen blunt force trauma injuries. Perhaps because it was the beginning of the year, I just started counting, and once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. Since then, I’ve counted 199 women killed through suspected male violence. I urge you to read Karen Ingala Smith's site for more information.

At first I counted women killed through domestic violence. Then, on March 9th 2012, Ahmad Otak stabbed and killed Samantha Sykes, 18 and Kimberley Frank, 17. Otak wasn’t the boyfriend of either of them, but of Elisa Frank, Kimberley’s sister. After killing Kimberly and Samantha in from of Eliza, he abducted Eliza and drove to Dover in an attempt to escape to France. The murders of Samantha and Kimberley don’t fit the definition of domestic violence, but they’re absolutely about a man trying to exert power, control and coercion in his relationship. Their deaths made it clear to me that concentrating on what we see as domestic violence isn’t enough. It’s wider than that. The murders of Kimberley and Samantha by were no less about male violence against women that they would have been if he had been the boyfriend of one of them.

Then there’s Andrew Flood, a taxi-driver who strangled and robbed Margaret Biddolph, 78 and Annie Leyland, 88. When I learned he’d also robbed a third woman it was clear to me that there was a pattern to his actions. In fact, last year, five older women, aged between 75 and 88 were killed by much younger men, aged between 15 and 43 as they were robbed or mugged, including Irene Lawless, 68 who was raped, beaten and strangled by 26 year old Darren martin. The murders of Margaret, Annie andIrene were not any less about misogyny, than those of women killed by someone they were related to. So my list doesn’t just include women killed though domestic violence. We have to stop seeing the killings of women by men as isolated incidents. We have to put them together. We have to stop ignoring the connections and patterns.

The Home Office currently records and published data on homicide victims and the relationship of the victim to the principal suspect and sex of the victim. This does not do enough to tell us about fatal male violence against women:

1. It doesn’t tell us about the sex of the killer

2. It doesn’t connect the different forms of male violence against women

3. It dehumanises women.

The statistic ‘on average two women a week are killed through domestic violence in England and Wales’ is well known but we don't seem to feel horror in our response to this. The murders of some women barely cause a murmur; lots don’t make it into the national media. And so the connections, the horror, the patterns, the deaths continue in silence. Unnoticed. Ignored.

Ultimately, I want to see men stop killing women.

I have launched this campaign, Counting Dead Women because I want to see a fit-for-purpose record of fatal male violence against women. I want to see the connections between the different forms of fatal male violence against women. I want Domestic Homicide Review reports to be accessible from a single central source. I want to see a homicide review for every sexist murder. I want the government to fund an independently run Femicide Observatory , where relationships between victim and perpetrator and social, cultural and psychological issues are analysed. I want to believe that the government is doing everything it can to end male violence against women and girls. And I think the government should be recording and commemorating women killed through male violence – not me, a lone woman in a bedroom in east London

Let’s start counting dead women, not ignoring them. If you want us as a society, the press and the government to stop ignoring dead women, if you want us to find ways to stop women being killed, please join me, add your voice and sign this petition.

All text (c) Karen Ingala Smith

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

"Every woman has basic human rights" The Circles empowering women for health, development, education and freedom from violence

Earlier this year I chaired a panel with Joan Smith, Baroness Helena Kennedy and the novelist Kishwar Desai. We were discussing male sexual violence in India, following the worldwide protests about the rape, torture and murder of a young woman in Delhi. The event, at The Nehru Centre in London, was held to launch Desai's latest novel Sea of Innocence, which tackles the same issue and also provides shocking details of the Delhi case which hadn't previously been revealed in the media. In its ability to combine a strong heroine with a thrilling plot and urgent contemporary issues, Sea of Innocence follows on from Desai's previous novel The Origins of Love, which looked at the Indian international surrogacy trade.

The conversation during the Sea of Innocence launch event was wideranging. We looked at all aspects of global rape culture, which transcends colour, religion, class, language, country, culture and hemisphere: the blaming of victims, the excusal of perpetrators, the prejudice against survivors of sexual violence, the silencing and abusing of survivors who speak out, extreme and perverse leniency towards perpetrators even when they are convicted. Male sexual violence, which is endemic, reflects, partially creates and also reinforces women's inequality, disempowerment and subjugation. This disempowerment is obvious in every area: in the discrimination against us in the workplace; in the exploitation of our labour, which is unpaid, under-paid, under-valued and over-consumed; in the denial of our rights over our own bodies; in the casual and constant judging, slandering, undermining and defamation which constitutes the majority of all comments made to and about women; in the way we are represented in mainstream culture, images, advertising and the media as silent pieces of nice-looking meat, pathetic and useless idiots or bitter, petty, malicious schemers; and in the strong resistance against female education, landholding, powerful visibility, money-making, public involvement, mobility in public spaces (which is delimited by harassment and threat), enfranchisement, leadership, influence, direction and presence. Writing specifically on rape culture, structural misogyny and gender inequality in India, there is a brilliant analysis by Tehelka Media which I urge everyone to read.

As UNIFEM states, "One woman in three will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime." Male violence against women is so common that it has been described by the World Health Organisation as being "of epidemic proportions." Read the major, multi-national WHO study into domestic violence and see why they identify it as "a major public health and human rights problem throughout the world."

After the Sea of Innocence panel discussion I was approached by an impressive woman, Santosh Bhanot, who told me that she was involved in a project called The Circle, in affiliation with Oxfam. The Circle aims to address some of the fundamental issues and abuses which keep women worldwide in a state of disempowerment and inhibit our equality and our access to justice, rights and autonomy. Another underlying goal is to lift women out of poverty through gender empowerment.

The issue of poverty, often spoken of in general terms, is starkly gendered. According to Oxfam,

Of the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide, more than two thirds are women and girls.

Women and girls are the most disadvantaged of the disadvantaged, the most abused of the abused and the most exploited of the exploited. This has not arisen by some kind of unfortunate, fated magic but directly through the actions of patriarchal systems and many individual but misogynistically and patriarchally like-minded perpetrators, users and exploiters. When we defy all silencing and stigma to speak about what we have undergone we suffer the further grotesque abuse of being blamed for men's abuse of us, told that we deserve it, told that we brought it on ourselves by our own behaviour or told that we are lying out of malice to hurt men. We are then punished further by being slandered, marginalised or ostracised.

As Everjoice Win from ActionAid International, South Africa, states in a report about how helping women and girls is the key to ending poverty,

We believe that women are vulnerable and more impoverished compared to men because they have been systematically made vulnerable by years of violence, patriarchal power and control, as well as decades of inequitable laws and policies deliberately designed to put them in this position.

The Circle was founded in 2008 by Annie Lennox with the aim of connecting high profile, culturally influential women of expertise in various areas. A network of Circles will raise consciousness and money (here's the catch: money for Oxfam) to spend on a range of grassroots projects tackling everything from poverty to education to maternal health. They will also work "to reduce all forms of violence towards women, by helping to change attitudes."

The idea is that the various Circles support specific projects of interest but are all part of the wider Circle ethos of women helping women to change the world for everyone. A group called The Lawyers' Circle supports women's legal rights in Africa; The Music Circle raises money to protect women in the Democratic Republic of Congo; The Oxford Circle is looking at improving health and education in Niger and hopes to engage Oxford University and local city businesses in supporting this aim.

So far, significant money has been raised for a broad range of change-making initiatives. In Zambia the Circle project, working with Oxfam, is helping community schools. These are volunteer-run initiatives which provide vital education for one million Zambian children. However, those involved require more training and resources; the Circle's work in this area benefits 18,000 students in 25 schools and strongly supports the education of girls.

In Pakistan the We Can project is a grassroots initiative aiming to reach 800,000 people in combating "endemic" male violence against women, advocating for it to be reported and investigated and for a social shift which recognises male violence against women as abuse rather than normalising it and blaming victims rather than perpetrators.

The Circle has been working on improving maternal healthcare in Ghana, where 75 women a week die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. The focus here is on the provision of free healthcare to reduce maternal mortality. This is an achievable goal: other, non-Oxfam projects worldwide have shown the marked success of dedicated maternal mortality, pre- and ante-natal and newborn health projects. Please see my reports on Sierra Leone and Burundi and India for more details.

Two women's co-ops in Liberia have been helped to provide women with tools and training and empower them to bargain for better terms in a country in which, says Oxfam, "80% of ...women are unemployed." One little note to make here to correct that subtle patriarchal diss: these women, I can bet you, are employed. They are totally employed, to the point of exhaustion. They are employed in the never-ending, repetitive, back-breaking, all-consuming drudge labour of looking after the children, serving the men, running a household, cooking, cleaning and everything else - and these are all separate jobs - and their work is used and taken and exploited for free. They are paid nothing for their 24-hours, 7-day-a-week employment and it is callous and disrespectful to say that these same women are "unemployed." It is more accurate to say that they are exploited in an unjust situation. Despite the work they do, they are economically dependent on men and marginalised by them from economic power, political status, public influence and social clout. This exploitation and depletion of energy, financial and legal marginalisation and political discrimination mean that it is difficult for women to fight together for equality, rights and freedom from violence.

The latest addition to the Circle network is The Asian Circle, which works alongside Oxfam in helping South Asian women. It was founded and is chaired by Santosh Bhanot, the woman I met at the Kishwar Desai event. The focus is wide: The Asian Circle will be pulling together high profile women to support projects in agriculture, education, disaster relief and management, poverty reduction and sustainable development.

The Asian Circle was launched at the Houses of Parliament on 7th November 2013 in an event chaired by BBC reporter Ayshea Buksh and featuring speeches by Southall Black Sisters activist and journalist Rahila Gupta (read some of her human rights focused pieces here) and Kishwar Desai.

Santosh Bhanot spoke at the launch of The Asian Circle:

This week she told me,

Our focus is to work towards change with the skills and talents of ...[the] women who are part of the Asian Circle, a group of passionate and highly influential women from all walks of life. I wanted to help women who have an unfair chance in life and I particularly have passion and energy to work with women in South Asia because of my roots [as a South Asian woman]. Every woman has basic human rights.

On my recent visit to India I saw the positive impact of programs by Oxfam working with vulnerable women. For instance, building support centres for women subject to domestic violence and providing mediation and legal support. More programs are needed, especially in the poorer states.
The first programme The Asian Circle is supporting is called "Promoting Violence Free Lives." According to the Indian National Family Health Survey Round III report of 2005-2006 and the Oxfam India 2010 Baseline Survey, the statistics are damning, as are the social values which have been revealed:

  • 35% of women suffer sexual or non-sexual violence in India
  • 72% of men believe male violence against women is justified
  • 68% of women believe that husbands are justified in beating wives

Rahila Gupta welcomes the connection between the feminism, profile and zeal of The Asian Circle and the structural support Oxfam can provide:
This is the launch of a very important initiative. If my last 24 years with Southall Black Sisters has taught me anything, it is this: funding, funding, funding. The time that we would like to spend delivering frontline services is spent instead on raising funds without which we'd have no money to deliver anything. So it's great that the Asian Circle aims to help Violence Against Women projects in India escape that vicious cycle.

The Asian Circle is focusing on the poorest states with a multi-tiered, thorough strategy: to build support centres in police stations for women who have suffered gendered violence; to engage community elders, young men and boys through educational initiatives to change their attitudes and their behaviour; and to develop networks of women working at a state level to make sure that domestic violence laws are implemented rather than ignored.

Kishwar Desai told me,
As someone who has been trying to raise awareness about some very disturbing gender issues in India for a while now, I am sincerely grateful to see the formation of The Asian Circle. My personal hope? That they will be the catalyst, eventually, for providing an international platform for Asian women, perhaps leading to a women's liberation movement in Asia.

Bidisha is a 2013 International Reporting Project fellow, covering global health and development.  

Friday, 1 November 2013

Nutrition and maternal, newborn and child health: joining the dots and looking beyond the Millennium Development Goals

A news bulletin sent around earlier this year by Dr Carole Presern, Executive Director of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, threw down the gauntlet for the world community. At the time of the G8 summit – which I covered here in relation to the Enough Food For Everyone IF… campaign – the PMNCH highlighted the importance of nutrition. Since then I have found the work and the general approach of the PMNCH to be invaluable in joining the dots between various global health and development issues now that world leaders and development workers are considering a framework for initiatives extending beyond 2015.

The result of this summer’s discussions and presentations was the signing, by numerous international players, of the Global Nutrition forGrowth Compact, with up to $4.15 billion committed on this initiative up to 2020. Those who contributed to this strong pledge for a reduction in under-nutrition included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, World Vision and Save the Children.

As Dr Presern writes,
Leaders should be especially motivated to see pledges result in measurable action. Bringing commitments to invest in nutrition under the umbrella of the Every Woman Every Child movement led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would provide a useful framework for tracking their progress. We look forward to supporting efforts in this direction.
All of these issues are already very high on the international agenda. At the 66th meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva in May this year, global delegates passed a resolution to implement the recommendations of the United Nations Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children and also discussed a first-ever action plan pertaining to newborn health to end preventable deaths, which will be realised at the 2014 World Health Assembly.

At the Nutrition for Growth event in June, Justine Greening MP from the Department for International Development spoke about the importance of nutrition as a major development issue. She also outlined the financial pledges made by the international community of leaders in politics, social enterprise and business. She added,
Under-nutrition is stopping children and countries from reaching their full potential, accounting for the loss of billions of dollars in productivity. A strong and healthy workforce is vital if a country’s economy is to prosper. This means business and science taking a lead in fighting for good nutrition because we understand that better nutrition is the smart way to tackle extreme poverty, child mortality and economic underachievement.
What has to happen next is an integration of understanding between the issues – and, I would argue, an analysis of how gender inequality and sexist social values underpin many of the disadvantages, risks and problems covered.

The PMNCH’s own research provides a nuanced analysis of the relationship between nutrition, sustainable development and women’s and children’s health. Their findings were developed for the Open Working Group of the UN General Assembly in preparation for the formation of post-2015 development plans. They make a strong case for the importance of investment in nutrition for women and children as a major factor in ensuring sustainable development and its four pillars of economic development, environmental sustainability, social inclusion and peace and security; these criteria having been delineated by the UN System Taskforce on Sustainable Development.

This is about more than being hungry or not getting the right vitamins or minerals. Malnutrition and under-nutrition, rooted in long term poverty, inequality and disadvantage, have wideranging and interconnected health, social and economic consequences which do not affect just individuals but entire families, communities and generations. Their finding – spelled out in greater detail here, with references to specific studies – demonstrate myriad risks of malnutrition.

The report states,
Malnutrition contributes to disease and early deaths, especially for women and children. Malnourished women have lower birth weight babies resulting in children born into unhealthy, poorer families… and a lifetime of nutrition-related morbidity and mortality, which affects a woman’s own health and productivity and that of her offspring.
What is particularly interesting about the report is that it doesn’t just chronicle a problem, it also points to the benefits of action, stating that improved nutrition and greater health result in higher productivity. The findings are that women who are healthy, fed and working participate in the economy from a stronger position, both saving and investing. Healthy, well-nourished children have better mental development and learning skills and are more likely to stay in education and therefore to have a greater chance of earning more. The report points out that those who did not receive adequate nutrition in utero and in their earliest years “has been associated with reduced labor supply” and consequently lower adult incomes and therefore lower productivity at a mass level, across countries, where under-nutrition is widespread.

Whether or not you agree with this approach – that we should nourish human beings because they’ll then nourish capitalism more heartily instead of lying there like non labour producing duds - rather than seeing this as a human rights issue – it’s an interesting insight into the dramatic difference something as basic as nutrition can make.

There is also the cost of treating malnutrition:
  • In some  low-income countries, the direct costs of iron deficiency (disease and death) are as high as 0.57% of  GDP, while indirect costs (related to physical and cognitive losses) can reach 4% of GDP.8

As a final thing to think about, the PMNCH also considers the risks and consequences to the health and the economy of too much food (and of the wrong time), not just too little food. In environments where the issue is not lack of food but over-consumption of food which is not nutritional and involves many risky factors (processed and refined food, food containing many additives and few nutrients, food high in salt, sugar and trans fats) there is an ever-rising figure, currently up to 8% of healthcare spending, associated with obesity. In China, right now, the cost of dealing with obesity is actually more than the economic costs associated with under-nutrition.

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 Bidisha is a 2013 International Reporting Project Fellow reporting on global health and development.