Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for March, 2008

Girls Rule – Ann Jones in Sierra Leone

Posted by Ann Jones on 31 March, 2008

Every Wednesday morning, students at R.C. Girls Primary School clean the building and grounds.
Girls are strong.  Every Wednesday morning, students at R.C. Girls’ Primary School clean the building and grounds. Photo: Mary Lansana, age 14
The International Rescue Committee is working with women’s advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Learn more and read Ann’s earlier posts here.

Part 7 – Kailahun, Sierra Leone The girls are way cool.  I ask each one in turn to come sit with me at the computer.  Musu is first.  I put her memory card in the card reader, and soon her photos are flashing fast on the computer screen, visible only to Musu and to me. Auntie Chris and Chris G. have been continuing the discussion with the other girls, but now the room is silent.  I look up to find all the girls gazing intently at Musu who is gazing at the screen.  She has shot 330 photos; she and I see every one of them.  There are a lot  of shots of her pals—girls at school making faces at the camera or peeing in the bush—and some interesting ones snapped in the village.  All the while Musu’s face is a perfect mask.  What is she thinking, this pert little girl, seeing pictures of her own making?  I can’t tell.To me this is strange and disappointing.  I’m also working with two groups of women photographers, one here in Pendembu and another in Kailahun town.  There are twelve women in each group, ranging in age from 20 to 55.  I’ve already shown the women in both groups their first photos, and their reactions were completely different from those of this small enigmatic girl, Musu, who now rises, puts her memory card in her pocket, and saunters back to her seat.  Her sister Mattu comes  next with 176 photos, then Bintu with 431, and later Comfort with 542.  It seems to me you have to enjoy snapping to do it 542 times in a single week, but Comfort is just as enigmatic as the rest.

Girls are smart.  They size up their teachers, and they help one another. Mattu Koroma, age 11
Girls are smart.  They size up their teachers, and they help one another. Mattu Koroma, age 11

The women, on the other hand, had skyrocketed out of control.  At the Pendembu meeting, Habibatu shook her fist and shouted “Yes!” at every photo.  Fatmata grinned and said “Fine!” 310 times.  At the Kailahun meeting, Mamie Sampha put her arm around me as I downloaded her photos, and as each one of her 248 images flashed by, she squeezed me tighter and tighter and tighter.  I knew the Kailahun women were serious and working hard because I live in Kailahun and I often meet them in the street, snapping like mad.  Sometimes Theresa or Mariama or Aminata shows up at the IRC guesthouse, where Auntie Chris and I live, at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, needing a battery change.  But their excitement at seeing their photos is off the charts.  As Sattu’s images flashed by, she shouted “Fine!” to each one, and for emphasis she brought her fist down hard on my left thigh.  Sattu had 310 photos.

So that day in Pendembu, downloading images for the girls’ group, I was a wreck.  My shoulders and ribs ached from being squeezed by substantial women.  My left thigh was black and blue and the muscles ached.  My ears hurt, still reverberating with shouts of “Fine!” and other less intelligible whoops and cries.  But here came these little girls, one by one, apparently as calm and disinterested as could be.

girls are cool
Girls are cool.   Gender Club girls learn about sexual coercion and violence. 
Armed with information and attitude, they have a chance. Photo: Jenifer Manso, age 10

I had to ask Auntie Chris, “Can you tell how they feel?”

“They are happy,” she said.  “Can’t you see?” 

“No,” I said.  “I can’t see how they feel.”  What is it about their lives, I wondered, that makes them have to hide a feeling as simple as joy?

But the older girls had a harder time containing themselves, and Lilian, the last to come forward, broke into a big smile.  “I think my photos are very fine,” she said.

Gratefully I slapped her hand.  “Yes, Lilian,” I said, “Your photos are very fine.”

Girls really are way, way cool.

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“This is her, the rape victim” [This Week’s Voices]

Posted by The IRC on 29 March, 2008

A girl walks past a poster warning of the dangers she faces.
Congo – A girl walks past a poster warning of the dangers she faces.
Photo: Anna Husarska/The IRC
This week’s round-up of notable quotes from the news and the Web:

“‘This is her, the rape victim.’ I raise my eyes and look at a Congolese woman in her 40s who is breastfeeding. Marie-Honorine, my colleague from the International Rescue Committee, a specialist in working with survivors of sexual violence, points to the Bambi-eyed 14-month-old girl at the woman’s breast and says: ‘No, that is the victim.'”

– IRC senior policy advisor Anna Husarska, in The Weekly Guardian, relating what it was like meeting rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been left to live out their days in fear and pain.

“We must seize, without delay, the strategic moment, and move decisively to build the foundations for durable peace and stability in Somalia,”

– United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a March 21 report to the UN Security Council. The humanitarian crisis in Somalia is deteriorating dramatically while access to people in need continues to decrease, 39 aid organizations, including the IRC, warned this week in a statement issued on the eve of a UN Security Council discussion of Somalia.

“Best we can do to demonstrate solidarity with hungarian liberation forces… is to rush at once massive quantities relief supplies … we are preparing  for tragic possibility soviet recapture control of hungary, when countless escapees will flood into austria and must be ready with resources.”

– IRC chairman Leo Cherne and president Angier Biddle Duke, in a cable sent from Vienna to IRC headquarters in New York in the fall of 1956. Since the end of World War II and the division of Europe into rival Soviet and Western blocs, the IRC had been aiding stateless refugees and escapees from the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain.

“I’m not a parent myself, so that first day I didn’t know quite what to expect.  But neither, I think, did my two co-directors on the project, both mothers … One thing we all seriously underestimated was just how quick and smart these girls are.  They’ve been way ahead of us the whole time.”

– Author, photographer and women’s advocate Ann Jones on working for the first time with girls on an IRC project in Sierra Leone helping women use photography to make their voices heard.

“The United States has a moral obligation to give refuge to these and other vulnerable Iraqis, including widowed women with children and the tens of thousands who put their lives on the line to work for Americans in Iraq and are in danger as a result.”

Agence France Presse quoting the IRC Commission on Iraqi Refugees’ report in a dispatch about the slow U.S. response to the Iraqi refugee crisis.

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Girl Power – Ann Jones in Sierra Leone

Posted by Ann Jones on 27 March, 2008

This girl was forced to leave school early while the father of her child suffers no consequences.
Girls’ Gender Club members know all about the dangers of pregnancy. They are sympathetic to girls like this one, forced to leave school early while the father of her child suffers no consequences. To the girls, it’s a powerful example of the injustice of gender inequality.
Photo: Musu Koroma, age 11
The International Rescue Committee is working with women’s advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Learn more and read Ann’s earlier posts here.

Part 6 – Kailahun, Sierra Leone The second time we meet the girls’ group, they’re buzzing.  They’re angry with a teacher who found them dancing in a classroom, and said “You’ll all be pregnant before you get to secondary school.”  They told the teacher he was wrong to think they’ll get pregnant just because they have high spirits.  “It’s the quiet girls you should watch,” they told him.  They cite as evidence the unfortunate case of a quiet, introverted classmate impregnated by a man who denies all responsibility.  She’s been taken away to another village to have the baby.

This problem of teenage pregnancy, which effectively ends a girl’s education and her marriage prospects all at once, is the single biggest problem in every community we visit, or so the Women’s Action Groups tell us.  The girl is stigmatized.  Her family is shamed.  Her parents are deprived of the expected return on their investment in the girl’s education—that she will be in a good position to care for them in their old age.
 
Everyone loses, except the man who impregnated the girl.  Abortion is illegal.  It’s also forbidden by Islam and most, if not all, Christian denominations.  Illegal, or “criminal” abortions are performed, but they cost more than any poor village girl could afford.  A pregnant teenager must feel the doors slamming on every option.
 
Now Auntie Chris asks provocatively, “What’s wrong with getting pregnant?”  The girls give her an “Are you crazy?” look and bombard her with answers.  “You cannot continue your education.”   “Even if you could, your attention would be divided between your baby and your school work.  You couldn’t do well.”  “Your body is not developed.  You may have to have surgery.”  “You could even die.”  These medical warnings are no exaggeration for girls who have been subjected to excision (FMG, or female genital mutilation) as these girls almost certainly have been.  Excision greatly increases the incidence of fistula and similar internal injuries during pregnancy and childbirth.

Many girls took photos like this one, showing the fondness they feel for one another, and the fun of their innocent camaraderie.
Many girls took photos like this one, showing the fondness they feel for one another,
and the fun of their innocent camaraderie.  Among adult women in the same community, fondness
and fun seem to have been stamped out. Photo: Mary Lansana, age 14

“Your parents will put you out of the home,” says Mattu. “You will face stigmatization,” says Comfort.  “You will have no support for yourself or your child.”

I wait for the next nail in the coffin—that though you have been taught to depend on a husband for support, no man will marry you—but  I don’t hear it.  That may be just too hard to think about.

“And if you do NOT get pregnant as a teenager, what will you do?”  That’s my question, and the girls fire answers at me even before they get a translation.  (In school they’re learning English, the country’s official language.) “We will enjoy our education,” says Lilian.  “We will enjoy encouragement from our parents,” says Lucinda.  “Our parents may even allow us to travel outside of Pendembu,” says adventurous Katumu.  “If we are educated before we have children, we will be able to support them and help our parents too,” says Bintu.  “We will insure that our children also have a good education,” says Lucy.  “We will not hurry to marry,” says 10-year old Jenifer, “and we will plan our families.”

I’m floored.  Who knew that these girls had so much information and such strong opinions?  Did I know about family planning at age 10?  Is this what a Gender Club can do?  Mr. Shariff, their faculty advisor, sits quietly in the back of the room, smiling.

For all their playfulness, girls have serious dreams—to be nurses, lawyers, teachers, religious sisters, computer specialists, government ministers. The future of the country depends upon the realization of their dreams.  Their dreams depend upon education.
For all their playfulness, girls have serious dreams—to be nurses, lawyers, teachers,
religious sisters, computer specialists, government ministers. The future of the country depends
upon the realization of their dreams.  Their dreams depend upon education. P
hoto: Lucinda Jamiru, age 14

“Can you imagine your future life?” I ask.  “Say, in ten years time.  What would you like to be doing?”    They’re shy about answering this question, maybe reluctant to expose a dream to daylight.  But Lucy, who has been eyeing my computer, says she wants to be a computer specialist.   Musu says she wants to be a nurse to help the people of Pendembu.  Comfort says, “I do too.”  Mary, Lilian, and Katumu want to be nurses as well.  (Becoming a doctor seems beyond imagining.)  Isata wants to be a teacher.  (There are no female teachers in the school.)  Musu’s sister Mattu wants to be a lawyer because Pendembu needs one. (There is only one lawyer, a man, in the whole district.)  Jennifer wants to be a government minister.  Both Lucinda and Ruth say they want to be Catholic sisters.  (Ruth’s brother is already a priest.)   I ask Ruth if she wants to be a teaching sister.  “No,” she says firmly.  “I will be a praying sister.  Pendembu needs prayers.”  Yes, indeed.

Then it’s time to take a look at the girls’ first photos.  I’ve shown you a few already.  There will be more to come.

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HBO Premiere: The Greatest Silence [How to Help]

Posted by Tim Lash - IRC on 27 March, 2008


Video: The Greatest Silence
 

Please join viewers and activists across the country to watch the HBO premiere of The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo on Tuesday, April 8th at 10:00 pm EST. This documentary film is a shocking exposé of the kidnapping, rape and torture of women and girls in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

ENOUGH, STAND, and Campus Progress have teamed up to organize screenings across the U.S. to view and discuss The Greatest Silence. Hosting a screening of The Greatest Silence can be a great, informal way for you to gather friends and community members to foster discussion around an important issue.

Four Steps to Host a Screening of The Greatest Silence:

1. Find a Location. You can host a screening in your classroom, living room, dorm lounge, church or anywhere else that you can comfortably see a screen and invite some viewers. It’s as simple as inviting some friends, getting some food, and watching HBO at 10:00 pm EST on Tuesday, April 8th. If you don’t have access to HBO, you can borrow a copy of the film to watch free of charge.

2. Register Your Party. E-mail your name and address to events@enoughproject.org. You can get materials, discussion questions, and tips on how to throw a screening – all you need to do is find the space and the people. Please email ASAP. To borrow the DVD by mail, please register by Monday, March 31st.

3. Host the Screening. Watch HBO at 10:00 pm EST on April 8th (or play the DVD). You can download these discussion questions to lead a conversation.

4. Join a Call the Next Day. The next day you have an opportunity to hear from the filmmaker and discover practical ways to help. Sign up here to join the call on April 9th.

Thanks for helping us to spread the word about this important film. Please tell your friends to watch the HBO premiere of The Greatest Silence with you on Tuesday, April 8th at 10:00 pm EST!

Posted in Africa, howtohelp, video, war, women | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

1956: Fight for Freedom in Hungary [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 25 March, 2008

Following the brutal repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, nearly 2000,000 Hunagarians fled their country.
Following the brutal repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, nearly 200,000 Hunagarians fled their country. Most ended up in Austria where the IRC provided assistance. Photo: The IRC
As the International Rescue Committee observes our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from IRC’s rich history each month (you can find all of his posts here):

In the fall of 1956, a cable was sent from Vienna to IRC headquarters in New York:

Best we can do to demonstrate solidarity with hungarian liberation forces… is to rush at once massive quantities relief supplies … we are preparing  for tragic possibility soviet recapture control of hungary, when countless escapees will flood into austria and must be ready with resources.

It was signed by IRC chairman Leo Cherne and president Angier Biddle Duke.

A week earlier, on October 23, Hungarian workers, students, and intellectuals publicly proclaimed their desire to be free from domination by the Soviet Union. Staging a peaceful demonstration in Budapest, two thousand marchers made their way to Parliament Square, where the secret police fired upon them. The news spread quickly and disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital. The revolt spread across Hungary and the pro-Soviet government fell. The Red Army intervened but failed to crush the movement and withdrew from Budapest.

From Vienna, Cherne and the director of the IRC’s Vienna office, Marcel Faust, crossed the border into Hungary in a battered Chevrolet loaded with medicine – the first American relief workers to arrive on the scene.  Since the end of World War II and the division of Europe into rival Soviet and Western blocs, the IRC had been aiding stateless refugees and escapees from the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. Now, the IRC was at the vanguard of the Hungarian rescue mission: While Duke organized refugee assistance in Vienna, Cherne returned to the U.S. to raise funds.

Within 60 days, $2.5 million had collected from the American public – $357,000 of it raised after a passionate appearance by Cherne on the popular Ed Sullivan television show.

On November 4, the Red Army moved into Budapest and this time crushed the revolt. In the aftermath some 200,000 Hungarians fled into Austria. IRC volunteers were among the many that stood on the border to offer aid, encouragement, and support to the refugees.

The burden of so many refugees was more than Austria could handle.  So the IRC stepped up its activities in several European countries. We opened health and training centers and homes for children in Great Britain, Belgium, West Germany, and Sweden.

Cherne and the IRC brought several leaders of the revolution to the U.S to tell their stories to the American people, including the Mayor of Budapest. Many Hungarian refugees were resettled in this country. Long after the Hungarian revolt had been crushed and had faded from the headlines, the IRC continued working to integrate Hungarian refugees into their new environment.

Posted in Europe, history, refugees | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »