Monday, 24 February 2014

Make a house a home (if you can afford to)

Housing is one of our basic rights, under Article 25 (1) of the UNDHR “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.“ This is basically a right outlining welfare provision, the government has a responsibility (but not a duty?) to provide housing when needed as well as food, help in the event of unemployment and homelessness. This right is put into practice in the UK by individual councils and their respective housing officers. However, the council can only provide when it has something to give.

Many councils no longer own their own ‘council houses’, these were sold off to housing associations who manage them on behalf of the council. The council therefore acts as a middle-man in assessing housing needs and controlling the list of applicants. Now Britain is clawing it's way out of the recession the demand for houses has by far outstripped supply. Peter Bolton King, RICS Global residential director said: ‘While the number of new homes being built is now on the rise, it still won’t be anywhere near enough to meet demand and we expect the problem of insufficient housing stock to be the main driver behind price increases over the next twelve months.’

The main issue is that the fewer houses there are and the more people wanting to move means that suppliers can put the prices up, all leading to many people struggling to afford housing. One in five people are facing the possibility of sleeping rough due to not being able to afford their housing and household bills. There is a shortage of affordable housing and the government has a human rights responsibility to do something about it. So what are they going to do? Labour has declared it will give councils a right to expand even if other authorities are opposing. Conservatives are planning on giving councils more flexibility in borrowing for building houses. But will this help? And are our human rights being respected? The UK is in need of both social housing and affordable housing. It is up to our government to ensure it is provided.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Scandal: (noun) An action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.

It seems like barely a day goes by without more news of 'celebrities' caught up in sexual abuse accusations. Where has this come from? For years and years have people sat by and watched TV personalities delight audiences while withholding the knowledge of dark and sinister actions behind the scenes?

Jimmy Savile is, of course, the current focal point of this hype. Yet Savile is actually a defendant unable to defend himself (he died in 2011, a year before allegations against him became public). In cases of sexual abuse often the verdict is made based on one side's series of events versus the other. But in this instance the Savile cannot tell us his side of the story, there is no one to conclusively prove or refute the claims of those who have come forward.

This leads the cynic in me to wonder whether there is an element of fame-hunting (or event compensation-seeking) in those who have stepped forward with their stories. If there really were 'hundreds' of victims, then why has it taken so many years for anyone to bring their allegations to the public attention?

"The wave of allegations made against him sparked the launch of the Operation Yewtree police investigation, which is also looking into claims about others linked to him as well as separate allegations about a number of high-profile figures." The Guardian Website, 14/10/2013

The key here, for me, is that not only has Jimmy Savile not yet been found guilty of any of these allegations but also that numerous other public figures have been brought into the limelight for all the wrong reasons as well. Take, for example, the case of Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell who was arrested and taken to court for raping a child, this heinous crime turned the nation against him- he was suspended without pay from his job, he was ridiculed and insulted and everyone was sure he was guilty because he was in court and every day he was shamed on the news with his head hung low. Yet he was cleared. All allegations said to be false and where do the public stand then? In support of the man they briefly shunned from society.

Is it fair then to publicise the names of those who are accused of sexual crimes or, for that matter, any crime? When Googled Michael Le Vell's name is synonymous with sexual abuse, child abuse and his trial. This will forever taint an innocent man, let alone the opinions of his family and friends. Some suggest that by publishing names of celebrities said to be abusers encourages more victims to come forward, but this refers to my original point- do those who seek the publicity of a celebrity trial only have the interest of justice in their mind? Please do remember that this is the opinion of a cynic and of course there are many genuine claims out there that need to be heard. Perhaps the publicity of celebrity scandals do encourage young people to speak out in the same manner that celebrities influence young people in other aspects of their lives.

In my opinion it is not freedom of speech for the press to publish the names of individuals when it may harm their own right to a private life. To me, it is clear that part of punishment for a crime should be the public knowledge of the guilty perpetrator (which leads on to all sorts of rants regarding super injunctions or 'gagging orders' protecting the guilty from shame) but part of the trial should not be compromised by the public knowledge of a defendant. Is it a fair trial if his jury are bombarded with propaganda in the tabloids and outcry in the streets? Should an innocent man's reputation be forever blighted because of one person's word against another?

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Who I am? Complaining about having nothing to complain about and other stories by the white, working-class woman.

A woman I went to university with has the unenviable challenge of being a walking advertisement for minorities. She has it all covered: Asian, Muslim, Female, Gay. She is an incredible campaigner for not one, but all these minorities and can frequently been seen or heard (or tweeted) at various rallies and protests. She has something to fight for and she really does fight for it!
Protesting at the Slut Walk in London, 2011
But this lead me to think: Who am I? Yes, I know: 'first world problems', I'm going to complain about not having anything to complain about. I am a white, working class, woman. So what's my problem? Can I campaign for gay rights, despite not being gay myself? Can I call for an end to Islamophobia even though I am white? What can I believe in?

I recently wrote a PhD proposal on the Westernisation of Islamic states and was told that it wouldn't be an appropriate topic for me to write on as I am not an expert on the subject. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't a PhD supposed to make you the 'expert'? As it stands, I have studied human rights and politics for 5 years and wrote a very nice Master's dissertation on the rights of women in Islamic states, yet, apparently, I am not qualified to write about this to PhD level. Would this be the same if I was a Muslim woman? If I had Islamic family members? Perhaps that would make me an 'expert'?

So what's left? What do I focus my life's studies on? The rights of women in rural England, perhaps? I want to be able to use the knowledge I gained in my degrees to help people, but who are those people? I care about the pressures faced by Islamic women and gay people in society, I care about people who are oppressed by their religion/society/government (and in many cases, other governments)... so how do I become the authority on this subject!?

Friday, 14 June 2013

Volunteering: The Experience of a Lifetime

(L-R) Thea, Alice and I at Alba's Farm
Photo by Maddie Dicks
Sadly, I've finished my amazing 10 weeks in Honduras; I had such an exciting, eye-opening and challenging time in this fascinating country. As a group we have seen and experienced so much more than any of us could have imagined.

We attended the opening of a new coffee factory, which meant that the local women’s cooperative COMUCAP could produce coffee for export independently, giving many women jobs and providing income for many families around Marcala. We helped out making aloe vera soap, we had the opportunity to experience the whole process from clearing the aloe vera field, cutting the leaves, extracting the precious gel from each leaf and preparing the soap mixture. It was so interesting to see how hard these women work for just one bar of soap!

Honduran Volunteer, Waleska, at the Children's Home
We worked in blazing heat on the farms high in the cloud forest, yet despite second-degree sunburn, ants in our pants and legs covered in insect bites we persevered! The women we worked with found our intolerance to the heat very amusing but a glass of freshly made lemonade was gratefully accepted.

Some of our most vivid memories are of the wildlife; we saw tarantulas, preying mantis’, tiny frogs and had a snake in the house! Things with no legs, things with many, many legs and birds with nests dangling from tree branches. We faced days without power, the race for a shower in the morning before the daily water cut-out and the dreaded walk to the shop to pick up huge, heavy bottles of drinking water. All the volunteers have realised how much we take for granted - at home we can drink water straight from the tap, if we did that in Honduras we’d expect 2 days sat on the toilet!

Aloe Vera Plant
Meeting the locals was one of the most rewarding parts of the whole 10 weeks, we made great friends with our fellow in-country volunteers, Waleska and Fany. We had football tournaments in town and spent a day at a local family’s house meeting women from around the community and sharing our own culture’s cooking. We cooked them chicken, roast potatoes and stuffing, a traditional English roast. And they loved it! It was such a lovely experience to share with the women and was great fun trying to cook in their huge wood-burning oven out in the garden. We were so privileged to have worked with these women and it was great to be able to show them our gratitude, despite the tough lives they live they always have a smile on their face and a hug for each one of us as we reluctantly leave.
Traditional Wood Burning Oven
Teaching in the school was a personal highlight for me, never have I done something so varied, every week we tried to come up with fun and interesting lessons for the kids: We taught English dressed as the Queen, built 2 volcanoes and 2 castles, made a very sticky mess with cornflake cakes, did the hokey-cokey and introduced Hondurans to cricket with a handmade cricket bat!

It was very hard to finally leave such a beautiful country, there is so much still to be done there, we didn’t have time to do it all! The more we look the more we can see to be done: the women are always grateful for help on their farms, the kids in the children’s home in La Paz are always so eager to play games with us, we can’t keep up! Honduras has been full of surprises and memories none of us will ever forget, I can’t imagine that I will ever drive through a thunderstorm on top of a mountain again, swim under a waterfall or make enough Victoria Sponge cake to feed 75 children!

One really important thing I have taken from this experience is to encourage more people to volunteer, there is so much to do in every developing country and such great experiences to be had. Honduras needs help from young people like us, the energy, enthusiasm and fun we bring to the project visibly lights up people’s faces. (And a little tip for future volunteers: Go to Nancy’s cafĂ© for the best coffee in Honduras, if not the world!) We made this short video to show why we chose to volunteer and the experiences we had:

Friday, 17 May 2013

'True charity is the desire to be useful to others with no thought of recompense.' Emanuel Swedenborg

I've been living in Honduras for 7 weeks now and am still finding things that shock and surprise me about the local culture here in Marcala. The most shocking realisation was just how unbelievably poor some of the people we work with are. In rural Honduras 65.4% of the population live below the line of poverty. Meaning that the majority of people here live on less than $1 a day. There has been a lot of press recently about living below the line, Progressio has launched a campaign to try and raise awareness by challenging people to live on less than a £1 a day on food and drink. This is a great way to show just how difficult it is but doesn't take into account the other problems faced everyday by the people in these communities.

Alba's House
We have been helping out by working on farms and in fields yet we didn't realise that it costs a lot of money to take the produce to market: it will cost around about 300 Lempiras (about $15) for Alba to take her harvest the few miles into Marcala as she doesn't own her own transport. She cannot afford to pay for this and so sometimes her harvest has had to go to waste. Furthermore, basic needs are just not met here. Very few houses have running water, especially out in the hillside communities. Our own house here in the town of Marcala only has running water intermittently during the day and it is not safe to drink at any time. At Alba's farm a water pipe, which brought water down from the mountains, had broken and she had to make the difficult decision to redirect the water away from her field to her house- where it was most needed. She has no telephone or electricity so she couldn't phone anyone in the town to help fix it, so her cabbage crop has suffered because of this. It is almost impossible for me to imagine this severity of poverty.

Today we were invited to another farm, so remote in the mountains we had to trek for 30 minutes to get to it. The location was picture perfect, the view over the misty blue mountains was incredible; this would be a dream getaway by anyone's standards. Yet the house was unimaginably basic, the kitchen was bare, the fire-fueled stove was outside, the 'washing machine' is just a tank of water and a scrubbing board and the chickens appeared to eat better than the children.

Crops affected by disease and lack of water.
Unfortunately this is a chronic problem, not only across Honduras, but Central America and the developing world in general. They are caught in what can be referred to as the 'poverty trap', this means that it is particularly difficult to get out of poverty. Our work in the fields and with local organisations provides quick immediate help but does not actively sustain development. Unfortunately, due to rife corruption and criminal activity an injection of money from international aid is not always the solution either. The best way we can help is to offer what little we have, the women are always so grateful to receive us and we can only hope that the knowledge and expertise of aid organisations such as Progressio will help some of the world's poorest communities to thrive and prosper.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Alba's Farm: Progressio Honduras

Alba, her mother and some of the Progressio Volunteers

One of the intentions of Progressio and the partner organisation COMUCAP is to give local women the chance to improve their confidence as well as exchanging cultural understanding with the volunteers. Even in the short time we have been working on Alba’s farm her confidence has noticeably grown. She is proud of the fact that she could teach us how to turn the soil, to make beds ready for planting and lay out an irrigation system effectively. We learnt a lot from her and her family.

Progressio has been working with Alba for almost 4 years. Women from COMUCAP first went to her, then Progressio development worker, Roger Diaz, helped show Alba and her family how to make her farm more successful. Alba explains that life was difficult before then. She told us, “we didn’t have any confidence as a group, we didn’t have trust in projects until COMUCAP arrived and integrated us into their cooperative.” When her crops failed, Progressio and COMUCAP helped; they have provided her with valuable resources such as a chalk composite which helps balance the acidity of the soil on her farm naturally. They have provided organic fertilizers and organic products to fumigate the area, “they have always been helping us in this way, right from the beginning of the project.” Alba has not had to pay for any part of the scheme, but told us that as a group they have invested a part of their profits and hope to buy a water tank for the irrigation system. In addition to this financial and technical aid, we volunteered on the farm for a week. This meant that work which would have taken her weeks was completed before the rains at the weekend. Now Alba will be able to plant her new crop and we will go back to help her weed and maintain the beds to ensure a fruitful and healthy harvest.

The carrot crop of this harvest, however, won’t sustain Alba and her family for very long. She sells them at the market in Marcala, but they like carrots to be big in Honduras, “you have to grow them big otherwise you can’t sell them.” The women of the group also work picking coffee at nearby farms but this is seasonal. They have to rely on their other crops for the rest of the year. Next season Alba and the women plan to develop their own small coffee plantation on the farm. Glenda, the Central American regional director for Progressio, told us “the money they make from their crops may be small but that 1000 Lempiras mean a lot for those people and they can do so much with it.”

Alba lives in a basic, traditional mud brick Honduran home with her 2 year old daughter, Lourdes. They have no clean running water at the house, just a simple outdoor toilet with a towel for a door and a bucket of dirty water to wash. Mosquitos are abundant here, while we worked we were bitten profusely, and Lourdes’ arms were covered in old bites which made her scratch and cry.

When we asked her what her plans for the future were, Alba told us that she thought she would always live and work in her community near Marcala, but her daughter’s father lives in the capital city, Tegulcigalpa. “If he takes us there to live, we’ll go.” This shocked us a bit as, although life is clearly very challenging here, Tegulcigalpa is a very dangerous city, where jobs are scarce and many neighbourhoods are no more than shanty towns run by violent gangs. This highlights the problem of rural to urban migration in developing countries. For this reason, Progressio and COMUCAP are trying to show women like Alba that they can make a successful living on their small holdings and stay living in safer rural communities.

Jointly written with Alice Pepper for Progressio, interview translated by Katie Sims.