Monthly Archives: March 2011

Polio in Pakistan

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Over the past two decades, polio has been reduced by 99 percent around the world.  Today, it remains endemic in only four countries: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan.  While three of these countries are making tremendous progress to eliminate the disease, Pakistan is seeing a rise in infection rates.  Last year there were 144 registered polio cases, the highest number since 2000.

Children in Pakistan receive polio vaccines. Photo credit: Ground Report.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stressed the importance of polio eradication in his third annual letter released earlier this year.  Polio is an infectious viral disease that primarily affects young children and can lead to permanent paralysis.   It can also be prevented by vaccinations.

“Getting rid of polio will mean that no child will be paralyzed or die by this disease,” wrote Gates.  “Any major advance in the human condition requires resolve and courageous leadership.  We are so close, but we have to finish the last leg of the journey.”

In January, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari launched a National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication, a formal plan to eliminate polio in the country.  Shortly afterwards, Gates and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi each pledged $50 million to help polio vaccines reach 32 million children in Pakistan.

“Vaccines protect children from many life-threatening childhood diseases, providing the best way to give a child a healthy start to life,” said Gates. “This partnership is a powerful example of how collaboration by the global community can help build a healthier, more stable future for Pakistani children, their families and communities.”

The benefits of immunizing more children go beyond preventing the spread of polio.  A recent study by the non-profit organization Kid Risk estimated that polio eradication could save the world up to $50 billion in reduced treatment costs and productivity gains.

“If societies can’t provide for people’s basic health, if they can’t feed and educate people, then their populations and problems will grow and the world will be a less stable place,” Gates wrote.  “Whether you believe it a moral imperative or in the rich world’s enlightened self-interest, securing the conditions that will lead to a healthy, prosperous future for everyone is a goal I believe we all share.”

Afghan Brick Workers

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A recent article by the New York Times on indentured servitude in the brick-making industry in Afghanistan highlights the crushing cycle of poverty many families are caught in. For kiln workers with limited skills, the only way to take out a loan is to use their manual labor and that of future generations as collateral. This system unfortunately traps the workers when they are forced to borrow from their employers, who do not pay them enough to settle their debts.

Afghan children who do not attend school can end up working 12 hours a day

For Zar Mohammad the situation is particularly bleak. After taking out a loan to pay for his marriage, he “realized that his weekly earnings in the kiln left little or no money to pay down the principal. As his family grew, he found himself having to borrow more money” and he saw his debt increase each year.

According to the article, Mohammad and his four sons are paid $10 for a day’s labor—roughly 2,500 bricks.  The kiln owners can sell this amount of bricks for up to $160. The owners say they are helping the families of kiln workers, noting that many were stranded as refugees in Pakistan and that employees are usually provided with “houses, electricity, beds, blankets, water and cash for workers’ family expenses” in addition to further loans for emergencies. For the workers, however, this situation perpetuates their problems as they live lives of great poverty and hardship but still have enough to lose if they choose to stand up to their employers.

The predicament faced by these workers is symptomatic of larger problems related to economic development and poverty. While Mohammad and his children may have to endure terrible circumstances, the job does provide a much needed income. The District Governor of Surkhrod, when interviewed for this article, said, “I know this is not good for kids, but we have to build our buildings [and] our country”. Sarah Crowe, UNICEF’s regional communication director for South Asia offers a similar gloomy assessment of the costs and benefits of child labor in the brick making industry, pointing out that it offers supplemental income for the family.

Unfortunately, while education offers one of the few opportunities to break the chains of poverty for families and communities, the decision to invest in the long-term benefits of education over short-term survival needs is a hard and life-changing one.  Thus, without support and economic assistance and the opportunity to learn, Zar Mohammad’s 8-year-old son Neyaz will have to continue beginning his twelve-hour workday before dawn as he makes the bricks that are rebuilding Afghanistan. While the world may be tough on him, Neyaz continues to dream big.  He says, “I want to go to school and to become a doctor to serve my people and my country.”

-Faris Islam

Investing in Girls

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.”  Barakat operates schools and literacy courses for women and girls in South Asia, believing that equal access to education is crucial to reducing poverty in the region.

In many parts of the world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, girls are less likely than boys to attend school, be vaccinated, or see a doctor.  A recent TIME essay discussed the importance of investing in girls in the global fight against poverty.  “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world,” wrote Larry Summers while serving as chief economist at the World Bank.

Girls who attend school for at least seven years typically earn higher wages, marry later, and have fewer children than those with less education.  Fewer dependents per worker leads to greater economic growth. Women are also more likely than men to reinvest their income in their families, buying things like books, medicine, and malaria nets.

Development experts say part of the solution involves providing girls with access to schools and health clinics with programs designed specifically for them.  Helping girls realize their potential will require the support of entire communities, including mothers, fathers, teachers, and religious leaders.

Barakat has witnessed the vital role of supportive family members in our initiatives such as the Girls Scholarship Program in Pakistan.  Scholarship recipient Surayya has four siblings.  Her father is a carpet weaver and her mother is a tailor.  She says, “My father wishes that all of his children get an education, but due to lack of funds he cannot afford our studies.”  Surayya is fortunate to have parents that support her education rather than sending her to work, and with a Barakat scholarship she can continue her studies.  “Education is not necessary for males only,” says Surayya.  “I want to be a well-aware Afghan girl who is able to understand her rights.”

American girls are also getting involved in this cause.  High school girls in the Boston area have held fundraisers for Barakat’s Girls Scholarship Program to support students like Surayya.  The United Nations Foundation has started a campaign called Girl Up, which encourages American girls between the ages of 10 and 19 to give a “High Five” to girls in developing countries by donating $5 to provide school supplies, health check-ups, and more.  Actions like these display how the next generation of leaders is already making progress to improve the lives of girls around the world.

Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

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The government of Afghanistan wants to take control of shelters for abused women, accusing the organizations currently running them of corruption and misuse of funds.  The Afghan Women’s Network, a coalition of human rights groups, has strongly denied these allegations.  Pressure from the international community may convince the Afghan government to change its mind.

The United States has expressed concern over the plan.  “While we recognize that the government needs to monitor shelters, it is important that civil society be allowed to operate these facilities independently,” read a statement by the US State Department.

Activists in Afghanistan have protested the move as well, saying state-run shelters could put women’s lives at greater risk.  Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, has demanded that women be included in the decision-making process in Afghanistan.  “Peace cannot happen without respect for human rights and of course participation of women as half the population.  We need to recognize women’s existence and include them in all the policies,” said Samar.

“People are not educated,” said Huma Safi, program director at Women for Afghan Women, which runs several shelters.  “If women and men knew their rights in Islam and Afghan civil law, then we wouldn’t have violence.”

Teachers at a training workshop

This controversy demonstrates the powerful impact that Barakat’s Teacher Training Workshops for Human Rights can have on Afghans. Educating teachers about human rights, and in particular the rights of women, is the most effective means of spreading knowledge to the community and the next generation of voters in Afghanistan.

About 180 teachers attended nine Barakat workshops this school year, including 85 women.  Afghanistan Country Director Aaq Mohammad said, “All the participants expressed that they have learned that human rights are really urgent for society.”  As more people in Afghanistan become educated about women’s rights, the country will be able to make progress towards greater gender equality.