News

The NATO Summit taking place in Wales yesterday and today is the largest gathering of international leaders ever held in Britain.

Mobina is a radio journalist and ActionAid-trained paralegal in Afghanistan
Mobina is a radio journalist and ActionAid-trained paralegal in Afghanistan
Photo: Jenny Matthews/ActionAid

With everything that’s going on in the world – Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, Syria to name but a few – the world leaders attending will have a lot on their plate.

Afghanistan might not be right at the top of news headlines right now, but the future of Afghanistan is also on the agenda as the summit marks the end of 13 years of combat by international troops. The summit opened yesterday afternoon with a session on Afghanistan attended by US President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders.

But shockingly there were hardly any women in the room and with just one woman reported to be in the 10-strong Afghan delegation. Considering that improving the lives of women was one of the reasons given for going to war in Afghanistan, it’s hugely disappointing that women were not be part of those discussions on the future of the country.

Women must participate in talks

Less than three months ago at the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit in London, then Foreign Secretary William Hague, launched a strategy that said the UK government would ensure that women are “fully and meaningfully represented at any international peacebuilding event or summit hosted by the UK, by encouraging government delegations to fully include women representatives.”

In his speech he added: “And I am saddened that women and women’s groups still have to ask to be included at the negotiating table, as if it were a concession to be granted, or a right to be begrudgingly accorded, when in fact it is the only route to better decisions and stronger and safer societies.”
 
It’s not just a matter of respecting women’s rights – when women are involved in peace negotiations the outcomes are more successful. Recent research by ActionAid and Womankind found that women play a vital, if widely undervalued, role in conflict mediation, building trust and dialogue, educating children and counselling family members not to engage in violence across communities.

Despite this they continue to be side-lined by international institutions, that cannot, or will not, recognise their contribution. And the NATO summit is yet another example.

More needs to be done

Although some things for women in Afghanistan have got better in the 13 years since the fall of the Taliban, so much more needs to be done. Women in many areas can go out to work, girls can go to school, a law for ending violence against women has been introduced.

But the troop withdrawal poses serious a serious risk to the gains made. Women, particularly those who work to defend women's rights and those with jobs in public life, are being systematically targeted with violence in areas where the Taliban insurgency is gaining ground, while vital progress in women’s access to health and education is in reverse

In 2011 ActionAid carried out a rare survey of women in Afghanistan which found that nine out of ten were worried about the Taliban returning to government believing it would risk the gains made for women. They were particularly concerned about their daughters’ education. Three years later and with troops leaving, women are even more worried but also increasingly frustrated at not being listened to. That's why ActionAid was part of a No Women No Peace coalition stunt protesting about the absence of Afghan women at the NATO summit.

A stunt outside the NATO summit illustrating a lack of women's participation in peace conferences A stunt outside the NATO summit illustrating a lack of women's participation in peace conferences

ActionAid does a huge amount of work on women’s rights in Afghanistan, including training female paralegals who help women with legal issues including divorce, child custody and domestic violence. We also work with local decision making councils, known as jirgas, and have supported the creation of 180 Peace Committees across the country, including Women’s Peace Committees.

We train the members – 40% of whom are women - on conflict mediation, legislation, rights awareness, gender equality and the formal justice system. These committees are now the forum for the community to take their grievances to and have the authority to mediate conflict without taking it to the jirga, which often discriminate against women and in some cases condone and promote violence against women.

But such brave efforts by Afghan women to secure their rights and build peace at the local level must be complemented by efforts to ensure they have a voice and a space at the table of international peace negotiations too.

Ebola's economic impact on Sierra Leone and Liberia

Jane Moyo's picture
Jane Moyo Head of Media Relations

With Ebola now confirmed in Senegal and many hundreds dying across the region, the virus has brutally exposed the various weaknesses of West African health systems, including their underfunding.

Kadiatu Lamboi sticks up a poster provided by ActionAid staff to raise awareness of Ebola.
ActionAid volunteer Kadiatu Lamboi raises awareness of Ebola in Mbundorbu village, Sierra Leone.
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, the worst case scenario is that economies could be adversely affected by as much as one third, which will mean even greater difficulties in the medium to long term.

Mining and farming families affected in particular

It is the poorest who are most affected and whose lives are being shattered, particularly in quarantined areas; men are unable to leave quarantined areas to get to their jobs in the mining industry and neither can families reliant on subsistence farming go to their fields.

In Liberia, farming is the main source of income for seven in ten of the population and restrictions to movement and quarantines imposed by the government are already having a severe impact on agricultural outputs.

Spectre of widespread hunger looming

With many people now unable to earn a living, trade or go to market, ActionAid workers are reporting that as well as battling Ebola, the spectre of widespread hunger is looming.

Yet the food aid we and others are delivering to families in quarantine – rice, beans and oil – can only ever be a stopgap measure.

Poorly equipped fragile economies

These are already fragile economies, poorly equipped to deal with an economic blow on this scale. The immediate calamity of people dying of Ebola has masked a silent but growing crisis that may claim even more victims.

Further reading on Ebola:

William Pooley – Ebola Hero or Fool?

Natalie Curtis's picture
Natalie Curtis Journalist

This week social media and news sites have been ablaze with debate about William Pooley – the British nurse brought back to London for treatment after contracting Ebola in Sierra Leone.

ActionAid staff explain how to protect yourself from Ebola
ActionAid's public health campaigns in Sierra Leone and Liberia are helping people understand how to protect themselves from Ebola.
Photo: ActionAid

He’s been described in comments left on mainstream news sites as ‘foolish', ‘selfish’ and in one particularly choice reaction as ‘SCUM, putting another country (the UK) at risk’. 

Thankfully there are also millions of people who see William Pooley for what he is: a selfless hero who made a measured decision to help where he could. 

William Pooley is a medical professional

William Pooley was not a ‘misguided gap year student’ looking for an ‘African adventure’ to tell his friends. He is a trained nurse, with a valuable skill to offer in a country whose medical capacity has been dwarfed by the Ebola virus.

He fully understood the risk he was putting himself in and made a measured decision to help, taking as many precautions as he could.

Working in the Sierra Leone government health system

William Pooley was already plugged into the government health system in Sierra Leone. He was based in Freetown for a six month placement at a hospice caring for people with HIV, cancer and TB. When he heard that there were health centres treating the Ebola epidemic, he went where there was greater need.

No risk to the UK

When William Pooley discovered he had contracted Ebola, he immediately alerted authorities and was placed in isolation – precisely what ActionAid and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been telling anyone who suspects they have Ebola to do.

UK Government ministers and health officials agreed to fly him back to Britain after they decided there was “no risk” that his repatriation would cause an outbreak in the UK.

Pooley’s hospital bed is reported to be surrounded by a specially-designed tent with its own controlled ventilation system and only specially-trained medical staff are allowed to treat him. He is in the best and safest possible place.

On the frontline of the Ebola response

William Pooley is just one of many brave women and men working across the world in unstable and often dangerous environments. ActionAid’s local staff working on the frontline of the Ebola response in Liberia and Sierra Leone are among them.

The safety of our staff on the ground is always the top agenda item in our daily Ebola emergency response meetings. But for as long as they can, ActionAid staff will continue to roll out our public health programmes, educating people how to protect themselves against Ebola and delivering food aid to families who have been stigmatised by the virus or can’t reach the market because of strict quarantine measures.

Because of the expertise and skill of ActionAid’s local staff, I thankfully don’t have to travel to Sierra Leone or Liberia to make a difference. I have to focus on supporting our programme teams the best I can. But medical workers undoubtedly have tougher choices to make. Ebola affected countries are calling out for medical assistance. William Pooley responded to that call.

I for one commend him for it and wish him a full and speedy recovery.

Ebola Outbreak: what’s the latest?

Michelle Lowery's picture
Michelle Lowery Communications Team

It’s been a difficult few weeks hearing the continued news about the spread of the Ebola in West Africa. I will be one of the first to admit I didn't know a huge amount about this virus, aside from it being incredibly frightening and in the vast majority of cases resulting in death. 

I didn’t know how it was transmitted and therefore how it could be prevented. You can learn more about that in my colleague Jane’s blog.

Laboratory technician Hassan Katta puts on gloves in Kenema government hospital before taking a blood sample from a suspected Ebola case.
Laboratory technician Hassan Katta puts on gloves in Kenema government hospital before taking a blood sample from a person suspected to have Ebola.
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

However, knowing how to prevent it and learning what I can do to protect myself isn’t a life or death situation for me. This isn’t the case in Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries where we work and where the disease is spreading.

I interviewed ActionAid’s Country Director from Liberia, Korto Williams to find out the answers to some of the key questions we’ve been asked about Ebola. Of course, if you have other questions you can leave them in the comment box below and we’ll come back to you with answers. You can also follow this online debate from Reuters which Korto contributed to.

What is happening at the moment?

Some communities in Liberia have been quarantined to reduce transmission of the Ebola virus and enhance contact tracing. We’re providing families who have been quarantined with rice and oil to enable them to stay indoors.

We’re also continuing with our public health campaigning, working with local people in local languages people understand. Where this happens, we see that Ebola cases are much lower than were originally estimated.

Why isn’t the virus slowing down?

Tackling this virus requires a combination of three things: health education, good treatment and contact tracing. Unfortunately there are major challenges with all three.

In particular people are very fearful of contact tracing, as they are afraid of being criminalised or contracting Ebola by being compulsorily placed with other ‘suspected cases’ in hospital.

Then there is the issue of health education. People don’t always trust official information from the WHO or government.

Also, underlying everything is poverty. Liberia has very little in the way of basic services or even fully funded medical centres.

What is an Ebola contact and what is contact tracing?

A ’contact’ is any person who was in physical contact with an Ebola patient. This means anyone who cared for the sick person, washed their clothing or bedding, slept in the same bed, or washed or touched the body of a person who died from Ebola.

All contacts should be followed by the contact tracing team who check to ensure that none of the contacts become sick. If a contact does develop Ebola symptoms, they will be sent to the treatment center to give them the best chance to survive. This also helps prevent the virus from spreading to other family members. 

Is there any hostility to aid or health workers entering local communities?

People are of course scared and we are doing what we can to alleviate this fear. My colleagues on the front line tell me that people are not seeking help if they suspect they have contracted the disease with many individuals and families fleeing their homes, in order not to be taken to the treatment centres. The high death rates associated with Ebola create fear and lack of faith in the medical system.

An Ebola centre was looted – how can this be prevented in future?

This shows the level of mistrust and misinformation about Ebola. People are very scared of this virus and sadly, sometimes don’t trust official information. That’s why we work with local trusted volunteers to help educate people in a language they understand. 

Some people don’t believe Ebola is a real virus. Many people are consulting traditional healers and/or are claiming it is caused by witchcraft. ActionAid is working hard to help tackle this misinformation and provide people with the right information to protect themselves from getting Ebola and seek help if they think they have it. Communication is key to ensuring everyone knows what’s going on and why. 

In the UK you can help tackle Ebola by donating to our work.

Find out more about Ebola:

Today is a day of prayer in Gaza, but the streets are still very busy with people out trying to stock up on food and water and to see if they can salvage anything from their damaged homes.

Our staff is still working to get supplies to the 3,570 displaced people we are supporting.

One of them is Mahmoud Zeed Alkfarna, 34, who is staying in a school building with his two young children after their house in Bait Hanoun was destroyed.

Mahmoud’s cousin was still in the house when it was hit by a rocket. As his cousin lay waiting for medical assistance, the ambulance that was coming to take him to hospital for emergency treatment, was also hit by rocket fire. As a consequence, Mahmoud’s cousin died, along with his young son.

Mahmoud lost everything he owned and was left with only the clothes on his back.

ActionAid has given Mahmoud a voucher equivalent to around $300 (£180) which has enabled him to purchase not only food, but also other essential kitchen items and toiletries. Mahmoud was happy because he was also able to buy his children a few sweets.

He said: “My children have suffered enough. I am pleased because getting them some sweets is something they can finally look forward to.” In addition to food, the ActionAid voucher meant Mahmoud could buy cutlery, herbs, oil and a small gas cooker.

No kind of life

Assad Moussa Hussein Hasheny, 52, whose house was also destroyed, is staying at his brother’s house where 32 people are living under one roof.

His children were traumatised by the attacks and are quieter than they were before. “I don’t know where we will go after this," he said. "My brother’s house is very crowded. It is no kind of life.”

ActionAid has given Assad and his family a voucher: “I don’t know what we would do without this voucher. It has been great to receive it because you can buy more than just food. Today I will buy my children some new clothes and some kitchen equipment so we do not have to share plates in my brother’s home.”

We are part of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and together we’ve launched a crisis appeal.

Further reading on Gaza:

Photos: Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures/ActionAid.

Celebrating our celebrities

Susan Alderson's picture
Susan Alderson Celebrity Co-ordinator

You might have seen some stories in the news in the last week about the findings of a recent university study which claims: ‘celebrity promotion is ineffective at raising awareness but can make stars more popular with the public'.

Actress and ActionAid child sponsor Samantha Womack takes a bike ride with children from Kannet village
Actress and ActionAid child sponsor Samantha Womack takes a bike ride with children from Kannet village
Photo: Christopher Davy/ActionAid

This raised some eyebrows here at ActionAidUK HQ as our long history of working with famous people tells a different story. We work with some incredible individuals who use their fame to help us fight poverty all over the world. They do this because they believe in ActionAid and our work and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Familiarity breeds donations

Working with some of the UK’s best known faces helps us to fundraise for our work with the world’s poorest communities. The last week has been no exception as we teamed up with other charities to raise funds for the Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal for Gaza. When the appeal launched, our celebrity supporters rallied round in force, both with personal donations and support on social media. So far the appeal has raised £9.5 million.

We find working with famous folk helps us reach more people, their passion and enthusiasm for our work is infectious and the best advert we could hope for. By openly supporting ActionAid they are telling their fans they can trust us, making them more likely to engage with us in future.

Not just pretty faces

Our celebrity ambassadors don't just talk about us, they really get involved. In 2012 we took the actress Samantha Womack to visit to our work in Myanmar. After her trip we signed up over 2,000 new child sponsors for children desperately in need. Samantha also sponsors a girl from the region and finds the relationship hugely rewarding.

Earlier this year our super supporter, actor James Purefoy lived below the line for ActionAid, spending 5 days living on no more than £1 a day. He raised over £2,000 in sponsorship and took to twitter to talk to his followers and ours about his experience.

Twitter talk saves lives

James isn't the only one of our celebrity friends to support us on social media. Hardeep Singh Kohli, Fay Ripley, Josie Lawrence and Stephen Merchant are among our stalwart twitterati, sharing our campaigns with their followers and getting involved with personal messages.

When Stephen Fry, the uncrowned king of the internet, tweeted his support for our SheCAN appeal to his 7 million followers, we were over the moon. Not only did it cause a marvellous upsurge in visits to our website, crucially we also saw an increase in donations to help women and girls break the cycle of poverty.

Building trust

There is no doubt that many people support charities because they have personal connections in their lives and families which make specific causes important. But consider, we invite celebrities into our living rooms, we catch up with their news every day on social media – now more than ever people have the opportunity to feel close to their idols.

A recommendation from a trusted face can go a long way and we are excited about continuing to work with so many wonderful people.