News blog

I've just returned from an ActionAid Country Directors’ Forum, which among other things looked at what is going on in the world right now and identified the key challenges that we all face over the next 10 years.

Women rally for their rights in Bihar, India
Women rally for their rights in Bihar, India
Photo: Ranjan Rahi/ActionAid

Big topics were on the agenda as ActionAid country directors from Africa, Asia and the Americas met to discuss some of the key issues and trends they have to deal with every day in their work on behalf of the world's poorest people.

Discussions included climate change, religious fundamentalism and extremism, youth and what changing demographics mean in a country context, and the shift in global power structures and balances.

I’m talking here about the rise of the BRICS nations meeting this week in Brazil – those five major emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa that have large fast-growing economies and significant influence on regional and global affairs.

We also discussed the changing role of the private sector and the changing face of charities and what we are there to do.

If we don't deal with climate change than no other issue matters

Many of these issues are identified in our current strategy but I was pleased that climate change came out much more strongly than I have previously seen in ActionAid global discussions.

There was one particularly telling quote from Farah Kabir who runs ActionAid's programmes in Bangladesh. She said: "If we don't deal with climate change then no other issue matters."

Farah should know. She's been instrumental in establishing a model 'climate proof' village. This is a civil engineering project that literally raised a village metres off the ground so that its families are safe when floods occur.

Her experiences reflect what I’ve seen when visiting other countries were we work. Environmental realities are undoubtedly getting worse. Poor people are already feeling the impact of climate change and of increasing natural disasters.

Some quick statistics on the impact of the increasing frequency of natural disasters: in the last 20 years, 1.3 million people have been killed, 4.4 billion affected with US$2 trillion in damages.

The rise of religious fundamentalism was also much more strongly expressed and again this is driven by the reality faced on the ground in countries like Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The impact of global economic and political trends on women's rights

ActionAid volunteer facilitator Hawa Jalloh conducts an Ebola awareness session.ActionAid volunteer Hawa Jalloh conducts an Ebola awareness session. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

Underpinning all of the discussions was the reflection that these emerging trends negatively impact women’s rights  – particularly sexual and reproductive rights – and even that previous gains are in real danger of being reversed.

Conflict too, in many of the countries in which we work, is increasing women’s vulnerability with violence against women being deliberately used as a weapon of subjugation for entire communities. We only have to look at what is happening in DR Congo to understand how real this threat is.

So it was clear to me by the end of the meeting that gender equality has to be top of ActionAid’s list of priorities; that there has to be an even stronger emphasis on empowering women in the areas in which we work and on highlighting gender in the national and international campaigns that we run.

And while I’m writing about women’s rights, I would like to pay tribute to our brave female volunteers in Sierra Leone.

As you read this they will be going door-to-door telling friends and neighbours how to protect themselves from Ebola and about the importance of seeking treatment in what is now the world’s worst outbreak.

Early forced marriage – it’s time for it to stop

Leslie Sinoway's picture Leslie Sinoway Senior PR Officer, ActionAid UK

Look at this photo of smiling girls. They are all nine years old. They live in Ethiopia, and thanks to an ActionAid project they are at school rather than being forced to drop out to get married.

Girls at school in Ethiopia
Young girls at school in Ethiopia
Photo: Contributed by Letekidan Berhane

If you know any girls of this age in the UK you’ll be aware that their main priorities range from who their best friend is this week, will they be able to sing/dance/act like their latest famous idol, am I doing okay at school, is everyone I know in my world happy?

To most British nine-year-olds marriage involves love, happiness and most importantly (when you’re a grown up) choice. Marriage is something you decide to do, if and when, you want to - when you are ready. We want this to be the same all over the world, which is why we support whole-heartedly the UK government's Girl Summit this July.

Is early forced marriage the norm?

In many of the countries around the world where we work, child and early forced marriage is so embedded in many cultures and traditions that it is seen as the norm. Girls have little or no choice about who they are going to marry. In developing countries, one in nine girls are married before the age of 15. Shockingly, the average age of the groom to his child bride is up to nine years older.

Marrying young perpetuates the cycle of poverty

You may have heard about early forced marriage, but did you know that it’s poverty that also drives this custom? Or that the numbers of child marriage increases after natural disasters and emergencies?

Marrying young feeds into and perpetuates the cycle of poverty, powerlessness and gender inequality. When a girl misses out on education this contributes to the high rates of illiteracy amongst young women. Without the power of information they are more likely to experience violence, abuse and forced sexual relations. Child brides are five times more likely to die in childbirth.

Young women are literally saving each others' lives

Savelat, 17, village Namirkot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province

Savelat, 17, pictured above in Pakistan was forced into marriage at eight.

She was beaten by her mother-in-law and drug addict husband on a regular basis. But fortunately she was able to escape and now she runs an ActionAid programme to educate other girls and women about the impact of early girl marriage. 

She said: “I don’t want to see any other girl child of my village to face the curse of early marriage and I try my best to convince the parents that early marriage is a crime and it should be stopped.”

Pakistan recently outlawed child marriage in one province which is fantastic news. However, it's just one province. Standing against such abuses is what the Girl Summit is calling for globally – and we agree. Pledge your support for the Girl Summit here.

ActionAid also doesn't believe it's enough to just tackle early child marriage, either the harmful attitudes that surround it or gender inequality wherever they occur, otherwise violence in all its manifestations including female genital mutilation will continue. 

We want to empower young women around the world and to enable girls everywhere to fulfil their potential.

Photo: Ghulam Zakaria Khan Nutkani.

Brazil crashes out of the World Cup and waits to see what happens next

Richard Grange's picture Richard Grange Senior Media Officer (News and Current Affairs)

The shattering 7-1 defeat of Brazil by Germany in the World Cup was not just a footballing shock – it may also have long-term political and social consequences.

The Favela da Mare slum in Rio de Janeiro
The Favela da Maré slum in Rio de Janeiro
Photo: Lianne Milton/Panos/ActionAid

Brazil went into the World Cup as a troubled nation. Many believed the huge cost of the event had not been matched with a much-promised investment in public services. This dissatisfaction sparked mass protests in cities across the nation.

During the tournament itself, those protests disappeared from view, as Brazilians fell back in love with the jogo bonito – the beautiful game. This World Cup has widely been lauded as the best ever.

But that was then and this is now. Brazilians have just witnessed their side being destroyed by Germany in what was immediately labelled as the most humiliating defeat in their footballing history.

Cost of Brazil World Cup estimated to be £6.8 billion

And after the night before comes the morning after – including the £6.8 billion price-tag of staging the event.

How this plays out in Brazilian society will become clear in the months to come. But in a country of stark inequalities where millions live in poverty and face huge social issues, many are predicting social tension.

In the Favela da Maré in Rio, where ActionAid works, people live in a crowded slum in the midst of a struggle for power between well-organised and dangerous drug gangs and the military police.

In the north in Recifé, young girls are at risk of sexual exploitation by workers coming in to build a brand new port.

And in other parts of the country – such as in Pernambuco state where ActionAid works with the Quilombola, descendants of runaway slaves – there are whole communities which lack access to piped water.

The World Cup has crystallised those inequalities and led to mass protest.

But, there is an answer. And that, according to many Brazilians, is for the country to share its billions more equitably by investing in public services.

Ebola: the facts

Jane Moyo's picture Jane Moyo Head of Media Relations

Ebola is one of the most frightening and deadly diseases known to mankind and the current West Africa outbreak is the largest ever, affecting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ebola's highly infectious nature means that it can spread rapidly when an outbreak occurs. 

A mother holds her child while she has her temperature taken at a screening center on the road from Kenema to Bo.
A mother holds her child while she has her temperature taken at a screening centre on the road from Kenema to Bo.
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

The high death rates associated with Ebola create fear and a lack of faith in the medical system. Our staff in Liberia and Sierra Leone tell us that people are not seeking help if they suspect they have contracted the disease but are staying home to pray.

Eight reasons why Ebola is dangerous and people are frightened

  1. This tropical viral disease has a mortality rate of  70 per cent although previous outbreaks have reached as high as 90 per cent.
  2. Ebola is transmitted by handling infected animals such as monkeys or fruit bats, where it is naturally present, and then spreads quickly through human contact.
  3. There is no vaccine or cure although some patients respond to oral rehydration therapy or intravenous fluids.
  4. Initial symptoms – which appear between two days and three weeks from contracting the virus – include high fever, throat and muscle pains, hiccups and headaches.
  5. The next stage is vomiting and diarrhoea, and liver and kidney functions start to shut down.
  6. At this point, most people start to suffer from severe internal bleeding, death normally follows.
  7. Once in the human population Ebola is spread through direct bodily contact with blood or other bodily fluids.
  8. Contagion continues after death and safe disposal of bodies is therefore imperative.

Ebola has all the symptoms of a global epidemic and demands an international response

Currently, every person who contracts Ebola is infecting a further two people and the World Health Organisation is predicting the possibility of 10,000 new infections a week by Christmas. Massive and sustained medical intervention is essential.

Local health services cannot cope and all three countries require far more medical personnel and equipment than are currently on the ground. This includes help with contact tracing and high quality screening.

While treatment and care of those infected remains a prerequisite, the nature of the disease means that preventative measures to limit the spread of the virus are vitally important. These save lives and prevent suffering.

Prevention measures include thoroughly cooking meat, the regular cleaning and disinfecting of homes, hand washing, wearing appropriate clothing when tending the sick and dying and limiting contact. 

Those who have been quarantined need practical help - as do Ebola survivors.

If you cannot work, you go hungry so food aid is essential. If you are just released from a treatment centre but all your belongings have been incinerated, you need a basic survivor kit that includes a change of clothes and toiletries.

Ebola outbreaks in the US, Europe and Spain

We are beginning to see sporadic Ebola cases in countries including the USA and Spain, or treatment of returning infected aid workers such as Ebola nurse William Pooley in the UK.

Yet, the west has excellent health services and infection control procedures which will quickly contain any outbreaks. And we can take confidence from Nigeria's response. As soon as an Ebola case was announced, they swiftly responded with effective surveillance and containment procedures based on their battle to combat polio.

The public in countries outside West Africa should not be afraid but should recognise that this is a global epidemic that requires a global response centred on Ebola's epicentre - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Ebola must be tackled at source if it is to be contained.

What we're doing to tackle Ebola in West Africa

Our teams in West Africa are on emergency alert. We have allocated hundreds of thousands of pounds to fighting the disease. A vital strand of our work is prevention campaigns because without those we will not stop Ebola.

We are helping people understand how to protect themselves and distributing Government and World Health Organisation information in local languages using flyers, radio jingles and door-to-door visits and using these to help with contact tracing.

We are giving food aid to families quarantined for more than three weeks, equipment to local health workers including rubber gloves, protective overalls and bleach, and education materials to children – schools have now been closed for months and are expected to remained closed for much of the school year.

In Liberia we’re also giving discharged Ebola patients survivor kits. These are people who lost everything when their belongings were incinerated as a preventative measure.

As the UN expects the Ebola outbreak to continue, if not accelerate over the coming weeks, the importance of this work cannot be underestimated


This blog was updated on 15 October 2014

Caught between the Crossfire: Childhood in one of Rio’s most dangerous slums

Natalie Curtis's picture Natalie Curtis Journalist - Emergencies and Content

Last month I travelled to Brazil with the BBC to uncover a story about the dark side of the World Cup. While I was there I spent two days in Rio with twins, Samir and Samira, eight, who told me what life is like growing up in one of Rio’s most dangerous slums.

First impressions

My first impressions of Maré were mixed. Home to 136,000 people, the slum has a reputation for serious drug related crime. Access is strictly controlled by drug gangs and filming or photographing anything required careful negotiations to ensure noone got hurt. 

But Maré favela didn’t look like a ‘slum’ at all. Brightly painted houses lined litter free streets in what looked like an orderly neighbourhood. That was until I saw the guns, the knives and the drugs. 

On street corners fold-out tables offered an array of drugs for sale. Armed men gathered in groups and gang members drove enormous, intimidating motorcycles up and down the street.

The twins

I met Samir and Samira, cheeky, fresh faced and full of giggles from school. My camera woman and I drew quite the crowd, including the motorcycles, who, despite knowing why we were there, trailed us for our entire visit.

Samira, the bolder of the two twins, was the first to say hello, apologising for her brother who "doesn’t like kisses or cuddles or anything like that!" Samir took longer to warm to us.

But armed with pens, paper, recording equipment and my secret weapon - smarties - it wasn’t long before the twins were telling me all about their life.

Childhood in the favela

"Growing up in Maré is tough" they told me. Their mum is strict about them going outside and everything they do happens inside their house, from homework, to learning the recorder, to riding their bikes in circles on the roof.  Even Princess, their beloved dog, is kept on the roof, because it’s too dangerous to play in the street. And when violence breaks out on the street, which is does regularly, school is cancelled.

What struck me about these cheerful, spirited kids was that their lives were in many ways the same as kids in the UK, but lived in microcosm. When I asked them my standard questions: “Where do you play?”, “who’s your best friend?” their answers were startlingly sheltered: “At home” and “we don’t have friends in the favela because we aren’t allowed out”.

Cirlene, the twins' mum, explained to me the challenge of keeping your children on the straight and narrow, when the threat of them being pulled into a drug gang is present every day. I believed her, having seen a ten year old boy holding a machine gun just thirty minutes before.  Kids can get caught up in drug gangs from an early age – running errands, passing messages or even flying brightly colours kites to alert dealers when the police are coming.

The project

ActionAid supports Redes, a local organisation at the heart of the favela, which provides safe spaces for kids to enjoy their childhood. Thousands of kids enjoy our classes, from cookery, music and sport, to extra tuition, to help them finish school.

When I visited the centre with the twins, it was bustling with activity. Scores of young chefs jostled up the stairwell, carrying trays of freshly cooked food and a group of excited children queued for their radio broadcasting class, while two floors up we could hear the sound of trumpets and guitars – one of Rede’s many music classes.

It doesn’t surprise me that Redes is responsible for significantly raising the number of kids who go to university from the favela. But it’s a shame that even when they have the academic credentials, children from Maré are often stigmatised. I find this hard to accept when looking at Samir and Samira, smart, well-mannered and confident. But hope that the future will hold much brighter things for them.

Just over two days. That’s how long you have to make twice the difference to women and girls globally, who are faced with poverty and violence every single day. Until midnight on Wednesday 25 June the UK government will double all donations made to our She CAN appeal.  Time is running out and I’m hoping that you will share our sense of urgency and dig deep. 

Kembi, with Mbeyu George, a member of the Sauti Women's group,  sort through corn they have scavenged on Mwakirunge Dumpsite, Mombasa
Kembi, with Mbeyu George, a member of the Sauti Women's group, sort through corn they have scavenged on Mwakirunge Dumpsite, Mombasa
Photo: Kate Holt/Shoot The Earth/ActionAid

During the course of the She CAN appeal, we’ve heard countless stories about atrocities committed against women and girls.  The ones that stand out for me are the gang-rape and hanging of two girls in India, the stoning of a woman in Pakistan and the abduction of 300 Nigerian school girls. But there are even more stories that don’t come to light in the mainstream media. The practice of mutilating a girl’s vagina and then selling her for a dowry is happening right now, child marriage is considered normal in many countries, and shockingly, 1 in 3 women are still likely to be violently attacked in their lifetime.  

Women at the heart of everything we do

It has to stop. That is why we continue to appeal for your help and why, in all of our work, women are at the very heart of everything we do.

I know that it’s often easy to get disheartened with what seems like a constant barrage of hate, atrocities, and crimes that we can sometimes feel are too big to fix. But we only have to look at the successes of ActionAid’s work to feel buoyed to continue.

We have provided direct support to women and girls who have escaped female genital mutilation. In Kenya alone, 6,000 women and girls have been reached directly and 60,000 indirectly through ActionAid girls’ clubs and rescue centres.

In Pakistan, we worked with a coalition of 16 other organisations on outlawing child marriage. It is now illegal in the Sindh province to marry a girl under the age of 18.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, our access to justice project has supported the establishment of four legal clinics and trained 32 paralegals in South and North Kivu on women’s rights, judicial procedures, and existing laws and conventions protecting women. The paralegals handled more than 120 cases and referred others to higher courts.

We are seeing real and lasting change

Our successes are many and these are just some of the outstanding victories. We are making headway by working with local communities and are confident we are seeing real and lasting change. So we have to continue. The She CAN aid match appeal allows us make twice the impact in this important work as every donation is doubled by the government. Together we can make a difference to the lives of women and girls worldwide.