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July 15, 2014

Let the women speak

Carol Ballantine, Policy Officer, reports from a recent symposium on women’s participation in advocacy and political life in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
 
Earlier this month, Annie Matundu Mbambi was in the Dáil café, meeting parliamentarians with an interest in Africa to talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Annie is the president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the DRC, a partner organisation to Trócaire. 
 
One prominent female politician, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in the developing world, asked Annie with concern: “how are things for women right now?” 
 
Inevitably, she was expecting to hear grotesque responses about rape and violence – definitely the defining issue for Congolese women, especially in the East of the country. But Annie surprised us all. She spoke about a change that’s happening in the DRC right now: the advocacy work that she and other local organisations are carrying out – many with the support of Trócaire – to demand the equal participation of women in the Congolese parliament. 
 
The truth is, the exploitation and abuse of women will only end when women demand power in decision-making. That’s what we’re witnessing now. 
 
 
With Mary Robinson observing and participating, we discussed things that we all knew (without women, there is no prospect of a sustainable peace), and things that surprised and challenged us. 
 
How UN ‘coordination’ has squeezed out space for locally-owned, locally-managed responses to sexual violence in Eastern DRC. 
 
How international organisations established projects for ‘raped women’ which immediately stigmatised the very people they were intended to serve.  
 
Sometimes academic conferences can feel like a luxury, a go-nowhere exercise, useful for producing more research, but not for changing the world. This one was different. 
 
In addition to researchers and analysts, there were policy makers: ones of global and regional stature (Mary Robinson, Bineta Diop and Melanne Verveer), and Irish ones too (then Tánaiste Eamonn Gilmore opened the conference, which was attended by officials from DFAT). Members of the Congolese diaspora living in Ireland came with African-Irish group Akidwa; while NGOs came to see what we could learn and where we could connect. 
 
Salomé Ntububa, Annie Matundu Mbambi, Mary Robinson
Salomé Ntububa, Christian Aid, Mary Robinson, patron of the Irish Consortium on GBV and until this week, the UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa and Annie Matundu Mbambi, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the DRC. Photo: Carol Ballantine
 
 
Through the Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence (ICGGBV), we did draw connections in one important way. Since the beginning of this month, the Conflict Resolution Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has begun a consultation and planning process for Ireland’s next National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.
 
At the Symposium, the ICGBV hosted a Round Table, chaired by Mary Robinson, to explore the lessons from the DRC for Ireland’s National Action Plan
 
Bringing people together from different backgrounds and perspectives: this is the essence of peace-building. Thanks to that Round Table, we generated a number of issues that Ireland can concretely take forward. Issues like the need to reconcile Ireland’s economic growth strategy with its obligation to respect human rights in fragile states like the DRC. Or the value of focusing Ireland’s support on specific locations rather than keeping it completely broad based.
 
The ways that we can foster and support local civil society – rather than crushing it. 
 
The truth is, Annie Matundu Mbambi and the other activists who attended the Symposium know what needs to happen, and they’re working hard to make it happen. We need to listen to them – and to work just as hard as they do. 
 
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July 11, 2014

After 28,000 kilometres, Billy's Big Cycle reaches its destination

He has been held-up at gunpoint, trapped in the middle of riots and dodged bears, but Dubliner Billy Lavelle (37) has completed his 28,000 kilometre cycle from Alaska to Argentina.

Almost precisely two years after setting off from Prudhoe Bay, the most northern point accessible by road in North America, Billy, from Blackrock in Co. Dublin, has safely arrived in the Argentinian city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. His cycle, which has raised almost €14,000 to support Trócaire’s work in Latin America, has seen him pass through 15 countries.

Billy Lavelle's Big Cycle for TrócaireCaptions: (left) In July 2012, Billy started his cycle in Northern Alaska. (right) In July 2014, Billy reached Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.

“There were some very challenging moments,” says Billy. “The worst was getting held-up at gunpoint by three masked men on an isolated dirt track in Guatemala. They stole most of my valuables.

“I arrived into Colombia during a nationwide strike and I had to attempt to get through road blocks. The first road block that I encountered was the most intimidating. There were hundreds of masked men with sticks blocking the road. They had taken two policemen hostage and run the rest of the police out of the town. Nobody was allowed to pass for seven hours until the UN brokered the release of the two policemen."

“In Alaska I had to cycle by a large bear, who stood up on his hind legs for a better view. Thankfully a car happened to be passing and the driver kindly waited until I was safely past the curious bear before continuing on their journey.”


The cycle took Billy through varied landscapes and conditions. “I got stuck in a vast salt flat while crossing a very isolated and baron stretch in south west Bolivia,” he says. “I was progressing about 10 metres a minute into a gale, pushing my heavily loaded bike through the salt and muck, cursing and laughing at how comically difficult it was. “During my first ten days on the Dalton Highway in Alaska I was eaten alive by swarms of large mosquitos. I was so desperate to get away from the mosquitos by the 10th day that I cycled through the night. I fell asleep cycling and had a small crash!”


Despite being on the road for two years, Billy says that a part of him is sad to have finally reached his destination. “I have mixed emotions about finally reaching the finish line,” he says. “Part of me does not want the trip to end, but with the weather getting colder and more severe by the week I was happy to finally reach Ushuaia. I am completely skint at this late stage but my family gave me some money and I plan on using that to treat myself to a good Argentinian steak. I have been dreaming about Argentinian steak ever since Alaska!”

Billy Lavelle's Big Cycle for TrócaireCaption: Billy Lavelle cycling through Mexico in March 2013


Billy undertook his cycle to raise funds for Trócaire’s work in Latin America. Trócaire works in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Haiti, working with local communities to develop livelihoods, strengthen human rights and protect against humanitarian disasters. Along the way, our teams were delighted to show Billy some of the work he is helping to raise money for.


“Seeing first hand where the money for the fundraising is directly going and knowing that my charity cycle is genuinely helping people a lot less fortunate than me was something that I will never forget,” he says. “I have a renewed sense of the good in people - regardless of what country or background we are from, the vast majority of us are good people willing to help. I have been helped out by literally hundreds of people from all walks of life, so if I don't help strangers, especially touring cyclists, when I return then it would be seriously bad karma!”


It’s not too late to support Billy’s fundraising efforts and support Trócaire’s work in Latin America.

July 07, 2014

The shattered dreams of South Sudan

As South Sudan marks the third anniversary of its independence, Trócaire's Faith Kasina meets people living in camps outside the capital city to hear their stories. 
 
It was her disarming toothless smile that drew me to pick her from the bed on which she was laid, her petite body drenched in sweat from the midday heat. 
 
She is Madelina. Four months old.
 
She will never know her father. He was killed almost six months ago; another victim of the renewed ethnic clashes that have engulfed South Sudan.
 
Madelina, her five older siblings and her 30-year-old mother Zainab Rahma, now live in a UN camp for displaced families on the outskirts of Juba, the country’s capital city. Trócaire, in partnership with the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (DMI) Sisters, has distributed food items and supported psycho-social counselling to families living here.
 
“Smile for me,” Zainab calls out to her, a wide smile across her face. Madelina immediately obliges. 
 
“Most days I wake-up and think of killing my children and I so we can escape this life,” she tells me. “But then I see that smile and I choose to live.”
 
Zainab’s brave face does little to hide her anguish. She holds out an old picture of her and her three children. Then she goes quiet.
 
“This was just five years ago. Look how beautiful I was. We were happy. This was our life,” she says.
 
Zainab Rahma south sudan
Zabib Rahma 30, looks at an old picture of her family as her four-month-old daughter, Madelina, sleeps in her arms, at the UN House IDP camp, in South Sudan's capital, Juba. (Photo: Faith Kasina)
 
At the time, Zainab lived with her three children in neighbouring Uganda, while her husband worked in Juba. South Sudan was still marred with conflict, leading the family to spend time away from each other.
 
Then came 2011. South Sudan was declared independent. This only meant one thing – she could go back to her husband. They would finally be a family.
 
“That day, my husband called me. He was so happy he couldn’t talk,” she trails off, laughing heartily. “He was like a little boy. We talked about the children and made plans for us to return to Juba. We were coming home”.
 
A few months later and Zainab and the children had began settling into their new life in Juba. A family once again.
 
“We had a roof over our heads, food to eat, good education for the children and even dreamed of saving for the future,” she smiles faintly, staring into the distance. 
 
When South Sudan became the world’s newest country, the rest of the world, myself included, witnessed the joy, jubilation and immense hope that filled the streets.
 
Peter Malis, volunteering with the DMI Sisters, vividly remembers that day.
 
“I was there in the stadium, clad in my cultural wear, celebrating with the rest of the country,” he reminisces. “I have never felt as proud of my country as I did on that day. I was hopeful that life was going to be different.”
 
Fast forward to mid-December last year and the tables turned. A political feud between the country’s two top leaders quickly tore the nation along ethnic lines, reopening deep historical wounds of tribal conflict and war.
 
As one retired soldier, now living in a camp for displaced people in Nimule in the lush plains east of the country, told me recently, “the very people who fought for their freedom turned against each other”.
 
Nyapuka Gattoi, living a few metres from Zainab, can’t hide her cynicism.
 
“What is there to celebrate?” she asks, looking squarely at me as a mild sneer creeps up from her upper lip. “Last time I saw my husband was in December when we were running for our lives, away from Bentiu (Unity State). I don’t know if he is alive. I have children and can’t provide for them. Tell me, what is there to celebrate?
 
“South Sudan is still under war so we are not yet free. Maybe when peace returns and I can go back to my home, then I’ll be free.”
 
nyapuka gattoi south sudan
Nyapuka Gattoi, 26, and her one-year old daughter Nayagua, at their 'home' at the UN House IDP camp on Juba, South Sudan. Nyapuka fled her original home in Bentiu town, in the northern conflict-ridden state of Unity, six months ago.  She has not seen or heard from her husband since. (Photo: Faith Kasina)
 
In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the numerous efforts to broker a peaceful resolution to the crisis have borne little fruit, marred by allegations of dishonouring of signed agreements by the warring parties. 
 
On the frontlines, fighting is still ongoing. Lives are still being lost.
 
People are still fleeing their homes, seeking safety in displacement camps. Farms are still unploughed.
 
Yet, there is still hope.
 
“No one can deny that it is an ugly situation,” says Bishop Erkolano Tombe, Caritas’ Bishop Resident in the country. “But South Sudan has a great future. We have natural resources and great wealth and can benefit from these only if we are responsible with our freedom. It is painful, but it is passing.”
 
As Peter rightly concludes, “It is still our nation. We may be suffering now but it is still our nation.”
 
July 04, 2014

Kachin to Belfast – peace activists share stories

By Suzanne Keatinge, Head of Region, Asia


What does a priest from Myanmar, a former Republican combatant, and an ex-loyalist combatant have in common?  That’s what I was wondering, nervously, as I travelled to Belfast recently to hear about peace efforts in Northern Ireland.  I shouldn’t have worried.  

 
Trócaire had arranged for Father Paul Dwang, one of our partners from the northern state of Kachin, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), to hear the stories of two former protagonists in the Northern Ireland conflict, Gerry Foster and Alasdair Little. 
 
They are now peace activists working across the divided communities of Belfast.  We also learnt about the experiences of our host, Trocaire’s Northern Ireland Regional Director, Eithne McNulty, in mobilising women to play an important role in peace-making.  
 
In talking about violent conflicts as seemingly diverse as that of Northern Ireland and Myanmar, it didn’t take long to realise that there are many common themes, such as poverty, injustice and an imbalance of power.  The manipulation of civilians by powerful elites had particular resonance to our group. Father Paul explained that neither side - the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Myanmar military - is interested in finding a solution to the war, not least because it allows for the continued illegal extraction of rich natural resources. The need for the leaders to protect their status, wealth and power is very real.  
 
Such leaders tend to focus on recruiting and impressing young people, all too often the ‘cannon fodder’ of war. Young women and men become so vulnerable in times of conflict, and yet they are also the generation that hold the key to breaking the negative cycle of war. 

A child at a camp for displaced people in Kachin State, northern Myanmar

Caption: A child at a camp for displaced people in Kachin State, northern Myanmar. Conflict has displaced over 100,000 people. Church agencies are responding by providing shelter and food to people in the camps. (Photo: Eoghan Rice / Trócaire)

 

 
Gerry talked of being a young man in the bitterly divided streets of inner-city Belfast, where there were no jobs and no prospects. The attraction of joining the radical republican group, the INLA, were obvious to him. What did he have to lose when their leaders spoke of having ‘right’ on their side.   
 
Alasdair spoke of how the leadership used religion to reinforce this image of being ‘in the right’, as well as creating and manipulating stereotypes of the enemy.  He was taught to demonise ‘the other’, even though they were mainly young people like himself living in nearby streets. Over time, it became easier for him to blame ‘the other’ for his own sense of disenfranchisement and failings. It was only after years in prison that he came to the realisation, slowly and painfully, that he was being taught to demonise himself.  
 
Gerry and Alasdair told us their personal journeys: from committing acts of violence and having physical and psychological violence done to them, to finding their own paths to reconciliation.  It was immensely powerful.  As Eithne commented, she has heard these stories many times but it never fails to move her. To me, they embodied the difference between peace-building and what we call conflict transformation.  
 
Don’t get me wrong, I was shocked at hearing of the extreme violence and how it has shattered the lives of individuals, families and communities.  It was also daunting to hear of the painstaking individual journeys they both went through; how they had to find the courage to transform themselves before they could help their communities. 
 
It was also clear that there are no silver bullets when it comes to building peace.  Nor are there fairytale endings. There was a strong sense that these men were by no means at the end of their journey, but they inspired hope for the future.    
 
Gerry and Alasdair’s stories brought home the reality that unless a political peace process is underpinned by community-level peace building, then it will not succeed.  It takes individuals working tirelessly in their communities to counter the negative stereotypes of ‘the other’. These people must be willing to take very real risks and show true leadership. 
 
It reminded me of Trocaire’s work in Timor-Leste.  We officially closed our offices there in August 2013. At the closing ceremony we heard about our support to small groups, even individuals, during the darkest days of the Indonesian occupation. It was through simple acts of solidarity that we were able to give them courage to struggle on.  Some of them are today’s leaders in Timor-Leste.  
 
Trócaire continues to work in other violent conflicts today, like Somalia, South Sudan and the Palestinian Territory, striving to change attitudes and behaviour, not just the symptoms of war.  But as Alasdair spoke of trying to influence individuals, one by one, to bring about real reconciliation, it struck me that we are hugely challenged by the push to work to scale, to ensure value for money and to find evidence within ever shorter programme cycles.  I find it difficult to reconcile the two strands at times.  I remembered Justin Kilcullen, our former Director, at the closing of the office in Timor saying:  “Metrics never transform anything; people do.”
 
Alasdair spoke of the power of nature and neutral spaces to enable deep dialogue with oneself, as well as with former enemies.  He originally met Gerry in the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Wicklow.  I remember visiting the peace centre when I first came back to Ireland after many years working in Somalia.  My first thoughts were: isn’t this a bit of a luxury to bring people from all over the world to this beautiful secluded spot in the heart of Wicklow?  But it didn’t take long to appreciate the healing power that the stillness and neutrality of nature can have on individuals who are brought up to hate, to feel stressed, and to live off adrenaline for survival.  
 
Sadly, such physical spaces which supported Alasdair, Gerry and others in their search for peace are now closed, and funding for peacebuilding work is scarce now in the north.  Isn’t that a bit premature, I thought to myself, as Gerry and Alasdair took us to visit the so-called Belfast peace wall. They remarked wryly that this huge concrete and wire edifice that marks the boundaries between Catholic and Protestant communities has actually grown in length since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.  
 
The building of trust is another critical ingredient to conflict resolution. This was brought home by Eithne’s experiences in the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition political party, with the contribution of inspiring women like Monica McWilliams, a Trocaire Board member, who is currently Professor of Women’s Studies, based in the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster.  Their efforts ensured that women’s voices, so often excluded in political processes, were heard loud and clear.  And it was a powerful voice; one that got politicians to focus on the daily reality of families living in poverty, coping with violence and abuse in the home, and managing the impact of high alcoholism and unemployment. Above all, their politics spoke more to the language of human rights, placing human dignity and inclusion at the heart of the solution, rather than searching for it in the ideologies of religion, ethnicity and exclusion.

Members of a youth group in southern Myanmar, that have undergone gender training

Caption: Hongsar Htaw (28) and Manoing Rot (26) from Mon State in southern Myanmar, members of a youth group that has undergone gender training to encourage women to become more involved in decision-making processes. Men like Manoing encourage women to get involved in local organisations and to participate in their communities. (Photo: Eoghan Rice / Trócaire)

 
As Father Paul heads back to Kachin at the start of July, I wonder what he made of his short visit to Belfast.  He has been on his own journey of discovery in these last nine months in Ireland, studying for a Master’s Degree in development at Kimmage Development Studies Centre.  He talks now about wanting to do things differently when he returns. About the impotence of only providing humanitarian relief to the victims of conflict.  His organisation, Caritas Myanmar, provides life-saving assistance to over 100,000 conflict-displaced people but, he says, the real work lies in finding long-term solutions to the war.  
 
I get the distinct feeling that his journey to build peace in his community has been helped a little by a few short hours sharing stories over cheese sandwiches with courageous peace activists in Belfast.  I’m sure their paths will meet again. 

June 27, 2014

Uganda calling...

by Kieran Downey

Teacher Kieran Downey shares his experiences about visiting some of our projects in Uganda which benefited from funds from UKAID and generous donations from our supporters.

In April this year, I travelled to Uganda on a Trócaire-run trip as part of the educational investment the organisation makes every year to increase awareness of its work and allow people to see firsthand how the money raised is spent and invested. 
 
We visited projects in the areas of livelihoods, governance and human rights and gender-based violence. We were able to see how Trócaire invested in local welfare and development agencies to promote and extend the fundamental vision of Christ in the Gospels and the Church in its Social Teaching: the dignity of every human being and the right to fair and equitable access to resources. 
 
Staff and volunteers at Twizimbe Centre, Jinja with the teachers from Northern Ireland
Staff and volunteers at Twizimbe Centre, Jinja, with teachers from Northern Ireland
 
The first project we visited was in Jinja where the river Nile flows out from Lake Victoria. There where we met Sr Maureen and Sr Catherine, Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Africa at the Twizimbe Centre which is part-funded by Trócaire. 
 
Here the nuns with a small army of paid and unpaid volunteers work in four areas- adult literacy, community health, start-up businesses for widows and ‘learning for life’ – a sexual health and wellbeing course for primary and secondary school children in the outlying districts. 
 
We visited the Anglican school of St Apollo where the students told us of the work the centre had been doing in terms of educating them about their bodies, about the dangers posed by HIV and AIDS and the problem of human trafficking. 
 
We heard how the people had been ‘built up’ in education, in self-esteem and personal dignity. Their stories were both inspiring and humbling. In fact, that understanding of building people up was the very lynchpin idea that binds the work of Trócaire in all its aspects. 
 
Sr Maureen said that they decided not to invest in building toilet blocks and school buildings - as important as they are - but rather building up people. 
 
It is a long term investment in people and in their future, and indeed in the future of Uganda. 
 
We moved on from Jinja to Soroti, some four hours drive on roads that quickly ran out of tarmac and left us shuddering and swaying on roads of red mud. Our base for the next four days was Soroti and we met with workers from Socadido – the Diocesan office for welfare and development. We travelled out to a nearby (that meaning only two hours) model village where we met men and women, young and old. 
 
They wanted to put on a show for us and equally we must have been a novelty in their day but nonetheless the warmth of the welcome and the way in which we were embraced - literally and metaphorically - by the villagers, took us all aback. 
 
 In fact Augustine, the chairman of the local economic group talked of us as saviours for the fact that we had saved the old from illness, the clothed from nakedness and the young from malnourishment and illiteracy. Humbling. 
 
Listening to him and feeling the warmth of the welcome gave a new truth to the idea of this planet as a global village for as we were shown around their village we got an incredible insight into how life had been changed by the help of funds invested by Trócaire. 
 
The education about crop rotation and planting, the micro-financing afforded by Trócaire developing a series of “soft loans” – in which a loan of say £35 (!) would be organised and it would be paid back, with interest of 3% rather the usual 20% from Ugandan banks. The person would take this and invest it in seed or poultry and the loan itself would be repaid at 25p a week. The investment made would then start earning the family money with help from Socadido to get access to fruit, vegetable and animal markets in Soroti and beyond. 
 
On the morning of Holy Thursday we visited the Catholic Diocesan curial offices where we met Caroline, Geoffrey and Helen – catechists involved in the Ugandan Catholic Church’s programme of combating gender based violence. We met with their staff and learnt about the methodology, the problems encountered and the successes they are having in changing people’s perceptions around domestic violence. 
 
We even took part in a role play where the first set of statements read out from various family and societal voices enforced old perceptions of acceptance of the imbalance of power in relationships and the acceptance of violence as a part of life. Then there was a second set of statements of how figures in the family and society can speak up and out about violence in the home. To see their work drove home for me that for these people to keep working I need to keep supporting.  
 
The week was a humbling and uplifting experience – one I will never forget. It was an experience of people who, having been given a hand up, are absolutely ready and able to fulfil their own potential. 
 
I want to finish by assuring you that your generosity to Trócaire is changing people’s lives and working to build people up and in so doing affecting the future generations. 
 

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