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‘To survive, I must appear fearless’: the former nun helping India’s garment workers fight sexual violence | India

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Many years ago, when Thivya Rakini was working as a domestic violence activist helping women to escape abusive husbands across the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, she took a pair of scissors and cut her long black hair back to the nape of her neck.

“Without my hair, I suddenly looked very frightening to a lot of people who couldn’t believe a woman would cut away her femininity like that,” she says. “I was sending a signal that that those men shouldn’t try to mess with me. Inside, I am really a very tender-hearted person but to survive I have learned that I must appear fearless.”

Rakini – a former nun, divorcee, domestic violence survivor and now union leader – has done a lot with her 42 years. She smashed cultural taboos and became a social pariah for choosing to leave her marriage and bring up her son as a single mother in a remote part of a deeply traditional and caste-bound state.

Now, in her role as president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), Tamil Nadu’s only female-led garment workers union, she has turned her attention to the multibillion-pound global fashion industry.

Such is her reputation locally that, despite her hair growing long again, her appearance is often enough to strike fear into the hearts of garment factory owners across the Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu where the TTCU is based. “When they see me, they turn pale and run inside,” she laughs. “They tell their workers: ‘Don’t you be talking to her – she’s trouble.’ They try to shut their gates against me but I’ll always find a way in if there are women inside that need our help.”

Rakini talks to textile workers in Thennapatty village, Dindigul city.
Rakini talks to textile workers in Thennapatty village, Dindigul city. Photograph: Sivaram V/The Guardian

Since 2015, Rakini and the TTCU have been fighting what she describes as a “plague” of rape, harassment and sexual violence that has infested global garment supply chains and is being perpetrated on poor women making clothing destined for high streets across the UK.

“As a woman, everything I have done with my life is a source of shame to someone,” she says. “But it has given me freedom to fight on issues such as gender-based violence that are still covered in silence and stigma. I am not afraid to take it out of the shadows and say: ‘This is wrong.’”

Tamil Nadu, a major centre of Indian textile production, is one of the country’s economic powerhouses and home to tens of thousands of garment factories and cotton mills. It is also notorious for the poor wages and bleak conditions imposed on its largely female workforce.

Rakini (centre) with colleagues at the TTCU’s offices.
Rakini (centre) with colleagues at the TTCU’s offices. Photograph: Sivaram V/The Guardian

When Rakini joined the TTCU in 2014, it was a nascent organisation with just a few union leaders trying to help women organise and call for better conditions in their factories. She came on board to help deal with the huge levels of domestic violence that workers were facing. The union office soon become a makeshift shelter for women and their children who had nowhere else to go.

“At that time, we were blocked from most workplaces because many factories didn’t allow workers to join unions and the unions that were active were all run by men,” says Rakini. “Yet women suffering from domestic violence were also telling us about the terrible things they were experiencing in the workplace at the hands of their supervisors and male employees. So it became our mission to try and put a stop to this.”

In her seven years at the TTCU, Rakini has seen enough to pour scorn on the insistence of many global fashion brands that they do everything in their power to protect the millions of poor black and brown women working in garment supply chains. “The truth is that sexual harassment, rape, even murder has become part and parcel of the lives of women working in garment factories in my district,” she says. “International brands who buy from Tamil Nadu know very well that women in their supply chains are exploited to the core, they know the impact that their production targets and their poverty wages have on the workers’ lives. Their auditors know their inspections are meaningless. Their whole system is a lie.”

The TTCU began taking on cases of sexual harassment and abuse that none of the larger unions would touch. “In those factories, the women have no power. They are often the main breadwinners for their family and although their pay is meagre, they must keep their jobs at all costs. They feel they have to do whatever their bosses demand of them,” Rakini explains. “When we first started going to the factories to complain, the management would just kick us out. They didn’t care.”

Just over a year ago, in February 2021, Rakini got a phone call from the family of a young garment worker called Jeyasre Kathiravel, who had failed to come home from her shift at Natchi Apparels, a local clothes factory supplying brands including H&M. Rakini says that she had already approached Natchi Apparels in 2019 after women complained about being sexually harassed, but had been told not to get involved in factory business.

After Kathiravel’s disappearance, Rakini and the TTCU say they once again tried to approach Natchi Apparels, this time about Kathiravel’s disappearance but were rebuffed. Four days later, her body was found in farmland close to her village.

Rakini outside the home of murdered textile worker Jeyasre Kathiravel.
Rakini outside the home of murdered textile worker Jeyasre Kathiravel. Photograph: The Guardian

Her supervisor at Natchi Apparels was arrested shortly afterwards and her grieving family claimed that he had been inflicting relentless sexual harassment and abuse on their daughter in the months leading up to her death, but that she had felt unable to stop what was happening. He has since confessed to her murder and is in jail awaiting trial.

In the weeks after the murder, despite threats and intimidation from the factory management, Rakini and the TTCU leaders spent weeks travelling between garment worker villages, taking testimonies from dozens of other women who said that they had been raped, coerced and intimidated into sexual relationships with their managers at Natchi Apparels.

At the time, the management at Natchi Apparels denied that there was any violence against female workers at its factory. It has since said that while it still disputes some of the claims, it has taken all the allegations seriously and as a result has “created systems, processes, and procedures to protect and promote the rights of female workers”.

“It was a very painful time because the workers said that they were coming under a lot of pressure from the factory over Jeysare’s death and they were scared of losing their jobs, yet they wanted to speak out about what they were experiencing as they were all terrified they would end up like her,” says Rakini. “Asking women to tell their stories of gender-based violence is a big responsibility and we understood the risks that they were taking and the trust that they were putting in us.”

Rakini with textile workers at Thennapatty village.
Rakini with textile workers at Thennapatty village. Photograph: Sivaram V/The Guardian

The sad truth, Rakini says, is that there is nothing particularly unusual about the levels or severity of sexual violence that were found at Natchi Apparels. She says that over the past five years, the TTCU has received dozens of reports of deaths, rape, physical assault and sexual harassment from workers at garment factories across the district. Yet the impact of the statements collected by Rakini and her TTCU colleagues in the weeks after Kathiravel’s death has been immense.

As a result of those testimonies and an independent investigation into sexual violence at the factory, its client H&M agreed to enter into negotiations with the TTCU and international labour groups. The TTCU helped negotiate a series of agreements at Natchi Apparels with both H&M and Eastman Exports, the company that owns Natchi. Last month, a year after Kathiravel’s death, a series of legally binding agreements that aim to eliminate all gender-based violence and harassment from the factory floor were signed.

“This is the first agreement of its kind in India and has the power to save women’s lives,” says Rakini. TTCU members will sit on the internal complaints committee and act as monitors on the factory floor, to supervise the supervisors and to help ensure a zero-tolerance approach to violence in the workplace.

Since the news of the agreement that has been reached at Natchi, the TTCU has been inundated with requests from women at other factories begging it to come to their aid. “This is just the start,” she says.

Rakini’s fearlessness in taking on the might of Tamil Nadu’s garment industry is extraordinary considering the mafia-like hold that textile companies exert over garment-worker communities. She and her TTCU colleagues have faced death threats and harassment and she says that she was nearly driven off the road while riding her scooter, when investigating the disappearance of two workers from a cotton-spinning mill.

Yet she is undaunted. “In my own life, all my struggles I’ve faced alone,” she says. “Now, at TTCU, for these women, I want to be the person I needed when I had nobody to turn to.”

Rakini was born in a small rural village in Dindigul, in the south of Tamil Nadu. Her father was a brick kiln worker turned local entrepreneur who ran a biscuit factory out of their home. One of five daughters, she was the only one to get an education after she waged a campaign of attrition against her parents to be allowed to go to the local convent school.

“I greatly admired my father but we were all afraid of him,” she says. “He was very strict and it was very unusual for daughters to be educated. All my sisters had left school by the time they were 10 so it was a struggle to convince him.”

Rakini persevered, even going on hunger strike. When her father finally relented, he went around the community asking people to help raise money to pay her fees. She loved the routine and discipline of the convent school, as well as the faith and serenity of the nuns. When she was 18, she decided to join the religious order and spent seven years training to become a nun at the convent. Yet, one year before her training ended, she grew disillusioned with the order after witnessing her abbess turn away a desperate woman and her baby who came begging for help.

“I realised that I couldn’t stay in a place where they would turn away the most vulnerable,” she says. “I felt a duty to God and to my family, but a greater duty to that woman who came in desperation but was turned away.”

When she left the order and tried to return home, her family turned against her. “My father said to my mother: ‘I’ll cut her into pieces,’ because I had brought great shame on them,” she says.

Rakini with Jayasre Kathiravel’s parents.
Rakini with Jayasre Kathiravel’s parents. Photograph: Sivaram V/The Guardian

Rakini further enraged her community when she decided to marry a man without her family’s permission. “It was unheard of for a woman to do such a thing. It was seen as a great insult to my family,” she says. “After that, I wasn’t a daughter to them any more.”

She had a child but, soon after, she says her husband and his family started brutally beating her. “I hadn’t brought a dowry so my mother-in-law said I was worthless,” she says. She claims they poured boiling food over her and kicked her on the ground as her baby son lay beside her.

“One day, I just thought: ‘They’ll kill me and I have so much more living to do,’” she says. “I left the house and the next day I went to my son’s creche and picked him up and we ran away. Since then, it has just been the two of us. Over the years we have faced great harassment and stigma, and I have struggled to support us both as a single mother, but I have never once regretted my decision. I am the only one that runs my own life.”

Now, her goals as president of the TTCU are to extend the union’s reach into more factories across the region and get other international brands buying from factories in Tamil Nadu to sign similar agreements as that now at place at Natchi Apparels. “We are a very small union, in a very remote area, far away from where most of the clothes our members make are sold. Yet we have shown what can be achieved if you act fearlessly in the face of oppression and refuse to be silenced,” she says.

“I have known my own power my whole life. Now, I want other women to understand that they, too, deserve to live a life where they don’t have to be scared. We are all human and our voices all deserve to be heard.”

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Russian Intranasal Vaccine Effective Against All Coronavirus Strains – Developers

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MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The new Russian nasal vaccine against COVID-19 has demonstrated effectiveness against all variants of the coronavirus, Alexander Gintsburg, the director of Russia’s Gamaleya Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, which developed the vaccine, told Sputnik.

“We’ve observed that the currently available and already registered intranasal vaccine is demonstrating high efficiency in protecting against all strains [of the coronavirus], forming mucosal immunity to the pathogen,” Gintsburg said.

The Russian Health Ministry registered the world’s first intranasal vaccine against COVID-19 in April.

Gintsburg told Sputnik in March that the new vaccine was effective against the Omicron variant. He said that the new vaccine was going to be used as a booster, in addition to the Sputnik V shots, until there was enough evidence that this new intranasal method gives the same level of protection as an injection.

In November of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to become a volunteer in the testing of the new vaccine and said that he felt no side effects after getting the procedure.

Russia became the first country in the world to register a vaccine against COVID-19, dubbed Sputnik V, in August 2020. The Russian Health Ministry has also registered a new, Sputnik M, vaccine for adolescents aged 12-17. Clinical trials of Sputnik shots for children aged 6-11 are currently underway in Moscow, according to Gintsburg.



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Nancy Pelosi: Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan revives the debate on international recognition of the island | International

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Nancy Pelosi’s brief and controversial visit to Taiwan could not have incited more contrasting reactions from the governments on either side of the Formosa Strait. President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration received the speaker of the United States House of Representatives with everything but a fireworks show, projecting flamboyant welcome messages on the island’s tallest building. Beijing, on the other hand, responded to what it considered a “blatant provocation” with a week of unprecedented military exercises. The superpower has also cut ties with Washington on key topics and recently published the first official report on Taiwan in two decades. Its aggressive reaction has brought to the forefront the debate about international recognition of the island, which functions as a state but is recognized by only 14 countries.

“My friends and I were very excited for a figure like this to come. It’s good to attract attention,” says Sun Hui’an by phone. “We are used to threats from China. We can’t let it dictate our lives,” adds the 29-year-old nurse.

Formosa was the place to which nationalist leaders and around a million people fled after the victory of the Communist Army in 1949 in the civil war. While in mainland China Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang (the formation that had presided over the country between 1927 and 1949), established a government in exile in Taiwan. Not until the 1970s did the United Nations and most Western countries began to recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China, to the detriment of Taipei.

Taiwan is not a special administrative region of China like Hong Kong and Macau. It has a democratic government, a constitution and an army of 300,000 soldiers. It ranks as the 21st largest economy in the world, and it is the leading producer in the semiconductor industry. In 2019, it became the first place in Asia to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.

For the Chinese government, the island is a headache. The Asian giant considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory, whose “reunification” is, in the words of President Xi Jinping, “a historic mission of the Communist Party.” In recent years, especially since Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency in 2016, Chinese authorities have spoken with increasing assertiveness about a future unification, for which they have not ruled out the use of force. The rapport between the Tsai Administration and the United States, as evidenced by the recent visit of the American politician, has infuriated Beijing. On Wednesday, China published the first white paper on Taiwan in 22 years, drawing far more red lines than previous publications from 1993 and 2000.

Beijing’s discourse has never quite caught on across the strait. The two main Taiwanese parliamentary groups hold two radically opposed ideas about nationalism. While the Blue Coalition, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), aspires to an eventual unification with the People’s Republic, the Green Coalition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), prefers to distance the island from Beijing.

Xulio Ríos, director of the Chinese Policy Observatory, points out that, however, that “the nuances are important”: “In the KMT there is everything from an intense blue –which defends unification and the idea of China – to a sky-blue, which understands that there are two different realities on both sides of the strait. The PDP advocated for independence, but today it does not defend it so aggressively and is committed to maintaining the status quo.”

Although historically opposed, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have sometimes found ways to collaborate and prevent secession. KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia is currently on a 17-day trip to the mainland to boost cross-border communication. “The cooperation between the KMT and the CCP really picked up momentum in 2008, with the victory of Ma Ying-jeou [KMT] in the elections. This made possible a rapprochement between the business and political elites of the mainland and Taiwan,” says Ríos.

Maintaining the status quo

That approach was cut short in 2014, when a group of protesters occupied parliament to denounce the approval, without bipartisan debate, of a controversial trade agreement with China. “The Sunflower Movement put the brakes on a whole process of rapprochement, which had generated the expectation of a possibility of peaceful unification through dialogue,” says Ríos. “After PDP’s victory with an absolute majority in 2016 is completely the opposite, a completely opposite path opened,” he adds.

Despite the two trends, the surveys carried out biannually by the Center for Electoral Studies of National Chengchi University (Taipei) since 1994 show that the vast majority of the 23 million Taiwanese are committed to maintaining the status quo. In its latest poll, from July, those in favor of unification are few (1.3%) and falling, while those in favor of declaring independence (5.1%) have also lost steam.

“My parents and I share the same opinion: we don’t care who rules Taiwan, but we don’t want to lose our freedoms. My grandparents and my parents had hopes for the principle of one country, two systems, but after what happened in Hong Kong we know that it is not viable,” says Wu, 32, who prefers to identify himself with a pseudonym.

Deng Xiaoping devised the one country, two systems model in the late 1980s. The goal was to ensure conformity to the idea that there is but one China, while ensuring that those areas that had developed their own economic systems could keep them under Chinese rule. The idea, originally conceived for Taiwan, has never been accepted by the island’s political parties.

Taiwanese fear that the idea’s acceptance will bring an erosion of democracy. China had agreed with the United Kingdom to guarantee Hong Kong’s system of freedoms until 2047. But after the 2019 protests, Beijing has become intransigent, with the approval of the draconian National Security Law and with an electoral reform that ended up placing Beijing-backed candidate John Lee as head of government in May.

“Once you visit the Chinese mainland, if you are green, you turn dark green. If you are blue, you go green,” Wu says, summarizing the Taiwanese’s misgivings. But given the obvious difference in opinion that has persisted in high political circles, the most intelligent response seems to be the one reflected by the polls. When asked what he would choose between preserving the status quo or moving towards complete autonomy from Beijing, Wu does not hesitate: “Independence does not deserve a war.”

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‘The Taliban no longer wanted to kill me. Now they wanted to marry me’ | Women’s rights and gender equality

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The day the Taliban entered my city last August, I started to receive renewed threats from Taliban commanders who wanted to punish me for my work as a news journalist. I was forced to leave my home that day, amid the loud explosions of an ongoing battle, hiding under a burqa, and praying to survive the journey.

What I did not know then was that this journey would continue for the next year.

Every few weeks, I moved from province to province, sometimes living in the heart of cities, other times hiding out in remote villages. In the first few days, I stayed at my uncle’s house in Sari Pul province, but once the local Taliban learned he was harbouring a fugitive, we had to leave in the middle of the night.

I went to Mazar-i-Sharif city in Balkh, and then took the road to Kabul, passing through Samangan, Baghlan and Parwan provinces. We were stopped at checkpoints in every province, and every time my heart would pound inside my chest. Luckily, I was under a chadari [the full Afghan burqa] and passed through checkpoints undetected.

In Kabul, the very air had shifted; there was fear and dread, alongside celebrations, as Taliban fighters from all over the country gathered in the capital. With the help of some friends, I was moved to a safe house, where I spent the next three months attempting to find ways to leave the country, but seldom even leaving the compound I was hiding in. The Taliban would launch random raids in the neighbourhood, looking for fugitives like me.

Somehow, our compound evaded suspicion, but when the number of raids increased, I knew I would have to leave Kabul soon.

In December 2021, I heard the news that my cousin had been killed by the Taliban. He was a policeman and often clashed with the Taliban during the years of conflict. Like me, he had been hiding for months, looking for a way to leave the country, but was caught and killed. I broke down, not just in grief over his loss, but also in incredible pain over what my life had turned into.

I decided to go back to my province, but did not go home because I didn’t want to risk my family’s lives. I hid at the home of another relative, but being so close to my family again made me homesick. I yearned for my mother’s embrace; I hadn’t seen her in months.

One day, I met my mother in a crowded marketplace. We hugged each other tight, and I cried, but she gave me strength. I knew I couldn’t give up now.

Over the next few months, I started weaving carpets to help support myself and my family. Since the Taliban takeover, we had not only lost income but my life in exile was costing my parents, who had already sacrificed so much to raise me and now had to support me. It was hard labour, and I developed rashes and sores on my hands, but it helped my family and took my mind off the threats I was still receiving.

Then the threats from the Taliban changed. They no longer wanted to kill me. They wanted me to marry one of their commanders. They reached out to my parents and community elders, pressuring them to give me away in marriage.

I couldn’t believe it was now happening to me. In the past, I covered stories of the Taliban imposing forced marriages on young girls. Now I was one of the women I had reported about last year.

When I refused, they sent me photos of AK-47s and pistols, threatening to kidnap me, and kill my parents. I blocked their numbers and deleted WhatsApp but they still found ways to send me threats. Eventually, I took out my sim card and broke it into pieces. I was terrified of what they would do to me, or worse, to my family.

So in July, with the help of friends, I made one more attempt to leave the country. First, with the help of my father, I moved to Mazar-i-Sharif, and then we took the road to Kabul again. I carried medical certificates, and every time we were stopped, we would say I was going to Kabul for treatment. I was nervous throughout the journey because the Taliban were more brutal than before.

Eventually we made it to Kabul, where I met with other women like myself. Together, under the pretext of seeking medical help, we were able to get on a flight leaving for a neighbouring country.

I am somewhat safer now, but not out of danger. I barely sleep because I fear for my family, who are still in Afghanistan. They are already being shamed because I ran away. A young unmarried daughter leaving by herself is considered very dishonourable in Afghan culture.

But I am fortunate in the support I have received from my parents, at great personal risk. They always prioritised my passion, my happiness, and now my security and future. Contrary to popular belief, many Afghan fathers would, like mine, rather face societal dishonour and threats than deny their daughters opportunities for a better future.

I appeal to our international allies to empower such Afghan families, particularly the women. We worked so hard to attain values of equality and freedom and have lost the most in the last year. But we are still resisting, and we are seeking allies to support us and amplify our voices.

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