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Day of the Girl is critical, but support is needed year-round, say campaigners | International Day of the Girl

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International Day of the Girl is critical in highlighting girls’ rights globally, but action is urgently needed to reverse the damage of the pandemic, campaigners have said.

“Girls who were once hopeful about their futures say to us: ‘We’re not sure if we’re going to achieve our dreams now, if we’re ever going to go back to school’,” said Emily Wilson, chief executive of UK and Uganda-based organisation Irise International, which works to combat period poverty.

The Day of the Girl, celebrated each year on 11 October, is core to the charity’s funding drives, with donations on the day contributing up to 10% of its yearly income.

“There is always a risk that girls’ rights becomes an add-on,” said Wilson. “So these mainstream peaks in engagement on days like today have really helped change attitudes. The Day of the Girl gives us the opportunity to share our reports with policymakers, and push the issues we work on all year more centre-stage.”

Mwangala Mukelabai, Zambian representative for the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), who is taking over the NGO’s Twitter account to share her journey of activism for girls’ education, agreed. “Girl child day is important to me because it is on this day that we make sure the voices of girls are heard and highlight the challenges that they face to the world,” she said.

This year’s International Day of the Girl, which was adopted by the UN in 2011, makes closing the digital gender gap its focus.

Maliha Abidi, a 25-year-old Pakistan-born artist and neuroscience student, is launching Women Rise, a collection of 10,000 non-fungible tokens (NFTs), unique digital assets stored on blockchain that can be bought and sold online, representing the work of female activists, artists, coders and scientists.

Maliha Abidi
Maliha Abidi is launching Women Rise to help women and girls become better represented in the growing field of digital artistic assets. Photograph: Courtesy of Maliha Abidi

“When I was looking through pages of different NFTs, one thing was so clear: this is a guys’ field,” said Abidi. “I only connected with very few women.”

Abidi said she hoped her project would drive more girls into the tech and blockchain industries. But in a world where men are up to 50% more likely to access the internet than women, more work needed to be done to ensure girls don’t miss out on the technology boom.

Abidi said governments and institutions must prioritise girls at risk of dropping out of education early, if the gender digital divide is to be closed. “When we talk about the digital world in connection to girls’ education, or girls in general, it’s not just about connecting girls to the internet.” Leaders must ensure girls interested in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects can stay in those fields, all the way from school to university to a job, she said. “It’s about helping them reach that finishing point.”

Aava Murto
Teenager Aava Murto assumed the post of Finnish prime minister for 24 hours on Day of the Girl 2020. Photograph: Heikki Saukkomaa/AP

On this year’s Day of the Girl, campaigners have also called for urgent action to undo – or at least minimise – the harm caused by the pandemic.

Many countries have made great strides in girls’ rights over the past 10 years. In 2015, the UN made gender equality one of its 17 sustainable development goals for 2030. In 2014, the African Union launched a continent-wide campaign to end child marriage, encouraging its 55 member states to pass laws, make action plans and support communities.

In the run-up to Day of the Girl last October, girls’ equality charity Plan International kickstarted its #FreeToBeOnline campaign. It led to more than 66,000 people signing an open letter urging social media companies to protect girls from abuse and harassment.

Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp agreed to team up with young people to discuss solutions for girls’ online safety.

In 2017, 24 girls in Ecuador, supported by Plan International, drafted a resolution addressing violence against girls to the national assembly.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously curtailed hard-fought gains.

Wilson said in Uganda, Irise has had to cancel its menstruation education programmes in schools, which remain closed. The organisation has instead diverted resources to tackling the rise in child marriage and teenage pregnancies among the estimated 10 million Ugandan girls who have missed out on an education since last March.

Olutope Olatilewa, the Nigeria-based founder of mentoring programme African ChangeMakers Women Network, said: “Society is confused about where to place the girl child; she is caught in between the categories of women’s rights and children’s rights. But little visibility is given to girls’ rights specifically.”

Her mentoring scheme across 54 African countries aims to build leadership skills. “But even that is not enough – we are just scratching the surface of what we must do.”

The global network Girls Not Brides said the spike in donations and support for girls received on 11 October needs to continue throughout the rest of the year for there to be long-term change.

Children protest against child marriage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13 November 2018.
Children protest against child marriage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13 November 2018. The pandemic has hampered progress towards ending the practice. Photograph: Ahmad Yusni/EPA-EFE

While rates of child marriage have gone down over the past decade, the decline is not fast enough to end the practice by 2030, said Nerida Nthamburi, a Kenya-based partnership officer for Girls Not Brides. The group estimates that progress must become six times faster to meet the UN target.

The Day of the Girl is critical to the movement, said Nthamburi, because “it creates a deliberate platform that focuses attention on the seldom-heard voices of girls who know best – girls who have felt the pain and live through the risk [of child marriage] every day”.

“Unless we accelerate progress as a global community – governments, leaders, parents and religious leaders – we are likely to see a rollback,” said Nthamburi.



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Too hot to handle: can our bodies withstand global heating?

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Extreme heat can kill or cause long-term health problems – but for many unendurable temperatures are the new normal

The impact of extreme heat on the human body is not unlike what happens when a car overheats. Failure starts in one or two systems, and eventually it takes over the whole engine until the car stops.

That’s according to Mike McGeehin, environmental health epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When the body can no longer cool itself it immediately impacts the circulatory system. The heart, the kidneys, and the body become more and more heated and eventually our cognitive abilities begin to desert us – and that’s when people begin fainting, eventually going into a coma and dying.”

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Polish TV sabotages Tusk press briefing

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Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk clashed with Polish propaganda outlet TVP in Warsaw Tuesday. A TVP reporter asked him why Tusk’s party wanted Poland to leave the EU. “This is beyond imagination … I won’t answer such absurdities,” Tusk, whose Civic Platform party is pro-EU, said, before a prickly exchange ensued. TVP also muted MEPs who said Poland should face EU rule-of-law sanctions in its coverage of a Strasbourg debate.

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Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted ‘Mercedes’ frigate | USA

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The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.

Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”

At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.

Odyssey workers hoisting a cannon from the 'HMS Victory' shipwreck in 2009.
Odyssey workers hoisting a cannon from the ‘HMS Victory’ shipwreck in 2009.

The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.

The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.

“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”

The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.

In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.

Spanish Civil Guard officers watching the "Ocean Alert," a vessel owned by Odyssey Marine Explorations, near Gibraltar in 2007.
Spanish Civil Guard officers watching the “Ocean Alert,” a vessel owned by Odyssey Marine Explorations, near Gibraltar in 2007.ANTON MERES (REUTERS)

Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.

These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.

The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.

Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”

Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”

The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”

Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.

After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.

While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”

Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.



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