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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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Ukraine war: Biden pledges more aid for Ukraine at close of ‘transformative’ NATO summit | Spain

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At the close of a NATO summit in Madrid that world leaders have described as “transformative,” US President Joe Biden announced a new $800 million package of military aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems, artillery, ammunition and counter-battery radar.

The announcement came a day after the US leader pledged to boost America’s defense and deterrence capabilities on the European continent. “The US is doing exactly what I said we would do if Putin invaded, enhance our force posture in Europe,” said Biden. “Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance […] but he’s getting exactly what he did not want.”

At the two-day gathering, which brought together around 40 heads of state and government, leaders agreed on long-term support for Ukraine and on a new Strategic Concept, a document that describes how the Alliance will address threats and challenges in its security environment in the coming years.

Both Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored one of the main achievements of the two-day gathering, getting Turkey to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland’s request to join the alliance following decades of non-alignment.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.Valeria Mongelli (Bloomberg)

Formal invitations are being extended, but the process is not over and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned on Thursday that both Nordic countries will have to keep their promises in connection with their stance on Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists. This includes a pledge by Sweden to extradite 73 individuals.

On Tuesday, Stoltenberg had said the goal of the summit was to chart a blueprint for NATO “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world” marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a “fundamental shift” in NATO’s approach to defense.

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Zebras, giraffes … and a cycle race through the Maasai Mara | Global development

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In the world of long-distance running, east Africans have long been the dominant force, and soon they may also be setting the pace in the whitest of elite sports: cycling. This month, the Migration Gravel Race (MGR) brought together 100 of the world’s top cyclists in a four-day showdown on the rocky, red dirt roads of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. With a third of the entrants from east Africa, it was a rare opportunity for the region’s riders to show they can rival the best.

“Cycling is a very Eurocentric sport,” says Mikel Delagrange, the prime mover behind the event. “In over 100 years of the world championship, only three athletes outside of Europe have ever won, and they came from the US and Australia.”

For 11 years, Delagrange, a human rights lawyer, worked mostly in central and east Africa, for the international criminal court in The Hague. He quit last year and now works with the UN in Palestine.

“The obstacle for east African riders is that they lack access to international competition,” he says. “You might be the best in your neighbourhood but you won’t progress if you’re only beating people in your neighbourhood.

Two cyclists on a dusty dirt trail through vegetation
Two riders on stage 3, which finished in the wildest section of the race with no access to internet and the sound of hyenas at night. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

“But if we send an east African to an international race, we’re spending an unbelievable amount of money on visas because everyone thinks they’re a migrant, then on flights, plus staying in Europe is prohibitively expensive for most.

“After a lot of consultation, we thought: instead of clawing at the door, why don’t we bring international competition here?”

Against a backdrop of acacias and euphorbia candelabra trees, amid the zebras, giraffes, impalas and wildebeest of the savannah, the four-day race takes riders along 650km of rough roads, climbing above 3,000 metres. Each day, before the course is cleared by Maasai motorcycle sweepers, dressed in their traditional red plaid blankets, a helicopter goes ahead to check for elephants and buffalo.

The Migration Gravel Race
There would be no race without the local crew, led by Masai chief Saliton.

“What Mikel is doing is giving east African riders a home-based platform, not a European one,” says Kenyan cyclist David Kinjah. “They get a chance to compete against the best, in their country.”

Organising a travelling band of 100 cyclists in a region that lacks infrastructure is a challenge. All the logistics, from security to cooking to building the campsites, is done with support from local Maasai.

Last year, Delagrange set up the Amani team – eight men and four women from the top cycling clubs in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. “Amani has changed my life, but not just mine,” says Suleiman Kangangi, 33, a Kenyan cyclist. “This is a big deal for east African riders. We selected the best for this race, and they know there’s something to aim for.”

Nancy Akinyi, 32, another Kenyan cyclist, says: “It’s not just about bringing these people here to compete, it’s to prepare these young riders for what could be their future if they excel. Thanks to Amani, we can send riders from east Africa and show we can do it. If you go to the world championship, you don’t see black people there.

Jordan Schleck battles through a puddle from earlier rain during the Queen stage, stage 2 of the men’s race.
Jordan Schleck battles through a puddle from earlier rain during the Queen stage, stage 2 of the men’s race.

“Amani is special because now black people can see that we can be pros. It’s unusual to see people from the northern part of Africa – I’m going to say black people – doing so well,” she says.

“It started here in east Africa, but now I get emails from women in Congo, Tanzania and even Lesotho who say they want to join the team.”

Non-African riders, who include big names such as Lachlan Morton from Australia, Italian cyclist Mattia de Marchi and Lael Wilcox from the US, paid €1,250 (£1,075) to enter, some of which goes towards funding the Amani team.

Everyone is racing for fun and glory; there is no prize money.

John Kariuki of team Amani stands on the winner’s stand at the 2022 Migration Gravel Race.
John Kariuki of team Amani wins the 2022 Migration Gravel Race, with Jordan Schleck and Mattia de Marchi. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

“The Europeans didn’t expect the African riders would be so tough to beat,” says Kinjah. “When we compete in Europe, everything is different: the food, the language, the roads. This affects your performance.”

The home advantage changes the odds. On the eve of the first stage, Delagrange thanks the non-Africans for coming, then adds: “Just for a change, you’re going to be the people who stand out and don’t speak the language.”

The fast-growing sport of gravel racing, essentially putting mountain bike tyres on high-end €10,000 road bikes, is more open and democratic than road racing. Like a marathon, anyone can line up with the best.

“What you have here – where you can sit around the campfire after a race and chat with people from all walks of life, make new friends and also hammer each other for five hours on the road every day – that doesn’t exist in the majority of races,” says Morton, who finished fifth overall, behind three Amani riders. “It’s an experience that’s so much more fulfilling. I’d come back in a heartbeat.

“In an event like this, the bullshit fades away. It’s like, here’s the start line, here’s the finish, go for it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all going to sleep in tents and we’re all going to eat the same food, so let’s get on with it.”

Local Maasai show their support.
Local Maasai show their support. Photograph: Migrasaltlakephoto.nl

Wilcox, who once rode 3,000km from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, to reach the start line of the 4,500km Tour de Canada, and then broke the women’s record by four days, is another fan: “It’s cool that there’s a really good women’s field here. They’ve put a lot of effort into inviting women and making them feel like they belong. It’s good to see.”

Juliet Elliott, a 44-year-old cycling pro, says: “A race like this, where we all race together but there are separate podiums, that’s pretty cool. If I’d had to do road races against guys, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but gravel is more open. In these long-distance disciplines, women tend to do better.”

Xaverine Nirere (left) and Nancy Akinyi of the Amani women’s team.
From left: Xaverine Nirere and Florence Nakaggwa of team Amani; Violette Neza has a refreshment break. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

Delagrange says they had the good luck to be ready with a concrete proposal when the Black Lives Matter movement made some realise that “racial disparity is a thing, and continues to be”. There was some overdue reflection in cycling, he says, and many “were looking for a fig leaf to cover how white the sport is. We acted as a hub for corporations to know where to direct their resources.”

He believes the industry is beginning to understand that it’s not diverse enough to be considered an international sport. “Imagine if running was still just Roger Bannister. We aren’t pushing the limits of human capability. Without allowing the rest of the world to play this game, we still don’t know what can be done on a bike.”

The idea that east African cyclists can hold their own against the best was entirely vindicated. Amani’s John Kariyuki was the overall winner over the four stages. Two of his teammates, Jordan Schleck Ssekanwagi and Kangangi, came third and fourth. Fifteen of the top 20 finishers were Africans.

Xaverine Nirere catches her breath on stage three
Xaverine Nirere catches her breath on stage three

Distance rider Marin de Saint Exupéry, from Switzerland, says it’s the first time he’s raced against Africans. “I can’t keep up with this pace,” he says. “I was really attracted to the idea of this project, and met some of the team when they came to Switzerland last year. We shouldn’t need a project like this, but we do.”

Kinjah, 51, who finished 14th, believes many sporting projects in Africa fail because they have a European mentality and don’t understand the culture. “This project is different because they take the best from several countries,” he says. “They bring unity by putting these good riders in one team. Some of these guys have never been in the Maasai Mara or seen an elephant. Now they are having an adventure in their own country – and racing against the best in the world.”

“The scale is small,” Delagrange admits. “Right now, we have 12 athletes whose lives we’d like to improve through opportunities. We’re trying to make it easier for those outside east Africa to invest in great human beings. Maybe we will have those breakout athletes who will change the face of cycling. You’ve got to start somewhere.

“I think many Europeans still cling to a LiveAid mentality. People saw a bunch of things in the 80s, and they’re, like: OK, that’s what Africa is like. If you always see people in a disempowered position, it will reinforce your subconscious view of them. But when people come and meet athletes who kick their ass, they don’t see disempowered people, they see real competitors.

“Hopefully, after four days, they go home with a different view of what Africa is about.”

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Amado Carrillo Fuentes: Mexico raffles off luxurious narco-mansion | International

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It has been a hideout for crooks, a film set, and the headquarters of a foundation. In late June, a luxurious mansion once owned by Amado Carrillo Fuentes became the top prize in Mexico’s national lottery. The former Juárez cartel boss known as the Lord of the Skies (El Señor de los Cielos) built this US$4.5 million home in Jardines del Pedregal, an exclusive neighborhood south of Mexico City. The two-story residence measures more than 10,000 square feet, and has an indoor pool, expansive gardens, and enough garage space for 30 cars. The enormous home boasts a bar with a wine cellar, nine bedrooms; six Jacuzzis, numerous closets and dressing rooms, a huge kitchen, a steam room, a library, and a life-size playhouse for children. And for the price of a US$10 cachito, as lottery tickets are called in Mexico, some lucky player had a chance to win the opulent mega-mansion.

Lottery administrators put three million numbers up for grabs, but the tepid response from the public meant that multiple numbers had to be picked before one came up a winner. Suspense built as losing numbers came up again and again. “That number isn’t a winner, so we’ll try again. Good luck!” said the announcer 16 times. Almost 25 minutes later, the winning number was picked on the 17th try.

The indoor pool of the narco-mansion.
The indoor pool of the narco-mansion. Presidencia MX

“How would you like a house in Jardines del Pedregal?” tempted the commercials. “I can already picture myself living there!” a woman replies enthusiastically. “Or you could sell it,” suggested the announcer. The property has long been a headache for the Mexican government. It was first auctioned in May 2020 by the “Instituto para Devolver al Pueblo Lo Robado”, a government agency created by Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador to liquidate assets seized from criminal organizations and corrupt officials. The auction hoped to raise at least US$2.6 million pesos for the house, but the best offer was US$2.47 million, from a mysterious man in a gray suit who raised his paddle amid cheers from the attendees. “I want US$2.5 million! Who says yes?” asked the auctioneer, as he anxiously counted to three. In the end, no one wanted to pay more. Then, the auction winner never paid up.

Seized in January 1995 from Carrillo two years before his death, the mansion became a white elephant, a prize nobody wanted. The drug kingpin had amassed a fortune by transporting huge quantities of drugs with his fleet of airplanes. Although his main center of operations was in the border city of Ciudad Juárez (Mexico), the Lord of the Skies owned properties all over the country. Wanted by authorities in Argentina, Colombia, the United States, and Mexico, Carrillo underwent several cosmetic surgeries to change his appearance and evade his pursuers. He died during a botched procedure in 1997. A television series about his life has become an international hit on streaming platforms and is getting ready to film its eighth season.

The luxurious kitchen of the house.
The luxurious kitchen of the house. Presidencia MX

The white elephant raffle came about when the Mexican government wearied of the expensive maintenance, which included US$25,000 for security services. Photos of the mansion used to promote the raffle show that Carrillo’s palace has seen better days. “We’re doing this to support the Mexican people and help our neighbors,” said President López when he announced the raffle in early June. “There are a lot of abandoned public assets scattered around various government agencies,” said the president, “and they will go to ruin if not maintained properly.”

The narco-mansion is listed on the internet as the former headquarters of a foundation that trains unemployed and disabled people so they can find work. It was rented in 2003 for the filming of Man on Fire, a movie starring Denzel Washington, who plays a bodyguard trying to rescue a nine-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning), and destroys half of Mexico City in the process. When the movie came out, there were rumors in the press about underground tunnels connecting the property to other nearby houses in the area, but no mention of this was made in the promotional material for the raffle.

The facade of the house, in the Jardines del Pedregal area, south of Mexico City.
The facade of the house, in the Jardines del Pedregal area, south of Mexico City.Presidencia MX

The raffle also included 200 lots of land in Playa Espiritu, a failed tourism development project in Sinaloa (Mexico) that cost more than US$100 million. The value of each lot ranges from US$40,000-US$65,000. “It was a fraud,” admitted President López in October 2021. His lackluster sales pitch included statements like, “It isn’t in a great location,” and “Nobody wants to buy it.” The highest praise the president could muster was, “It has a beach.” The raffle also includes US$2.9 million in cash prizes.

After being seized, borrowed, and auctioned, the mansion that once belonged to the notorious Lord of the Skies will finally have a new owner–winning ticket number 339,357–but the ticketholder’s identity will not be made public.

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