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Top of the Morning: Syria’s Bleak Anniversary

Top stories from DAWNS Digest

Syria Confronts Bleak Anniversary of a War With No End in Sight

 A statement from Ban Ki Moon, released to commemorate the start of the war three years ago this week “Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost or destroyed, with hundreds of people more killed every day; cities and villages have been reduced to rubble; extremists are imposing their radical ideologies; communities are threatened and attacked; millions have been forced to flee violence and deprivation; weapons are flowing in, adding fuel to the fire, and they are being used indiscriminately; acts of terrorism are a daily reality; grave crimes remain unpunished and thousands remain in captivity without due process; and the world’s cultural heritage is under grave threat. Over the past year, this conflict also saw the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century.”  (UN

Food Insecurity on the Rise in the Sahel Region

 A dispatch from Senegal, which is on the front lines of a food security crisis that is expected to worsen this year. “The number of food insecure in the Sahel is expected to grow to more than 20 million in 2014, mainly due to an increase in cases in northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and Senegal…OCHA estimates that across the Sahel, five million children under the age of five will suffer from malnutrition this year, and that 1.5 million of them will suffer severe acute malnutrition. This figure remains largely unchanged from 2013, when malnutrition surveying significantly improved, and was a jump from 2012 when one million children were estimated to be severely malnourished.” (IRIN

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Map of the Day: Where Parliamentarians are Women

The 58th Commission on the Status of Women kicks off at the United Nations this week. To mark the occasion, UN Women and the International Parliamentarian Union published this comprehensive infographic that shows levels of female participation in parliament and in governments around the world.

Take some time with the map. Click through for a larger image.

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From UN Women:

In executive government, the percentage of women in ministerial posts has now reached 17.2 per cent, up from 16.1 per cent in 2008.

By 1 January 2014, there were 36 countries with 30 per cent or more women ministers, a jump from 26 in 2012. With 14 women in such posts, Nicaragua heads the global table of women in executive government, followed by Sweden, Finland, France, Cabo Verde and Norway.

Apart from the Nordic countries, it is the Americas and Africa regions which have the highest numbers of women ministers, although figures for Africa have stagnated at 20.4 per cent since 2010. Nevertheless, the Arab, Europe and Pacific regions also witnessed some growth.
Political commitment and policies are pre-requisites for women’s progress in political representation. Albania and France are strong examples of this. In 2012, Albania ranked 84th in the world for women ministers. It now ranks 27th with 30 per cent of women ministers following the decision of new Prime Minister Edi Rama to give more responsibility to women and youth.

The data on women in politics also sheds light on the progress made on women in parliament. IPU data shows that the percentage of women MPs is now at a record high of 21.8 per cent globally with numbers growing every year. There are also 46 countries with more than 30 per cent of women MPs in at least one chamber, up from 42 in January 2013. The trend, if it continues, would bode well for women’s political participation in the future.

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Top of the Morning: Nutrition Crisis in Northern Cameroon

Top stories from DAWNS Digest

Nutrition Crisis in Northern Cameroon Exacerbated by Boko Haram Conflict

 Aid agencies are sounding an alarm. “Some 100,000 children, including Nigerian refugees fleeing attacks from the extremist sect Boko Haram, are suffering from acute malnutrition in northern Cameroon. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Health officials and UN agencies have been visiting the children and are promising assistance…Dr. Ndansi Elvis said the crisis is aggravated because refugees have to compete with the local population for food and water. ‘These people come and there is competition for food. And when there is competition for food, there is also limited supply and the prices go up.’” (VOA

Inspection Reports Details Hazards at Bangladeshi Factories

The reports are sent to the brands and to the factory owners. A key question is whether factories will close pending safety upgrades, and whether workers will get paid. “The inspection reports on the first 10 factories, which were released Tuesday and contain an unusual level of detail, found that some factories lacked adequate fire doors, did not have required sprinkler systems and had dangerously high weight loads on several floors. The announced inspections were done through the Bangladesh Accord Foundation, a group of 150 clothing brands and retailers from more than 20 countries that plans to inspect 1,500 Bangladesh garment factories by early September.”  (NYT

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Crackdown on Press Freedom in Hong Kong

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Nathan Yeo to UN Dispatch. Nathan Yeo is a blogger focusing on global freedoms and conflict. He studied history at Dartmouth College and lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Several thousand black-clad demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong this past week to protest for press freedom following a brutal machete attack on prominent former newspaper editor Kevin Lau Chun-to. An unknown assailant slashed Lau in the back and legs on the morning of February 25 before escaping on a motorcycle. Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, known for his investigative reporting, reportedly summoned police himself and has since been upgraded to stable condition in the hospital.

Students and journalists joined in Victoria Park to protest a growing trend of assaults on Hong Kong media figures, unfurling banners reading “They Can’t Kill Us All” and “Freedom from Fear.” Lau is not the only recent victim — two men beat iSun Affairs publisher Chen Ping with batons last year and a stolen car recently crashed into the gate of Apple Daily chief Jimmy Lai Chee-ying. The driver left a machete and ax in Lai’s driveway.

Gangland style attacks are not the only problem facing Hong Kong journalists, as fears of mainland and Party disapproval have impacted advertising sales at some media outlets and perhaps even editorial stances at others. Prominent radio host and China critic Li Wei-ling was dismissed, prompting her to accuse Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying of tampering with the station’s contract renewal to force her out. Government officials also denied a television license for a start-up even after its own committee advised the channel would promote competition.  Lau himself was removed as chief editor at Ming Pao in a January event that sparked its own blacked protests. Under Lau, Ming Pao had launched investigations into the death of a mainland dissident and joined with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to examine offshore accounts in Caribbean tax havens held by relatives of the Chinese political elite, including President Xi Jinping. Lau moved to an online publication affiliated with Ming Pao, while his replacement was viewed as less confrontational towards Mainland China.

With Hong Kong scheduled for elections in 2017, the current trend is very worrying for the relative civil freedoms enjoyed by its citizens. Reporters Without Borders listed Hong Kong as 61st in its press freedom rankings last year, down from 18th in 2002. A vibrant media with multiple viewpoints and the ability to hold the government accountable is essential to a functioning democracy. Hong Kong journalists have demonstrated tremendous resolve in the face of terror, but economic and political pressure may have begun to erode their distinctive freedoms. If police cannot apprehend these machete-wielding thugs and both local and national officials continue to impede the growth of an independent media, Hong Kong serious test of its freedom even before the democratic process can begin.


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Top of the Morning: Nail Biter Presidential Election in El Salvadore

Top stories from DAWNS Digest

Nail biter of a Presidential Election in El Salvador

Fewer than 7,000 votes separate the candidates. “Although Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former rebel commander who is the governing party’s candidate, held a narrow lead, the electoral tribunal said that the close vote made it impossible to name a winner and told the candidates not to declare victory.It would take a more definitive count, which began Monday, to determine the eventual outcome, said Walter Araujo, a magistrate who explained that the tribunal would need to review blank and contested ballots and complete counting the 10,500 absentee ballots cast by Salvadorans living abroad.But neither Mr. Sánchez Cerén nor his opponent, Norman Quijano, a two-term mayor of San Salvador, heeded the tribunal’s warning.” (NYT

New “Chronic Poverty” Report Released

 A new report warns that up to a billion people are at risk of falling into poverty by 2030. “Unemployment, poor health, high food prices, conflict and natural disasters – these are some of the things that can drive people below the poverty line of $1.25 a day. The Overseas Development Institute and the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network have released the Third Chronic Poverty Report.  Network Director Andrew Shepard — the lead author — warns of poverty’s ‘revolving door.’ ‘People fall into poverty as well as escape it. And once they’ve escaped it they can fall back in again.’” (VOA


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How to End Konzo

Ed note. This op-ed from Michael J. Boivin, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology/Ophthalmology at Michigan State University, originally appeared in Project Syndicate and is reprinted with permission

EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN – Too many preventable diseases, from AIDS to yellow fever, have long afflicted Sub-Saharan Africa. But eradicating them requires an understanding of the disease in question, money, education, government support, planning, and, not least, an interest from the community and the wider world in solving the problem.

Consider a preventable disease that most people have never heard of: konzo, a permanent, irreversible, upper-motor neuron disorder, common in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa that rely on the bitter varieties of the cassava plant as a staple crop. Konzo occurs when cassava tubers are not properly prepared before consumption, which usually requires soaking them until they ferment and then drying them in the sun to allow for the breakdown of cyanogenic compounds. Hundreds or thousands of people in a village region can be affected with every outbreak.

Konzo is especially common in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Tanzania, and often follows droughts or conflicts, when food is scarce. Women and children are the worst affected, especially during times of economic hardship, when they have the least access to meat, beans, and other sources of sulfur amino acids necessary for the liver to detoxify cyanide in the body.

The effects are not easy to miss. The World Health Organization defines konzo as a visible spastic abnormality of gait while walking or running; a history of onset within one week in a formerly healthy person, followed by a non-progressive course; and exaggerated jerking of the knees or ankles without signs of spinal disease.

Konzo’s severity varies. According to the WHO’s 1996 classification, the disease is deemed mild when the victim does not need to use walking aids regularly; moderate when one or two sticks or crutches are used; and severe when he or she is bedridden or unable to walk without support.

Because konzo was initially characterized as a pure upper-motor neuron disease confined to motor pathways in the central nervous system, it was suggested that the cognitive effects were minimal. But electrophysiological evidence later emerged suggesting that higher-level brain functioning may be affected as well. In documenting neurocognitive impairments in children with konzo, my colleagues and I also noted sub-clinical symptoms even in konzo-free children living in konzo-affected households, a finding based on their performance on more specialized neurocognitive tests of memory and learning.

These subtler symptoms may constitute a pre-konzo condition, providing a warning that a child is approaching the disease’s threshold. Thus, the neurocognitive effects documented for non-konzo children in konzo-affected households and communities make it all the more important to ensure food safety in regions dependent on bitter varieties of cassava with high levels of cyanogenic compounds.

To this end, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported research leading to the development of nontoxic, high-yield varieties of cassava. These genetically engineered strains can thrive even in degraded soil, so that people no longer have to turn to the more toxic varieties.

But disseminating these safer strains is proving difficult. Konzo-affected regions lack the agricultural, educational, and public-health capacity and infrastructure needed to implement the necessary changes. For the same reasons, these regions fail to diversify their food staples to include safer crops such as millet, maize, or beans.

Because there is no cure for the neurological damage that konzo causes, the battle against the disease must focus on prevention. While that means continuing to demonstrate the benefits of new strains of cassava and other staples, the first priority must be to educate people, especially village women, about the hazards of eating unprocessed cassava, and to teach them how to prepare it safely. Using culturally appropriate social marketing, similar to those used in anti-HIV education, the message can be spread through social networks, mobile phones, radio, and television.

To be sure, communities in affected regions have long followed safe, traditional practices. But they may be unaware of why these practices are so important, and therefore of the consequences of not adhering to them. Especially during times of upheaval and increased food scarcity, soaking the peeled tubers for three days until fermentation, and then sun-drying them for a day, might seem like an unaffordable luxury. It is not.

Millions are at risk of konzo, and outbreaks can occur at any time. The neurological injury can be debilitating, and it is permanent. Because we know how to prevent it, we are obliged to act.

Michael J. Boivin is Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology/Ophthalmology at Michigan State University

Photo: A basket of Cassava plants in Rwanda. 

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