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Africa’s Sahel: Act now before the crisis ‘becomes unmanageable’

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UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meets internally displaced people in Burkina Faso’s Centre-North region. © UNHCR/Sylvain Cherkaoui

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is stepping up response in Africa’s Sahel region where escalating violence has forced a rising number of people to flee their homes. 

Agency chief Filippo Grandi this week concluded a visit to three affected countries—Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger—expressing alarm over the rapidly deteriorating situation.

“We always look at the Sahel, we think about terrorism…we think about what, in theory, threatens Europe”, said Mr. Grandi, speaking in Burkina Faso on Tuesday.  

“But the real problem is here. The emergency is here. It is here that people are suffering, people are being killed, women are being raped, small children cannot go to school. It’s here that we must intervene before this crisis becomes unmanageable.” 

Armed groups terrorizing local populations 

The Sahel region encompasses an area south of the Sahara Desert and spans across parts of 10 countries: from Senegal in the west all the way to Eritrea, in East Africa. 

Violence there intensified after the 2011 revolution in Libya, and an uprising in Mali a year later.  As a result, terrorist groups, organized criminal groups and others took advantage of weak governance and ethnic tensions to move across borders and terrorize local populations. 

High Commissioner Grandi praised the three countries for continuing to welcome refugees.   

They have taken in around 165,000 people from Mali, expressing solidarity even as they face their own internal security and humanitarian challenges. 

Generous countries shielding one million displaced 

Overall, countries in the central Sahel are sheltering more than one million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). 

“In the Sahel, some of the poorest countries in the world remain some of the most generous,” Mr. Grandi commented.   

The High Commissioner concluded his visit in Burkina Faso, where armed extremists have carried out brutal attacks in the north and east.   

There are now some 600,000 IDPs in the country; a 1,200 per cent increase over last year.  

“In the Sahel, the response to the crisis must not be a security one alone. The protection of those forced to flee must remain at the core of our response to this displacement crisis”, said Mr. Grandi.  

“This includes a better coordination between civilian and military authorities to ensure humanitarian access for immediate assistance. It is also critical to create the conditions for humanitarian and development actors to help with solutions to the affected population.” 

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Human Rights

‘Bodyright’ campaign launched, to end rise in gender-based violence online

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Portrait of a teenage girl on her laptop sporting the 'bodyright' logo. UNFPA/Alys Tomlinson

Corporate logos and Intellectual Property (IP) receive “greater protection online than we do as human beings”, the UN’s women’s health agency that works to end gender-based violence, UNFPA, said on Thursday, launching a new bodyright campaign to help shield bodies and minds from cyber violence. 

“It’s time for technology companies and policymakers to take digital violence seriously”, said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem -“right now”.  

The bodyright campaign highlights that corporate logos and copyrighted IP are more highly valued and better protected online than images of human bodies, which are often uploaded to the Internet without consent, and used maliciously.  

The ⓑ symbol – which can be added to any image directly via Instagram stories using stickers, or by downloading it from the webpage – aims to hold policymakers, companies, and individuals to account while simultaneously driving the message that women, girls, racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups are valued and will not be violated online. 

The new frontier 

Relentless, borderless and often anonymous, Dr. Kanem called the online world “the new frontier for gender-based violence”. 

And the reality is that people do not own their bodies online

From cyberstalking and hate speech, to so-called doxxing (publishing private or identifying information about an individual) and the non-consensual use of images and video, such as deepfakes (whereby a person in an existing image is replaced with someone else’s) – online violence is rife.  

Many countries lack laws which make online violence illegal, leaving anyone trying to remove exploitative images of themselves with few legal rights, and a long process for those who try to enforce those rights which do exist. 

Human rights infringement 

When someone infringes on music or film copyright, digital platforms remove the content immediately.  

Governments have passed laws making copyright infringement illegal and digital platforms have devised ways to identify and prevent unauthorized use of copyrighted material.  

These same protections and repercussions must also extend to individuals and their photos, says UNFPA.  

The bodyright campaign 

From London and of Ghanaian and Nigerian heritage, award winning poet and spoken-word artist Rakaya Fetuga, has authored and performed poetry for the campaign that communicates the impact of online violence and the novel concept of bodyright

And to advocate for action from Governments, policymakers, tech companies and social media platforms, UNFPA has launched a Global Citizen-hosted petition, that demands tangible action to end digital violence and abuse. 

16 Days of Activism  

The bodyright initiative is part of the wider 16 Days of Activism against Violence Against Women campaign, which runs until 10 December.  

UNFPA has also launched “The Virtual Is Real” website, which features stories of victims and survivors of digital violence from around the world, alongside innovative work done by UNFPA to address this human rights violation.  

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, 85 per cent of women with access to the internet reported witnessing online violence against other women, and 38 per cent have experienced it personally.  

Moreover, some 65 per cent of women surveyed have experienced cyber-harassment, hate speech and defamation, while 57 per cent have experienced video and image-based abuse and ‘astroturfing’, where damaging content is shared concurrently across platforms. 

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Human Rights

Avoid starvation: ‘Immediate priority’ for 3.5 million Afghans

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Food and blankets are handed out to people in need in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, by © WFP/Arete

Amidst “truly unprecedented levels” of hunger in Afghanistan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday that as winter arrives, avoiding widespread starvation “is an immediate priority”.  

Launching a global fundraising winter campaign to help forcibly displaced families in Afghanistan and elsewhere to cope with the most life-threatening months of the year, UNHCR Spokesperson Babar Baloch described it as “a crisis of hunger and starvation”.

People don’t have enough to eat, and it’s very visible”. 

Displaced lack proper shelter 

Following his recent return from Kabul, Mr. Baloch said in Geneva that a lack of insulated shelters, warm clothes, insufficient food, fuel for heating, and medical supplies are just some of the deprivations confronting people who have been forcibly displaced. 

With temperatures “expected to drop to -25C, many displaced families lack proper shelter – a primary requirement if they are to survive the bitter cold”, he warned. 

3.5 million in need 

UNHCR is appealing for increased support for 3.5 million people displaced by conflict inside Afghanistan, including 700,000 from 2021 alone. 

According to Mr. Baloch, nearly 23 million people, or 55 per cent of the population, are facing extreme levels of hunger – nearly nine million of whom are at risk of famine.  

This year, UNHCR has assisted some 700,000 displaced people across the country, the majority since mid-August.  

The UN agency is helping nearly 60,000 people every week.  

“But as we reach thousands of people, we find thousands more people who are in need of humanitarian assistance”, Mr. Baloch explained, before appealing for “further resources for the most vulnerable”.  

He identified “single mothers with no shelter or food for their children”, displaced older persons left to care for orphaned grandchildren, and people taking care of loved ones with special needs.  

Appeal for more support over winter 

The UNHCR spokesperson noted that the agency’s teams have delivered relief supplies via road through Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries and humanitarian flights.  

Five more flights carrying winter supplies are scheduled for next week, Mr. Baloch said, reiterating that support to cope with the extreme conditions will continue until February, including core relief items, such as thermal blankets and warm winter clothing.  

Shelters are also being repaired and reinforced, and vulnerable families are receiving cash assistance.  

Mr. Baloch thanked Government and private donors for their support to UNHCR efforts to aid and protect vulnerable families during the winter months.  

However, he added that a further $374.9 million was urgently needed to bolster UNHCR’s response to Afghanistan next year, particularly, over winter. 

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Human Rights

Women and girls at high risk of being pushed into modern slavery

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At an age when children should be in school, millions are engaged in work that is potentially harmful to their health. © UNICEF/Simon Lister

Women and children are at high risk of being pushed into contemporary forms of slavery, UN-appointed independent rights experts said on Wednesday.   

In an alert to coincide with the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December, they warned that global challenges such as COVID-19, climate change and armed conflict have amplified existing vulnerabilities.  

According to figures released by UNICEF and ILO in June, almost 80 million children aged 5 to 17, are subjected to hazardous work which is classified as a contemporary form of slavery. 

Now, according to the experts, these children may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions as a result of the economic recession and school closures caused by the pandemic.   

Many others may have been forced into the worst forms of child labour, owing to job and income losses among their families.  This includes the forced recruitment of youngsters into armed and criminal groups. 

Women and girls 

According to unofficial estimates cited by the experts, one in every 130 women and girls is subjected to contemporary forms of slavery such as child and forced marriage, domestic servitude, forced labour and debt bondage. 

High levels of exploitation also prevail in global supply chains, which often rely on and reinforce labour exploitation and deepen gender inequality”, the experts said.  

They argue that “gender inequalities lie at the heart of contemporary forms of slavery”, but note that these practices are also fuelled by intersecting forms of discrimination, such as race, social and economic status, age, disability, sexual orientation, and migration status, among others.  

The experts urge Member States to establish safe migration pathways, along with easier access to decent work and more cooperation with the business sector, civil society organisations and trade unions.   

For them, “accountability of perpetrators must be strengthened as a matter of priority, as currently impunity prevails in far too many instances.” 

“Slavery in all its forms needs to end for everyone, including women and children in contexts of armed conflict. Slavery is a disgrace to humanity which in the 21st century cannot be tolerated”, they conclude.  

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. This year alone, 18,000 victims received vital assistance from organizations supported by the Fund. 

To mark the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, the experts appeal to all Member States to increase their contribution to the Fund, or to make one for the first time. 

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. They work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.  

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