Global Roundup: Uplifting the Lives of Kenyan Women, the Afghan Tech Dreamers, Dalit Woman Fighting Against Inequality, Resilience in the South Korean LGBTQ2+ Community, Demanding Justice in Australia

Compiled by Inaara Merani

Hellen Tonui with some trophies and certificates she has won for her exemplary leadership that has impacted women in Nakuru West. Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

In the slums of Kaptembwo, Barut, and Kapkures in Nakuru West, Kenya, Hellen Tonui is empowering women and uplifting their lives. In these three slums, she has advanced the economic empowerment of women, boosting their socio-economic activities and preventing conflict. She has also assisted in the reduction of maternal mortality, and has promoted easy access to small loans through table-banking schemes, which has led to a collaboration with Joyful Women

Every day, Tonui distributes food and medical supplies to women, and offers them important advice about their health and nutrition. When she is not handing out supplies, she is attending Nyumba Kumi security meetings, and is having conversations with women’s groups in the area about a multitude of issues. Tonui oversees the finances of more than 3000 women, ensuring that every woman she supports is able to seek better opportunities in a patriarchal society. 

Women and vulnerable groups in Kapkures, Kaptembwo and Barut need to be healthy; they need training and economic opportunities and access to cheap loans...Through such collaborations, the women also learn tips on financial investment and this has helped to reduce defaulters and increase loan repayment - Hellen Tonui 

In addition to her efforts supporting economic empowerment, Tonui also assists women who have experienced sexual and/or gender-based violence, women poultry farmers, and pregnant teenagers. Her work spreads across different demographics, all with the hope that these women will become independent in their own lives. 

I visit women in all the three sub-locations of Kaptembwo, Kapkures and Barut and listen to their issues. I talk to them about health, which is one of their immediate need. I talk about water, food and empowerment. These are not things we read about or watch on video. To them, it’s the daily lives. I understand the issues of children and access to land ownership. Women are the ones tilling the land but when it comes to management and decision-making on selling the land, they are ignored - Hellen Tonui  ————————————-

Feminism must see all who are hurt by patriarchy. The concerns and needs of working class and marginalized women must always be part of the feminist struggle against patriarchy.

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Photo from UNICEF Afghanistan, 2020 

Having watched her father fix cars in a motor repair shop growing up, 18-year old Somaya Faruqi became interested in mechanics and engineering, prompting the founding of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, also known as the Afghan Dreamers. Faruqi is the leader of the team, which comprises five girls aged 14-18 who are attending high school in Herat city, in western Afghanistan. These girls meet every day, after school, for an hour and a half to learn and practice programming and robotics.

When I work in engineering I feel so proud of myself because in Afghanistan, there are not a lot of girls that work in this field and it can be a complex area but I’m good at it so I feel confident building and creating things - Somaya Faruqi 

Not only are these young women challenging stereotypes and defying preconceived gender norms, they are also enacting important change. Last year, the former governor of Herat spoke to the absence of ventilators in the region, despite having the largest number of Covid-19 cases in the country. The Afghan Dreamers were one of six teams which were contacted to design a low-cost ventilator, and they were also the only all-girls team. The team found inspiration from a low-tech, low-cost ventilator, developed at MIT, which they modeled their prototype after. At the time, the Afghan Dreamers did not have the facilities, nor did they have all the required parts, to effectively complete this project. They also had minimal knowledge about medical technology, but worked their hardest to create a practical device. 

I think our biggest challenge at the time was that we didn’t have the facilities to build some of the parts in, so my father would drive us to a workshop 20 minutes outside the city where we would work on the ventilator but we didn’t have access to a lot of resources and materials that we needed to build a ventilator, so we had to build the prototype out of spare parts from old Toyota Corollas - Somaya Faruqi 

In December, the Minister of Industry and Commerce, Nizar Ahmad Ghoryani, donated $10,000 to the team and secured land for the construction of a factory in which the ventilators will be produced. 

From the beginning of this project, the Afghan Dreamers received significant support from Roya Mahboob, an Afghan tech entrepreneur and businesswoman and the team’s mentor. Mahboob is the CEO of the Afghan Citadel Software Company, based in Herat, which creates jobs for recent university graduates (especially women) in Afghanistan’s growing tech market. Working with the Afghan Dreamers, Mahboob has said that this prototype ventilator is part of a series of projects. The team has also taken on two other projects in which they created a UV-sterilizing robot, and a robot to disinfect indoor and outdoor areas. 

In 2019, the Ministry of Education pledged to incorporate STEM into the national curriculum, and also pledged to build the country’s first STEM school, after Mahboob met with the Afghan president. The school will be opened in 2022 and will be named “The Dreamer Institute”, after the Afghan Dreamers. 

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Laxmi Badi, center in pink shawl, participating in a group work during Feminist Leadership training. Photo: Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization/Shanker Biswokarma via UN Women

Although caste-based discrimination was abolished in the 60s in Nepal, the Dalit community, at the ‘bottom of the caste system’, continues to face discrimination and segregation. Laxmi Badi, a Dalit woman, has been fighting this inequality everyday since 2017. 

Throughout her life, Badi experienced isolation in school and the community, and was often prevented from even giving offerings at the temple. In the past, she was afraid to speak up, however her voice will not be silenced now. 

A few years ago, Badi joined the Feminist Dalit Organization, supporting women to raise cattle and become financially independent. It was this experience which defined her career choices moving forward. In June 2017, she became a ward member of her municipality, and in 2020, she participated in a UN programme which provided leadership and governance training. 

When the pandemic hit, Badi saw an influx of Nepali migrant workers returning from India who needed to quarantine for 14 days at a local facility. The pandemic only exacerbated the discrimination against the Dalit community, and members from the ‘upper caste’ refused to allow Dalit migrant workers onto the premises and locked the gates. When Badi heard about this, she went right up to the facility and smashed the lock with a hammer, informing everyone that anyone could get Covid, not just those of a ‘lower ranking’. She also provided support to survivors of gender-based violence at this facility, ensuring they received adequate medical attention. 

Prior to the pandemic, Badi and her team would go door-to-door ensuring that individuals living with a disability had identity cards, and that seniors had proof of citizenship, and she also streamlined processes so that these communities could access benefits and pensions. She also supported training programmes for single women looking to generate and improve their income. And throughout the pandemic, she also made sure that those in need received relief packages with food and sanitation products. 

Laxmi Badi is an inspiration who is dedicated to supporting the Dalit community in Nepal. She has made helping the most marginalized, in her community, her number one priority, pushing generations of caste status aside, and focusing on the larger issues which need addressing. 

My husband's enthusiastic encouragement pushes me to aim higher...True uplifting of women and the Dalit community will only come with a change of mindsets - Laxmi Badi 

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Writer Heezy Yang poses with a sign to support local LGBTQ+ businesses and artists in the wake of the pandemic. Credit: Courtesy Heezy Yang via Xtra Magazine

In May of 2020, owners of one of the biggest gay clubs in Itaewon, South Korea - in an area called Homo Hill - announced that the club had been exposed to Covid-19, but management would be acting responsibly and cooperating with the government. The news quickly spread, and the South Korean LGBTQ2+ community soon became the target of the Covid blame game, promulgating a homophobic lie that the virus was linked to the LGBTQ2+ community. Queer activist, artist and blogger Heezy Yang spoke about his experience during this turmoil. 

As the virus spread, it was evident that it was not solely linked to this community, but the media continued to spread lies and promote nonsense. Bars on Homo Hill were not allowed to open, even after other ‘straight’ venues did, and they were treated differently by the government and society. This signaled a sense of solidarity within the LGBTQ2+ community, indicating that they needed to fight back.

It seemed like homophobia spread faster and more widely than the virus did, quickly affecting the whole LGBTQ+ community, leaving it scarred and damaged. Witnessing this happen before my eyes made me think of the 1980s AIDS crisis in the U.S. I believe that the world has learned a lot from that time, and that’s how we were able to take action fairly quickly decades later with COVID-19. But in other ways, I feel like the world has learned nothing from that time: LGBTQ+ people are still constantly put in positions of vulnerability, pain and discrimination - Heezy Yang 

Despite the targeted attacks, LGBTQ2+ activists and human rights activists in South Korea worked quickly and tirelessly to minimize the damage on their community, while simultaneously working to stop the spread of the virus. They released statements and held press conferences criticizing the government for attributing the Covid-19 pandemic to homosexuality. In turn, the government actually began offering anonymous Covid-19 tests, and developed better methods of protecting patients and personal information, something which benefited all South Koreans.  

The resilience and the unity of the LGBTQ2+ community, in South Korea, speaks volumes and should be applauded. Despite the hateful attacks and remarks they encountered, the community stayed strong and fought back, as they will continue to do. 

But while South Korea’s LGBTQ+ community might have been beaten up, we have not given up. LGBTQ+ activists and organizations continue to stand up against ignorance and hate, with the goal of finally legislating anti-discrimination laws. I will do my part with my voice, my art and the platforms I have, and I hope you will join us, too, in solidarity, showing and sending support - Heezy Yang 

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Thousands of people with placards and banners rally in Sydney on Monday, demanding justice for women. The rally was one of several across Australia including in Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart. Rick Rycroft/AP via NPR

On Monday, tens of thousands of people marched across Australia to protest sexual violence, harassment and gender inequality in the nation, amidst allegations of sexual assault tied to the Australian Parliament. The March4Justice demonstrations were scheduled to take place in at least 47 locations across Australia, and the amount of people who showed up was demonstrative of the change which must be enacted. Protesters were asked to wear black, symbolic of the women who have been raped and murdered, and those who have been victims of domestic violence. 

The Australian Parliament has often been called a ‘boy’s club’, due to its misogynistic culture. In Australia’s most recent election in 2019, women only made up 23% of the Liberal Party’s MPs and Senators, even though women make up more than 50% of the Australian population. Many women have now come forward, alleging that they were sexually assaulted by members of Parliament, one of whom is Australia’s attorney general, Christian Porter. The public has demanded that an independent inquiry be conducted into the allegations against Porter, but the Prime Minister has continued to refuse and also refused to meet protestors earlier this week. 

Women will no longer be silent about their experiences of sexual and domestic violence. With news of the murder of Sarah Everard in England and the charging of a police officer with her abduction and kidnap, social media and news outlets have been flooded with women speaking about their experiences, demanding an end to the patriarchal and misogynistic culture which persists around the world. Women want to have this conversation, and want to see important changes made to ensure every woman around the world is safe and lives free of misogynist violence. 

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Inaara Merani (she/her) is a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa where she studied  International Development and Globalization with a minor in Women’s Studies. She is an Ismaili Muslim Canadian who is deeply passionate about human rights, social justice and feminism, and in turn, dismantling the patriarchy and ensuring that all women have safe and equal access to all their rights. She hopes to pursue a career in law so that she can continue to fight for the rights of women and other marginalized groups everywhere. She also enjoys reading, travelling and spending time with her beautiful cat. 

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