A Journey from a Small-Scale Farm to International Stage

Ogbonge Women Lagos Chapter in Agege

By Chinasa Asonye
LAGOS, Nigeria, Jun 10 2019 – As a wife and mother in Nigeria who wanted to support my family and my community, I began my own farm in 2006. When I began, I never could have dreamed that just cultivating the earth would someday lead to my meeting government leaders, and traveling to meet other women from around the world doing their part to make a difference in their own communities.

Years of hard work, learning and women’s solidarity built to my recent trip to New York City, where I participated in the Commission on the Status of Women. I was there to talk about my work in Nigeria, and my journey from being one individual small-scale farmer, to this international stage.

It was an amazing opportunity that was all new, yet also brought me full-circle and made me realize I am on the right track. Now, as I head home after further travels, my time in New York feels monumental and my passion for this work is stronger than ever.

THE BEGINNING

What brought me is Chileofarms, my farming company that produces, processes and packages rice, fish, poultry, and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, spinach, pumpkin. To help build up my farm, and the good it could grow, I entered a competition and development program in 2014 called Oxfam’s Female Food Heroes, which gives resources, training and exposure to female farmers.

I was given an award as a Female Food Hero in a ceremony attended by the Governor, Commissioner, Permanent Secretaries and other guests. It was the first time I started to realize how much impact I could really have as a Small Scale Farmer and it was the assistance of Oxfam that made it possible.

During the award presentation, the Director of the Gender Desk from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria, Mrs. Karima Babaginda, asked me what they could expect to see as my achievements in the next 5 years. l told her that in five years, Nigerian female farmers’ voices will he heard both locally and internationally. I knew I had to get to work to live up to my promise.

Asonye Chinasa presenting her paper “Economic Empowerment as a Means for Social Protection for Women in Agriculture” at United Nations during The Commission on Status of Women

l went back to my community to see how l can contribute to helping other women and l formed a Cooperative called Ogbonge Women Multipurpose Association, where women with like minds came together to discuss the progress of our farms and how we can help each other.

l constructed a smoking kiln with my Female Food Hero award money in my community where my fellow women could come to smoke their fish, package and sell it. This simple equipment was important, especially when we are having post-harvest losses, because with the smoking kiln, the shelf life of dry fish is extended to 6 months.

We also started farming mushrooms together, and donated a portion of the profit to help widows, displaced and other vulnerable people living in our community. There are many women who cannot go to their farms because of the fear of been raped or killed, or their farms were destroyed with nothing to fall back on. We are lucky we are even safe and able to farm in the first place – not everyone is that lucky.

We then started to tackle the issue of loans because our women are always having problem accessing loans through banks. With Oxfam’s help, 42 women from around our state were trained in Village Savings and Loans (VSL), which is when 25 to 30 women come together to save, give each other loans, and share the interest.

This not only brought extra and more reliable income, but it brought so much happiness to our women. l started a VSL group with 25 members in 2017 and today we are 500 women with more still waiting to join. Because of this program, our women can now feed their children and send them to school, without have to wait for the money they make in harvest season.

We also advocated for farmers all over Nigeria – all women farmers decided to come together to present a Farmers Manifesto to the Gubernatorial Candidates before the Concluded Nigeria Election.

We asked candidates to sign this manifesto that agreed that farmers be recognized, and our demands must be met if they want us to vote for them. We have also pushed to change land ownership laws that have not allowed women to own and inherit land.

COMING FULL CIRCLE IN NEW YORK

During the Commission on the Status of Women it was an unbelievable honor to see the experiences and knowledge from women from different countries together in one room.

We shared ideas and what we wanted most, with one issue of common interest being the issue of women being denied American visas to attend the conference., l was overwhelmed with joy discussing issues like land rights for women, challenges facing displaced women and families and more.

l told myself that l have to go back to my country and pass the knowledge to my women and also see how we can get more women from Nigeria to have this amazing opportunity to join this conversation with women from around the world.

I was overwhelmed and honored to be included as a panelist representing Oxfam as the Female Food Hero to discuss economic empowerment as a means for social protection for women in agriculture. Here I was, a woman from a rural area in Nigeria, now having the chance to speak at this global forum in New York.

I gave my presentation in the United Nations building, and to my surprise, there was the same Director of the Gender Desk from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria, Mrs. Karima Babaginda. l was able to ask her: “Have l fulfilled what l have promised to achieve over five years?” and she laughed and said “Well done, Ogbonge Woman.” I was right on schedule, five years later with my voice at an international forum sharing the stories of my Nigerian female farmers.

WHAT’S NEXT

My time in New York motivated me to do more and keep pushing. As an Ogbonge woman trying to contribute my part towards the growth and development of my community, I would like to work more to bring in more women to the Village Savings and Loans groups, and will also remind women that we need to work on ourselves, because the government can’t do it all for us.

We need to face the problems as they come and that we can jointly speak with one voice. Women’s collective efforts and solidarity are key to make the changes we want to see, in partnership with our leaders.

We are also pleading for more donors and NGOs to come to our aid, because even with a strong, united group, the women farmers really need help. I will continue to advocate for my fellow female farmers, because we each deserve a chance to work hard, feel safe, make promises and fulfill them.

UN Says Kyrgyz Journalist Should be Freed

Kyrgyzstan journalist Azimjon Askarov and his wife, Khadicha, pictured during a family vacation in Arslanbob in the summer of 2009. ‘This was Azimjon’s last summer of freedom,’ Khadicha told CPJ. (Askarov family)

By Gulnoza Said
NEW YORK, Jun 10 2019 – On a recent morning in Bazar-Korgon, southern Kyrgyzstan, Khadicha Askarova was giving hasty instructions to her daughter about what needed to be packed.

They were about to set off: first for the capital Bishkek, some 600km from where they live, and then another 70km to a prison colony where her husband, Azimjon Askarov, was transferred in March.

But Askarov, a 68-year-old independent journalist and rights activist, shouldn’t be in jail at all. The U.N. Human Rights Committee ruled in 2016 that Askarov was subject to torture and mistreatment from the moment of his detention on June 15, 2010 to his speedy trial and subsequent imprisonment, and that he should be released immediately.

CPJ’s research into his case found that the original trial was marred by irregularities and allegations of torture, mistreatment and harassment of defendants, including Askarov, and their witnesses. But Kyrgyz authorities defied the U.N. resolution and in 2017, amid international outcry, upheld his life sentence.

Conditions in the new prison are harsh. In letters home, the journalist wrote that he had run ins with the guards and that prison officials punish detainees after visiting days. His health is also deteriorating and he has limited access to medication, the journalist’s wife, Askarova, said.

“What breaks my heart is to see how much he aged since being imprisoned. He used to be a man full of energy and vigor. Now, he is old, sickly, skinny, and there’s no way out of this situation for him,” she said, fighting back the tears when we spoke via a video messaging app earlier this month.

The couple, who have been married for over 40 years, now have limited contact: just six family visits and two phone calls a year. As Askarov wrote in a recent letter to his wife, “They like keeping us under a tight lid here. Communication with the outside world is banned.”

The letter, which his wife shared with CPJ, also gave a glimpse of the harsh prison conditions: “After family visits, inmates are punished by being forced to eat raw onions and carrots for several days.”

“On regular days, they give us pea soup that contains nothing but watery peas. On public holidays, we get what the prison administration calls plov [pilaf] but it is not more than 150g of rice cooked with some carrots, per person.”

Since Askarov’s transfer to a prison outside Bishkek in March, he wrote that he has had three “incidents” with prison guards. The journalist did not specify the nature of incidents, but wrote that guards were known for their mistreatment of and conflicts with inmates.

“There are few good ones among them”, he added, almost as if he was preventing possible punishment should the content of the letter became known to the guards.

One of the incidents was connected to the journalist’s poor health. He has the heart condition tachycardia, hypotension, and gets dizzy and nauseated if he stands for too long.

Under prison rules, if a guard enters a cell, the inmate must stand. “That’s the rule. Twice a day, guards enter cells. An inmate has to cite his full name and an article of the criminal code he was convicted of violating. But Azimjon was not able to stand straight for too long. His knees bend, he had to sit down. That was the ‘incident’,” the journalist’s wife, Askarova, told me.

Soon after the transfer, Askarov complained about his health to prison administration, and said that low blood pressure and a cold was diagnosed. “But they did not have any medication to give me,” he wrote.

Askarova told CPJ that doctors at the prison ask families to bring medication. “They rely on us for something that they ought to provide,” she said.

She added that the few visits they are allowed are emotional, and the travel hard and costly. She makes sure that one visit falls on her husband’s birthday, May 17. This year, the couple’s daughter and their three grandchildren also visited on his birthday, their first visit to a new jail.

‘I’m afraid they will forget how he looks’ Askarov’s wife says

Azimjon Askarov, pictured with his daughter Navruza and grandchildren, during a May 2018 visit in Bishek prison. The journalist was moved to a new prison in 2019 that bans families from taking photographs during visits. (Askarova family)

“The new prison is much farther from Bishkek. After a nearly 14-hour drive to Bishkek, we took another taxi to the prison, but then had to walk about seven kilometers in the heat and dust. It was especially hard for the little ones, although they were excited to see their grandfather. They are still little, and I am afraid they can forget how he looks like, how he sounds,” Askarova said.

Adding to that concern is a rule at the prison banning families from taking photographs during visits. “Now, I have to look at old pictures of Azimjon. They deprived me even of the photos of my husband,” she said.

Askarova said she would move to Bishkek to be closer to the prison, but she cannot sell the house that her husband has owned for decades. The authorities seized the journalist’s property after he was charged in 2010.

In 2015, the journalist’s lawyer successfully appealed against the seizure, but before Askarova had overcome a legal quagmire of changing the ownership, authorities placed a new lien on the house in February. She said she has started another appeal process.

Askarova said that before they visit each year on his birthday, the couple’s daughter Navruza, who lives in Uzbekistan, usually comes to Bazar-Korgon to help pack personal items, food, medicine and books. But it is Askarova who picks flowers from her garden and buys bouquets at a florist for her husband.

“He is an artist, you know. He loves flowers. I get the most beautiful ones for him. Many kinds, sometimes several bouquets,” she said.

Azimjon and Khadicha met at art college in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in 1974. They have been married for 42 years and raised four children, who live in Uzbekistan. He used to work as an artist. But every time he heard a neighbor complain of injustice, he felt the urge to help, Askarova said.

In the late 1990s, he started documenting the cases, mediating between his community members and law enforcement, and researching legal books. He eventually became a go-to person in Bazar-Korgon if the rights of a member of his community had been violated.

He was known for taking up the cases on police brutality. It was this reputation that led many people to come to him for help when violence against ethnic Uzbeks erupted in June 2010, she said.

In prison, Askarov started to paint again. In 2014, international and local activists organized an exhibition of Askarov’s work to raise awareness of his case. In 2018, he wrote a book, “I am happy,” which includes a dedication to his late mother, “who lost me, her son, during her and my life, and left this world, shocked by the greatest injustice.” Copies of the book are still available online.

During his imprisonment, Askarov studied English and is able to read the many cards sent to him from around the world, his wife said. She added that he has been studying Japanese from the books and dictionaries she brought him, and that he has become interested in herbal medicine because conventional medication was not available in prison.

Askarov has also kept a diary since 2010. “He writes down everything. I keep reading them in between prison visits. One word that he uses most frequently is freedom. When he sees rain through the cell window, he writes ‘I wish I was free to feel rain drops on my skin. When he sees snow, he writes ‘I wish I was free to be outside and enjoy the snow now’. Freedom is his main wish and goal. He lives for it,” Askarova said.

* Gulnoza Said is a journalist and communications professional with over 15 years of experience in New York, Prague, Bratislava, and Tashkent. She has covered issues including politics, media, religion, and human rights with a focus on Central Asia, Russia, and Turkey.

Venezuelans Left Without Assistance in Washington

A group of activists calling themselves the Embassy Protection Collective protested against the U.S. and opposition party leader Juan Guide’s representatives taking over the Venezuelan embassy. Credit: Backbone Campaign/ (CC BY 2.0)

By Caley Pigliucci
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 10 2019 – Venezuelans in the city of Washington D.C., in the United States, are currently without consular protection as access to their country’s embassy has remained unstable since April.

“I went to get my passport…and then of course April 2019 is when it expired. And that limits me because you know my parents are at an age that anything could happen,” Luis*, a 35-year-old Venezuelan living in the U.S., told IPS. He asked not to be identified by his real name as he still has family living in Caracas and is concerned for their safety.

While the situation regarding the embassy remains uncertain, Venezuela still has other consulates in the country, but IPS was unable to reach them.

Where do Venezuelans in need of assistance go to?

Luis’s inability to renew his passport through the embassy comes amid a continued power-struggle at the embassy. Protestors had occupied the Washington embassy two weeks prior to the revocation of visas for representatives in the embassy on Apr. 24 by the Trump Administration.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won re-election in May 2018, but the U.S. and other nations, including Canada, recognised the leader of the opposition party Juan Guaidó as president in January.

The U.S. revoked the visas of Maduro’s representatives at the embassy and helped establish Carlos Vecchio, a representative of Guaidó.

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of Code Pink, a NGO that describes itself on its website as “a women-led grassroots organisation working to end U.S. wars and militarism”, which participated in protesting, along with other activists, against the U.S. and Guadio’s representatives taking over the Venezuelan embassy in May. She told IPS: “It is such a critical international convention on diplomatic relations, one that has global implications.”

“If you’re a Venezuelan in need of assistance, where are you going to go? You need representation.”

Luis moved to the U.S. at 17 and eventually naturalised. He now has dual citizenship, but according to the U.S. Department of State – Consulate Affairs, if a person is a dual national, they must still have a valid Venezuelan passport in their possession to enter and leave Venezuela.

In the almost two decades that he has been in the U.S., Luis said he “never encountered any issues”, having at least three passports during that time.

But now, should Luis wish to travel to Venezuela he would have to travel out of state, or possibly to the Venezuelan embassy in Canada, to renew his passport. It’s a trip that he said is too expensive and time consuming.

There are some consulates still open in the U.S., including the one in New York. But Luis said he believed the New York consulate has already been taken over by representatives of the Venezuelan opposition.

“I do not recognise the opposition’s president. I wouldn’t go and get my paperwork with an institution that I don’t recognise,” he said.

Luis told IPS that he is part of the local Venezuelan community and has many Venezuelan friends, but that he thinks many of them are not as concerned as he is about the embassy.

“I’m a minority, because the largest amount of Venezuelan people are people from middle and upper class that have the means to travel,” Luis said, referring to the ability to travel out of state to other consulates or out of country to other embassies to renew their passports.

“It’s a class-struggle and also an ideological struggle,” he added.

IPS tried to reach out to the embassy for a statement from Guaidó’s representatives, but the phone lines were cut, and there is no other contact information listed on their website.

Safety of Embassies

Protestors fighting against the U.S. intervention in Venezuela had kept a small group of four protestors inside the Washington embassy, starting about two weeks prior to the visa revocation on Apr. 24 until May 16 when police in Washington used a battering ram to enter the building. 

Adrienne Pine, an associate professor of anthropology at American University, was one of the final four protestors occupying the embassy. Other protestors had left after an eviction notice was posted by U.S. police on May 13. She was arrested on May 16, and released the following day after a court appearance. She is neither a member of Code Pink nor a Venezuelan.

When asked why she remained in the embassy until her arrest, Pine told IPS: “I am a United States citizen, and I feel passionate about our government not engaging in regime change operations and not acting as an imperial actor around the world.”

On May 15, the permanent representative to Venezuela, Samuel Moncada, stated to the United Nations that the U.S. actions in attempting to occupy the embassy was a “pretext of war”.

He called for the U.S. to respect international law and warned of a violation of respect for diplomats worldwide.

In response to Moncada, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Stéphane Dujarric, stated in a U.N. press briefing on May 16: “We hope that the situation is resolved peacefully, bilaterally between the United States and Venezuela.”

The U.S. is legally allowed to recognise Guaidó, but under international law in Article 45 of the Vienna Convention, the violation of diplomatic offices of other governments is not allowed.

Pine warned of the U.S. police occupation of the embassy, “What it basically signals is that no embassy around the world is safe.”

Dozens of nations, including the U.S. and many of its western allies, recognise Guaidó as president of the Latin American nation. The U.N., however, continues to recognise Maduro as president. 

Though the U.N. has not agreed with the actions of the U.S., Benjamin believes the response from the U.N. and the international community has been too limited. She explained that this is “absolutely because of the United States. In any other country, I think the U.N. would have stepped in.”

Luis, who has family on both sides of the political aisle, is in support of the on-going international dialogue. He told IPS: “The ones who are left to pay are us, you know, the ones who want to have peace.”

“I just want my family to have a normal life,” he added.

*Not his real name.

Duel at the Shangri-La dialogue: Implications for us all

China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe (left) and acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan (front second right) attend the opening of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on May 31, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

By Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury
Jun 10 2019 (IPS-Partners)

The Annual Jamboree of global defence leaders at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore is much more than just a talkathon. Amidst the wining and dining, and in the chambers and corridors, policymakers and thought leaders get the opportunity to interact with one another intensely over a weekend. They try to make sense of how the regional critical security and related issues are evolving, against the backdrop of a rising Asia and a burgeoning superpower competition in what is now being increasingly viewed as the “Indo-Pacific Region”. Over the last several years the United States seemed to enjoy a walk-over vis-à-vis the agenda in the absence of senior Chinese protagonists. It invariably resulted in a spot of “China-bashing”, and a consequent erosion of its significance, the high quality of discourses notwithstanding.

All that changed during this year’s dialogue, between May 31 and June 2. The not-quite sleeping dragon decided that it was about time it showed up to spew some fire to display its potential might. So Beijing despatched a very high official, indeed its Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe to take on the US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan. On the verbal battlegrounds of Shangri La, it was finally, the Greek meets Greek, and as is said when that happens, then comes the tug of war!Though strategically the US is far ahead in terms of conventional and nuclear hardware, China already possesses the capacity to wreak absolutely unacceptable damage upon the US.

The Shangri La Dialogue provides for some superb conferencing. The London-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies organises it and the Singapore government provides the deliberations a gentle stewardship so as to be able to yield fruitful results. If in the past China’s absence caused the upshot to appear somewhat lopsided, this time round Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself took care to lay down the ground-rules of the discussions in a masterful analysis of the regional and global situation at a post-dinner tour d’horizon on the opening night.

He did not fight shy of the problems that dot the world in our times, offered some pragmatic solutions while circumspectly avoiding taking sides. He concluded by urging: “we must work together to maximise the chances that countries will have the wisdom and courage to work together…will have the wisdom and courage to make the right choices, opt for openness and integration, and so preserve and expand the progress we have made together.”

It was not that Singapore was simply punching above its weight. His rational words calmed nerves. They helped to round off the sharp edges of the inevitable US-China debate that was at the core of this year’s programme.

Nonetheless, some sparks did fly. A restrained Shanahan, without mentioning China, iterated that States that “eroded rules-based order”, were a “threat to the region”. Despite the perplexity of some in the audience, who could have thought the remarks could have applied equally to Shanahan’s own country, the US, Wei Fenghe accepted the fact that China was the target. Almost coinciding with Shanahan’s speech, The US Department of Defence released a report referring to China as a “revisionist power” seeking regional hegemony in the near, and global pre-eminence in the longer term.

To many analysts though, it could have seemed like the pot calling the kettle black. For didn’t it resemble the pattern of behaviour of the US itself, not so long ago? So, is the US now looking to inherit the pristine purity of behaviour of the proverbial Caesar’s wife? In a laconic riposte worthy of Julius Caesar’s famous “I came I saw I conquered” message, Wei Fenghe shot back at his perceived rival: “A talk, yes? A fight, ready. Bully us? No Way”!

He reiterated that China was ready to fight the US to the end, but confined the rhetoric, for now at least, to the sphere of trade! He might as well have quoted the old limerick: “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too!” For the participants of other countries, the apprehension understandably was the same that faced the grass beneath the elephants, doomed to be trampled upon, whether the giant animals made love or locked war!

Happily the prospects of a war are far beyond the rim of the saucer. The US and China, much unlike the US and the Soviet Union of the yesteryears are much too interdependent. They are the largest trade partners, and China owns an estimated USD 1.18 trillion US debt (as of April last year, though the figures pared down somewhat since). Though strategically the US is far ahead in terms of conventional and nuclear hardware, China already possesses the capacity to wreak absolutely unacceptable damage upon the US. Also, while Soviet leaders, not just Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, but also those that followed were committed to destroying the capitalist system and building anew, the Chinese took the pragmatic line of working to change within the system and weaving the differences philosophically within the dialectical process.

Despite the oft-cited mention of the Thucydides syndrome, named after the Greek historian who said when Athens grew strong there was great fear in Sparta, serious current thinkers have pretty much ruled out an all-out war. In a recent tome entitled “Destined for War; Can America and China escape the Thucydides Trap?” the strategic writer Graham Wallace argued that, yes, they can. What he meant was “yes, they must”. He stated that research showed such avoidance was possible, but it called for imaginative but painful steps.

But this does not mean we are not headed for a long-term Sino-US rivalry, within the model of a rising power challenging a sated one. The trade gap with China has, for the US, grown to a record USD 419.2 billion. Competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific region, where the powers collide directly is fierce. The age of the US as the only hyper-power was short lived. The two current superpowers, led by both Mr Donald Trump and Mr Xi Jinping are subordinating multilateral institutions to suit their purposes. The global state-system is now very much the “anarchical Society” as described by the theoretician Hedley Bull in a classic study of the same name.

In a situation where each State is more or less on its own, the need for each to focus on its own security and development increases manifold. For a country like Bangladesh it would entail expanding product and services markets through innovative initiatives like bilateral and pluri-lateral Free Trade Agreements, rather than say, being dependent on global bodies like the World Trade Organization. Also, bolstering its own defences with smart procurements rather than depend on the platitudinous resolutions of the United Nations. Perhaps the easy life of a policymaker is a thing of the past. It amply proves the veracity of the axiom that fitness to survive perhaps must remain a perennial societal goal.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and a former Foreign Advisor in a Caretaker Government in Bangladesh.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh