Thursday, July 4, 2013

Suicide in India

Jiah Khan's suicide last month got me started on some interesting research about suicide in India, particularly suicide in the young adult (15-29) demographic. The results, I have to say, were rather shocking. I had no idea about how widespread the problem is, nor about the antiquated laws that surround it.

According to recent study by Lancet, suicide is the second-most common cause of death for those aged between 15 and 29 in India. In 2010 alone, over 114,000 males took their own lives. Of these, 40% were aged 15-29. About 56% of the 72,100 women that committed suicide were in the same age bracket. Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist and lead author of the report, stated that female suicides in India are quite often linked to relationships (including arranged/ forced marriages and as a consequence of domestic violence) In contrast, for men, the predominant reason was financial challenges and work.

Given that many of these deaths occur in the lower economic strata, self-poisoning with pesticide and hanging are the most common means of suicide. The deaths are usually much more painful and chances of survival lower than with means like overdosing on non-prescription drugs.

While public health interventions, for example, restricting access to pesticides, may aid preventing many suicides, there is a stronger underlying social issue that must be addressed to make a real impact. India has the second highest absolute number of suicides in the world, the leader in this case being China. As a relative rate, India is still significantly above the world average suicide rate.

The Lancet study went on to state that India’s suicide rate is approximately 16 per 100,000 individuals per annum. The comparative rate in the developed world, considering a countries like the USA and UK is about 75% of that rate.

One of the primary challenges, besides the soaring debt of farmers in rural areas, is that because of rapid urbanization, India has witnessed a change in family structure. Youngsters move out of joint families into nuclear families, and with this there is a substantial breakdown of the underlying social support structures.

Another major contributor to suicide, particularly in men in India, is that society does not typically allow males to express their emotions freely. Without an adequate social outlet for expression, it is quite common for frustration, depression and anxiety to take root. This is consistent with a 2011 study which indicates that India had the most dire rate of severe depression of 18 countries surveyed.

Of course, using the law to solve social challenges rarely works - as was demonstrated in the women's rights in India debacle earlier this year. In fact the same applies for other social challenges like Indian online casinos. In this case, getting rid of colonial laws like those imposing prison sentences for suicide survivors would be a great first step. Then, to acknowledge the problem as a serious mental health issue would be the next step. Psychiatric clinics in rural India are scarce at best, and the rate of suicide in rural India is almost twice as high as urban areas.

Unfortunately there is also still a stigma around receiving treatment for mental issues, including depression. It is these social attitudes that need to change if India is going to overcome its challenge.

Worldwide, up to one million people die by suicide every year, according to the World Health Organization. In the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60%, says the WHO, and suicide is among the three leading causes of death among people aged 15 to 44.

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On a personal note, my projects with the NGO in Uganda are still ongoing. As always, I've still got my fingers crossed every time I venture out to play lottery online on this Indian website or suspend my better judgement and try my luck on USA online gambling sites like this in the hopes that I can raise enough funds to do all the social work I really want to do (yes, yes I know it's rather ironic given the social issues I write about on this blog!). In the meantime, and on a more practical note, I'm also looking to websites like TRAOK for innovative crowd-funding solutions to my financial challenges... they're about to launch a rather cool programme for social entrepreneurship - more on this soon!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Women, Rights and Respect

Working in the developing world is challenging for the most part. One of the most difficult aspects for me has been adjusting to the attitudes towards women. This is something I largely took for granted whilst living in the UK and paid even less attention to it whilst in Canada. The recent events in India, however, is just one example that brings home just how different cultures in the developing world are and what little regard they seem to have for women.

Last month the horrific gang rape on a bus of 23 year old medical student from Singapore whilst in India caught the attention of the world. Needless to say the publicity provided a much-needed platform for women’s rights activists both in India and abroad. According, to women's groups there is one rape every hour in India, with females belonging to lower castes or from tribal origin experiencing the highest risks.

In Africa this is no different. Rape in South Africa, for example, is a statistic only an idiotic government would ignore – the country has one of the highest reported rape rates in the world. Note the deliberate emphasis on the word ‘reported’. It is significant because the real sexual assault rates in both South Africa and India is an order of magnitude higher. Society in these countries is quick to blame some external factor, or worse the women themselves for such assaults. Now in India, it's only due to social networks like Facebook that this incident has become a global issue in feudal conservatism.

The call for tougher Indian rape laws has been around for quite some time. The same situation applies in the African countries where I have done much social work. And now, the political pressure has yielded some results in India in terms of fast track courts. As a short term measure this is good but what happens when the fury expressed by the public on the topic dies down in a few months. Will India have to wait for another gruesome incident before such a reaction shakes up politicians to take a harder look at the root cause of such behaviour?

In South Africa, it appears that people rarely openly acknowledge the issue – this applies to both men and women alike. It is as though they are living in a cocoon of cognitive dissonance. They know the issue is there, and it’s big. But like the dark Lord Voldemort, don’t you dare talk about it. Suggest that the government acts more harshly on it and you’re greeted by stories of innocent young women rounded up by the police who quite blatantly expect to receive sexual favours in exchange for release. And these are not urban legends – this has happened to several people I have worked with in women's shelters.

For years women's support groups have demanded the laws on rape be modernized. But, so far law makers and corrupt politicians have been slow to answer to women's pleas from brutal Delhi. The issue as suggested earlier in this article, is not one of law alone. It is one of societal attitudes and a lack of respect for women in these countries. The question remains if the law cannot fix it what really needs to be done to rectify the situation.

I believe the answer lies in a combination of education and mass action. For me, this is no different an issue to that of suffrage. Women need to fight for their rights. Otherwise they will continue to be given a meaningless lip service on the issues that matter to them and no real change will be effected. The irony of the situation is that in both India and many countries in Africa, women tend to be the more productive members of society – especially in the rural areas. They are hard-working and determined. Imagine if they all stuck together in unity for a common cause, the greater good. It would be exactly what is needed to shock the system into a major correction.

The momentum is there now in India to create a real change, but it needs to be sustained and elevated. The fast track courts proposal should be considered only as an interim solution and the law needs to be given real teeth. By real teeth I mean effectively enforced. Otherwise women will be gambling with their lives as they would on some online casino in India - they can take a stand but rest assured they will always lose in the end.

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On the personal front, I have just finished a large project with a women’s rights NGO in Uganda which was a fascinating experience… more about this in my next article. Sometimes I wish I could just play lottery online or actually simply click here or visit this website and win big myself so I can fund so many of the ventures I know will help in these countries. Not that I would ever venture to gamble online - ironically this is an introduction to my forthcoming article on gambling and its related social issues in developing countries. This is one more area, like lack of enforcement of women’s rights, that unfortunately affects the poor, despite the available regulation.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Human Right to Education

The story of Malala Yousafzai was one that raised feelings of both angst and anger to an intensity that I had not felt in years. Particularly so given the current development work I am doing in East Africa in the education sector.

At age 11 in late 2008, Malala Yousafzai began blogging for the BBC's Urdu Service under a pseudonym. Her writing became quite the hit and was even translated into English after it grew in popularity. Under the backdrop of conflict that swept through her town in northern Pakistan in 2009, Malala blogged about her passion for education. She related her ambitions of becoming a doctor and of becoming a symbol of resistance to the local Taliban insurgency.

After 10 weeks of having her blogs published, her family left the Swat valley and the blogging stopped. They returned home later in 2009 after the Pakistani army regained control of the Swat Valley. Since then, her father decided to publicise her name when nominating her for an International Peace Prize and Malala almost instantly became famous as a youth activist.

As her international celebrity status grew, Yousafzai also spoke openly about her dream to someday form and lead a political party in Pakistan that would focus on the right of girls to receive an education.

"I want to become such an inspiring leader to lead the nation, Pakistan. Along with that, I also want to serve humanity in whatever shape and form that may be."

And this from a 14 year old girl. Even today as I coach principals, teachers and students, I have yet to meet someone of that calibre.

Sadly, her popularity was not without its price. This week Yousafzai finds herself in hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound to her head, after the minibus she was riding from her girls' school was attacked earlier in the week.

Shortly after the attack in Mingora, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the shooting. The group had previously told Radio Mashaal in March this year that Yousafzai had been placed on a hit list - and this was not the first time such a de facto death warrant had been issued.

This begs the question: Why was Malala Yousafzai perceived as a significant threat?

Simply because she dared to dared to seek an education for girls in the region? Following the recent bombings in Libya, there has been much international commentary on Islamic anger and rightly so. Are these beliefs that fragile that they need to be defended with militant violence against the mere opinion of a young girl?

A similar situation existed in Afghanistan. There, the Taliban, who also previously prohibited schooling for girls altogether, have now relaxed their view about girls’ education in areas they control. They negotiated with government, where in exchange for not attacking students or teachers, the Taliban leaders themselves dictate what is taught in the schools, and by whom.

Importantly, however, this softening of attitude is not the result of government negotiation alone. There was signficant public pressure applied. The demand for access to education for all is evident there, just as it is now in Pakistan.

The education statistics in Pakistan are horrific: less than a third of all women have ever attended school. Whilst researchers attribute much of this to poverty, overcrowded schools, antiquated teaching methods, and dilapidated school premises, much of the challenge is attitudinal. Families are reluctant to send young girls to schools and even more acknowledge that an early marriage as a higher priority than education for girls.

The unfortunate thing about such "traditional" attitudes is that they are prevalent in the poorer communities which are typically also the least educated. This, in turn perpetuates directly into an ongoing economic disadvantage.

The situation is not as dire in East Africa but it is far from satisfactory. Somehow, the link between education - particularly for girls, and an improvement of life in general needs to be built. If religion which can be such a crucial and effective tool to build such a link in these communities continues to be an obstacle rather a support, the lot of a huge chunk of the population will never improve.

Hopefully Malala Yousufzai, who is fortunately recovering from her gunshot wounds, remains a beacon of hope and an inspiration for many others to demand what I believe to be a basic human right, education.

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As many of you know, I will be taking some time off from my development work in East Africa to help on a research project on the social impact of the online casino industry in developing countries - specifically in India and South Africa where the legality of online gambling is still in question and the local market is unlikely to be officially regulated for some time.

One can but wonder though whether hitting it big by playing the UK National Lottery or lottery online india is the only hope some people have of getting out of their current situation in terms of poverty in their own lifetimes. Personally, if I were even slightly luckier than I am I would quite happily try my own luck and gamble online for real money if only to fund the vast number of social development projects I have on my list - including the ones involving supporting the likes of Malala Yousafzai in her quest to bring education to girls and communities that need it the most. Alas, I shall have to resort to travelling around hat-in-hand for social development grants as has been the case over the last 10 years. But who knows, some day I might just win!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Inspirational Paralympics

Paralympics 2012 logo
When astrophysicist Stephen Hawking suggested we look up at the stars and I did, I experienced what can best be described as a rare moment of clarity. In that very moment, I realised where I was, who I was surrounded by and a feeling of awe overcame me. It was only a few weeks since I had attended the opening ceremony of the "main" Olympics in London, and many of the events that followed. This event - the Paralymics, however was different.

If the Olympics themselves are inspirational to many across the globe, the Paralympics should be even more so. Certainly there were tragedies befalling many of the Olympic athletes in the run up to the London 2012 games - from physical injury, heart surgery, death of loved ones and even getting shot in a case of mistaken identity. For me, though, the athletes of the Paralympics are testament to the strength of the human spirit beyond anything that could have been expressed just a few weeks before.

The disabled face a slew of challenges in their everyday lives. And these are not simply once-off occurrences they can recover from. These challenges need to be faced by them day-in, day-out. To train, and compete against peers despite that is quite something. Often I reflect on the challenges that I, and many of my able-bodied colleagues, face. The Paralympics is inspirational if only to provide the context for our own challenges, and to witness a special determinism that drives people to overcome hurdles that often-times seem insurmountable at first glance.

Paralympics opening ceremony image
I was glad to see that the flair had not been fully spent on the Olympics opening ceremony. Admittedly, the Danny Boyle spectacle would have been a tough act to follow. Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, the artistic directors of the Paralympics event, created a worthy start to the proceedings. Traditionally, it seemed that Paralympics played the role of the poorer brother to the main event - the ceremonies were nowhere close to being as well choreographed and spectacular. London 2012, I am pleased to say, was different. And for her Majesty, the Queen to appear at both events was special and very well-received by the audience.

The reach of the event is much wider than it has ever been. Having said that it has been rather disappointing that the likes of BBC so sparsely cover the event in comparison to their wonderful coverage of the main games. I have no doubt that the competition in the Paralympics will be as exciting and addictive as London 2012. In other countries around the world, notably the developing world - take South Africa and India as examples, the Paralympics barely feature as news unless the country wins a medal or two. Even that, it would seem, merits only a few moments in news broadcasts. Given the sad status of disability in Africa this is hardly surprising.

Perhaps this would be a good time for the Olympic committee to insist on greater coverage for Paralympics. They certainly had enough power to restrict countries from participating this year if they had no female representation on their teams. Perhaps a way of enforcing better coverage would be to better structure the rights to broadcast the main Games and the Paralympics more appropriately. One cannot help but speculate how many more people would have watched the Paralympics had BBC broadcast them as opposed to having them only on commercial-ridden channels.

"Ever since the dawn of civilisation, people have craved an understanding of the underlying order of the world. Why it is as it is and why it exists at all," said Professor Hawking.

Witnessing these challenged athletes compete gave me, for one, a sense of great admiration. It's not just about the triumph of the human spirit. Or about social inclusion, or about equality. It's about the realisation that everybody has their own lot, their own challenges, their own trials and tribulations to deal with - and success is very much about attitude, determination and the will to be the best you can be. Personally, I think the able-bodied population would get a lot more out of watching the Paralympics than the main games. Who knows, perhaps Oscar Pistorius can become the Usain Bolt of the Paralympics - a charismatic champion is exactly what the Paralympics needs now to really get the event on the map, and in every home.

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As an aside, apologies for the rather irregular posts over the last year. I have been travelling and working in places in Africa with very little access to technology. My little sabbatical to Western civilisation to watch the Olympics has been the highlight of my last year. It literally was like a blessing - as though one day I visited OCI in India, looked to the stars, then buy lottery ticket online and won it! I hope to record much of my Paralympics experience and bring it back to Africa to some of the villages I've worked with. If even a few people can begin to change their attitudes toward the disabled by having witnessed their spirit and what they are able to achieve, I would be thrilled.

After November, I should be a lot more regular with my blogging as I will be working in South Africa. I have a few papers lined up to be published on women's rights and social issues around online gambling in the developing world (that will be published online on NewsView in South Africa)... it should make for interesting reading particularly given the current legislation around both these topics in these countries.

Until then, keep well - I am off to enjoy the rest of the glorious games in London!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Disability in Africa

One of the joys of my current consulting role in Africa is that I get to interact with a significant number of NGOs and international welfare organisations. From a social issues perspective, this interaction has been enlightening. While I have largely been focused on education related development work in Uganda and Central Africa, one recent interaction outside this realm stands out as worthy of mention. That is the topic of disability in Africa.

In stark contrast to the likes of the BBC that pay great attention to catering for people with disabilities, the priority this segment of the population is given in Africa is shocking. Africa is a region facing some unique challenges with respect to fighting poverty - as such, people with disabilities will automatically be disproportionately represented. The number of disabled rise due to malnutrition, natural disasters, civil strife and conflict, and of course AIDS.

The disabled in Africa are all but ignored in local society. They form part of a vicious cycle in which they are unable to contribute economically, which consequently makes them of less perceived value as human beings - harsh, but this is the reality. This perceived lower value in turn gives people even less incentive to make any sort of investment in uplifting the disabled - physically, emotionally, economically or otherwise.

Worse yet, not only are they largely invisible to the local able population, they also appear to be invisible in development initiatives. The willingness to to contribute is there, and its strong - but they are unfortunately marginalised because they are perceived to be a burden. The result as can be expected, is devastating, both to the disabled individual as well as to the economy.

Further aggravating the situation is that while international organisations acknowledge the importance of catering for the disabled in these markets, and their involvement in poverty alleviation initiatives, there is little to no research done in the area. This lack of information about disability and poverty in Africa and indeed in other developing nations around the world, makes it difficult for welfare organisations and NGOs to actively obtain funding for necessary initiatives.

Most recently, Benin and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) are undergoing such studies to support future aid efforts by the likes of the World Bank - one can only hope that these studies not only begin to identify some critical statistics around disability, but also draw a solid link between disability and poverty in the developing world. Without such a link, it will be difficult to get sufficient funding to do anything of consequence in this area.

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As an aside, some of the recent development and professional coaching work I have been involved with in the education sector has involved engaging with disabled students extensively. It appears, just in the region I am currently working in in Uganda, that school enrollment of disabled children is often as low as 10-15%. Again, this is not a matter of ability but rather one of negative perception, lack of appropriate resources (it still has me taking a punt on an online slots casino every now and then in the hopes that I can start my own self-administered development fund for Africa), and most of all a regressive social attitude towards disability.

Until this perception of the disabled changes in the eyes of the African public, very little will actually be done to alleviate the plight of the African disabled.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Royal wedding, Royal distraction

A few decades have passed since the last similar event of this magnitude - the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. It seems not much has changed in terms of the royal attention the couple - Prince William and Kate Middleton this time around are receiving.

The wedding has been in the spotlight most of this week in the news - the only difference from 1981 being the tremendous global impact of social media. Now there's cartoon facebook pages and wedding twitter feeds and more to keep the news hungry well-fed for the UK national event scheduled for the 29th April 2011.

While places like China are going a little crazy trying to capitalise on the royal wedding by flooding the market with replica wedding rings, souvenirs, branded t-shirts - and quite successfully so one might add, it does beg the questions whether this euphoria is justified, whether such events still should have a place in the world calendar, and no doubt for some, whether the monarchy should still be in existence.

Judging by the coverage on the BBC and other traditional media, it appears that those pro the wedding are significantly more than those against it. Most are welcoming it as a royal distraction from the turmoil going on all over the world at the moment - whether it's the nuclear fallout in Japan, tsunamis, or the North African revolutions that have spread from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to Syria and many other locations in Middle East. The wedding does bring a sense of positivity and hope for viewers - much needed, one could argue, this year especially.

From an economic point of view, certainly there are benefits too. Spending increases a bit on everything from restaurant specials and romantic holiday offers to the actual purchase of tacky souvenir items relating to the wedding. The romance of it all - a fairy tale in the making is quite a captivating incentive to keep many women glued to their screens - again, quite a positive thing for the most part.

On the negatives, however, the argument is that the entire event constitutes a royal waste of public funds. This too, at a time when many feel that money should be allocated to more pressing matters - like saving countries economically. It was indeed a noble gesture for the couple to suggest that nobody send them wedding gifts but instead donate money to a worthy charity instead. I just wonder how many starving children could be fed with the funding going into the wedding itself. Still, I guess there are positives that cannot be totally ignored in this equation.

The bigger issue of course, and one that will no doubt be of importance in the coming week is the actual relevance of the monarchy itself. According to BBC and other news reports, there is likely going to be a significant anti-monarchy protest with members coming in from all over Europe to participate.

Other issues surrounding the wedding from a negative standpoint is unnecessary disruptions. Local government establishments have received over five thousand road closure requests for street parties and the like. If you're not going to be joining them, that will certainly make for some irritation.

Personally, I know there are more pressing issues to deal with in the world. I do believe however, that the public becomes immune to bad news after a while - there is simply so much of it. If anything, the Royal Wedding will provide some relief and help people recollect and celebrate life, albeit just for a short time. A royal distraction is what it is, but a much needed one for the world right now.

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As an aside, it has been great watching romantic wedding movies as TV schedules have moved to accommodate the event in their programming. The fairy tale nature of the wedding just makes one want to go out and buy lottery tickets online in the hopes that someday one might be able to have exactly the same type of royal experience. Sadly, for those amongst us that aren't princesses and have no real shot at meeting princes in our everyday lives, no visits to even the best online slots casino can come to our rescue. For us, we will all live vicariously through Miss Kate Middleton!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Drivers of Social Revolution

The recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, starting off in Tunisia and still rippling across the region, makes for an interesting case study about the drivers for social revolution. Many of the countries that have experienced unrest did not undergo any sudden, major economic or political change. So what is it that sparked off the change and allowed it to be amplified in such a short period of time?

Over the last four months, I've taken a short sabbatical from my consulting assignments to do some volunteer work in Southern Africa. One of my personal goals was to leave a significant contribution, particularly in the areas of education and social development. My experience with life coaching and its application in a mass market context was most insightful. It allowed me a rare opportunity to understand what the really poor value, and what they are willing to endure.

The flip side of that understanding, is that it also provided me with some of the potential triggers that would bring on the need to do something more drastic - be it self-immolation in the case of Mohamed Bouazizi, or some other visible form of protest. And the protest need not be to make a blaring social statement - more often than not it is an unplanned act of desperation. The fact that it catches the attention of media and social networks is often just by the way.

Without diving in to the details of how the North African uprising started, the logic of social revolutions is as follows: there are repressed feelings about the powerlessness of individuals because of their circumstances. If these repressed feelings lead to a state of resignation - an acceptance that the status quo will never change and nothing that an individual can do will make an impact, then the anger of society is bottled up.

Now there are triggers to release this bottled up anger: an act of protest; acts of desperation or violence; organised mass action; or in the case of countries like South Africa - a strong leader like Nelson Mandela. The former triggers often used to be more hit and miss - there was no guarantee that the traditional media would pick up on an act and that it would be publicised enough to raise more than an empathetic conversation. With the rise of freer information flows through social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, however, public sentiment is more easily communicated. The use of these technologies is what gave voice to the public disgust in Tunisia.

If enough people find a common platform to channel their anger, and if they feel like there is hope that things may change - or there is sufficient pain for them to believe that there is no other option, then there is a revolution. What happened in Tunisia was exactly that - when Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself, the public was united with a common cause. They could directly relate to the tragic situation of the street vendor who had his wares confiscated and saw no means to continue to make an honest living - and they acted.

What happened since in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Djibouti, Jordan, and even Iran, Saudi Arabia and Libya was that the ousting of President Ben Ali in Tunisia gave hope that their resignation with their respective regimes might have been misplaced. The citizens of those countries too felt that taking proactive steps may improve their lot. Ultimately, it is that very HOPE that is the key driver to any social revolution.

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Be sure to check out the recent post on the North African revolutions on Wonkie, my favourite African news blog and the excellent BBC Paul Mason's democracy and economics article. If you're bored and would like something to do, check out these recommended pages.

As a brief aside I would also like to thank executive coach and friend, Pratish, whom I worked with as part of my volunteer project. For those of you who haven't experienced coaching and are keen to hire an executive coach, I highly recommend him!

Apologies for being out of touch with the blogging scene whilst I was volunteering - I guess readers should be used to that by now with me! I have some interesting articles lined up over the next few months including a guest cartoon strip on Wabber. For my friends in India, you may want to check out the new Play lottery in India page, given that the Powerball is now over $180M this week! :)