The Implications of an Abusive Command Economy on the Rural People of North Korea

Four young Korean children stare sorrowfully through an open window with blue doors. Their ribs are visible and their arms are skinny.
Malnutrition in childhood leads to long-term physical and cognitive health effects. By limiting resources to impoverished communities, the DPRK holds control over the bodies and minds of these people. Source: Yahoo! Images

Note from the author: This post is the first of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.

Content Warnings: mass financial abuse, famine, malnutrition, dehumanization, classism, starvation


Imagine grocery shopping for your family, and instead of finding a variety of food choices, you find a store filled with a surplus of children’s socks, different colored hats, and beach toys even though you live nowhere near the coast. The only food you can find in the store is a few loaves of moldy bread, a small produce section filled with rotting vegetables, and a frozen section with freezer-burned packaged meat. The best you can do is buy a bag full of rotting vegetables and plant them in the ground behind your house, careful not to be caught doing so by the police. The soil you remember being rich with vitamins has turned to gray dust, and everything you plant dies before sprouting. Your family will live off the rotting leftovers from last week’s grocery trip until you can scrounge together enough scraps to make it through. You know that your neighbor has a secret garden that does moderately well, so you sneak over to offer her what’s left of your money in exchange for a few vegetables. If the police catch you exchanging goods, you and your neighbor will be charged for participating in a free market, thrown in a prison camp without a fair trial, and held for an unregulated amount of time. 

The only media you’ve ever seen tells stories of a utopia; the Kim family is sent from heaven to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, the most wonderful place to live. They tell you that people in other countries, like South Korea and the United States, live under terrible governments who do not care for them the way the Kim family cares for you. In the end, you have no reason not to believe them. You have never seen the conditions of other countries and any criticism of your regime has been consistently disputed throughout your entire life. The stark reality of your consistent mistreatment exists in a dichotomy with the ideals that you have been brainwashed to believe to be true. 

Approximately 20 million rural North Koreans live in this reality…

Songbun

The class system of North Korea is called Songbun. At birth, each North Korean citizen is labeled as core, wavering, or hostile based on their place of birth, status, and the national origin of their ancestors. For example, a person whose ancestors immigrated from South to North Korea will be given a low Songbun and be assumed to have genetically inherited hostility towards the government. One’s Songbun can never be changed, as it determines every aspect of one’s life including how resources will be allocated to your community and how much mobility you will have throughout the state.

A pyramid chart with five horizontal sections. It is a gradient from white at the top to red at the bottom. The top section is labeled, “Supreme Leader: Kim Il-Sung (1949-1994) / Kim Jong-Il (1994-2011) / Kim Jong-Un (2011-present)” The next section is labeled, “Workers Party of Korea (WPK): More commonly known as the North Korean Regime - Consists of relatives of the Kim family and high-up government officials” The third section is labeled, “‘Core’ Songbun: Consists of people with a long family history of loyalty to the regime - most are residents of Pyongyang” The fourth section is labeled, ““Wavering” Songbun: Consists of people who have a family history of immigration and have since assimilated and residents of semi-large suburbs outside of Pyongyang” The bottom section is labeled, ““Hostile” Songbun: Consists of people with a family history of defecting, immigrating, or convicted criminals; people of non-Korean nationalities; people who have an acquired or assumed genetically-inherited hostility towards the regime”
The Hierarchy of the DPRK. Source: Diagram made by author.

The Command Economy

The Workers Party of Korea (WPK), more commonly known as the North Korean Regime, holds tight control over the command economy and uses it to abuse all people of low Songbun, specifically those who live outside the capital, Pyongyang. Instead of ordering the production of valuable goods like food and home maintenance products for their communities, they overproduce menial things, like children’s socks and beach toys. Many do not have the mobility to go to a neighboring town for resources, and as I will expand on later, many believe that they deserve to starve if they are not entirely self-sufficient.

This economic system has the dual effect of limiting opportunities to participate in the job market. People are not allowed to sell products unless they are commanded to do so by the WPK. Because the WPK is not tasked to create job opportunities for rural people, these people have no opportunity to make money, which only exacerbates the problem of reduced resources.

Lots of brightly colored shoes are piled onto shelves and hanging from the walls and ceilings in a Korean store. There are yellow signs with red and black text in Korean
The overproduction of menial things at the expense of food and necessities. Source: Yahoo! Images

The March of Suffering

The culture that encourages the idea of “suffering for the greater good” is called juche. Juche is the Korean term for the culture of self-sufficiency. It is an idea that is pushed hard into the minds of all North Koreans. Asking for help, depending on friends or family, or participating in a small-scale economy of goods with your neighbors makes you an inherently weak person because you are expected to work harder instead of “begging”. This idea is so ingrained in the minds of North Koreans that they will accept immense abuse from higher-ups at the expense of asking for help or demanding rights.

Starting in 1990, a great famine swept the nation under the rule of Kim Il-Sung. He coined the term “The March of Suffering” to refer to the famine. Using this name, he convinced those who took the hardest hit, the rural people of low Songbun, that they were doing the most honorable thing for their country by suffering in this famine. They were dying for it. Kim Il-Sung glorified their suffering by convincing them that not only did they deserve it (juche), but that their suffering was contributing to the greater good of the country. He had such control over the minds of these people that they loyally followed him straight to their graves. 

Handled correctly, this famine could have lasted no longer than a year, and would not have become nearly as severe as it has. Instead, estimates from Crossing Borders suggest that between 240,000 and 3.5 million people have died in the DPRK from malnutrition since 1990.* The famine has outlived not only Kim Il-Sung but also his predecessor Kim Jong-Il. 

*The reason for such a wide range of statistics is that collecting accurate data in North Korea is virtually impossible. I expand on the use of outside media control in the second part of this series titled, “How the North Korean Regime Uses Cult-Like Tactics to Maintain Power.”

The camera is facing down a building-lined street. The buildings are neutral colors and appear old. There are two trees with no leaves. There is a group of people all wearing the same dark green/blue clothing. One person is dressed in bright blue and standing in the middle of the street.
Even in Pyongyang, vibrant colors are rare. The buildings are drab and dull, the trees are dead, and people dress monochromatically and uniformly. The person in bright blue serves as a traffic director. Source: Flickr

Suppose the topic of North Korea is interesting to you and you want to work towards clearing up the fog surrounding the nation. In that case, I highly recommend Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record by Sandra Fahy. This book is very informative and one of the only easily accessible, comprehensive accounts of North Korean human rights. It is where I learned most of what I know about the DPRK. It set the baseline on which I built my entire comprehensive understanding of the social systems at play. 

The cover of Sandra Fahy’s book. The picture on the cover is taken through a fence in North Korea. The camera’s focus is on the background, making the fence of the foreground very blurry. The view of the fence consists of a top white metal bar and five vertical bars that are red and white. In the background, which is in focus, we look over a small body of water to see a few densely packed and desolate-looking houses. The grass and trees out front are dead. There is snow on the ground. The sand is rocky and gray. There is one bright blue structure that looks like a child’s playhouse starkly contrasting its desolate surroundings. Above the fence, text reads, “Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record; Sandra Fahy.”
The cover of the aforementioned book. Source: Fahy, Sandra. Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record. Columbia University Press, 2019. Picture taken by A. Price.

As I will expand upon in the rest of this series, it is imperative that people outside of the DPRK “clear the fog” and find ways to look into the state. One of the biggest motivators for activism is awareness. As people on the outside, some of the most valuable things we can do are spread awareness, garner activism, and bring that activism with us into our participation in the government, whether that be running for office or simply voting for people who share our concerns.

If you are not registered to vote, you can do so here: Register to vote in the upcoming midterm election today.

Pakistan’s Floods : A Humanitarian and Climate Crisis

Source: Abdul Majeed Goraya / IRIN | www.irinnews.org

One third of Pakistan is underwater following disaster-level floods that have ravaged the country since mid June of 2022. The flooding is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, bringing climate change and environmental justice into the focus of conversations about why the floods are so devastating. The record-breaking monsoon rains have affected 33 million citizens, leaving millions displaced and threatening the economy by washing away the fall harvest and essential farmland. Pakistan’s most vulnerable are struggling to access the scarce aid that is available, including the 19 million children affected by the floods. It is an unprecedented, once in a century crisis event exacerbated by climate change, poor infrastructure, and the damages of the recent economic crisis prior to the flooding.

Source: Oxfam International via Flickr

Direct Impact of the Floods: Hunger, Disease and Displacement.

The monsoon rains have killed over a thousand people, roughly 400 of which are children. However, hunger, thirst, disease, and shortages of essential supplies threaten the lives of even more; millions of Pakistani people have been displaced over the course of the floods since June. The United Nations Refugee Agency has estimated that 6.4 million people are in need of immediate support. 

Any discussion of rebuilding has been shelved in submerged regions as the flood waters may not recede for months, leaving the thousands of kilometers of roads, tens of thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of homes, thousands of essential healthcare facilities destroyed by floodwater, and prior residents stranded or displaced. In addition to the initial death toll from the floods, the Pakistani people are facing immediate dangers of water borne disease, lack of access to food, water and shelter, and risks of violence; especially for women, children, and minority groups.

The country’s health system has faced substantial blows, both from loss of structures and supplies caused by the flood and the overwhelming need of those affected. Dehydration, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and dengue fever are ravaging make-shift camps as the flood waters become stagnant and clean water and sanitary supplies become harder to come by. Sindh Province, the second-most populated province in Pakistan, and one of the hardest-hit by the floods, has seen over 300 deaths from water borne-diseases since July.  Early disease surveillance by the WHO has revealed that tens of thousands of cases of flood water-caused diseases are already present amongst those within reach of relief efforts. Countless villages remain stranded as roads and highways are underwater, so the true number of deaths, displaced persons, diseased, and persons otherwise impacted by these crises are expected to climb as more recovery efforts continue to search the flooded regions. 

Without international aid and intervention, an epidemic of disease caused by the floods will cause a second wave of deaths in Pakistan, of which the elderly, children, and pregnant women will be the largest groups facing losses. International aid, medical and humanitarian organizations have joined the Pakistani government and are regularly dropping medical supplies, malaria nets, food and provisional shelters, but the need continues to grow as more people find their way to temporary camps and the rate of disease climbs. 

Source: Oxfam International Via Flickr

Human Rights & The Most Vulnerable

A nation’s most vulnerable populations are often the ones who suffer the worst effects for the longest time after a natural disaster like these floods. For Pakistan, those vulnerable groups are women, children, the Khwaja Sira (transgender) community, those living in extreme poverty, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups. Typically, socially disadvantaged groups are living in regions with lesser infrastructure, facing the initial worst impacts of natural disasters, but marginalized status often leads to upwards battles to access humanitarian aid after the disaster as well. There are estimated to be 650,000 pregnant women displaced in Pakistan right now, in urgent need of maternal health care and safe, sterile facilities to give birth in, with many taking perilous journeys in hopes of reaching a hospital or safe places to give birth.

CARE, an international human rights and social justice organization, spoke on this concern. Pakistan Country Director for CARE, Adil Sheraz said, “With entire villages washed away, families broken up and many people sleeping under the sky, the usual social structures that keep people safe have fallen away, and this can be very dangerous for women and girls.” 

Following the 2010 floods in Pakistan, denial of aid and violence against minorities became a prevalent issue and large protests against law enforcement arose due to their failure to protect vulnerable groups. Preventative measures against recurrence of these issues have been few and far between since 2010, and international human rights communities are on high alert for rising reports of discrimination in relief distribution and crimes against minorities. Reports of sexual violence have already increased following the floods.

In addition to some of the most vulnerable Pakistanis are roughly 800,000 Afghani refugees who have been hosted by Pakistan in Sindh and Balochistan; two provinces faced with the worst of the flooding and submersion. Pakistan has a deep history of offering asylum and refuge for those fleeing across the border from conflict in Afghanistan, and is home to 1.4 million Afghani refugees currently in 2022. Following the August 2021 withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate government (also known as the Taliban), Pakistan became an even more essential haven for the influx of refugees fleeing a violent authoritarian regime. In the wake of this natural disaster, the loss of $30 billion dollars worth of infrastructure, homes and supplies, and facing an economic crisis, Afghani people with hopes of finding refuge in Pakistan must now find new routes to safety. 

Source: Ali Hyder Junejo

Environmental Justice & Climate Change

Though Pakistan faces annual flooding of the Indus river from heavy rains in monsoon season, record breaking rains preceded by an extended heatwave contributed to an unrivaled degree of flooding this summer. Heatwaves brought temperatures around 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit) to India and Pakistan between March and May of this year. Monsoon rains followed the spring heatwaves, and in the regions of Sindh and Balochistan rainfall reached 500% above average. The 2022 floods will leave a significant economic, infrastructural, and humanitarian impact on the country of roughly 220 million people. The reason for the dramatic influx in severity is complex, but simple at its core: climate change.

Pakistan is facing an unfair share of the consequences of climate change; while it was responsible for only .3% of global CO2 emissions in 2020, it is likely that this year’s heatwaves and floods will be on the less severe end of what is to come. The United Nations has deemed Pakistan a “climate change hotspot”, stating that people in South Asia are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts. As the global temperature rises and geohazards become more extreme, disaster-prone regions like Pakistan will face more and more devastation. The best prognosis for the region comes with prevention efforts like strengthening anti-disaster infrastructures. As the global north is responsible for 92% of excess emissions contributing to global warming and climate change, Pakistan, the United Nations, and other international agencies are calling for countries like the United States to make increased contributions to relief funds and infrastructure development overseas.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while visiting Pakistan in September 2022, said, “…the fact is that we are already living in a world where climate change is acting in such a devastating way. So, there must be massive support to what usually is called adaptation, which means to build resilient infrastructure and to support resilient communities and to create conditions for those that are in the hotspots of climate change. Pakistan is one of the hotspots of climate change. For those countries to be able to prepare for the next disaster and to be able to resist the next disaster, this needs a huge investment and this investment needs to be provided.”

Relief & Aid

Pakistan has faced an overwhelming series of calamities since the start of this year, and the impacts from these disasters are greatly exacerbated by food shortages and an economic crisis prior to the start of the disasters in March. There are millions of people in need of aid, and every bit of support helps. If you are unable to financially contribute, please consider sharing this or other articles about this crisis to increase international attention on those who need our help.

For donations of money, time, or other resources, we have compiled some reputable aid agencies below:

  • Pakistan’s Red Crescent Society is providing clean drinking water, medical treatments, temporary housing, and other essential aid across flood-hit regions. Donate or get involved with their flood response efforts here.
  • The United Nations Refugee Agency has provided millions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, and you can contribute here to support their continued relief efforts.
  • The International Medical Corps are on the ground in Pakistan, providing medical care and responses to both the floods and gender-based violence across the country. Find out more & how you can donate here.
  • Muslim Aid has reached over 29,000 people in three affected districts of Pakistan, providing hygiene kits, shelter, and essentials to those in need. Contribute to their fund here.

Breakthrough Birmingham

I wanted to include this picture to show just how many people came to work together during the summer to help bridge the academic gaps in the BCS district.
Source: Kala Bhattar; A representation of the many hands that worked together to make Breakthrough’s summer 2022 program a success!

Over the summer, I had the chance to be part of an amazing program, a program that at first, I believed would be a way for me to serve my community, but instead, I found community within. This program, known as Breakthrough Birmingham, is one of many Breakthroughs located in various cities across the country, serving communities with a mission and vision to bridge the academic gap produced by the pandemic and the larger systemic inequalities that exist in educational systems nationwide. Breakthrough is a nonprofit organization that commits to ensuring that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have a chance to pursue higher education and find a passion for learning along the way. They aim to do this while also mentoring future leaders and teachers to be better prepared for their teaching careers and leadership roles. With 24 different locations around the nation, Breakthrough is slowly trying to bridge the opportunity gap in America while retraining future educators to teach through the lens of inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism. Before diving into Breakthrough and its many accomplishments, it is important to understand the purpose that nonprofit organizations like Breakthrough serve in their communities and why they are necessary in the first place.

Background About the American Education System and Breakthrough as a Whole

So, what is a nonprofit organization, and why are they important to have? Nonprofit organizations are created with a specific goal, or mission in mind, which aims to address a specific need in the community. The public sector (the government and its agencies) aims to address the needs of the majority voters, leaving behind many issues that impact minority voters. The private (business) sector, on the other hand, focuses primarily on its bottom line, which is making a profit. As a result, the private sector caters to those who are deemed customers, leaving behind those who cannot afford their goods and services. This is where nonprofit organizations come into play. Nonprofits stick to a vision, form a mission statement, and have a double-bottom line of staying true to their mission while also making a profit to put back into the organization. While they may be focused on a single issue, each nonprofit organization aims to address a particular issue being neglected by the public sector and left behind by the private sector. Nonprofits are – by law – non partisan and non-political. This means they are inclusive in their services and do not deny service based on the ability to pay. Breakthrough is one such organization addressing the shortcomings of our country’s education system, which provides endless opportunities to those who can afford them, and leaves behind the rest with the equivalent of the bare minimum in education.

This of course has to be looked at through a historical framework, and as we know all too well, Birmingham’s educational system has historically been one of the most segregated and underfunded school systems in the nation. Even when the rest of the nation began desegregating their school systems after Brown v. Board of Education was passed, Birmingham was one of those cities that resisted and refused to comply. As Birmingham finally began desegregating, the school systems had to deal with funding issues, and in response, local officials began to redraw district lines to ensure that certain well-to-do (white) families were positioned inside well-funded school districts. A topic that can be a blog in and of itself, because of racially inspired redlining efforts that were supported by the federal government during the 1930s, to this day, the funding that school systems receive is directly impacted by the housing values in America. As a result, students from lower-income households are zoned to attend schools with low funding, while students from higher-income households attend schools with higher funding. Due to the inequalities brought about by this phenomenon, there exists an educational gap between the students from low-income families and those from high-income families, and this opportunity gap further impacts the students’ decision to pursue higher education or not. To get a better understanding of the legacies of racial segregation on our education system, read this article by Nekole Hannah Jones.

While Breakthrough’s mission was a necessity, to begin with, its need has amplified due to the chaotic school years brought about as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the education gap between low-income students and those who come from high-income families. Many students who didn’t have the resources to access the online modules were neglected as a result of switching to online classrooms. Research showed that by the end of the school year in 2021, many students across the nation were behind on math and reading skills by several months. Additionally, trauma and instability can be discouraging academically and can severely impact the students’ development process.

As such, Breakthrough is an organization that aims to bridge the opportunity gap in vulnerable cities across the nation. After conducting tremendous research and tailoring programs to fit the community’s needs, Breakthrough Birmingham became one of their local branches, serving the Birmingham City Schools (BCS) District and partnering with local universities to empower the future educators of tomorrow with a holistic approach to teaching the next generations. Breakthrough offers year-long academic services to underprivileged scholars in their community, and their summer programs specifically aim to slow the “summer slide,” (which is the tendency of scholars to lose some of their academic skills from the lack of academic practice over the summer). Interestingly, Breakthrough serves a specific age group, mainly middle schoolers, and even employs a specific academic group during the summer, undergraduate students.

Why Middle Schoolers? Why Undergraduate Teaching Fellows?

Wanted to include some images from college trips to showcase how BTB is attempting to increase college attendance among low-income students
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; A collage of pictures from various college trips that scholars from each grade took as part of their Breakthrough summer experience

Breakthrough as an organization focuses on its middle school age group for many reasons. Middle school can be a very stressful time for a young student, and researchers wanted to understand why. Upon further inspection, scholars at Portland State University found that young adolescents between the ages of 10-15, experience many waves of development during this period of their lives. They develop physically, both externally in terms of height and weight, and internally, in terms of muscular and skeletal structures, but also chemically, in the form of changes in hormone levels. This can lead to a lot of discomfort in body image/self-esteem issues, as well as uncertainty around their sexuality.  Additionally, students develop emotionally, meaning that they may need more guidance on processing certain emotions and feelings. Furthermore, students in this age group are developing morally, and as such, are beginning to develop a strong sense of right and wrong. This can have lasting impacts on their ability to ethically judge situations. Students are also developing socially, meaning that they can sometimes be socially awkward until they find a peer group they fit into. While all these developments are taking place, students at this age also undergo developments in their intellect and depending on the guidance they receive, this characteristic can determine their interest in higher learning. This can mean that without proper mentorship, many students will fail to see the importance of higher education, or, students who come from families where they are first-generation scholars, may not even be aware of the opportunities at hand if they are never introduced to them. Recognizing these factors, Breakthrough created a summer program particularly aimed at ensuring middle schoolers in the community can have a safe, fun-filled learning environment that can guide their scholars through the various developments they experience in this age range.

This image was included because it was taken on celebration day, the last day of the summer program
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; An image to capture the joy felt on celebration day, the last day of the summer program. Pictured here are some BTB admin, along with all the summer teaching fellows, and the high school interns

Additionally, Breakthrough employs undergraduate teaching fellows during their summer program to provide their middle school scholars with mentors who are closer in the age group to the middle schoolers than their traditional teachers at school. This helps scholars build meaningful relationships with teaching fellows, and as such, scholars are more receptive to information and direction. Furthermore, representation is key, and employing undergraduate teaching fellows provides middle schoolers with adults who look like them, and who share commonalities with them. Studies show that there is an overwhelming number of teachers who are predominantly from one particular race, and gender, (white, women) teaching primary education. Seeing someone that looks like them in a teaching position is powerful in encouraging younger scholars to pursue their academic dreams. This includes the fact that throughout history, the teaching occupation has been held by mostly women. Being able to see male teachers can additionally empower young boys to perhaps pursue teaching careers in their future. Finally, Breakthrough ensures that teaching fellows approach the scholars from anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoints, making sure to provide weeks-long training sessions to familiarize teaching fellows with the local history and major concepts of anti-racist teachings, as well as introduce teaching fellows to multiple professional speakers for further guidance on such topics. Teaching fellows are also expected to understand the social, economic, political, and environmental context from which their scholars come, so as to be aware of some of the outside forces at play that influences the scholars’ behaviors. Operating under a “high expectations, high support” system, Breakthrough expects nothing but the best from its teaching fellows, while providing resources and a strong support system to teaching fellows to ensure that no scholar is left behind.

The Three Pillars: Exposure, Relationships, and Growth Exposure

Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; A collective picture of teaching fellows and Breakthrough admin outside the Legacy Museum. In addition to the in-depth training and professional speakers that teaching fellows received, they also got the chance to visit the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in downtown Birmingham as part of the exposure pillar

One of the three pillars that Breakthrough Birmingham is founded upon is the pillar of Exposure. This exposure piece applies to scholars and teaching fellows alike, and at times, because of the dynamic of the working environment found at Breakthrough Birmingham, it also applies to the staff and administration as well. During the summer program, scholars are exposed to students that come from various parts of the BCS district and meet as one cohort, sharing similar experiences. Having friends from different backgrounds can expose students to different cultures and lifestyles, and as such, can be a healthy addition to their development. This also fosters a sense of belonging among the Breakthrough community, and as such, encourages a safe environment for the scholars to learn and grow.

Additionally, scholars are exposed to information regarding their future, including preparing for high school, visiting college campuses, and even learning about various career fields and interview etiquette at a career day fair. Scholars are also exposed to the community around them, and learn about topics through an inclusive lens, focusing on equity, diversity, and anti-racism. With daily advisory classes that focus on culture building, elective lessons three days a week that give scholars a chance to explore new areas of interest, and all school and/or all-grade meetings held daily in an attempt to strengthen the newly formed friendships and relationships, every activity at Breakthrough is intentionally crafted to expose scholars and teaching fellows alike to new experiences.

Furthermore, teaching fellows also benefit from this exposure pillar in many ways. Teaching fellows (TFs) are hired from all over America, so TFs are provided with the opportunity to work closely with students that come from various backgrounds, and who share a common work environment. TFs go through various training sessions together, where they are exposed to inspiring community leaders, and get the chance to explore the local community’s history together. The TFs are therefore exposed to different ideas, people, and cultures, and are given the opportunity to form friendships that can last a lifetime. TFs are also exposed to roles of leadership and are expected to work in committees that teach teamwork and communication skills.

Relationships

I included this image to showcase the sense of community that can be found at Breakthrough, especially during the work day
Source: Kala Bhattar; TFs are expected to teach a subject from an academic field, such as reading, writing, science, and math. Each academic field had one-two TFs from each grade, and an Instructional Coach, (or mentor) to guide the process. This was my team; #writingteam

The working environment at Breakthrough fosters a sense of community, as staff and administration work alongside the TFs on a daily basis to ensure the smooth and effective operation of the day. This model emboldens the relationship between TFs, scholars, and staff, and strengthens the sense of trust within the organization. This, in essence, embodies the second pillar of Breakthrough: Relationships. TFs get to build lifelong connections and relationships with each other and the management team. With a healthy work environment that encourages TFs to “exhale from school” and prioritize self-care, Breakthrough is a workplace with high expectations and high support. Scholars are also able to make meaningful relationships with each other as well as with other TFs. Many scholars find lifelong mentors in teaching fellows, and as a result, can have a positive role model to look up to.

I included this image to showcase what breakthrough's summer program means to the scholars
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; Scholars line up with their TFs before the celebration day events begin. Breakthrough provides a safe space for scholars to develop healthy relationships and find mentorship in their fellow TFs.

Growth

Breakthrough’s third pillar, Growth, provides the results of the hard work exerted by scholars, TFs, and management alike. Breakthrough has some serious results. Not only can scholars improve their academic skills tremendously, but they are also able to weave through various social, emotional, and cultural experiences by learning how to approach situations holistically. These socio-emotional improvements are just as important as the academic ones and can actually have a positive impact on their academic abilities.

From my own experience at Breakthrough Birmingham, my scholars in my writing class were able to improve their writing skills from novice to proficient, and some were even distinguished. This was determined by providing pre-assessments before the start of the summer program and post-assessments towards the end and comparing the results from the two assessments. While many of my eighth-grade scholars came into my class with a bare-minimum understanding of what an essay was, by the time they took their post-assessments almost a month later, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge of the different parts of an essay, were able to write decent thesis statements, and many were even able to craft a standard five paragraph essay, even though they were only required to write three. As for the socio-emotional improvements, I witnessed the scholars growing more confident in their self-image and in their ability to present the knowledge they had gained. I witnessed their improvements in maturity and helped them exercise their patience. Even though the program lasted a month, I could see measurable improvements from my scholars.

I wanted to include this graph to showcase the improvements that I personally saw with my own scholars
Source: Kala Bhattar; In an attempt to measure the growth achieved from the summer program, each academic field was required to collect data on a daily basis to be later analyzed. This was one such form of data collected, in the form of pre and post-assessments for scholars in my writing class. As shown, almost all of my scholars improved at least one grade point, and many of them even showed improvements by 2 points. This was achieved in the short 4-6 week program over the summer

I also witnessed some growth within myself. Breakthrough’s structure emphasizes the importance of reflection, and this is practiced starting from the pre-work that TFs are required to complete as part of the orientation process and continues to the very last day of closing. From daily reflections to interpretations of norms, to admin check-ins periodically, to the end-of-summer presentations of learning, reflection and review are a big part of Breakthrough’s culture. This practice ensures that ideas and actions remain mindful and intentional, and places importance on the growth mindset. TFs can truly see for themselves just how much they have grown over the summer. Also, Breakthrough introduces a network of resources and opportunities for TFs to pursue, including opportunities to be employed by Teach For America for those pursuing a future in education.

How to get involved

This is the image from the final day of the breakthrough summer
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; An image of all the Breakthrough staff from the summer program, including the director of Breakthrough Birmingham pictured in the front

For those of you who may be interested in the scholar programs at Breakthrough Birmingham, they offer various year-round programs for 7th-10th grade scholars, and during the summer, they offer a six-week summer program for rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Additionally, those who want to support the organization can do so through donations, volunteer work, or simply spreading awareness of the program to others who may benefit from a program like Breakthrough, both scholars and teaching fellows alike. The right to an education is one of the fundamental rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one that should apply to all children everywhere. Furthermore, education can be a powerful tool for ending oppression. Students’ ability to think critically and ask questions empowers them with the necessary tools to question unlawful or immoral behavior, recognize corruption, lies, and deceit, and provide holistic solutions to complex problems. Without these tools, students will continue to live in poverty and under oppressive conditions, not knowing how to change the world around them for the better.

 

The Day of the African Child (DAC), Kenya Edition

by Grace Ndanu

A parade of people hold a giant banner celebrating the Day of the African Child
Source: the author

Africa is not just full of wealth, but there is raw talent and resources that are boundless.  In my opinion, Africa is by far the wealthiest continent in the world. Besides exotic plants, sandy beaches, fascinating wildlife, the breath-taking landscape, precious stones, and the children, who are the most precious possession. This is where they are supposed to be assisted and directed to build their future. So where do we go wrong? Is it hunger for power? Greed? Corruption? Every one cares for themselves and forgets about children.  Parents treat their girls like bread, where they are usually eager waiting until the girl will reach puberty so that they can marry them off, just to be given two blankets, two kg of sugar, and a number of cows. I call that selling and buying of bread.

Children from Soweto, South Africa protested against education injustices, and inequality in the apartheid regime. Instead of being heard, they were massacred back in 1976. Here we are later forty six years later, the African child is still afflicted with education unfairness, inequality, and harmful practices across most of Africa.

As I honored those children massacred in Soweto, I took a glimpse into the life of an African child. I will use the life of the Kenyan children since I was once one. A Kenyan child is playful. He or she is always exited to interact with family and friends, also she plays all made up games that children do. A Kenyan child is smart, and she learns many skills, including farming, animal rearing, and learning two to three languages to communicate effectively with whomever they encounter. This is on top of formal school education. A Kenyan child is strong. Challenges, obstacles, and hardships are an expectation, and she knows she must work hard. If she falls, she must get up because she is like any other child who is in a better country and therefore she must dream because her dreams are just as vibrant as any other child.

Kenyan children continue to suffer the effects of dangerous practices despite the existence of laws and policies that are supposed to protect their rights and well-being. Harmful practices that the Kenyan children go through include female genital mutilation, early marriage, corporal punishment, recruitment in wars, preference of boy child, discrimination of children with disabilities, and infanticide, to mention but a few. Following what the Kenyan child is going through, this year’s theme was “Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on policy and practices since 2013.” I believe the theme was calling upon member states of the African Union to adopt stronger measures to protect the children from harmful practices that continue to violate their rights.

The main event was held in Elungata Wuas Primary School, which is in the interior of Kajiado County. Honestly I felt like I was in a different world, starting with the weather. I think it is the hottest, the location was the furthest end of the world. I am pretty sure the Elungata Wuas Primary School pupils spent a week before the ceremony cleaning up, mowing the grass on the compound and scrubbing the walls, as it is part of Kenyan culture to ensure that everything is perfect before the visitors arrive. (My opinion, we overdo.) The day started with very hot weather. The energy of the children was full of excitement as there were pupils from other schools and children homes that were invited. They were dressed up in their uniforms and others provided t-shirts with this year’s theme logo. The event attracted local and international organizations (UNICEF, World Vision, Save the Children, US-AID, Plan International, and Red Cross among others).

A group of children gather outside of an African school
Source: the author

The event started with a 1km walk with all of the children shouting,”Haki yetu, haki yetu haki yetu.” Meaning “our right, our right, our right.” They were also singing songs of victory and crying this year’s banner for the International Day of the African Child celebration. The children made a grand entry into the Elungata Wuas Primary school, where three huge tents and chairs were set up for them. There were several speakers lined up for the event in addition to wonderful performances ranging from songs, music, poems, and dances from different schools and children’s homes.

The speeches that were made revolved around early marriage and female genital mutilation. Beside the children being told to work hard and help their communities out of poverty, the parents were also warned about forcing their girls into marriages and circumcision. The parents were told that the children don’t belong to them but to the government, and therefore anyone who will be found going against the law will be taken to court. Girls are not the only ones at risk from dangerous practices because in Kajiado County, boys face the challenge of early work, such as construction, as they are forced to provide for their families and leave school. All the parties involved in child welfare were called to work together to protect children from harm and to ensure their welfare.The Gender officer talked about government’s commitment to ensuring children are protected from all forms of violence, abuse, exploitation, and neglect by putting in place laws and policies that safeguard the rights and welfare of the children.

After the speeches, the ceremony ended with a word of prayer, which was followed by a group photo. The children were released to go and have their lunch. The invited guests and children were allowed to leave at their own pleasure after lunch which made the day a success, and again I was in my longest journey from the furthest end of the world.

Bans on Youth Transgender Affirming Care

When it comes to children, parents almost always have full control over the healthcare received and how its administered. With the exception of some Jehovah’s Witness’s cases, abortion cases, and court-tied decisions, parent’s typically have the final say so when it comes to the healthcare treatment that a child may take on. While at times this level of parental jurisdiction can prove problematic, when there is a discrepancy between what a child wants and what the parents want, this jurisdiction in the case of those aiming to help their children receive gender-affirming care is becoming more difficult.

Older children smile and hug while wearing the Pride flag.
Children smile and hug while wearing the Pride flag. Source: Yahoo Images

Gender-Affirming Care & Gender Dsyphoria

According to the Trevor Project, more than half of trans and non-binary youth consider suicide annually. This striking statistic appears to be remedied by the the reception of gender-affirming care. Gender-affirming care is defined by the World Health Organization as care that “support[s] and affirm[s] an individual’s gender identity” when it conflicts with the gender identity assigned at birth. For those below the age of 18, this care rarely involves the use of surgery. Instead, puberty blockers, which delay the onset of puberty, and hormone therapy, which helps induce physical characteristics that align with their gender identity, are used to help minors work against gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is explained by the American Psychology Association to be “psychological distress” rooted in a discrepancy between gender assignment and gender identity. This condition is associated with high rates of mental health conditions and suicide. As such, the reception of gender-affirming care by children has the potential to address gender dysphoria and lead to better health outcomes for trans and non-binary children.

Preventing access to this life-saving care can have dangerous effects, but that’s exactly what proposed and brainstormed bills in several states have the potential to do. The rationale behind such bills varies with voices from Texas likening gender-affirming care to child abuse and with other states claiming that children aren’t ready to make such important decisions regarding their bodies. The interesting part in these bills is where the penalty falls. Both providers and parents are at the mercy of state employees and educators if they seek to either perform or connect the child with gender-affirming care. The irony is that in most cases, parents are needed to consent to medical care and that providers are encouraged to align with parental wishes. Parents have to consent to their children receiving vaccines. If a parent or guardian decides to go against the standards for recommended care, then the pediatrician must oblige. In the case of standards around gender-affirming care, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Association of Medical Colleges has made clear that there are criteria to determining whether a child should receive care and that gender-affirming care is the standard of care if these criteria are met.

White board with the words "Hello my pronouns are" followd by two open underlined areas with a slash where two pronouns can fit. The letters are in a variety of birght colors along a rainbow gradient.
Sign where people can fill in their pronouns. Source: Unsplash

Exploring a Right to Healthcare

In this sense, a denial of a child’s access to arguably life-saving and parentally sanctioned treatment goes against a right to health care. Alabama Rep. Neil Rafferty, the singular openly gay member of the Alabama Legislature, spoke to the matter before his state’s bill was ratified. “Y’all sit there and campaign on family being the foundation of our nation … but what this bill is doing is totally undermining that. It’s totally undermining family rights, health rights and access to health care.”

While healthcare as a right remains uncodified in the US, the United States has signed on to multiple international agreements, most recognizably the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, and is held to international suspicion and disfavor should it move towards legislation that hinders a human right and targets minorities. Whether this international judgement holds sway over the United States politically and legislatively is one thing, but for a country viewed to be a global hegemony, a stand against what can be perceived as a violation of fundamental human rights and protections for children is jarring.

Additionally, some bills, like Alabama’s, have enfolded restrictions and impositions on on trans children. For example, under an extension of the bill, students in Alabama must use the restrooms that align with the gender assigned at birth making education an uncomfortable environment for trans children.

Child with a shirt that says "Love who you are." The child has their hands on their hips akin to a superhero pose and has eye makeup on.
Child posing with a t-shirt and position expressing self-love. Source: Unsplash

As such, an attack on healthcare can operate as an entryway into further impositions on trans rights that have been long hard fought and won for years.

 

Though there’s no telling what the future holds for trans children, there are still ways to support them.

1. Donate to LGBTQ+ affirming spaces and support networks like The Trevor Project.

2. Write letters to your state representatives relaying your support of LGBTQ+ children and their ability to have access to quality, life-saving healthcare and urging their reconsideration of a politician’s support for legislation that may prevent said access.

3. Check in with people in your life who may be affected by such a decision.

 

International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression

Young girl covering her eyes
Source: Yahoo Images

While discussing various human rights violations and crises, it is important to also be mindful of the special groups such violations affect. On August 19th, 1982, the United Nations announced that June 4th of each year will be declared the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression. According to this article from OC Human Relations, the day’s purpose is to acknowledge the pain suffered specifically by children throughout the world who are the victims of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. The day also affirms the UN’s commitment to protect the rights of children. According to Children’s Advocacy Centers of Tennessee, nearly 700,000 children are abused annually in the US alone. In addition, rates of child abuse and neglect are five times higher for children in families with low socio-economic status compared to children in families with higher socio-economic status. A child’s right to be free from aggression and abuse is violated globally across many spectrums with crises such as domestic abuse and gun violence.

Child Domestic Abuse and Covid-19

Child crying on the ground
Source: Yahoo Images

Domestic abuse is an international issue that can affect people of every age, race, gender, and background. Also referred to as ‘domestic violence,’ domestic abuse can directly or indirectly affect children due to bullying, harassment, and endangerment from those who reside in their homes with them. Some signs of domestic abuse in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship include the following from The Children’s Society:

  • Kicking, punching, hitting
  • Threatening to kill someone or hurt them
  • Controlling behavior
  • Controlling someone’s finances by withholding money or stopping someone going to work
  • making someone feel guilty, criticizing them or making them feel small and stopping them from standing up for themselves

Unfortunately, the 2020 outbreak of the Covid-19 virus led to an increase in child victims of domestic abuse due to stay-at-home orders and lockdowns. These lockdowns decreased a child’s ability to find a safe place through school counselors or churches and seek guidance from trusted adults. Without being able to find an escape from unsafe home lives, many children suffered an increased risk of domestic violence. Although exact numbers cannot be known of how many additional cases were caused by the pandemic, one study analyzed data on more than 39,000 children treated at nine pediatric trauma centers. When researchers analyzed the group of children aged 5 and older, the number of child abuse victims tripled compared to a similar period before the pandemic. “The most common injury identified was head injury, followed by a mix of chest, abdomen, extremity and burn injuries,” said senior study author Dr. Katherine Flynn-O’Brien, associate trauma medical director at Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Dr. Andrea Asnes, a leader of the AAP Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and director of Yale Programs for Safety, Advocacy and Healing in New Haven, Connecticut, went on to explain that daycares for younger children were deemed essential and remained open, while school-aged children were stuck at home.

Child Victims of Gun Violence

Children march from a school shooting
Source: Yahoo Images

Another instance where minors experience acts of aggression and unsafety is through gun violence. Children can become victims of gun violence in or outside of the home, both in private and public places such as churches and schools. In the last decade, the number of children killed in armed conflicts is estimated at 1.5 million and another 4 million have been disabled, crippled, blinded or have suffered brain injuries. Only from year-to-date of 2022, there have been 27 school shootings in America alone, killing or injuring 83 people total. This number also includes last week’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. “When parents drop their kids off at school, they have every expectation to know that they’re going to be able to pick their child up when that school day ends. And there are families who are in mourning right now,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at a news conference. “The state of Texas is in mourning with them for the reality that these parents are not going to be able to pick up their children.” The Robb Elementary shooting is the deadliest school shooting in ten years, when a gunman shot and killed 26 people as young as 6 years old at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

How to Help

Today, and every year on June 4th, it is important to remember this human rights holiday in honoring Innocent Children Victims of Aggression across the world. Progress can be made by further educating yourself on the many acts of aggression that violate a child’s human rights and by spreading the word to others. Click here to learn more: International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.

A Wonderful World Withering Away: The Malignant Industry of Mining for Minerals

I wanted to include this image to show just how massive mining projects can be.
Source:Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the equipment used for mining minerals.

Over the past few weeks, we have been examining, in this environmental series, the various ways in which our over-consumption, coupled with the negligent practices of industry, have led to the deterioration and devastation that climate change has yet to fully unleash upon us. We have observed the intersectionality between fast fashion, human rights violations within the industry, and how the fashion industry perpetuates colonialism and imperialism while simultaneously amplifying the climate crisis. We have also studied in detail the process of oil development, and the very real consequences that carelessness from industry can have on communities and ecosystems alike. We have further focused on the lasting implications of these industries, and how environmental racism and exploitation, both of resources and people, have led to global inequities in quality of life. Now, we shift our focus to the mining industry, which encompasses so many raw materials that are transformed into the products we consume on a regular basis around the world. These products include materials for constructing infrastructure like roads and buildings, raw materials used to build and support the electric grid, and even materials used in today’s newest laptops and smartphones. One can even argue that mining is a vital part of an advanced industrial society.

The Mining Industry

I wanted to showcase how mining can cause water pollution
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a water source that has been polluted due to mining operations in the area.

The mining industry can be categorized into many different groups, but some of the most popular categories include, coal and Uranium mining, metal mining and industrial mining. Coal mining, and the mining for Uranium are largely used for energy purposes, such as generating electricity or using the mined Uranium for nuclear power. Metal mining consists of mining for metals such as zinc, gold, copper, iron, silver, and other such precious materials. These metals can be sold for use in technological devices, but, in cases like iron and zinc, can be turned into various products, from tools to jewelry. Finally, industrial mining digs up raw materials for manufacturing and industrial consumption, including raw materials and chemicals used in construction jobs. These three areas of mining alone impact so many aspects of our society, from our energy consumption to our smart gadgets and our stylish accessories, down to the buildings we work out of, and to the homes we live and grow up in. This is just an introduction to just how crucial a part mining plays in our lives, and why it is necessary for us as a world to begin to ween off of this dependency on mining and shift our focus toward sustainability and renewable resources. In order to fully comprehend the need for this shift, we must look closer at some of the mining techniques and the dramatic impacts their operations have on the environment.

Surface Mining Techniques and their Environmental Impacts

Strip Mining

I wanted to include an example what strip mining looks like
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting how destructive mining operations can be. This is only one of the methods used to mine for minerals.

A commonly used surface mining technique, strip mining is used to remove the surface layers of soil until the desired resource is exposed. Especially used for coal extraction, this process includes drilling and blasting portions of the earth to reveal the minable resource. These blasted off pieces of “overburden” are cleared and removed from the site, and chunks of coal, (or other resources), are extracted from the blasted site and loaded up onto trucks that transport them away for use. This method greatly impacts the environment in the surrounding areas. The earth is made up of many layers of minerals. These minerals are made up of decomposed organic matter that have been compressed over time into materials we extract today, such as fossil fuels and sand. One of these layers consist of topsoil, a rich layer of naturally composed, nutrient-rich soil that is crucial to the land’s ability to grow food or herbs. The strip mining method, along with some of the other techniques of mining, leaves the topsoil exposed to the natural elements, and the soil can begin to erode, leaving the land barren and jeopardizing its ability to support life. Strip mining can also pollute nearby sources of water by releasing certain acidic minerals that are dug out of the ground during mining operations and spill into the waterways, react to the water and oxygen, expose the marine life to toxic waters and pollute water sources used for domestic and agricultural consumption. These practices impact the biodiversity of the regions in which they take place, transforming more than just aesthetic beauty for us to enjoy. Biodiversity serves varying purposes, as each organism is part of a larger food chain, and having a rich, vibrant, biodiverse environment comes with its own benefits to the planet and its life forms. Certain keystone species play crucial roles in the survival of an ecosystem, and these mining practices endanger their existence, further deteriorating the conditions of survival for many species living in these areas, including humans.

I wanted to showcase the different layers of the soil
Source: Yahoo Images; The different layers of the soil

Open-Pit Mining

I wanted to showcase an example of an open-pit mining operation
Source: Yahoo Images; An open-pit mining operation that has carved out the sides of mountains and formed a concave pit.

Another surface method of mining is the open-pit mining technique. This process is similar to the strip-mining method, in the sense that it also requires the blasting of mining zones. It does differ however, in that these explosions are used to create large craters, and then machines are used to extract precious materials from these concave, open pits. Materials extracted from this process are also transported away via trucks, similar to the strip-mining method. This method is commonly used for both coal mining, as well as mining metals such as copper, gold, or iron. This method, just like the strip-mining method, causes severe degradation and destruction of the natural environment. Some of these impacts include polluted waterways, air pollution, soil erosion, and a destruction of habitats that support and promote biodiversity. The process of open-pit mining, during the blasting and drilling of the earth, release metals and radioactivity into the dust clouds. Anyone breathing this air is at risk of developing serious respiratory illnesses. In addition to the dust clouds, the emissions released by the heavy machinery also add to the polluted air of which mining workers as well as local residents have to breathe regularly. As if that was not dangerous enough, open-pit mining also causes water pollution, in similar ways to strip-mining. The release of sulfur into the local waterways, and its reaction to the oxygen turns the water acidic, endangering the aquatic life, and poisoning the local communities’ waterways. Similar to other surface mining techniques, the open-pit technique also requires massive amounts of ground water and freshwater for its operations, further threatening the local communities’ access to water.

Mountaintop Removal

I wanted to showcase how mountaintop mining can change the entire landscape of a region
Source: Yahoo Images; A mining operation that used the mountaintop removal method, where the crowns of mountains are removed to expose the minerals below.

One of the most landscape-altering surface mining methods, mountaintop removal is a technique used to mine coal by blasting off the tops of mountains (which are filled with biodiverse forests), tapping directly into the resources they want to mine. Like the other surface mining methods discussed above, this method also has similar environmental impacts to the air, the water, and the area’s biodiversity. The waters are polluted with the toxins released from the mining process, killing off marine life, while entire forests are blasted out of existence. This method of mining is especially harmful for climate change because it permanently alters the topography of an area, releases tons of carbon emissions and other pollutants into the air, while destroying the many trees and plants that could have helped store some of the carbon emissions being released from these operations. This method also leads to soil erosion which can cause an increase in natural disasters such as flooding, forest fires, and landslides, and leave the land barren, making it difficult for local residents to grow crops on it.

These surface mining techniques are some of many methods that are used to extract minerals and valuable resources out of the earth. We discussed in detail the process of oil and natural gas extraction, using drilling and fracking techniques, and many of us are also familiar with the underground coal mines and tunnels that go on for miles beneath the surface. Those extraction methods come with their own risks and hazards to both the environment and its people. While we will not be covering those mining methods in this blog, we will be focusing more on the mining industry more generally, and its impact on human lives.

Human Rights Violations in the Mining Industry

I wanted to include this image to showcase how the mining industry, similar to other industries like Big Oil and fashion, use child labor as a cheaper labor force
Source: Yahoo Images; A depiction of children working in an aboveground mining operation. Similar to Fast Fashion and Big Oil, the mining industry has exploited children and vulnerable communities in order to find cheaper labor forces.

One of the most horrendous violations of human lives comes from the mining industry’s use of child labor in their mines, especially in poorer nations of the global south. While this certainly has to do with issues of environmental racism and avaricious profit motives, child labor has also become an increasingly preferred labor force used in multinational industries like fashion, oil, and mining, to name a few. The use of child labor in mining practices denies these children their entire childhood, and instead exposes them to dangerous working conditions that end up impacting their health for the rest of their lives. These children are exposed to toxic chemicals and micro metals and radioactivity released from the blasting process that they end up breathing in. These are especially harmful for developing children, whose growth can be stunted because of constant exposure to toxins like sulfur, mercury, and uranium. They are also required to work in contaminated waters, leading to skin infections and other issues that can impact their hormone levels and their overall growth. In addition to these dangers, children working at these mining sites are also in constant danger of physical harm from heavy machinery and the possibility of landslides due to weakened landscapes caused by the explosions and other disruptive practices.

Due to the profit-centered nature of these multinational industries, children and adults are exposed to some harrowing working conditions to meet the profit margins. These conditions have serious health implications, including lung disease, hearing issues, exposure to radioactive materials, mental health issues, and even back injuries. Respiratory illnesses and risks of developing chronic lung problems such as black lung disease, are very real consequences of breathing in the polluted air around these mining zones. Workers can develop issues with their hearing due to the loud and constant blasts from the mining operations, as well as the noisy machinery used in the mining areas. The blasts themselves, as discussed above, add metals into the air, and release radioactive gas into the surrounding air. Although some miners are given protective gear against these dangerous gases, miners are frequently required to breathe in this polluted air, which has large amounts of radon, a cancer-causing gas, while simply trying to just do their job. Due to the physically straining work that miners are expected to perform, mining can induce incredible amounts of stress. Miners also are required to work long hours, expend a lot of physical energy, and as a result, are more likely to injure themselves on the job. Although miners in the United States and other industrialized nations have workplace protections that shield the miners from obtaining injuries at the job site (or holding their employers accountable should such workplace injury occur), those working in areas without these regulations are more vulnerable to being injured and receiving little to no compensation or assistance through these injuries.

I wanted to showcase just how much dust and other particles are released from these practices, resulting in air pollution for the entire region
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an aerial view of a mining operation and the massive amounts of dust and other particles that are being released into the air. This is the same air that workers and locals living and working in these areas have to breathe into their lungs.

Why Should We Care and What Can Be Done About It?

Upon reflection, the mining industry seems to be damaging to the environment and, because of its harmful practices, a threat to the future of humanity. Even as we continue to extract more and more minerals from the earth, we are slowly running out of resources to mine. Some experts invested in the mining industry argue that the next step is to switch gears and expand our technological advancements to be able to mine asteroids and other elements in space. While this suggestion might address the issue of resource availability, it does not address the fact that these practices, (along with other industries), are adding to the climate crisis. Until anthropogenic actions are not regulated in industry, climate change is going to continue to be an existential threat to this Earth.

On an international level, therefore, regulations need to be passed on mining practices, and the working conditions of miners. Along with these regulations, multinational corporations that fund this industry should be stopped from exploiting vulnerable nations for their cheap labor and loose regulations. Just like with other natural resources, many of the economies of nations that are exploited for their resources and labor are heavily dependent on the sale of these resources. It is important, therefore, to ensure that they can shift their economies into stable ones that depend on renewable resources before abandoning these already vulnerable nations to deal with the consequences of the exploitation of the mining industry. On a more domestic level, the United States needs to transition into a greener, more sustainable economy so that there is no pressure for constant exploitation of these nonrenewable resources such as coal, oil and gas, and other such minerals. Stopping mining practices can allow the earth to heal and grow back some of the biodiversity that has been lost from centuries of exploitative mining practices. In addition to transitioning into a greener society, we should provide some sort of relief for communities that have been impacted by these careless practices and ensure that remediation attempts take place to restore the impacted lands to conditions that existed before the mining practices took place. On a more personal level, we as consumers have some power over the industries we incentivize. This is still true when it comes to stopping some forms of mining, (such as mining for gems), but largely out of our individual hands when it comes to stopping the use of certain resources that are a crucial part of our infrastructure, such as coal. Even with this in mind, one thing that each person can do is educate one another about the various impacts these mining practices have on the environment and on human lives as a whole. Bringing awareness to issues such as this can help alter the public opinions about using such resources, and in turn can lead to a much-needed paradigm shift in our approach to ending climate change.

Russia’s Attack on the Ukraine: Why You Should Care

After weeks and months of rising tension, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russian troops moved over the border into Ukraine and the Russian air force started attacking cities and strategic locations like military installations and airports. These attacks have happened all across the country, not only in some of the contested provinces in eastern Ukraine. These areas have experienced violence and fighting since 2014 after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. World leaders have condemned Russian actions, with the U.S. and EU announcing additional sanctions on Russia and security-related, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. NATO and the UN have held emergency sessions.

Map of Ukraine with Russian attacks on 2/24/22.
Source: New York Times, 02/24/2022.

 

While this conflict seems far away for us here in Alabama, these developments are impactful, significant, and not to be underestimated for multiple reasons.

Impact on Geopolitics and the International Order

Most importantly, this is the first time since World War II that we are seeing what will likely shape up to be a full-blown international war in Europe. The Russian aggression against Ukraine puts the international order generated at the end of World War II at risk and shakes the very foundations of international relations. The invasion violates international law and denies principles and tenets established by the United Nations Charter, namely the concept of collective security, the maintenance of international peace through multilateralism and institutions, and the outlawing of the use of force in international relations. The war also threatens to destabilize Europe and undermines the order established after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. This has the potential for severe and long-term consequences for Eastern European countries that were formerly under Soviet influence.

From a geopolitical point of view, the invasion highlights Russia’s expansionary tendencies and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to assert his power and restore regional dominance. Reinstating direct or indirect Russian control over Ukraine – a country that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union and before of the Russian Empire – has long been on Putin’s agenda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the following eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include countries that were formerly within the Soviet sphere of influence (e.g., Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and the Czech Republic) have humiliated Russia’s ambitions to be perceived as a major world power and undermined its influence in Eastern Europe. NATO announced in 2008 that it would consider membership of former Soviet Union states Ukraine and Georgia, which Putin considered a direct threat to Russia’s influence. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was overthrown in 2014 and a pro-European government was installed, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and started to support pro-Russian separatist forces in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Tensions have grown since then, culminating in the Kremlin calling the Ukraine “not a state”, designating it an artificial country, and Putin’s speech justifying the invasion by accusing the Ukrainian government of a genocide against the country’s Russian-speaking population. He has also issued warnings to NATO and the U.S. that interfering would lead to “consequences you have never seen”.

Soldiers in Ukraine
Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

This has implications not just for the Ukraine, but also for other former provinces of the Soviet Union like Georgia and Kasakhstan. Further, it might set a precedent for other countries like China, which has long contested the independence of Taiwan and the validity of Taiwan’s statehood, or Serbia, which has disputed Kosovo’s recognition as a state. If the international community and Western power show a weak response, China might feel emboldened to take military action to annex Taiwan.

The Human Rights Perspective

From a human rights point of view, there are two particular points of concern I want to highlight. First, there is the potential of grave human cost. In the first hours of the invasion, 40 Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed and dozens more wounded. While Russia’s defense ministry promised not to attack cities or put civilians at risk, we all know that this is not how war works out or how Russia has fought its past wars (think Chechnya and Syria). Human rights violations, especially against women, children, and other vulnerable groups, tend to be widespread in armed conflict. A number of agencies have already called for a ceasefire to protect people in the Ukraine and to allow for humanitarian action, but so far we have yet to see any progress on this.

Second, there is the larger issue of authoritarian regimes expanding to the detriment of democracy and human rights. The “democratic recession” or the decline of democratic institutions and individual rights even in countries that were traditionally stable liberal democracies with high levels of freedom (including our own…) has been demonstrated by political scientists over the years (the term was coined by Larry Diamond, but see also here and here for other approaches). While scholars are debating the impact of democratic decline, Freedom House scores have consistently declined since 2005, showing democracy and human rights in crisis.

Meeting of the UN Security Council.
Meeting of the Security Council. Source: Nagpur Today.

It seems that the foundations of international peace, democracy, and human rights are at risk. Russia’s open aggression shows that these foundations are crumbling or at least are perceived to be crumbling. Putin is not alone in his interpretation  – other authoritarian leaders in China, Venezuela, and Iran, and even some heads of state of democratic countries like Poland and Hungary, have openly defeated traditional avenues of political interaction, trade, treaty making, and diplomacy in favor of hard power and force.

Where does this leave us? At this point, it is unclear how the war between Russia and the Ukraine will unfold, how long it will last, and what the exact human and economic costs will be. We also don’t know yet how the world will respond beyond strong condemnation and imposing sanctions. What we do know is that there is great volatility and potentially long-lasting consequences from this fall out. This is a dangerous situation that we need to observe carefully. It has major implications for geopolitics and will affect us here at home.

What can you do to support the people in the Ukraine?

Women’s Education in Afghanistan

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, a bleak future dawned on girls and women across the country. Despite the Taliban’s promise to be supportive of women’s goals under Islamic law, the deadly crackdown on the progress of women’s rights has already begun.  

The Taliban regime, like the older one that ruled from 1990-2001, upon capturing the capital, shut down the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for Protection of Virtue and Vice. Later, they announced that women cannot go out in public without a male relative or without being fully covered, and female workers have been instructed to stay home. Education, politics, sports, freedom of expression, and whatever else requires women venturing outside with a voice has been banned by the government, punished by beatings or floggings.  

Afghan Women in Veils
Afghan women in veils with the words “Taliban vow to respect women We can still see We can still watch We can still notice We will no longer accept.” Source: Flickr

Education and Occupations 

Girls’ education in Afghanistan took a lot of effort to achieve, but many obstacles, specifically financial security and accessibility, still stand in the way. Knowledge gives individuals mobility and power to decide their future for themselves — a source of pride that Afghan women have fought for. In Afghan villages and cities alike, many women and girls would work for low wages in poor conditions to finance their education, and now these efforts and opportunities have been ripped away.  

Pride is now fear. After the fall of the Afghan cities Kabul and Herat, the Taliban prohibited girls over 6th grade from attending school and segregated universities between genders. Boys were allowed back weeks ago, but no indication was given to girls — a silence that told them to stay home. The regime previously stated that education will resume under the laws of Islam. Even if girls can go back to school, they may not learn certain subjects such as engineering, vocational education, cooking, and government studies.  

Dreams of becoming pilots, surgeons, activists, and lawmakers have evaporated for Afghan girls, and women already educated under a democratically controlled Afghanistan are seeing their lives turn on their heads. A university student who was supposed to graduate with two degrees from the American University of Afghanistan and Kabul University frustratedly remarked that she must hide any IDs, diplomas, and all evidence that she received a higher education, throwing away decades of work for her career. If she does not do so, she risks the lives of herself and her entire family. 

A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Source: Flickr

The Taliban is not their only issue, however. Many female political figures remaining in Afghanistan fear retaliation from men they jailed or sentenced. Despite the years of progress since the last Taliban occupation, women in powerful roles still made men in Afghanistan uncomfortable. The Taliban has not instituted strict restrictions on law and order  allowing incidents of physical and sexual violence against women to increase. 

Female Workers 

Women have taken to streets demanding their rights back as the Taliban prepares to deal with international questioning for their rise to power. Although once numerous after the fall of Kabul and Herat, protests are now few and far between. Organized protests were broken up by the Taliban’s gunshots, beatings, and killings in early September, effectively dampening the morale of activists. Now, the regime demands prior registration with a detailed account of the event and any slogans that are to be chanted, decreasing the right to assembly in the nation. 

Female journalists, teachers, activists, and especially judges are also being targeted by the oppressive regime. It is common practice for the Taliban to break into homes of instrumental feminist voices and threaten their families, and the United States’ promise to protect Afghan women activists from the Taliban has fallen flat.  

Former Afghan legislator Fawzia Koofi fled Afghanistan to Qatar after she was placed under house arrest and guarded day and night by the Taliban. Parliament members Shagufa Noorzai and Homa Ahmadi escaped to Athens, Greece, along with 177 other high profile female lawyers and judges with help from the Melissa Network and Human Rights 360. Even though activists like Koofiand Noorzai are far from their home country, they have already started networking to protect the rights of women and girls from where they are. 

In late August, 15 members of the inspiring 20-member Afghan Dreamers fled Afghanistan, with 10 arriving safely in Mexico City, Mexico, and 5 in Doha, Qatar. This all-girls robotics team made waves after winning multiple international robotics competitions in the United States and becoming a luminescent symbol of the potential of girls in science, mathematics, and engineering. These girls left with the hope of continuing their education and competing in robotics tournaments. Some girls voluntarily stayed behind to help education efforts in Afghanistan. They all hope that their achievements and stories will empower girls in their home country to fight for their education and convince the regime to adapt to a new generation of women. 

Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab.
Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab. Source: Flickr

Education as a Human Right 

The Taliban violated many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 26 proclaims that basic and fundamental education should be free, compulsory, and equally accessible. Education is stated as the driving force to foster respect for human rights and personal freedoms all over the world which is crucial for women to rise from societal restrictions. 

The head of the Afghan Women’s Network, Mahbouba Seraj, emphasizes that Afghanistan is not the same country that the Taliban left. Women will not sit and stand by while they try to take away their rights. Over 6 million women have established their presence in traditionally male-dominated fields such as media, medicine, law, and government. She believes that the gender equality movement in Afghanistan will prevail over the Taliban’s resistance.  

Earlier in October, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to approve a rapporteur on the grounds of Afghanistan to investigate and report civil and human rights violations. The European Union’s ambassador to the UN cited particular concern for the restrictive actions of the Taliban against women and girls. In addition to the UN, the public can offer donations to other international human rights organizations that are also working on the safety of female Afghanistan officials and girls seeking to continue their education such as Amnesty International, CARE, and Women for Afghan Women.

Afghanistan: Looking Back to See the Future

Written by Courtney Andrews and Faiza Mawani

Photo of armored car driving through mountains of Afghanistan
Mountains of Afghanistan. Source: Creative Commons

Twenty years after the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terrorism, the United States military has ended its operations in Afghanistan. The country, ravaged by war and too fragile to stand on its own, was immediately overtaken by the very forces the U.S. sought to defeat. After two decades, three administrations, and 170,000 American lives lost, the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan in much the same shape as it was found.

What is to become of Afghanistan and what toll will the inevitable economic and humanitarian crisis take on its people, many of whom do not know where their next meal will come from? What will happen to a generation of women and girls whose education and employment are now at stake and whose rights are tenuous under the new/old regime? What will happen to the millions of children under five that are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year? What will happen to those that managed to escape – will they find safe refuge in neighboring countries, or will they suffer the plight of many refugees and displaced peoples around the world? All remains to be seen, but at this point, the outlook is dire. Here we provide a brief history of Afghanistan over the past century and consider what lies ahead for the struggling nation.

Afghanistan: A Retrospective

Afghanistan is located centrally in southeast Asia and shares a border with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. It is home to at least 14 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, and the mountainous terrain has kept these clans separate and made it difficult for a central government to take hold. The strategic location of the country, however, has made it very enticing to those seeking to procure a hold on southeast Asia. After a period of relative stability after its independence from colonial rule in 1921, the country has been plagued by invasion and power struggles since the 1970s.

In 1953, the pro-Soviet General Mohammad Daoud Khan became prime minister of Afghanistan, and in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to help Khan establish economic and military ties. At this time, women were granted a more public presence and were allowed to attend university and join the workforce. In 1973, Khan abolished the monarchy and replaced it with The Republic of Afghanistan, naming himself president and keeping close ties with the USSR. While creating his new government, Khan proposed a new constitution in which women were granted more rights, and the country set out on a path to modernization. This did not sit well with local clan members who believed in a strict interpretation of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Tensions rose under the surface until they eventually boiled over.

In 1978, an armed revolt broke out in the countryside, led by conservative Islamist and ethnic leaders who were protesting social changes Khan was trying to implement. This group became known as the mujahideen, or “holy warriors.” Backed by the United States, the mujahideen killed Khan, and a full-scale war broke out from 1979 to 1989: communists versus mujahideen. This being the height of the Cold War, the US continued to provide weapons and tactics to the rebels in order to defeat the Soviets.

Around 1988, Saudi Islamist Osama bin Laden founded the group al-Qaida (“the base”). Though the US had backed the mujahideen in defeating the Soviets, bin Laden argued that the US stood as the primary obstacle to the establishment of a truly Islamist state. By 1995, a newly formed Islamist militia, the Taliban, rose to power, promising peace to the war-torn people of Afghanistan. Calling themselves “students of Islamic knowledge,” the Taliban imposed strict sharia law, stripping women and girls of their basic human rights and instituting public floggings and amputations of those who broke the law.

Photo of soldier crouched down pointing gun
Afghanistan. Source: Yahoo Images

The War

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives hijack four commercial airliners and crash them into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Close to 3,000 people die in the attacks, thousands more are injured, first responders are exposed to toxic fumes that will later be listed as the cause of cancer, and a nation that has never before been attacked on its own soil mourns an incomprehensible loss.

Most of the 9.11 hijackers originated from Saudi Arabia, none from Afghanistan, though the mastermind behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, was operating out of the country. The ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban, was accused of harboring terrorists. In the coming weeks, George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” provided the U.S. blanket authority to invade any country accused of sympathizing with or aiding Muslim extremists. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. military began a bombing campaign against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Ground combat troops arrive two weeks later. Thus began what would become the longest war in U.S. history.

Both the Obama and the Trump administrations tried to leave Afghanistan, but the situation remained too precarious to do so safely. President Biden, convinced that there was never going to be a safe time to leave, was determined to put an end to the loss of American lives, especially in a situation of no measurable progress. “It’s time to end America’s longest war,” he declared. The remaining 3,500 troops in Afghanistan have been withdrawn despite the failure of intra-Afghan peace talks and the increase in Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and citizens. The Taliban wasted no time storming the capital of Kabul, forcing president Ghani into exile, and reasserting its authority.

Biden says Washington will continue to assist Afghan security forces and support the peace process, but what does that mean? As the U.S. officially ends its military operations in Afghanistan with precious little to show for it, much is at stake for those who remain in the country, most notably women and children.

A Human Rights and Humanitarian Crisis

One of the central tenets of the Taliban’s ideology has been the opposition to girls’ and women’s education. It is predicted that around 1 million children will miss out on education due to increased attacks on schools and villages dramatically increasing in the past month since the Taliban has resumed control over Afghanistan. Rather than educate them, the Taliban have a history of enslaving women, increasing the risk of domestic violence, abuse, and exploitation, including forced child marriage. Many humanitarian agencies are concerned about an increase in violence against women during this time of crisis. In an apparent attempt to rebrand themselves as more moderate, the Taliban have made some statements alluding to protections for women, though some see this as an empty promise. The days of denying women the right to education and subjecting them to public floggings and mass executions seem part of a not-so-distant past.

The ensuing humanitarian crises is expected to affect nearly half of children in the country. Food stocks will soon run out, and a third of the country will not have access to basic goods and services. Afghanistan does not have sufficient funding in its international humanitarian response plan; as of August 2021, it is only 38 percent funded. This translates to approximately 1.2 million children losing protective services, leaving them vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation, and forced early marriages, and about 1.4 million women left without a place of comprehensive support.

Displacement and a Refugee Crisis

Although President Biden did agree to allow Afghani people who worked with the US coalition to come to America with US troops, there were several tens of thousands that could not board the planes. Images of the Kabul airport being jam-packed with families awaiting airlift, along with videos of people handing their babies to American soldiersand absolute strangers for the sake of safety and refuge did circulate our social media pages the past few weeks. The outpouring of compassion did overwhelm the global community, but now that airlifts have ceased, about 39 million Afghans remain trapped in the humanitarian crisis that is yet to emerge in the country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 3.5 million people have already been displaced due to violence in Afghanistan. These people are fearful of returning to their homes, but they also lack the finances to survive.

Consequently, the people of Afghanistan will seek refuge in neighboring countries, where many of their fellow citizens already live. For four decades, Pakistan and Iran have hosted millions of Afghan refugees. But these countries are also not capable of doing this for too long due to their own lack of international humanitarian aid. The UNHCR has called on countries to leave their borders open and permit refugee status to the people of Afghanistan in order to evade any more human rights violations and to prevent a greater humanitarian crisis from emerging.

 What Next?

In an article about the challenges that the Taliban now faces, Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times writes: “Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?” So far, the Taliban have been cracking down on protests, rounding up known opponents, and violently suppressing the news media. Unfortunately, from a human rights perspective, it appears that the worst is yet to come.