From outright denial to blame-shifting: three guises of genocide denial in Rwanda

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Covid-19 | Gender and ICTs in fragile refugee settings: from local coordination to vital protection and support during the Covid-19 pandemic

ICTs are changing how marginalized communities connect with each other, including those in fragile refugee settings, where ICTs have been used to share information and organize in collective enterprise. This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, WhatsApp has taken on a critical health function. Holly Ritchie here discusses how Somali women refugees are using this platform particularly in this challenging time and discusses the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance.

Somali women Nairobi
Somali refugee women in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Holly Ritchie.

ICTs as fundamental ‘frugal’ innovations, and growing use during the pandemic

Information Communication Technology (ICTs), for example mobile devices and applications, are arguably the dominant technology of our time. From a consumer perspective, ICTs may be considered a form of ‘frugal’ innovation, as they present innovative, low-cost solutions to everyday problems that are flexible and accessible for users with limited resources. If used effectively, ICTs have been cited to be a major ‘game changer’ in human development, driving progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fostering potential gender equality and empowerment.

Beyond basic connectivity, there is increasing use of mobile technology in humanitarian assistance, for example enabling cash transfers through mobile money, and facilitating access to basic utilities including energy, water and sanitation. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, governments and agencies in Africa have started to draw on mobile phone apps for public information and support, for example the establishment of WhatsApp chatbot servicesYet there has been little discussion on the use of such technologies by vulnerable groups themselves that may present both simple and socially embedded frugal solutions which can be employed during the health crisis and beyond.

Insights into Somali women refugees and ICTs in Kenya

My research with Somali refugees (in Kenya) and Syrian women refugees (in Jordan) has explored gender and the influence of social norms in refugee livelihoods.1 More recently, I have looked at the grassroots use of ICTs by refugees, and links to cultural dynamics in refugee inclusion and integration. On the back of these studies, in 2018, I started a small self-funded project to promote the well-being and leadership skills of a group of 25 Somali refugee women2 in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya.3 As a trial in digital communication, in the early stages of the project I set up a WhatsApp group to facilitate coordination, despite limited smartphone ownership amongst the refugee women.4 It emerged that it was eventually possible to reach all of the women in the group however through either children’s or neighbours’ devices. And whilst the women were largely illiterate, women used voice messages and pictures to communicate on the platform.

Initially conceived as a means of simple coordination, the WhatsApp group soon took on a new social dimension with some women sharing inspirational Islamic messages during special days. Later as the women began a small tie-dye business, progress and designs started to be shared on the platform. The experience of the online group has permitted both a renewed sense of personal confidence and connection in a hostile setting, and the development of new collective agency and economic coordination. At a deeper level, for women that have direct access to smart phones, the technology enables new forms of cultural solidarity between the women, reinforcing identities through sharing of religious messages.

Refugee ICT experience during the pandemic – from health to livelihoods

This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the platform has taken on a critical health function, as vital health information, advice, and government directives are shared with the refugee group in English and Somali.5 This is further shared by the refugee women themselves with close family and friends, indicating the importance of refugee-own networks during a crisis. 
Beyond health information, the group has also provided a forum for situational updates and social support, as Eastleigh has faced rising levels of Covid-19 cases, and there have been increasing reports of police violence as malls have been forcibly closed and street trading prohibited. Working primarily as petty traders, the lockdown in Eastleigh has had a significant impact on the refugee women’s (safe) daily work and wages, and households are struggling to make ends meet. Whilst this remains an extraordinarily difficult time, the combined experience of digital communication and physical restrictions has accelerated refugee women’s interest in online business and marketing of their new textile products, particularly by younger group members.

Emerging lessons learnt – the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance

The refugee WhatsApp group has illuminated various ways that ICTs can boost refugee women’s self-reliance and resilience:

  • Simple ICT tools can be useful in local digital communication, including reaching poor and illiterate refugee groups (through voice messages/pictures)
  • ICT tools can permit vital social solidarity and economic coordination and online marketing
  • ICT tools can also facilitate the sharing of public health and security information, and the countering of fake/false news that is often distributed via social media or ‘on the streets’

In this fast-moving digital world, it is clear that ICTs are playing an increasingly important role in refugee socio-economic lives, although actual usage and adoption may vary at a local level, with differing levels of connectivity, support and access.6 Notably, ICTs can also be misused at a local level, with apps being employed to instigate unrest or violence. Further, there may be additional access barriers in refugee settings with clampdowns on connectivity imposed by local authorities.

Despite such challenges, in times of crisis, it is crucial for policy makers and aid agencies to recognize and draw on locally established ICT platforms and community groups to facilitate critical information dissemination, and local exchange and support. Over time, to better appreciate ICTs and gender in fragile contexts, aid groups should consider both physical access to mobile devices, but also links to social norms, cultural ideas (and ideology) and the role of local actors. This will permit a more nuanced understanding of the evolving role of ICTs in refugee women’s empowerment, social protection, and broader integration.

1. Ritchie, H.A. (2018a). Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration? Disasters, 42(S1), S40−S60.
2. With outreach of up to 100 refugee women.
3. Due to its high presence of Somali traders and concentration of Somali refugees, the district is also known as ‘Little Mogadishu’.
4. An estimated 40 percent of the refugee women had smartphones.
5. For example, health advice from the Ministry of Health in Somalia.
6. Ritchie, H.A. (forthcoming) ‘ICTs as frugal innovations: Enabling new pathways towards refugee self-reliance and resilience in fragile contexts?’ in Saradindu Bhaduri, Peter Knorringa, Andre Leliveld Cees van Beers, Handbook on Frugal Innovations and the Sustainable Development Goals. Edward Elgar Publishers.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA) and has been reposted with permission of the author.

About the author:

Holly Ritchie is a post-doc Research Fellow at the ISS and a CFIA Research Affiliate.

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COVID-19 | Remembering the ongoing assassination of human rights defenders in Colombia

When a peace agreement was signed in 2016 in Colombia between the government and armed forces (FARC), citizens and activists seized the opportunity to make longstanding grievances heard and press for change. But between September 2016 and March 2020, 442 social leaders were assassinated. As death becomes part of the daily discourse, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we should look beyond these shocking numbers and understand that the massive killing of social leaders is not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a threat to the process of social transformation and local empowerment.

Illustrations of Temistocles Machado, María Yolanda Maturana, Mario Jacanamijoy Matumbajoi, Maria Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo, Sandra Yaneth Luna, Luis Hernán Bedoya Úzuga, Diana Patricia Mejía Fonseca, and José Abraham García. They are part of the group of 442 social leaders from the list.
Illustrations of Temistocles Machado, María Yolanda Maturana, Mario Jacanamijoy Matumbajoi, Maria Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo, Sandra Yaneth Luna, Luis Hernán Bedoya Úzuga, Diana Patricia Mejía Fonseca, and José Abraham García. They are part of the group of 442 social leaders from the list. Illustrations taken from the website of the project PostalesParaLaMemoria.com

Hope for change

The peace agreement signed in 2016 in Colombia signaled change. Since the political exclusion of government dissidents and others critical of the political regime is considered to have been one of the root causes of the conflict, the agreement sought to create spaces to promote the organization and participation of diverse actors with diverse voices and included a series of provisions to strengthen the presence of the state in marginalized areas to address issues such as poverty, inequality, and unequal distribution of land. In this context, the signature of the peace agreement opened a window of opportunity for activists and citizens to present to the state their long overdue demands for changes related to such issues, which had taken the back seat during the conflict.

The persistence of violent repression

In the period shortly before the peace agreement was signed in 2016, a reduction in homicidal violence and conflict-related deaths following the de-escalation of violence seemed to signify the end of an era characterized by violence. This reduction in violent acts provided space for activists and citizens to present their demands to the state in a way that was not possible in the preceding years, when violence made mobilization riskier. However, sectors within the country not interested in peace talks started to exert violence on citizens, continuing a growing trend since 2016. Consequently, during the post-agreement period, Colombia has experienced a dramatic increase in the cases of murders and threats against social leaders. According to figures from the NGO Somos Defensores, between September 2016 and March 2020, 442 social leaders had been killed. According to a recent report of the U.N., which we analyzed in a previous article, these worrying figures situate Colombia as the country with most killings of human right defenders in Latin America.

Assassinated activists and human rights defenders were individuals linked to organizations attempting to mobilize society for the implementation of the peace accords and strengthening of statehood. Those maimed were peasant leaders, environmentalists, land defenders, women, indigenous leaders, and afro-descendants representing marginalised communities.

COVID-19: obscuring intensified killings

This trend has worsened in Colombia during the COVID-19 pandemic, as illustrated by a sharp increase in assassinations of social leaders by 53% between January and April this year[1]. However, as the attention of political leaders and citizens is focused on the response of the government to address the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society groups fear that the assassination of community leaders will go unnoticed and unpunished. As the attention of political leaders and citizens is focused on the response of the government to protect and ensure the health of their citizens from COVID-19, groups often resorting to violence in Colombia (right-wing paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, dissident guerrilla members, and other armed organizations) are taking advantage of the pandemic to divert attention from violence that would otherwise be observed.

As people are getting used to seeing figures of death daily, it is critical to remember that we need to see beyond the numbers and understand that the massive killing of social leaders is a humanitarian crisis with different impacts. At the individual level, the right to life of the leader is violated, and at the social level, the assassinations affect the representation of collective interests, becoming a threat to the process of social change and local empowerment.

Social leaders are the voice of the communities that have been historically forgotten. Hence, when they are threatened, there is a further weakening in the social fabric of these groups. According to the testimonies of several social leaders who were interviewed in a recent study by CNC, CODHES and USAID, after an attack, the members of the community became afraid to participate, to organize, and the formation of new leaders was also obstructed. That is how the killing of social leaders has a long-term effect that impacts the deepening of democracy in Colombia, benefiting the interests of those who want to maintain the status quo and continue to use violence to do so.

The effect of the COVID-19 response on social organization

Whereas civil society has improved its capacity to hold the government accountable with regards to the assassination of social leaders, their capacity to pressure the government has been diminished due to the restrictions on gatherings due to the pandemic, and due to the focus of public opinion on the risk of COVID-19. This makes it more difficult for organizations to centre the defence of the lives of social activists in public discourse and increases the likelihood of the assassination of community leaders being obscured.

In this context, we want to contribute to an ongoing campaign started by civil society groups in Colombia to use opinion articles and other spaces of communication to raise awareness about the severity of this situation and to tell the stories of those who are at risk. As part of this initiative, the newspaper El Espectador on its front page of June 14th 2020 published a list with the names of the 442 people who have been killed with the title “Let’s not forget them” (“No los olvidemos” in Spanish). Let this become the start of a movement to continue highlighting mass killings of social leaders and to problematize them. It is not okay, and we will not accept it. #NoLosOlviDemos.

Front page of El Espectador newspaper which listed in four pages the names of all the assassinated social leaders in Colombia since the signature of the peace agreement with the FARC EP. Source: https://twitter.com/EEColombia2020/status/1272185768363069441/photo/1
Front page of El Espectador newspaper which listed in four pages the names of all the assassinated social leaders in Colombia since the signature of the peace agreement with the FARC EP. Source: https://twitter.com/EEColombia2020/status/1272185768363069441/photo/1

[1] In comparison with the number of assassinations taking place between January and April 2019.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Fabio Andrés Díaz PabónFabio Andres Diaz Pabon is a Colombian political scientist. He is a research associate at the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa and a researcher at the ISS. Fabio works at the intersection between theory and practice, and his research interests are related to state strength, civil war, conflict and protests in the midst of globalisation.

 

Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo

Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo is a lawyer, specialist in Environmental Law and holds an Erasmus Mundus Master in Public Policy. She works as a legal consultant in Climate Focus, where she focuses on climate change policies and forest governance. Her research interests are the political economy of extractivist industries, environmental conflicts, and rural development.