Category Archives: In the Field

Finding Art & Peace

This post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog, “The Recovery Poet”.

I believe art has the power to save people. I believe this because it saved me.

I am an artist.

I am a poet.

I am a peacebuilder.

I am recovering.

Funny enough, art was not always something I believed in. At least not this strongly. I was a musician in high school. I did some journaling. And I even tried my hand at poetry when the season for poetry submissions came along in English class. I never saw art as something that changed anybody, even though I loved music. Band was my favorite time of day. I connected with music in a way I connected with nothing else. And on my worst days, it was how I managed to understand the world.

I’ve played my hand at drawing, music, writing, and poetry. Finally, I found my home in writing and poetry with a hint of music when I have the right instrumentation. Let’s be honest, trombones just don’t play parties alone.

I’ve always found solace in words, but I remember a time when I couldn’t even find words. Every time I started writing I spent more time scratching words out and doodling over them than I did creating anything. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready to start talking about what I knew. That is what the best writing is about – what you know – and what I knew was way too complicated to start talking about out loud. Just a few years ago, though, when I ran out of excuses to not deal with it and all other means of ignoring everything, I came face to face with a type of broken I can honestly say I hadn’t yet seen. It’s one thing for the people you love to break you accidentally. Because they don’t know any better. Because they are broken too. It’s an entirely different thing to be broken by someone you love intentionally, knowingly, and oh so blatantly. That’s what should have broken me. If I’m really honest, I’m not sure I should have made it this far today. Right when I should have been permanently, irreparably broken, I found my words.

It was finding my words that started to change the way I look at the world, healing, and eventually peace.

I started to see that art has a unique role in understanding pain, struggle, and conflict. That I could really uncover the causes of my own pain and conflict by exploring my art, and ultimately that exploring my experience through art could also help other people explore theirs at their own pace, in their own way.

My journey to seriously consider the role of art in peace began here. How can we do peace if we don’t take the time to understand the underlying, innermost causes of conflict – inner and interpersonal? And how can we possibly understand the underlying causes of conflict in a community if the people in the community haven’t had the chance to understand them themselves?

I didn’t understand what I was struggling with for a long time. Art helped me figure it out in a way that was comfortable for me. Sometimes sitting down with a traditional counselor isn’t enough, and often it’s not even an option. We have to find a way to better understand and identify the causes of conflict in individuals and communities, so that we all know better how to address them.

Photo #2 for Jessica's Blog

Art let’s you explore your life and experiences both directly and indirectly, and, for those who don’t do art, seeing and discussing art can help you uncover your own struggles.

What better way to promote agency in your own understanding and healing than art? Art helped me realize I was an agent in my own life, that I had the power to deal with my problems, and that I could do it through art, when so much else had failed. This was a pivotal moment in becoming the person I am today.

The Theory Behind the Journey

Peace is both the ending of violent conflict and the removal of structures that promote violence. It is creating structures that contribute to sustainable, lasting peace. There are many opinions about how that happens, but most agree it has political, social, economic, security, and legal dimensions. My degree program broke it down into conflict analysis and resolution, human rights, and development and human security.

If you look at peace theory, it’s so clear that art has a place amongst those dimensions. The basis of conflict analysis and resolution is that to end violent conflict and create peace we have to figure out the causes of conflict. As you’ve probably seen, art has the ability to uncover and explain the causes of conflict in new and more holistic ways. It can help people realize what their own struggles are, and also help people better understand the struggles of others.

Art can revitalize local economies and promote not only short-term relief, but long term, sustainable development. It can build up local artists and artisans while bringing in art lovers, collectors, philanthropists, and business people – thus boosting local, small business to meet the increased demand for housing, food, and transportation.

It has also helped record and remember lives lost to terrible human rights abuses. It’s often helped promote reconciliation. Things like storytelling are often used as traditional forms of forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. Art is so often used for social recovery that art therapy is now a widely used tool for helping children, youth, and adults overcome horrible traumas and abuses.

The Missing Link – Why Nairobi?

Art has a role to play in each and very aspect of peacebuilding. Peace is often seen as a systemic goal, and art has a role to play in that too, but what art really does is make an intentional connection between the creation of inner, personal peace and systemic peace.

The youth I met in Kariobangi and Mathare believed so intrinsically that their everyday actions could contribute to personal and community peace. That they could build peace by saving money from their car washing business to teach children about social issues through football. That they could build peace by doing free concerts for community events and schools, so they could use their art to contribute to individual and community development, while also pushing for deeper conversations through the subject matter their art explores. That a couple of djs could contribute to peace and social awareness by creating a mix-tape that also talks about social issues during traffic jams.

The coolest things about youth in Nairobi is they’re already on a journey to connect inner peace to systemic, and they want to do it in new, innovative ways. So in some ways, they taught me, at the end of the day, that art just makes sense. If we ever want to take youth seriously, and we should if we really take peace seriously, then we have to start speaking through mechanisms that youth speak through. Youth are not only the backbone of society, but also the backbone of peace. And I know from the youth I’ve met here that I would be completely lost to try to create peace with youth without including the very voice they speak through.

For me, the lesson at the end of the day is this:

For all those without the privilege, resources, and opportunity to be heard, art is the voice. For all those too broken, marginalized, and disenfranchised to speak, art is the platform.

I hope you’ll keep following as I begin interviewing Nairobi artists who use art for social awareness, change, and peace. Stay tuned next week as I tell you about my first meeting with artists in some of Nairobi’s informal communities who are using art for peace education. It’s already been an incredible journey, and I’m so excited to see where it goes next.

I hope you’re having a fun, fulfilled, purposeful week. Until next time!


Jessica Ciccarelli, the Recovery Poet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.

Woman PeaceMaker Reflects on the Historic Trial on Sexual Slavery in Guatemala

Mendez, on left, with Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu

Mendez, on left, with Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu at the trial in February

On February 26, 2016, two former military officials in Guatemala were convicted of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery during the armed conflict in Guatemala. The case was brought by 15 Mayan Q’eqchi’ women from the region of Sepur Zarco. This is an historic judgment — the first time the state of Guatemala has prosecuted a case of sexual violence related to the war.

Woman PeaceMaker Luz Mendez and her organization Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas   (UNAMG) have been involved for more than a decade to achieve justice in this case.

Mendez spoke by Skype with IPJ Interns Ariel Leuthard and Sophia Shetterly on Monday, March 7, to discuss the case.

Q: How long has this fight for justice for the survivors of Sepur Zarco been going on?

A: Well, this road to justice began in 2003. When some women from women’s and feminist and human rights organizations — I was part of that small group — decided to act against the silence surrounding sexual violence against women during the war. The truth commission reported that rape and other forms of sexual violence were used in a generalized and massive way against mainly indigenous women. A deep silence came after that. The truth commission reported atrocities committed against women, but the same report recognized that sexual violence against women was underreported.

We decided to do something in order to bring those horrible crimes to the public, first of all, to render a type of recognition to the women survivors but also as a way to avoid those crimes being committed in current times. So that was the beginning of a long process of women organizing in groups made by women only, groups made by survivors of sexual violence in the war. That was the beginning for them to break the silence.

It was also a space in which they could receive support from social organizations, in terms of psychosocial support and gender equality training. This training gave them the opportunity to think about rape and sexual violence in general terms, not as something that happened for any reason to them, but as a huge human rights violation that was very much rooted in the patriarchal system, in the Guatemalan military’s counterinsurgent policy and also in racism against indigenous women.

The women began to ask for formal justice and the organizations that accompanied them were hesitant in the very beginning because we couldn’t find the political conditions to achieve that justice so we had to wait for some time. But finally, we were all able to begin the formal demand of penal justice. This is just in general terms how the road was. Of course, there is much more that needs to be said, but this is just to give you an idea that the road to the sentence we got a few days ago wasn’t easy.

Q: What does the Sepur Zarco case mean for other cases of this nature in Guatemala and even in other countries, especially in Latin America?

A: The sentence we got in this case was meaningful. First of all, through this legal process, not only did the Sepur Zarco women achieve justice, but also it meant that we were able to break the total impunity for sexual violence during the war. This is the first one in the country’s history. And, as far as we know, it is the first one in Latin America as well. So it will give hope to other women in Guatemala and Latin America that it could be possible to achieve justice in other cases.

This is important because the Sepur Zarco case is only a small sample of what happened in the whole country during the war in Guatemala. There are some cases that have been presented in Guatemalan court, not as advanced as the case of Sepur Zarco. So, there is a sense of hope for many, many women in the country, in Latin America, and, as far as we know, also in many other countries, especially those countries affected by wars right now.

Mendez demonstrating with UNAMG on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 2006

Mendez demonstrating with UNAMG on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 2006

Q: You and your organization, Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG), were heavily involved in this case. Could you elaborate on the role UNAMG played?

A: Yes, the UNAMG has been part of the alliances that have been built to support the Sepur Zarco women. And, not just these women but also all women that have been victims of sexual violence in war time in other Guatemalan regions. We are part of the alliance called Women Breaking Silence and Impunity, made up of three organizations: UNAMG, which I am a part of, has been working in gender equality training and supporting women to create alliances; Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, which is made up of lawyers and they have been leading the legal strategy; and the third organization called Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Accion Psicosocial has been providing the psychosocial support to these women.

UNAMG as well as Mujeres Transformando el Mundo have been plaintiffs in this case. Another plaintiff is an organization created by the victims themselves called Jalok U, it’s a Q’eqchi’ name. So there are three plaintiffs to this legal case.

Q: The testimony of the survivors was so important in this case, especially due to a lack of much physical evidence. What did these women do to prepare to give their testimony in a court where they don’t speak the language?

A: They were very much prepared for their testimony, because the legal part of this whole process is the last part. They have gone through a lot of activities, and they have been giving their testimonies for a long time. For example, they gave their testimonies in 2010 in a Tribunal of Conscience, as a symbolic justice mechanism. That paved the way for them to be able to speak in a formal tribunal. So they were very much prepared.

I would also like to mention that, in 2012, we asked the court to listen to the women’s testimonies in advance — the formal trial had not begun yet. As the women are elderly and many of them are very sick, the judge accepted to hear the testimonies in a preliminary way. So this year, when the formal trial took place, the women were not obliged to testify again. The videos of the testimonies were presented in court. That was very important for them, because one of the victims died three years ago, and the ones that were there in court knew they did not have to repeat the same story. So that was really important.

Q: There were more perpetrators than just the two men in this case, Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdéz Asig. Will others be charged as well in relation to the events at Sepur Zarco?

A: Well, you are right. Many other people were involved as responsible in this case. And the names came forward in the trial — names of soldiers, names of officers, names of owners of the farms and people who helped the army perpetrate those crimes. However, as this particular trial is over, now it is the responsibility of the federal prosecutor’s office to continue investigating.

Q: What is next for you and these survivors?

A: We will continue supporting them because we are very aware that the political atmosphere is very insecure for them. These women live in very remote communities that are very hard to get to. They are beautiful places, full of lakes and rivers and mountains, but without the proper infrastructure to get there. To get to these communities, we have to pass through rivers without bridges. The car has to go through the river — actually it’s really dangerous and risky to do that.

In addition, several of the perpetrators live in the same communities [as these women]. So, we will continue to accompany them after the trial. There are many things to do. For example, some of the consequences of the sexual violence, especially the consequences of the sexual slavery of those women, were that the women were stigmatized and ostracized in their own communities. So we, as an alliance, are working to explain to the populations of these communities that these women are not guilty, that they were victims. And now we have the sentence issued by the tribunal in our hands to show them.

So, we, together with the women, have to continue working to educate the communities, and especially the younger generations, the grandchildren of these women and many other women who have survived sexual violence need to be educated. We have a lot to do concerning this group and concerning many other communities in Guatemala.

Mendez with her fellow Women PeaceMakers from 2004, Christiana Thorpe, Shreen Saroor and Zarina Salamat

Mendez with her fellow Women PeaceMakers from 2004, Christiana Thorpe, Shreen Saroor and Zarina Salamat

Q: For these women, justice meant telling their stories publicly and ensuring that something like this could never happen again. Do you think that justice has been achieved in this case and that crimes like these will be prevented from happening again?

A: Justice was achieved, of course, as two of the perpetrators were sentenced to more than 200 years of jail. But, to really advance toward avoiding repetition of these crimes in the future, a lot of work must be done — especially from state institutions.

The verdict has a legal part but also a reparations part, in general terms. Part of the reparations was the obligation of some state institutions to build a monument in memory of the women of Sepur Zarco, to build a school, to build a health center. It is also part of the sentence that they disseminate the verdict in the indigenous languages of Guatemala. This is part of the state’s obligation. But, we know very well that in Guatemala in order for the state to comply with its obligations, a lot of social pressure is needed. So, in order to achieve the goal of avoiding repetition of these crimes in the future all this work has to be done.

Q: How important are larger coalitions in transitional justice and lasting peace? What role have coalitions played in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence?

A: Well, in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence, first of all I have to value the bravery and perseverance of the victims. Then, in the Guatemalan context, we have to analyze some aspects that contributed to achieving this verdict. In the peace accords, the prohibition of granting amnesty for people responsible for crimes against humanity was included. Of course, the accords included amnesty for political crimes to those parties involved in the conflict, but it was made very clear that crimes against humanity and war crimes could not get any type of amnesty. This is very important.

There has been a human rights movement that has been working for transitional justice. This larger coalition has been able to achieve some justice in cases. Though it is necessary to say that for many years, human rights organizations didn’t include sexual violence as a specific crime to be addressed in transitional justice. It was only when feminists and women’s rights organizations asked for it to be addressed in transitional justice we began this whole process.

Efforts have begun to transform the judicial system. The system in Guatemala has for a long time been very much controlled by the military and by illegal groups. However, there are brave and honest people in the judiciary, including judges and prosecutors who have played a very important role. In order to value all the factors needed to achieve justice in this particular case, many people in the civil society and the judicial system were involved.

Q: The priority theme of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is on women’s empowerment and sustainable development, and the review theme is the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls (from the 57th CSW). In your experience with Sepur Zarco, have you found these to be interconnected and, if so, in what ways? Now that these women have gotten justice, do you think they have been empowered?

A: There is a strong link between women’s empowerment and access to justice for violence against them. In this particular case of Sepur Zarco, this whole process of organizing and creating awareness of their rights as well as getting justice, has empowered the women a lot. Not only the end — the verdict — but the whole process has empowered them.

I must say that the verdict is not enough. Those women live in socioeconomic conditions of extreme poverty. So, it is necessary to address those root economic causes of violence against women together with the political causes, meaning that in speaking about a comprehensive process of women’s empowerment justice is not enough. It is necessary to promote changes in the economy. In that sense, we very much hope that one of the measures included in the reparations sentence could be accomplished — meaning that the perpetrators should provide some amount of money to the women, and if they are not able to do so, the state should do that. To speak about women’s empowerment, we need to ask about changes in Guatemalan society and the whole world.

Three years ago, when one woman from the group of survivors passed away, we went to her house to accompany her family. And it was so shocking. Of course we had been there with them several times, but it was so shocking to see the extreme poverty and conditions in which the whole family lived. It was a tiny house made of pieces of mud, and there was no coffin. The family and the neighbors were building a coffin at that moment. So, I have in my mind the memory of being there, surrounding the body of this brave woman and watching her family and friends cut and build the coffin on the patio. (Just to give you an example of the poor conditions they live in.) We need to advance toward deeper socioeconomic changes in order to really achieve women’s empowerment.

Q: Are the women or yourself experiencing any backlash after the case or have you been receiving a lot of popular support? Is everyone safe?

A: Well, during the whole process we have been receiving a lot of threats, but at the same time a lot of support. During the trial we received a lot of support from university students, from high school students, from the media, and even from conservative people we didn’t expect to get support from. Many people were shocked hearing the women’s stories.

Q: The women involved in the case were present in the courtroom, wearing their traditional shawls. What was the effect of their presence?

Mendez wearing a scarf similar to those of the Sepur Zarco women, at the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women

Mendez wearing a scarf similar to those of the Sepur Zarco women, at the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women

A: The shawls actually have been an issue. Some of the women don’t like to wear it while others in the group think they are safer if they wear it. Again, in their communities, they have to live with some of the perpetrators, so the majority of them believe it is not yet time for them to uncover their faces. Finally, after the sentence was issued, some of them uncovered their faces as they left the courtroom, so a picture of their faces circulated. They really want to stop wearing the shawl — they are very brave and committed to achieving justice. But much of the group decided that they should wait a little bit longer before uncovering their faces.

Q: It sounds like these women are incredibly connected to each other through their experiences, but also through their culture. Do you think this sense of community has helped them through this process? If they didn’t have each other, do you think they would have been more reluctant to share their stories?

A: It’s a good question. The sense of community played a very important role in the strengthening of this group and in keeping them together. It has to do with the fact that all of them experienced those horrible crimes and that they are part of various women’s groups. But, of course, it mostly has to do with the indigenous culture they are a part of, especially the Q’eqchi’ people, which they belong to.

For the Q’eqchi’ people, the community plays a very important role. The majority of their decisions are made collectively. So, for them, knowing that they are part of a collectivity and that they support each other was so important. They have supported each other in a very deep way. If a woman is sick, the rest of them are supporting that woman. If one women has a problem, the others help. And even if a woman behaves in a way that the rest of the group doesn’t like, they are so careful in speaking with that woman, in a very warm way. That sense of collectivity as an indigenous people has helped these women achieve justice.

For more information on the Sepur Zarco case, please see Clamor for Justice: Sexual Violence, Armed Conflict and Violent Land Dispossessionco-authored by Luz. 

When “Othering” Turns Violent

By Jessica Ciccarelli

One moment taught me more about relations between youth and police in Kenya than three months of interviews ever could. I was attending a panel discussion on the ways Kenya can rehabilitate its police force. Situated in a large conference room off Kimathi Street several floors above the Thorn Tree Café in Nairobi’s Central Business District, we sipped coffee and tea as we watched presentations by police leaders, internal affairs officials, and security-based NGOs on the best and worst of policing in Kenya.

By the time the presentations had ended and the floor opened for questions the room was bursting. People stood in doorways and listened from the hall. Young people sat on the floor and shared chairs. NGO and government leaders squeezed closer to fit even more people in the suddenly tiny, sagging room. Even as questions began, people pushed in hoping to participate in the increasingly tense conversation, hoping to have their stories heard and to be seen.

I remember the moment I finally got it – the moment I realized how exceptionally broken people really are. The first moment was a story that suddenly and almost imperceptibly changed a session intended for question and answer into tear-stained monologues of abuse, torture, and neglect. The second moment, three words uttered by a deputy police chief – “That didn’t happen.”

Youth and police in Kenya are both “others”. This is a very complicated identity. They are each other’s out-group, but it’s more than that – each is seen by the other as the group without which they would be undeniably safe. Both groups viewed as the single most important obstacle to the other group’s security. According to this “other” category, without the other group, they would be ensured safety and life, not only for themselves, but also for their family and friends.

I learned, though, that their identity is so much more than being someone’s other. Actually, they have a lot in common.

Youth and police alike feel they are seen as bad, an enemy, and people who can do no good. They feel no amount of good they do can change who they are seen to be. In a society defined by tribe (and politics separated by tribe), they are both often placed in a category all their own to be “othered” and excluded from community hierarchies and decision-making.

Each youth and community member stood up and told their story, the atrocities they had undergone at the hands of the police – the police deputy offering denial to each one. By the end of the conference there were more tears than progress, and I had been given the rare opportunity to be broken in observing unhindered the increasingly violent relationship between youth and police.

It was heartbreaking to hear the pain and abuses youth and community members had experienced at the hands of the men and women intended to serve and protect them. Othering is normal, but we should all be concerned when othering turns violent. For youth and police in Kenya, it definitely has.

That said, it is as important to consider the struggles of the police who often go unpaid for months at a time, live in deplorable conditions squeezed together in small rooms with other police families, and, according to interviews, are often expected to fulfill terrible quotas (including bribery and killing quotas) in order to ensure their and their families’ survival.

I can’t fact check these stories for you. What I can tell you, what I know, is that each story has at least a semblance of truth. Thus, it has at some moment, likely with one or more police, been true that some junior police have been expected to fulfill these terrible quotas. It is has been true for some, if not many, youth that they have undergone abuse and torture at the hands of the police. It may not be true for all, but if even a few of these stories are true then Kenya, as a country, as a government, has permitted terrible human rights abuses. With that truth in mind, it is also very likely that the only path to healing the wounds from all of these abuses is honesty – open, truthful, honest conversation. It doesn’t have to be a truth commission, but Kenyans are bursting with the need to tell their truths, and until society gives them that opportunity no healing can be found.

I spent my summer as broken by the tragedies police have experienced as I was by those of the youth. A terrible thing has been permitted to persist. Government, society, and individuals have allowed this festering wound to get infected. I hope to my core that it is still healable. What I will say is that despite all of the pain and abuse, there are beautiful, resilient relationships amongst youth and police. There are good people on both sides fighting to make a difference. Youth feel hated. Police feel hated. Maybe, if we can begin to show them both how very much they have common, things can change. There is hope. Because even a few people dared to believe it was possible. A few youth and police dared to believe they could create a positive, vibrant relationship, and then they did.

Sarah is an exceptional woman. She is a community leader, a mediator, and a women’s and child’s rights activist. Truly, she has dedicated her life to creating change, even if the endeavor is self-funded. One choice to share her mediation skills to help the youth and police bridged an increasingly violent, otherwise irreparable gap, and allowed a truly trusting relationship to flourish.

Joseph is a very special youth.  More man than youth, he leads a local youth group and runs the youth social hall. An incident of arbitrary arrest inspired him to foster a better relationship with police – sparking one of the best youth-police relationships in all of Nairobi’s slums.

At the same time they taught me there was so much brokenness, they also taught me there was so much life. We have so much left to learn, but I move forward believing it is absolutely possible because the Kenyan people showed me it was.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.

IPJ Travels to Nepal in Wake of New Constitution, Unrest in the Terai

Staff members Dee Aker and Daniel Orth were in Nepal in January to work with local partners of the IPJ’s Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative. Since the promulgation of a new constitution in August 2015, Nepal has been gripped by unrest in the southern plains region known as the Terai and home to the Madhesi people. Citing problems with the new constitution and historical grievances about political and economic marginalization, large segments of the Madhesi population, mobilized by political parties, have taken to the streets in protest and created a blockade on the southern border with India through which a majority of the country’s imports arrive. The state has responded harshly to the protestors and security forces have been implicated in the deaths of protestors and civilians, while police officers also have been attacked and killed.

Through conversations with a wide range of actors including police, political leaders, protestors, civil society, media, youth, women and violence-affected families, the IPJ team offered a platform for individuals to share their experiences and to feel heard, and in the process gained a deeper understanding of the current context for the IPJ’s future work.

Women members of Parliament speak about the challenges confronting Nepal and how women can help to solve them

Women members of Parliament speak about the challenges confronting Nepal and how women can help to solve them

With the help of local partners, Aker and Orth brought together more than 110 individuals at six roundtable discussions and one full-day workshop. From Armed Police Force officers sitting with protest leaders, to women from opposite sides — one who lost a child and one who lost her livelihood — these events offered the opportunity for individuals to hear from “the other,” reducing misunderstanding and beginning to rebuild trust.

The IPJ team also had the chance to speak with more than 40 individuals during several one-on-one interviews and small group meetings. They sat down with influential elites that included Nepal’s current Prime Minister, K.P. Oli, and two former prime ministers; U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Alaina Teplitz; more than a dozen members of Parliament; high-ranking police officials; and Madhesi protest leaders.

The risk of continued conflict remains high and ultimately the solutions will need to come from within the country; however the IPJ remains committed to creating opportunities for the people of Nepal to engage in more productive conversations to achieve a just and peaceful country for all citizens.

IPJ Director Dee Aker speaks with Prime Minister K.P. Oli

IPJ Director Dee Aker speaks with Prime Minister K.P. Oli

Dirty Hands, Beautiful Lessons

By Jessica Ciccarelli

Walking into a community for the first time is an incredible experience. You carry with you a newness that can be beautiful and can help you see things others may not. Still, walking in with new eyes isn’t enough. If you wish to do any good at all, you must walk in with eyes open enough to see the beauty in the difference and a mind open enough to be interested in the vitality of the people and to ask the right questions. Ask questions you believe you already know the answer to. Ask questions about asking questions – How to ask. When to ask. What to ask. You have to see through the eyes of the people who live there. They are the ones who can show you why things work the way they do. I met so many good people doing work in different parts of Kenya. I also met many people from the communities those organizations work in – people who helped me see how a predisposition – believing you know the answers and that you can save people – can infect entire institutions guided by good intentions.

Perhaps the most important lesson my friends in Mathare, Kariobangi, Kangemi, and Kibera taught me is that “slum tourism” can be more than just a thing people do when they visit poor communities. “Slum tourism” can bleed into the mindsets and predispositions people have about a community. It can bleed into the frameworks and principals of an organization through the people that create it.

It is through that understanding, through the eyes, ears, and hearts of the people who showed me so much truth and openness that, though I can see there are some benefits to “slum tourism”, I must make the argument that it does far more harm than good. It makes it normal and far too common to walk into a community with the predisposition that they are something so “otherly”, so abnormal that they deserve to be toured and stared at by all the people who come from so much “better.” As though they contribute so much bad or uncleanliness to the community that they forfeit their basic human rights to privacy and dignity.  That is why they call it “slum tourism.” We are touring the slum of it all. We’re going in to stare at their poverty. Does it make us more empathetic to stare at the poverty and struggle of another? Does it make us more connected to take pictures of someone else’s deprivation and walk away without ever contributing anything good beyond a few bucks for a bracelet? I don’t know, as a whole, that it does.

Normalizing this “slum tourism” mentality, a derivative of the “white savior” complex, gives organizations working in these communities the predisposition that the people or community need to be “fixed”. If something is broken, we must fix it, and if it is broken because there is something wrong with the culture itself, then it needs someone outside to be the one to fix it. Suddenly they are the slum and you are the fixer, and you will provide them with the things they need to get “better”. You have organizations that forget – they romanticize the poverty and objectify the people, capitalizing on and obsessing over their poverty so long that the people disappear and their poverty becomes a symbol for everything that is wrong with the community. They forget to see the people, the good – the vibrant, busy, beautiful networks of people and traditions that create so much positive in their own communities.

I know we do this because I’ve been in the position where I too forgot to see the good amidst the poverty. Many years ago, when I saw my first slum, I cared about the people, but it was so easy to get lost in the poverty and not see the good in that community. I come from a part of the Southern United States that people also forget to see the good in, but still when I was confronted with a type of poverty I hadn’t seen before, I forgot to see the fullness of the community. It wasn’t until several years later, when I had my second encounter with a slum community, that I got it. And I got it that time because I was working with organizations that had already figured it out. The Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (IPJ) works with local organizations in Nairobi’s slum communities through local partners and the IPJ has so much love and value for the people. I cannot tell you how exceptionally refreshing it was to see a community organization relationship with so much mutual value and respect. Seeing the beauty of the relationships they foster helped me put a face to something I really didn’t know I was looking for. It was like realizing I was missing something only because I finally found it.

“Slum tourism” mentalities are rooted in the same paternalism and superiority as “white-savior” mentalities. We are taught that we’re the answer to the world’s problems, but we’re not. I am not the answer to the Mathare slum community’s problems. However, if I can go in with a bit more humility and I’m willing to listen to and work with people from there that really understand how to change things, I can play a part in making things better. I learned what that looks like through the incredible actions of the IPJ and their local partner, Chemchemi Ya Ukweli (CYU). They showed me how you walk into a community that is not your own and create change through value and love for the people within it. They took the theory I had been learning for months and showed me, practically, that how you do it matters and even the best of intentions can cause harm if we practice peace with the wrong ideals and predispositions.

Everyone says that theory and practice are very different. I think the truth is that if you go in with a value for all people and root your theories in that value, then practicing value for people really isn’t that hard after all. It’s when you go in without that value that you leave yourself open to perpetuating harm, like that created by “slum tourism” and the “white-savior” complex. I had no idea how much I had left to learn or how many beautiful people would remind me that poverty does not mean you are useless, incapable, or invaluable. Dirty floors and outdoor bathrooms do not define your worth. People are intrinsically of value, and if it wasn’t for my time with the IPJ, I may never have known what an institution that intrinsically values human life and agency looks like, or that I hope to spend the rest of my life learning life changing lessons from beautiful people in “less-civilized” communities.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.

News in Review: Nepal – December 11, 2015

Nepal News in Review

This past week senior Nepali leaders spent time in India and London trying to resolve the border blockade and diplomatic tensions. While in London, Nepali Congress leader and lawmaker Udaya Sumsher Rana alleges that British officials told him it was inappropriate for senior Nepali leadership to show aggression towards India. Furthermore, Indian Minister of External Affairs told Nepali Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa the only barrier to trade with Nepal is Nepal’s own political situation. The political situation in Nepal is creating a humanitarian crisis as residents, and particularly children, are going without basic needs due to India’s border blockade and Nepal’s internal strife. Bangladesh and China are both working towards agreements with Nepal to meet some of the growing needs, but estimates suggest that millions of children are at risk.

Border Blockade

Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa met Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi early last week to discuss India’s border blockade with Nepal. Swaraj assured the prime minister that there were no hindrances to supplies from the Indian side and Nepal only need normalize their political situation to get the supplies they need. Meanwhile, Nepali Congress leader and lawmaker Udaya Sumsher Rana met with British officials in London during the International Leaders Programme, where they discussed Nepal and India’s diplomatic tensions and the growing humanitarian crisis.

Pkharel, Nabin. “Uk officials blame nepal’s diplomatic failure for border blockade.” The Kathmandu Post. Novembe 30, 2015.

Thapa meets Swaraj, India retells Nepal to normalise political situation to ease supplies.The Himalayan Times. December 2, 2015.

Humanitarian Crisis

The humanitarian crisis in Nepal is worsening as winter nears. UNICEF has claimed the crisis is putting millions of children at risk due to shortages of food and vaccines. The Accountability Watch Committee, a human rights committee based in Nepal, made submissions last Monday to the UN Special Rapporteurs on “the negative impact of unilateral measures on the enjoyment of Human rights,” asking them to intervene and stop the blockade so Nepali citizens can continue enjoying their human rights.

AWC seeks UN Special Rapporteurs’ intervention in ‘India blockade against Nepal’.” The Himalayan Times. November 30, 2015.

Nepal shortages put millions of children at risk, says Unicef.” The Gulf Times. November 30, 2015.

China & Bangladesh to Aid Nepal

China and Nepal have reached a tentative agreement on the long-term importation of oil from China into Nepal. Also, Bangladesh Ambassador to Nepal Mashfee Binte Shams said his country would provide a transit facility for any petroleum products from third-party countries.

Bangladesh ready to provide ports to Nepal for fuel import: Ambassador Shams.” The Himalayan Times. November 30, 2015.

Khanal, Rajesh. “Nepal, China Reach ‘Tentative Pact.’The Kathmandu Post. December 1, 2015.

News in Review: Kenya – December 4, 2015

Kenya News in Review

During the past week in Kenya, Pope Francis challenged Kenya’s religious and political leaders to fight corruption, create religious cooperation, and reduce the high levels of economic inequality. Kenya also lost its bid to have recanted witness testimony dropped in the case against William Ruto. Finally, in the face of Kenyan youth recruitment into organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda, Kenya urged the commonwealth countries to fight the splurge of radicalization in religion and youth.

Pope Francis Visits Nairobi

As has often been the case with Pope Francis, he spent his time in Nairobi challenging religious and political leaders to take greater strides towards fighting poverty and corruption, ending radicalization of youth for the purposes of terror, promoting religious cooperation and dialogue, and reducing economic inequality.

Sieff, Kevin. “Pope Francis Speaks to the Roots of Terror in Africa Visit.”  The Washington Post. November 26, 2015.

Bhatia, Aunindita. “Pope’s Visit Centers on Poor, Youth and Religious Differences.Blasting News. November 27, 2015.

 Bid for ICC Rule Alteration Fails

 Kenya continued its bid to have “recanted evidence” dropped in the case against Vice President William Ruto. The Kenya delegation sought to have the rule that allowed the use of such evidence amended during the recent Assembly of State Parties. The ASP passed a resolution late Thursday after removing two paragraphs regarding Kenya’s effort to have the rule changed. This was likely due to lack of support and the overwhelming concern by many delegations that the body would be seen as interfering with the independence of the ICC.

Oluoch, Fred. “Kenya’s Bid to Alter ICC Rule Flops at the Hague.All Africa. November 28, 2015.

 Ending Radicalization

 President Uhuru Kenyatta’s delegate to the 24th Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting reiterated the Pope’s sentiments calling for fellow Commonwealth States to help end the radicalization of religion and youth in.

Wanyama, Reuben. “Kenya Challenges Commonwealth States to Help End Radicalization.” Citizen TV. November 28, 2015.

News in Review: Cambodia – November 24, 2015

Street scene in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Photo: World Bank

Cambodia’s political rapprochement has come to an end. The country’s opposition leader, Sam Rainsy of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has been removed from parliament and faces arrest over comments he made against the foreign minister in 2008. These events are the latest in a country facing amplified political tension, including the brutal assaults of two CNRP lawmakers who have been hospitalized for a month. Rhona Smith, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, warns that if the country keeps going in this direction, Cambodia and the human rights of its people are on the cusp of a “dangerous tipping point,” given that “the past weeks have been marked by a number of worrying developments: increasing tensions between the two principal political parties; incidences of violence; intimidation of individuals; and resort to offensive language in the political discourse.”

Cambodian Opposition Leader Faces Arrest Following Removal from Office, Cries “Constitutional Coup”

An arrest warrant has been issued for Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy, citing “public defamation and instigation of discrimination.” In 2008, Rainsy alleged that current Foreign Minister Hor Namhong was tied to the Khmer Rouge and ran a prison for the regime. In 2011, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Rainsy in-abstentia, sentenced him to two years in prison and fined him 8 million riels ($2000 USD). Namhong’s lawyer is now pursuing the dormant defamation case against Rainsy, who has since been stripped by the Cambodian People’s Party-led (CPP) parliament of his lawmaker status, including his right to immunity. The day before the arrest warrant was issued, Rainsy stated during his visit to Japan that he was unsure if the ruling-CPP would commit to holding elections in 2016 and 2017. This comment prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to threaten legal action against Rainsy. The CNRP President has called the move a “constitutional coup when you want to arrest the leader of the opposition” and is postponing his return to Cambodia from South Korea, citing “safety concerns.”

Cambodia: political crackdown reaching a ‘dangerous tipping point’ warns UN rights expert. UN News Centre. November 23, 2015.

Tha, Thai. Cambodia Denies Sam Rainsy Arrest Warrant Was Politically Motivated. Radio Free Asia. November 19, 2015.

Vannarin, Neou. “Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy Stays Abroad as Key Opposition Figures Head Home.” Voice of America. November 23, 2015.

Myanmar Election Influences Democratic Movements in the Region, Shines Light on Cambodia’s Tense Political Situation

Myanmar’s election was closely followed in Cambodia, from major news outlets to Cambodian youth discussing the events on Facebook, and many contemplating what it means for Cambodia’s political future. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy applauded the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) “landslide victory” in Myanmar. He expressed that the election “shows, once more, that the days of all authoritarian regimes worldwide are counted… the wind of freedom that is blowing throughout the world will also reach Cambodia in the near future.” Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has ruled Cambodia for 30 years. He has stated that he will run for a fifth term in the country’s 2018 general election. Looking to Cambodia’s next election and running against Hun Sen, Rainsy likened himself to the NLD’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Critics dismiss the comparisons, claiming that Rainsy is too polarizing, and that he has fled his country in the past, unlike Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Spokesman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Sok Eysan, claimed that, “The opposition party in Myanmar has a clear patriotic spirit. Every activity of the opposition party is in the Myanmar people’s interest. But the opposition party in Cambodia is completely different… It is 180 degrees different… The opposition party in Cambodia does not have patriotic ideals but ideals of revenge, to block powerful countries from offering aid to Cambodia” [Cuddy, The Phnom Penh Post].

Chandara, Yang and Morm Moniroth. Cambodia Can Benefit From Lessons Learned From Myanmar Vote: Analysts. Radio Free Asia. November 12, 2015.

Cuddy, Alice and Meas Sokchea. “Myanmar opposition victory resonates in Cambodia.” The Phnom Penh Post. November 11, 2015.

Vannarin, Neou. Hun Sen Decries Opposition’s Cambodia-Myanmar Comparison. Voice of America. November 12, 2015.

Cambodia’s Mass Faintings Continue

Cambodia’s mass fainting episodes continue to rise. On November 19, a farmer sprayed insecticide on rice in Kandal province, prompting 100 workers in a nearby South Korean-owned toy factory to become weak, dizzy, vomit, and faint. Thus far in 2015, 1200 Cambodian factory workers have fainted. The faintings tend to occur with factory workers— vulnerable to sub-par and stressful working conditions, poverty, and malnutrition—and the episodes are considered to be a “mass psychogenic illness” among the workers. Earlier this month, one garment worker died and 21 garment workers were hospitalized after a mass fainting at a Chinese-owned factory. Students are now suffering from fainting episodes. On November 14, Cham Muslim students fainted at their boarding house in Tbong Khmum province. The female students told police that they saw shadows of people underneath the stilted building, prior to the mass fainting. The possibility of a poison attack is being investigated in the community, which is facing increased discrimination against Muslims. Their nearby school, which was built by and intended for Muslims, has previously been subjected to vandalism. The school’s owner claims that he received a death threat this month, threatening his life if he did not turn the school over to the Cham people in the village. The police are still investigating the motives behind the attack and have not made any arrests.

David, Sen. “Muslim schoolgirls ‘gassed’ in Tbong Khmum.” The Phnom Penh Post. November 17, 2015.

Mass faintings strike Cambodian factories. The Nation: Pakistan. November 21, 2015.

Sokhean, Ben. Death Threat Preceded Mass Fainting. The Cambodia Daily. November 19, 2015.

Sokhean, Ben. Mass Fainting at Factory After Farmer Uses Insecticide Nearby. The Cambodia Daily. November 20, 2015.

News in Review: Nepal – November 19

Nepal News in Review

Nepali leadership continues its struggle to quell unrest amongst the Madhesi people. Last week, former PM Madhav voiced concerns that Madhesi leadership are for their own benefit misrepresenting the issues to the Madhesi people. Furthermore, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon responded to India’s alleged border blockade with Nepal, calling for the countries to “lift the obstructions without further delay.”

Border Problems

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressed concerns late last week over the continued obstruction of essential supplies on the Nepal-India border. Significant shortages remain, even with the increase in supplies coming into Nepal, forcing the Nepali people to cross into India to get basic essentials.

UN speaks about blockade, underlines Nepal’s right to free transit.” Kathmandu Post. November 12, 2015.

Bordering Indian market full with Nepali customers.”  The Himalayan Times. November 12, 2015.

Flow of cargo-laden vehicles from India increases.” The Himalayan Times. November 16, 2015.

Madhesi Unrest Continues

Nepali leadership have been critiquing the unrest in the Madhesi region. Particularly, Former Prime Minister and senior CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal late last week accused Madhesi political party leadership of creating conflict by intentionally misinterpreting the new constitution. Again Sunday, the leadership met to try to reach an agreement and once again failed to reach consensus and end the unrest.

Political parties in Nepal fail to settle internal differences.” Review Nepal. November 15, 2015.

Protest goes against Madhesis: Nepal.” The Himalayan Times. November 17, 2015.

News in Review: Cambodia – November 10, 2015

Photo captured by the AP, and published in the Bangkok Post on November 4, 2015. Chay Sarith and Mao Hoeun, two of the three military soliders who “confessed” to assaulting two opposition lawmakers, are escorted to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court by police officers on November 4 (AP photo).

Cambodia’s “Culture of Dialogue” has dwindled to a culture of fear as Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) remain at odds. Military soldiers have come forward and confessed to assaulting CNRP lawmakers, who remain hospitalized in Bangkok. The CNRP is pressuring the ruling CPP not to relinquish land to Vietnam, in a long-standing border dispute. Cambodia looks to be competitive in the global market, and China recently provided Cambodia with “shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.”

Cambodian Soldiers Confess to Beating Lawmakers; No Arrests Made

Three Cambodian military soldiers turned themselves in and confessed to beating two Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers on October 26. The lawmakers, who remain in a Bangkok hospital, were attacked after leaving a parliamentary session. They were dragged from their cars and suffered extensive injuries, including facial lacerations, a torn eardrum, and broken bones. The off-duty soldiers, who have not been arrested, claim that they were reacting to the lawmakers after they hurled racist insults at the soldiers. The lawmakers deny the claims and say that more than three men were involved in the beatings and remain at-large, including the “masterminds” of the attacks. The investigating committee, composed of eight high-ranking police and ministry officials, has stated that it will not investigate the incident further. The CNRP says it will boycott future parliamentary sessions unless stricter security measures are provided for its politicians. Concerned about the future of justice and democracy in the country, Human Rights Watch is calling on the Cambodian government to “ask the Cambodia field office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct an independent investigation into the attack, and make a commitment to act on its findings.”

Cambodia: Chilling Account of Attacks on Legislators.” Human Rights Watch. October 31, 2015.

Kethya Tha, Samean Yun and Hong Sokunthea. “Cambodia Orders Security Strengthened For All Politicians After Assault on Lawmakers.” Radio Free Asia. November 5, 2015.

Narim, Khuon, and Mech Dara. “Hun Sen Says Lawmakers Hurled Insults Before Beatings.” The Cambodia Daily. November 6, 2015.

Three Cambodian soldiers confess to beating lawmakers.” PressTV. November 5, 2015.

 Cambodia faces Obstacles in Ascending to the Global Market

The ASEAN Economic Community will be formed in two months, with hope that Cambodia’s unskilled labor population will transition into a manufacturing hub. ASEAN’s free trade zone will be led by professions with “internationally recognized skills,” such as medicine, engineering, accounting, architecture, and tourism. Cambodia performs well in tourism, but less so in the other fields, signaling a need to strengthen schooling and vocational training in the country (which is still reeling from the effects of the Khmer Rouge period). It is expected that Thailand and Vietnam will continue to produce large-scale goods, while Cambodia could produce smaller-scale manufactured items. This would take pressure off the garment industry, which took off after Cambodia joined the WTO in 2004. Moreover, the AEC will give way to a regionally liberalized economy, including the freedom of movement with people and goods. This is expected to open up jobs and counter the demand for human trafficking and the smuggling of people.

Chan, Sok. Chinese Auto Group Plans Factory Here. Khmer Times. November 1, 2015.

Hunt, Luke. “Cambodia Pins Economic Hopes on AEC.” Voice of America. November 1, 2015.

Kunmakara, May. “Shaping Up Requires Action.” Khmer Times. November 1, 2015.

Cambodia and Vietnam Dispute over Border Demarcation

On October 27-28, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, and their respective ambassadors met in in Ho Chi Minh City for their eighth meeting on border province cooperation and development. The meeting upheld the countries’ commitment to bilateral relations and trade. Trade between the two countries increased to $2.3 billion USD this year. And, Vietnam is currently investing 172 projects in Cambodia, valued at $3.61 billion USD, making it the second biggest investor in Cambodia. All the while, a border delimitation dispute remains over the Dak Dam Commune. It is an issue dating back to 1953, when Cambodia achieved independence from France. Vietnam stated it would take 60 percent of the land, and leave 40 percent to Cambodia. Cambodian opposition parties strongly contest the deal and previously tore out Vietnam demarcation border posts, on the grounds that they are on Cambodian land.

Chev, Prach. “Cambodia Asserts Sovereignty Over Disputed Border Area With Vietnam.” Radio Free Asia. November 4, 2015.

Dara, Mech. “Vietnam Agrees to Hasten Border Demarcation.” The Cambodia Daily. October 30, 2015.

Vietnam affirms sovereignty over central area that borders Cambodia.” Tuoi Tre News. November 3, 2015.

Vietnam, Cambodia advance border province cooperation.” Ho Chi Minh City. October 28, 2015.

China Provides Cambodia with Missiles

China and Cambodia recently signed an assistance deal, in which China is providing Cambodia with “shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.” Cambodia and China are long-standing allies. China has also offered to help with Cambodia’s military training and the construction of its military academies. Moreover, China is the biggest investor in Cambodia and purchases the bulk of its natural resource exports. The deal followed a contentious meeting in which other ASEAN countries challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Sokheng, Vong. Chinese defence boss brings military aid. The Phnom Penh Post. November 6, 2015.

Sokrith, Ban and Phun Chan Ousaphea. “Stand Strong, Defense Minister Tells Military.” Khmer Times. November 5, 2015.

Thul, Prak Chan. “China supplies Cambodia with anti-aircraft hardware in new military aid.” Reuters. November 6, 2015.