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Child Marriage

September 24, 2014 | Petra Lent

Apologies for the incomplete notification two days ago – our newsletter app has a delightful way of prematurely sending things out before they’re quite ready for primetime.

Sometimes a theme seems to present itself organically, perhaps because a certain problem or set of problems is uppermost in the Zeitgeist at the moment. This week at Media Voices, Unicef has issued their 2014 report on child and maternal health, Committing to Child Survival. We’re on track for meeting Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 – to reduce child mortality and to improve maternal health – oh, around 2026, give or take a few years. One of the big risk factors for infant mortality is being born to a child mother. The health risks of forcible early sexual initiation in the context of child marriage are beginning to be understood, not just at the NGO level, but at the village level, where it really counts.

It’s important to understand that many parents arrange marriage for their young children in order to protect them, not just to pass the responsibility for their care and feeding on to someone else. Poverty is a big driver for child marriage, but by no means the only one. A recent New York Times article, In Jordan, Ever Younger Syrian Brides, makes the point that even an educated population like Syrian refugees increasingly resorts to child marriage as a way of protecting girls growing up in the chaos of refugee camps. Before the war, only 13% of marriages involved a girl younger than eighteen. Now it’s one in three.

The power imbalance in such marriages is toxic for the girls, to put it mildly. By far the majority of child brides leave school to become unpaid drudges in their husband’s family. Child pregnancy brings increased risk of life-threatening complications, including eclampsia and seizures. As if that were not bad enough, the girls are at high risk for domestic violence. In Rukhsana’s Story, a child bride and victim of internal human trafficking in Pakistan finally left her abusive husband when she became afraid that he would hurt their children. He would beat the children, she reports, because he thought they were not his.

Zarbibi, a 16-year-old ethnic Afghan girl in Iran, isolated, desperate and four months pregnant, murdered her husband with a kitchen knife, maddened by extreme revulsion. In Prison Journal of a Child Bride Zarbibi says that even at the police station the day after the murder, she felt ineffably relieved, “as light as a balloon that could just fly away.”

As grim as the picture is for child brides, early marriage is no picnic for child grooms either. In Anna Badkhen’s story for Foreign Policy, A Groom’s Tale, a young boy in rural Afghanistan is forced into a badaal, or bridal swap, in which he is to marry his brother’s sister-in-law. It comes cheaper that way, and cements families together, while also consolidating inheritance. The only problem is that the parties to this eminently practical arrangement are unwilling – not exactly a recipe for future harmony, happiness or thriving. In The Sad Hidden Plight of Child Grooms Pannilal Yadev was married at the age of 8 to a 7-year-old. For both children, the marriage meant the end of educational opportunity and carefree play, locking them both into a prison of adult responsibility.

“Recently I spoke to a school friend who told me he was going to engineering college. The news left me feeling ashamed and pitiful. If our parents had not forced us to marry at such a young age, our lives would be so different,…I would have liked to have gone to engineering school. If we were allowed to finish our educations, Rajkumari and I would have learned about family planning. Maybe I would have gone to college. Forcing children to marry doesn’t just push them deeper into poverty and threaten their health. It crushes their ambitions—whether they are girls or boys.”

On the basis of his early bitter experience, Yadev has begun to work with Tipping Point, a child marriage prevention program sponsored by CARE in Bangladesh and Nepal. CARE Ethiopia has had a three-year program, TESFA (Toward Economic and Sexual/Reproductive Health Outcomes for Adolescent Girls) that focused on very concrete family-based interventions to get husbands more involved in housework, for example, and to get child brides together for group therapy sessions so that they no longer feel so isolated and alone. Also as part of the program, CARE gave the girls cameras to document the changes in their families – husbands feeding children, mothers-in-law minding the baby, friendship and laughter among the girls. They called it Photovoice – a wonderful collection of images that show incremental but very meaningful changes that resonate throughout the villages where child marriage is lived.

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


Girls

July 24, 2014 | Petra Lent

This week the UK is hosting the Girls Summit of 2014, a conference seeking to rally a global movement to end child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. It’s about time. The United Nations Population Fund has just issued a valuable report, Motherhood in Childhood, detailing the incidence of child marriage and its inevitable corollary, underage pregnancy. The report identifies this as a human rights issue, since child marriage and underage pregnancy undermine health and life chances for girls. Poverty and lack of educational opportunity are the most common reasons that parents conclude marriage contracts for their prepubescent daughters. Paradoxically, cultural norms that stigmatize sexual activity can be a driver for child marriage as well. Cultures that put a high value on virginity tend to push girls into marriage very early, so as to minimize the risk that rape or other sexual activity might make them worthless as brides.

The most extreme expression of fear of female sexuality is the practice of female genital mutilation. Safe Hands for Mothers has a film on FGM, The Cutting Tradition. It is the village women who insist upon and carry out the genital mutilation of young girls. “If a girl is not circumcised, we can’t trust her,” says one laughing matron, who not incidentally makes a good living from the practice. Trigger warning on this one – it’s very tough to watch.

Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair has personal stories of child brides on Too Young To Wed, an outstanding website with blogs and videos on child marriage, as well as petitions and campaigns on behalf of specific girls.

The United Nations Population Fund is running child empowerment initiatives to educate girls and their parents and help them postpone marriage until the girl has finished school. These classes can be life-changing, as we see in Jennifer Koons’ story for the Pulitzer Center, Marriage in Niger: Samira’s Shadow. Samira did not feel capable of opposing her parents’ plans to marry her to an old man and actually bought rat poison because she could see no other way out. Her younger cousin, who had been to a UNFPA-sponsored class on life skills for girls, approached her teacher, who tactfully approached Samira’s father and suggested that she be allowed to go to class as well. It was ultimately unclear why, but this gentle intervention seemed to change his mind, and Samira was allowed to join her cousin. The wedding was off. For now.

Safe Hands for Mothers has a film, Child Marriage, about 10-year-old Wube-Eunat from an impoverished village in Ethiopia. Her father seems ambivalent about the wedding of his daughter to the 15-year-old son of family friends, but ultimately agrees to it. The community is on the cusp of change in the way child marriage is perceived. In a village meeting, a man speaks up against the practice. “It ruins lives,” he says. But it’s too late for Wube-Eunat. In spite of her parent’s resolution that she stay with them until puberty, friends and family members of her husband’s family bear her away in the night. Her mother-in-law has plans for her: “I’d like her to help with the household.”

Even more brutal is the fate of three child brides in Yemen in the Journeyman Pictures film, The Heartbreaking Truth about Yemen’s Child Brides. “He married a slave,” Saada says of her marriage to a much older man, who forced her to beg on the streets and refused to provide for their children. Changing attitudes to child marriage in Yemen runs into stiff political opposition from politicians and religious leaders who feel condescended and dictated to by the West. But there is hope. A father of seven who himself was married at the age of 15 will not countenance a similar fate for his daughters: “People who marry young,” he says, “don’t feel the happiness of marriage, nor its meaning.”


The Dreamers Among Us

May 7, 2014 | Len Morris

I’ve raised two children, both adults now living in New York City where they’re currently pursuing their dreams.  As they grew up, attending the same public school a few years apart, there was never a question in our family of whether they’d attend college. Our regional high school sends almost 90% of the annual graduating class to college and they do so with a lot of community scholarships, almost a million dollars worth just last year. Our kids were able to access a full range of state and federal student aid, so their dreams of college certainly benefited by being born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard.

But nation-wide, through circumstances not of their making, there are hundreds of thousands of children who grew up in communities like ours and have no possibility of continuing their studies.  They call themselves DREAMERS, yet their dreams have been deferred by circumstances over which they had and have no control. Their young lives and futures have been put on indefinite hold. I’m sure there are DREAMERS on the Vineyard as well, but they need to keep a low profile or they may be arrested and deported.

A DREAMER is a young man or woman who is living in the United States without documentation. They were brought to this country by their parents as children and often work with their families in American agriculture, helping to pick our fruits and vegetables, migrating seasonally and struggling to keep up with school work.  Growing up in communities in every state, they sit in the same classes with our children, they are their friends, teammates and neighbors, many excel at school and do volunteer work.  But because of their undocumented status, they have been criminalized by our out-dated Immigration system, which makes them subject to deportation, unable to work, drive, apply for college, financial aid or serve in the military. Their lives have been put on hold.

Multiple attempts to change federal law with a DREAM Act tailored to address this very narrow problem have languished for a decade along largely partisan party lines. Our Washington politicians have played political games with the futures of these children, using the filibuster to kill a straight up and down vote. Their complete lack of basic human empathy is shocking, a real measure of how out of touch Congress is. If the children being treated this way were theirs, I feel certain that federal law would have been changed a decade ago.

Meanwhile, several states have moved forward passing their own versions of the Dream Act to enable these children get into college and apply for financial aid.

Last week, I heard from a group of high school DREAMERS in upstate New York who were working with my friend and colleague of 30 years, Robin Romano, on a film, THE DREAMERS AMONG US, urging New York State to pass its own Dream Act.

Robin Romano works with the Youth Arts Group

These fledgling filmmakers are part of the Youth Arts Group of the Rural and Migrant Ministry. When Robin unexpectedly passed away last November, they vowed to complete the project in his honor and because they don’t have the luxury of time – their futures are happening now.

You can view a trailer of THE DREAMERS AMONG US and support the project at Indiegogo and I urge you to do so.

If you care about fairness and human rights and you see the potential of these young people as Robin did, then make a donation and sign the petition to the New York State legislature in support of the Bill.

You can learn more about the NY State Dream Act here.

 


April Fools

April 16, 2014 | Petra Lent

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it. (Testing Theories of American Politics, pg. 40)


Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University have recently published a very thought-provoking paper, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens, that may help us make sense of the truly astonishing budget proposed by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan on April 1st, fittingly enough. The gist of the Paul Ryan budget is a naked attempt to defund social programs benefitting the middle class and the poor – block grants, anyone? – and redistribute the money to the wealthy. It is a shameless document. It is also aspirational, not binding, which is the good news. But don’t rejoice too soon. The Ryan budget is a key piece of the election shell game “Pay attention to this, not to that!”, the white-hot and wholly irrelevant shouting matches – gun rights!@?!abortion!?$@!!gay marriage!#@?&$ – that distract the electorate from the sub rosa hijacking of our political process by extremely wealthy individuals and well-funded groups looking after the interests of big business. Couched as a sober and responsible attempt to whittle away at the deficit, the Ryan budget actually represents the wish list of the one percent. It is hard to overestimate the harm that this budget can do – will do, despite the extremely tenuous nature of its relation to reality. The fact that such a proposal is even taken seriously enough to pass the House of Representatives and be debated could not be a clearer indication that the interests of the median voter are not represented in our politics.

Ryan envisions cuts of 5.1 trillion dollars in the budget over the next ten years, cuts overwhelmingly skewed to the disadvantage of middle income and poor people. No worries, though. In Ryan-World, allowing states to “customize” SNAP benefits to the recipients along with beefing up welfare work requirements will spur parents to work harder; savings will be realized and moral pressure exerted – win win!

Not exactly. In the same month, The Annie E. Casey Foundation has come out with Race For Results, a brief but very valuable index of how children are doing state by state against 12 benchmarks for thriving, disaggregated by race. White and Asian children are leading the pack in wellbeing – it is revelatory by how much. This is how our policies are playing out on the ground…and the loss of human potential is costing us real money.

McKinsey & Company researchers found that if the United States had closed the racial achievement gap and African-American and Latino student performance had caught up with white students by 1998, the gross domestic product in 2008 would have been up to $525 billion higher. (Race for Results, pg. 2)

It is ironic that Ryan entitles his budget, The Path to Prosperity. It is a path to the prosperity of a small number of powerful people. The oligarchs in control of our political system are hurting our children and weakening our economy. Can we really afford to maintain them in the style to which they are accustomed?

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


So You Have An Education. Now What?

March 11, 2014 | Petra Lent

This week at Media Voices, we’ve been thinking about what happens once African children have succeeded in gaining an education, something which increasing numbers of them have managed to do. According to the World Bank, the number of African children graduating from secondary school has increased fivefold since 1970, from 7% to 38%. I found this statistic in a new report by the World Bank, Inclusion Matters, which identifies barriers to employment for young people as a form of social exclusion. Unlike many other parts of the world, Africa has a youth bulge, which could become very important and helpful in the years to come, as the northern hemisphere’s population ages. That’s the macro view, of course, not terribly helpful if you happen to be a young person starting out in life with the ink still wet on your degree.

All over the world, one of the things grownups tend to ask young people is what they want to do in life when they are grown. When Len and Georgia were shooting in Kenya, the topic tended to come up quite frequently, and the responses are interesting, and very revealing about that particular child’s circumstances. Ask a street child that question and the most common answer you’d get is “I want to be a pilot.” (Get me out of here) If the closest thing to an adult role model you can aspire to is leaving con trails in the sky, you’re in big trouble.

Ask a boarding school student at the Kimana school that question, and you’ll get a range of answers: “I want to be a civil engineer” (superb physics teacher at work) or from a girl with her arm in a sling, “I want to be a surgeon.” These are big dreams.

But what is a realistic aspiration? A report for the Africa Development Forum of the World Bank, Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, has a sobering view of the matter:

“over the next 10 years, at best only one in four of Sub-Saharan Africa’s youth will find a wage job, and only a small fraction of those jobs will be “formal” jobs in modern enterprises. Most young people will end up working where their parents do — in family farms and household enterprises.”

Over ten years ago now, Len Morris and Robin Romano were shooting children working in a coffee plantation when they noticed a young girl with a dangerously infected festering wound on her leg. Many of you have heard this story – it was the beginning of the Kenyan Schoolhouse program. That girl was Sylvie Ngendo, and the trajectory of her life is perhaps more typical of the obstacles African youth encounter than the triumphs of the four boys now at university who were also educated through Kenyan Schoolhouse. When she was at boarding school in 2011, Len and Georgia shot an interview with her and asked her the usual question. Bright-eyed, bouncy, smiling, she gave perhaps the most interesting answer of all, “I want to be a lawyer and help people keep their shambas.”

In the intervening years, however, life happened to Sylvie. Babies happened, two of them. Sylvie has had problems, and she has laid her grand plans to become a lawyer aside in favor of a course at the Extreme Hairdressing school. She has to eat, and so do her kids. Hairdressing is a useful trade, but to get back to the macro level for a moment, helping people keep their shambas (farms) is mission critical.

None of the children we interviewed aspired to farm the land and grow food. Farming is associated with poverty in their eyes, with too many family members living off too small a parcel of land.

“Since mobility out of farming has been low in Africa, much of the land is now held by aging farmers, despite the large cohort of potential new entrants…more fluid land markets would create better opportunities for young people to practice more productive and managerially demanding agriculture.” (Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa)

Economists agree that food production will become increasingly important in the years to come. “Agriculture can and should be a sector of opportunity for sub-Saharan Africa’s youth.” (Youth Employment) But rent-seeking is a plague in Africa as much as it is here, and backroom deals are constantly being made to hand vast swathes of arable land to Chinese companies. The Chinese government is nothing if not far-seeing; it has correctly identified food production as an area of increasing pressure and demand. From Sylvie’s perspective, there is a crying need for legal representation to push back against the dispossession of smallholder farmers, something which the World Bank reports serenely ignore:

“raising the productivity of smallholder farms and household enterprises is precisely what will enable the formal sector to develop and thrive. It was the key to structural transformation in Asia and Latin America, and it is the key to Africa’s future as well.” (Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa)

Which is lovely, as long as people still own their shambas.

As I write this, it is March 8th, International Women’s Day. Sylvie’s story, the dialing back of her dreams, troubles me. Kenya could use lawyers like Sylvie, but it seems unlikely now that Sylvie will ever get to law school. And that is a loss – for Sylvie, and for Kenya.

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


The Driver of Child Labor

January 20, 2014 | Petra Lent

This week at Media Voices, we have a very interesting paper by Gordon Lafer, The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards 2011-2012, presented at the Economic Policy Institute, tracking a number of new state laws and initiatives that are aimed at undermining the economic power of labor in the United States. It may seem bizarre, in view of worldwide efforts to combat child labor, but there are actually four states in which laws were recently enacted rolling back child labor laws. Idaho, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin are standing up for child labor, or rather, for the greater profit of their employers. The governor of Maine, who grew up poor himself, is a prime example of the crab mentality, as he celebrates the benefits of 12-year-olds working in grocery stores. His own biography is used to justify child labor, which is of course quite common – it didn’t kill me, and look where I ended up. He isn’t completely wrong, in that working and practical skill is an essential part of a child’s education. But…and I feel like a broken record, taking hourly limits on labor for children away has the effect of moving their education to the back burner, certainly for families that are having trouble getting by. And then there is the unintended (or is it?) multiplier effect: cheap labor from teenagers and even pre-teens exerts downward pressure on the wages of adults. It’s worth taking the time to read Lafer’s paper – exhaustively researched, it paints a very complete picture of what is keeping people poor in this country.


A very interesting story from Radio Free Asia points out that 41 teenagers recently rescued from child labor in an electronics factory in Shenzhen were adamant that they did not want to be sent home to their desperately impoverished home province of Liangshan, “Why Child Laborers Don’t Want to Go Home.” The reason? In Shenzhen, conditions were miserable, certainly, but they got rice and meat to eat, whereas at home, all they get is potatoes and corn. It’s hard to argue with that. Swooping in and scooping up laboring children and returning them to the poverty they fled doesn’t work. People have to eat, and the children of poor communities very naturally end up working, if starvation is the alternative. It’s a rational decision under those circumstances. Yet we can also see that solving the immediate emergency is causing longterm harm. The story is also scathing on corruption by local officials in Liangshan, whose bill at a local restaurant came to more than $2000, not a wise move in a province where most people’s diet consists of potatoes. We don’t really have sumptuary laws or any scorn for conspicuous consumption in our news – though I’m sure we could come up with equally obscene examples of tone-deaf self-indulgence.

Finally, we have a very sobering assessment of the conditions for Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2012, The Harvard Field Study on Syrian Refugees calling for more social support for the refugees themselves, and also, critically, for the host countries. The prohibition on legal work for the refugees forces families into the informal marketplace (see above, people have to eat), leading to a fourfold increase in child labor among the Syrian families. The study is also very good on the impact on Jordanians, suddenly facing sharply higher rents because of the increased demand in housing. There have apparently been cases of Jordanian families evicted from their homes and buying UN tents from Syrian refugees for shelter. Not exactly what the aid agencies had in mind…

Lauren Ornelas has a lovely remembrance of Robin on her blog, Appetite for Justice.
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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


First, Do No Harm

December 19, 2013 | Petra Lent

This week at Media Voices, we are looking at cash transfers as a response to sudden-onset emergencies and longterm poverty. The 2013 report by Global Humanitarian Assistance analyses how and to what extent the international community has responded to chronic and short-term need this past year. Especially in urban areas, delivering aid in the form of cash by way of cell phone messages is a far more supple technique than dumping surplus food from outside the country in troubled areas. Two IRIN articles on the issue, Food and The City, and Emergency Cash Vs. Social Protection in West Africa stress the fact that the effectiveness of cash transfer programs is multiplied when they are married to pre-existing social support programs. Cooperation with local government and power structures is critical. Oxfam has published the so-called EMMA toolkit, Emergency Market Mapping Analysis Toolkit, that helps aid providers calibrate the response to avoid damaging the local economy. We also have two films from Irish NGO Concern Worldwide, one on an urban cash transfer program to alleviate chronic poverty in Kenya, Urban Cash Transfers, and the other on the emergency situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, The Impact of Winter on Syria’s Refugees.

Happy Holidays from all of us at Media Voices for Children! And as you’re struggling out from under a blizzard of funding appeals, know that your money does make a big, big difference.

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


Turning the Ship

November 26, 2013 | Petra Lent

This week at Media Voices, we have two videos from the Global March Against Child Labour (known in India as Bachpan Bachao Andolan), Not Made by Children and #dontlookaway. Not Made by Children is a toolkit for individuals and NGOs and government to use in pressing for change on the issue of child labor. The film details a multi-stakeholder effort to raise the minimum wage and create decent work for adults, while beefing up inspection and enforcement of existing laws in the garment industry. In the years that Kailash Satyarthi and Bachpan Bachao Andolan have been conducting raids to rescue bonded child laborers, there has been a significant change. They now have buy-in for their work, not just from the police and legal system, not just from subcontractors and garment retailers, but also from the Indian people as well. Kailash points out that an essential component of their work is educating adult workers to demand their legal wages, strengthening unions, so that adult workers can make enough money to feed and educate their children.

In #dontlookaway, the Global March Against Child Labour is attempting to sensitize Indian society to the commercial sexual exploitation of children. It’s a brief, but very moving film, in which a little girl, who looks to be no more than ten, lingers by the side of a busy road. Dressed in a pretty dress, she hesitates, with cars whizzing by. Various people see her, including a fast food vendor. Briefly disquieted, they go on their way. Eventually, a car pulls up and she climbs in. The john gives her a candy bar and touches her knee.

It’s easy to focus on the extreme cases of cruelty to women and girls – the high-profile rape cases that have galvanized Indian society recently. #dontlookaway points out that rapes are happening in plain view – people are seeing them unfold, but they are so accustomed to the sight, their gaze slides blandly over a child being raped. It will take not just time, but continuous pressure to change this.

It’s not like the United States has won the battle for children’s rights. Mariya Strauss has an article in The Nation pointing out that there have been several unnecessary deaths of children working in agriculture, since the Labor Department caved in to pressure from the farm lobby and quietly withdrew the proposed safety rules in April 2012. Exactly how many? Hard to say, since there is no government agency tasked with tracking this. But there have been at least half a dozen deaths that would not have happened if the rules were in place. Even one is one too many. Heartbreaking and frustrating as the struggle is, we must turn this ship.

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


My Dinner With Robin

November 13, 2013 | Len Morris

This happened years ago in a parallel universe that Robin inhabited and that I visited from time to time.

It was a double date. Robin was in love with a lovely, smart woman he wanted my wife and me to meet. So the four of us set out for the row of Brazilian restaurants near Times Square and ended up in the most lavish of the lot.

It was a formal dining room, white linens, wait staff in short black jackets, very spacious with more help than customers.

The ladies excused themselves and Robin and I headed immediately to the bar where we promptly ordered a pitcher of caipirinhas. For those unfamiliar, the drink consists of cachaça, a highly potent white liquor distilled from sugar cane, a bit of fresh lime and lots of sugar. One of of these drinks, and you’ll be doing the samba for the first time in your life, without prior instruction of any kind, as if you’d been dancing all of your life. A full pitcher is unthinkable. Or put another way, what were we thinking?

We guzzled the pitcher in record-setting time, most likely chasing it with small sausages and grilled shrimp. Staggered, we joined the ladies at the table, who were getting along famously.

I don’t remember much about dinner. Duh… I do know that Robin and I continued to behave badly (excessively) and ordered, and consumed, at least two bottles of wine.

What I remember most vividly however, is how our evening came to a close. I turned at one point and Robin was no longer at the table. That is, technically he wasn’t seated at the table. Unannounced, as he often did, he decided it was time to sleep, and when Robin lost consciousness he simply passed out wherever he was for a power nap.

He’d pulled three chairs together in a line and stretched himself out lengthwise with his linen napkin over his face. I could hear his signature snore, and the grinding of teeth, through his impromptu mask.

To their credit, the waiters acted as if nothing was amiss. Since it was Friday night, the dining room was now packed…every table filled with people waiting and the owner beginning to chafe, looking ominously our way.

The three of us started to gulp our coffee, while casually acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary. That is, until a thunderous crash brought the entire establishment to absolute silence, not even the sound of a fork in use.

Robin, it seems, had rolled off his improvised bed to the floor, taking two of the three chairs with him.

I heard my voice call out “Check!” as I motioned madly for the waiter’s immediate attention.

The room remained silent.

Abashed, the girls left.

Lifting my friend, we made our way slowly to the exit.


Author’s note:

Years ago, Robin asked me to take care of business, if anything ever happened to him and of course I said yes. We all knew it was a distinct possibility every time he headed out to shoot in the least hospitable corners of the world.

I keep expecting him to walk in the door and make disgusting sounds and light a cigarette. I see now that’s not going to happen. We’re all going to need a chance to talk about this great man, this human dynamo, and celebrate his achievements. Memorials are in the planning stages for New York and Washington. They will happen in early 2014.

But for now, grieving and funeral arrangements are a private family matter. First, we give his immediate family the space and respect they need and then we’ll have some fun remembering a man we all loved dearly.


Wicked and Wonderful – Goodbye, Dear Robin

November 5, 2013 | Len Morris

With a cigarette hanging from his mouth, a red bandana covering his newly bald head, (he always tried new looks and disguises on the road), Robin was in his element, barking orders at children too stunned by his ferocity to do anything but what he wanted.

We were on the street in Mexico City, filming street children who hid from the adult world by living in a dry sewer, where the electric lines and their young lives were buried. Betrayed by adults many times over, these filthy children would steal you blind, were so unpleasant you had to remind yourself they’re kids.

“Get over there, don’t look at the camera. Jesus, I said don’t look at me!” Robin’s exasperation, sweat and Herculean effort to control everything, his compact muscled body tensed less the slightest bobble spoil the shot.

Robin was always covered in cameras. He was a one man show. He shot stills, video, took sound, did interviews. He filled every vacuum. He didn’t know how to delegate. He hated sharing. He wanted everything perfect and was willing to pay the price of doing it all himself. The price was physical exhaustion, illness, a candle burning at both ends.

We carted ten cases of still photographic gear for every case of video equipment to the ends of the earth. His passion was for stills. He was one of the finest natural light videographers I have known in forty years as a director-editor. And still his photographs are among the best the world has ever seen.

This was the Robin I knew, working to take the perfect picture that would tell the story of a child’s life, and of our world’s indifference in one frozen second.

The kids understood this immediately . . . intuited it. Their attraction to Robin was electric. They ran to him, invited him into their bleak lives. They saw his heart. They did as they were told. Robin clambered over a barbed fence and slid into their subterranean world within minutes of our first meeting – becoming one of the street gang. He would shadow them, be one of them, for the next two weeks. Another work day in the world of U. Roberto Romano.

Impatience was one of his core virtues. In the field, as we traveled the world together photographing and talking with our poorest children at mines, dumpsites, in fields, quarries or on the streets, there weren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what he felt needed to be done.

At home, when the shoot ended, the impatience became urgency as he took the unmet needs of all of the world’s children and placed them squarely before those who can and should help – Congressmen, Heads of State, government officials.

He hated hypocrisy and would tear into the tobacco or cocoa industry reps we’d cross paths with in D.C. He once traveled to the Ivory Coast and went to the precise spot where a school, supposedly built by the Cocoa Foundation was said to be located, educating former child laborers. He sent me a picture of a chicken coop, occupying that very spot. Like I said, he didn’t take other people’s word for it. He went to ground zero.

He was a take-no-prisoners kind of guy, not cut out for politics or compromise. He didn’t suffer fools and dealt poorly with many. He spoke truth to power, whether they wanted to hear it or not. At most meetings, he was filled with anger and with a strong bullshit detector. He cared. He cared so much, it made him ache. He carried his frustrations on the surface, his heart on his sleeve. Children were genuinely his life’s work.

That life was like a rocket, entirely ballistic. I’ve seen him confront men twice his size, the foreman on a coffee plantation where the workers were mostly young girls under 14, a thug on a train in India who was beating a street boy who’d begged for food. Robin wouldn’t abide this and he’d put himself in harm’s way to stop it. The thugs always backed down.

Robin’s courage was tested in dozens of the world’s poorest places, where government officials, even NGOs, rarely venture. He’d wear a hidden camera to film girls being trafficked, with the full knowledge that discovery meant death. I’ve been held at gunpoint with him, run for my life with him and watched as he disappeared into a tear-gas riot, where three people lay dead. All to get that one shot.


Robin’s aura of arrogance, courage, obliviousness and caring carried him largely unscathed through one near catastrophe after another. It all had the feeling of being led by an invisible force to where we were supposed to be. However long it took, there would be Robin with his camera, the children and the abuse, and in less than ten minutes, if you hadn’t discovered his presence, it would be too late….he’d have dozens of shots and we’d be on our way out. “Run Away” was our general fall-back plan.

Meanwhile, these past fifteen years, thousands upon thousands of Romano photographs have found their way into the mainstream of global human rights writings, on web sites, at schools, in films, studies, exhibitions, before government, on TV, in the press and in every imaginable form of social communication.

My own children came of age with Robin, the wicked uncle, a regular in our house and lives. He was the only adult they would cancel their budding social lives for. He didn’t so much visit as invade. Bags of gear spilling out everywhere and on every surface of our living room, he never used a guest room. He simply slept where he fell; years of sleeping under trees or in slum hovels made him the perfect low-maintenance guest. And he was a great cook, making banquets so filled with butter, they should have been served with a stent.

He answered our telephone and greeted the kids’ friends with an Indian accent, or posing as a Russian spy. He would call me at work and talk for the first five minutes as an IRS auditor. He faxed doctored photos to my largely female production company of me shopping for young prostitutes in Shanghai, (fortunately for me, they knew I had never been to Shanghai).

He was wicked. He was the funniest and perhaps the smartest man I’ve ever known. And now the shooting star that was Robin is looking down at us all. It’s not going to be sufficient to be sad and shocked at our terrible loss. Robin expects more of us, to fix what’s broken, and we need to get busy.


Can We Afford Not to Reform Our Immigration Policy?

October 20, 2013 | Petra Lent

The temper tantrums of the Party of Me have pushed other issues to one side, issues that desperately need to be addressed. Last weekend saw rallies demanding immigration reform – again – but most journalists were preoccupied with the government shutdown and that story slipped below the fold. It shouldn’t. Immigration, legal and otherwise, is shoring up our economy. Rather than wrecking the economy to make this country an undesirable destination, we need to address the unintended consequences of the current system. The vast army of undocumented laborers does drag down wages for manual laborers overall. There are public health dangers in having an underclass of people who cannot access health care or social services. And not least, it is wildly unjust.

California recently allowed illegal immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses – a critically important factor in general road safety, joining nine other states and the District of Columbia. Alone among the states, illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children are now allowed practice law in California. But California, however forward-thinking, cannot turn the ship alone. This week at Media Voices, we have several reports on immigration that might suggest a way forward. The Women’s Refugee Commission has a report on a new directive issued by the unfortunately named ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that attempts to address the problem of the 5000 children who are remanded to the child welfare system because of the detention or deportation of their parents. The directive does not (and cannot) address the detention policy, but it does attempt to make it possible for parents to participate in custody hearings and possibly keep custody of their children. Baby steps.

The National Immigration Forum has a report on the money pit that our current system of detention of illegal immigrants represents. Each person detained costs $159 per day, versus other forms of monitoring that range from under a dollar to $17 per day. Our current system causes maximum suffering at maximum cost. We can do better, people!

We have a very thorough report from the International Detention Coalition about the detention of unaccompanied child migrants, which is plainly and horribly unacceptable.

Europe is under pressure from waves of migration, and it’s helpful to look at the approaches in various countries in Europe. The Jesuit Refugee Service Europe has a report, From Deprivation to Liberty, that compares immigration policies and interviews migrants in Belgium, Germany and the UK. The conclusion of the report is that compliance and trust in the system are much increased when migrants have social support and enough information to participate meaningfully in their case. In an immigration system like ours, adversarial and fundamentally contemptuous of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, is it so surprising that most immigrants try to stay under the radar? Treating people like cockroaches is not productive of trust, or compliance, for that matter.

This is a complicated issue about which well-meaning people can disagree. But I think one thing we can all agree on is that our current system is cruel and arbitrary and deeply broken. Whether native-born or foreign, children suffer permanent damage, are scarred by poverty and insecurity. We can do better by our children.

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


Letter to Marie Antoinette

September 11, 2013 | Petra Lent

A propos of the Economic Research Report on Household Food Security in 2012 just issued by the US Department of Agriculture, we’ve been thinking about American kids and food insecurity this week at Media Voices. With the latest budget proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan suggesting that the SNAP food stamp program could be massively cut and converted into block grants to the states, while floating the comforting fantasy that private charity could fill in for the resulting shortfall in benefits to vulnerable families, it seems we’re entering the legislative silly season once again. Over the next ten years, Ryan envisions cutting SNAP by $135 billion dollars. That’s an awful lot of money to squeeze out of the poorest of the poor.

In fairness, Ryan and the GOP are hoping that there won’t be quite so many poor people in the next ten years. We’d all love to see that happen. It is a pity, though, that the House Budget Committee declined to hear from any actual poor people during their hearing on the state of the War on Poverty last month. Tianna Gaines-Turner, one of the mothers of Witnesses to Hunger, submitted her testimony in written form; it is to be hoped that the well-fed gentlemen (and the occasional lady) on the House Budget Committee actually took the time to read it. (Don’t get me wrong – we want our legislators to be well-fed. It is so critically important to clear thinking.) If they had read it, they might have learned that most SNAP recipients are working – some indeed are working two or three jobs. They might have learned about the Catch-22 that afflicts SNAP recipients who actually manage to land a better-paying job, the so-called “cliff.” They might have learned about the vagaries in working hours in low-income jobs, about employers who demand that their workers be available whenever they are required, yet offer no minimum working hour guarantees in return. They might have learned something of the experience of being poor, of trying to feed small children on SNAP. They might have gotten practical advice from someone who actually lives with the results of their deliberations. They might have learned something.

Dr. Mariana Chilton gave us a terrific interview this summer. We’ll be posting excerpts from it every once in a while. In this one, she explains what food insecurity is, and what it does to the emotional and cognitive development of small children. It leads to more hospitalizations, lower academic achievement, lower earning capacity as adults. It’s lose, lose and lose. The national implications of this are made clear in two research briefs from Children’s Health Watch, Too Hungry to Learn and Feeding Our Human Capital. Failing to feed our children is both a personal and a national catastrophe; we will be paying for every penny we pinch many times over.

We seem to circle around and around in our national conversation about poverty, trying to convince people that it is in our interest as a country to have a social safety net. Researchers at Moody’s have found that every dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.72 in economic activity. According to Sharon Parrott at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found that

“one of every seven Americans would be poor without the safety net, but are above the poverty line because of it; that translates into more than 40 million people.”

Of all the functions performed by government, keeping people out of poverty would seem to be a real bargain, in health, in productivity, in happiness, the pursuit of which is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. But maybe we’re arguing this the wrong way – maybe the real reason that we should ensure that everyone has enough to eat is because they have a human right to adequate nutrition. Food is not charity – it’s a right. It’s a basic need.

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


It’s About the Girls…

August 15, 2013 | Petra Lent

It sounds reductive to say that it’s about the girls. Poor boys are also in need, hungry, exploited, etc. But the particular vulnerability of girls in poverty to early marriage and the health problems that attend early pregnancy, to exploitative employment up to and including slavery, to exclusion from educational opportunity ensures that the grip of poverty on a family, on a community, on a country will continue for generation after generation. It will take a very determined effort to break that cycle of deprivation and wasted potential.

When Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations some weeks ago, wearing a scarf belonging to Benazir Bhutto, she said, “We realized the importance of light when we see darkness. We realized the importance of our voice when we are silenced. We realized the importance of pen and books, when we saw the guns.” And then, “They [the extremists] are afraid of women. The power – the voice of women frightens them.” Standing up for sanity, she reminds us that Islam not only encourages education for both boys and girls, it is considered their duty. Extraordinary as she is, Malala stresses that she is not alone. Others have been killed and injured for standing up for education for girls. She is one of many.

In light of the extremely disheartening news reports out of Cairo today – 525 dead in a savage crackdown on Morsi supporters – our next offering, A Scarred Generation by Mike Healy, reminds us of the emotional damage and survivor guilt that burdens child survivors of conflict. A boy describes the emotional aftermath of being shot in a demonstration; a twelve-year-old girl remembers her sister killed by shrapnel before her eyes. Withdrawn, in a thready, barely audible voice, she says, “before, I was happy. Now…I’m not.” Child survivors of violence need counseling and help to make sense of these experiences and achieve some serenity and peace. The final title card in the film mentions that Yemen has the lowest psychiatrist to patient ratio in the Arab world.

Also this week, we have a report from the Womens Refugee Commission contrasting countries that have reformed their nationality laws to give women equal power to confer citizenship on their children to countries that have not. The report, Our Motherland, Our Country: Gender Discrimination and Statelessness, highlights the unintended consequences of reserving the right to confer citizenship to men only. Morocco and Egypt have reformed their nationality laws in the wake of the Arab Spring; Jordan and Kuwait still lag behind, and in those countries, some families end up trapped – their children stateless and not qualified for social services. In the gender discrimination game, everybody loses.

Olga Murray, a tiny 83-year-old woman from Sausalito, has also worked on opening up the world for poor girls through education. We have a film this week, Olga’s Girls, about her efforts to persuade desperately poor families in Nepal to forgo the profit they can make by selling their daughters into kamlari servitude – slavery by another name. The means? In exchange for their choice of a piglet or a goat, the families agree to let their child go to school, instead of being sold as a domestic servant. Olga’s NGO, Nepal Youth Foundation has brought over 4000 girls home from indentured servitude, educated them, trained them and even offered support for them as they start their own families through nutrition rehabilitation programs. In spite of the occasional setback, Olga presses on, changing people’s minds, village by village, family by family. I came across the film as part of the excellent Pulitzer Center Gateway, Women, Children, Crisis. It’s definitely worth checking in with this site on a regular basis.

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


World Day Against Child Labor- The Right Thing to Do

June 12, 2013 | Len Morris

June 12th is World Day Against Child Labor and there will observances all over the world. It’s a day when the focus of the global community is on the 215 million children who have to work to survive. It’s a moment when we all recommit to the basic needs of poor children for food, healthcare, security, education. (more…)


Launch of The Same Heart

June 11, 2013 | Petra Lent

This week at Media Voices, we have very big news! The third film in our series, THE SAME HEART, has launched a crowd-funding campaign at IndieGoGo to raise the money to edit and finish the film. We have six years in, and the film is shot and partially cut. We’re very excited to have gotten to this point – it’s been a long and quite valuable process, actually, refining the pitch and explaining the project, cutting and recutting the pitch video and answering the crucially important question, “what is this film about?”

So, what is this film about?

In THE SAME HEART, we’re looking at the role of money and development. In brief, there’s never quite enough official development assistance funding – development initiatives are piecemeal and run out of money after a year or so. Only a tiny number of countries have actually delivered as much aid as promised – the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries mostly. The drop-dead date for reaching the Millennium Development Goals is less than two years away, and we’re nowhere near on most of them. A consistent source of funding is needed – money to count on, money to build on. THE SAME HEART proposes that the Robin Hood tax, a tiny tax on global financial transactions, could be the source of that steady money, money that could be invested in poor children, changing their lives. So there you have it. Read more on IndieGoGo, and put in your two cents, literally.

Also this week, we have an Oxfam briefing paper, No Accident: Resilience and the Inequality of Risk. Resilience is the new black of development thinking: how to foster it, how to create the right conditions for it. It’s obvious that the climate change inexorably hurtling towards us hits poor people hardest, and not just because their dwellings are flimsier. The poor in developing countries have contributed least to the pickle we’re in, and they are the first to suffer, because their position is so tenuous to begin with.

„In spite of our having large fields for growing crops, we’ve only harvested four sacks of millet this year, compared with the 20 we can get in a normal year. But it’s a long time since we had a normal year. Last year, the floods destroyed much of the harvest. We go from one catastrophe to another, either because of too much water or too little.‟ Ramata Zore, age 25, Taffogo, Burkina Faso

Oxfam calls for fundamental change: in the way aid is structured, in governance, taxation and social support services, all aimed at reducing income inequality and shoring up the fragile security of the poor. Well worth reading.

We have a good bit of work to do along those lines in this country as well (see Paul Krugman’s fine editorial “From the Mouths of Babes” in today’s New York Times).

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


The Same Heart

May 21, 2013 | Len Morris

Today, we are announcing the third film in our documentary trilogy on children’s human rights, THE SAME HEART. (more…)


First Do No Harm

May 16, 2013 | Petra Lent

I came upon this excellent article by journalist James Rupert, Afghanistan’s Miracle School for Street Kids Struggles to Survive Among the Wealthy (full disclosure: Jim is an old college friend of mine). It got me thinking about the ethical difficulties attendant upon much of humanitarian aid as currently practised by the United States. The vast sums of money being spent in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq and other trouble spots around the world, don’t end up helping the poorest of the poor. I’ve railed before about the Toyota Land Cruiser culture of aid in Haiti. Enormous contracts for infrastructure projects, vitally important as these are, primarily enrich U.S. contractors and well-connected wealthy businessmen in the target country. We spend so much money, and a small number of people make a killing, while patting themselves on the back for their humanitarian work should a tiny fraction of these funds actually stick to the wall. I feel graceless pointing this out, on a morning that brings news of yet another car bomb in Kabul with several foreign contractors among the dead.

And yet…

Humanitarian work could benefit from the Hippocratic oath.

Aschiana classroom and artwork Kabul street children study beneath students’ artwork at the Aschiana school, © James Rupert, 2005


Rupert’s article offers another model for humanitarian aid – the schools for street children run by an Afghan NGO, Aschiana. Modest, yet academically ambitious (check out the art gallery!), the schools offer an education and a hot lunch to children who have been scavenging or working as street vendors to support their families. Developing the human capital of the estimated 50,000 street children in Afghanistan will do much more for the country than building a gated community for foreign contractors.

Pouring money into a country without thinking things through can actually do harm, as in this story. Dumping surplus food in poor countries benefits our farmers, but wrecks the market for local agriculture. Our humanitarian efforts suffer from a pernicious bias – the perceived need for foreign aid to serve our national and individual interests first. We’ll help, but only if we get something out of it. We want to see a payoff, and we want it right away. We don’t have the patience to continue effective programs and to wait for the local economy to revive. Oddly enough, this is not endearing us to the recipients of our aid.

Local grassroots efforts like Aschiana offer a far more effective way to help. Here’s where to put the money. Because really, a dedicated teacher should be making more than $4 a day. Even in Afghanistan.

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Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


Chutes and Ladders

April 26, 2013 | Petra Lent

Apologies for the long silence from Media Voices. We have been busy preparing a Kickstarter campaign to fund the editing of the third film in the children’s human rights trilogy, The Same Heart. We are almost ready to launch, and you may be sure that you will hear about it when we do, dear friends.

This week at Media Voices, we have a report from UN Special Envoy for Education Gordon Brown, entitled Out of Wedlock, Into School. There are sixteen countries in which more than half of the women marry before the age of eighteen. Every year 1.5 million girls are married off before the age of fifteen. For very young girls, pregnancies carry a fivefold risk of death or life-changing injuries like fistulas. A heartbroken mother mourns her daughter, dead in childbirth at the age of thirteen: “Husan Pari could have lived if she had had skilled health care and not married so young. I blame myself for her death.” The cultural attitudes that favor child marriage reinforce gender inequality and condemn the child bride and her children to poverty and powerlessness. It reminds me of the old children’s game, Chutes and Ladders, in how easily a girl’s progress towards independent adulthood can be derailed. If school is a ladder, early marriage is a chute, and most child brides never recover the ground that was lost.

The encouraging thing, however, is that educating girls can break the cycle. An educated woman can conceive of other fates for her own daughters than being married off as teenagers. She has more options – and more power to protect her children.

Gordon Brown points out, however, that education is chronically under-financed: the current level of $3 billion spent on basic education is less than one-fifth of the amount pledged and required to reach the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education for all by 2015. Child marriage is not only a human rights violation but a criminal waste of talent and young lives. “No country can afford to waste human potential on the scale associated with early marriage – least of all the world’s poorest countries.”

Child well-being does not necessarily rise in proportion to greater wealth, however. In Unicef’s Report Card 11, Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, we see that the Netherlands and Scandinavia continue to be great places to be a child, while the United States comes in towards the bottom of the pack, trailed only by relatively poor countries, like Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. It isn’t necessarily the size of the economy that makes a difference. Outcomes in child well-being are “policy-susceptible,” as the report delicately puts it.

Also this week, we have some interviews Len and Georgia shot in Kenya with students who are being supported in school by The Kenyan Schoolhouse, which is a project of Media Voices. The Kenyan Schoolhouse has educated Kenyan kids with the help of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) for ten years now. These are ambitious kids, good kids with dreams of becoming surgeons, teachers, civil engineers. Not many American academic superstars would say, like William Mutio, that he wants to help the community left behind. That’s a very African thing. It’s typical for an African professional to be the main support of an extended family. The benefits of education ripple outward. It is truly a driver of development.

Finally I stumbled across the excellent series Letter From My Child on Al Jazeera this week. The first two programs have aired and are available to screen online. Brazil: Forced to the Streets, by Gert Corba, is particularly good. Well worth watching!

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Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


The Right to Education

February 5, 2013 | Petra Lent

This week at Media Voices, we have a trailer for a film that reminds us that poor children have a right not just to education, but to quality in their education. Daniela Kon’s film, Talibe, exposes a persistent issue with some Islamic boarding schools in Senegal, where teachers treat their students as cash cows, requiring them to go out and bring in a certain amount of money each day by begging. In their report, Off the Backs of the Children, Human Rights Watch researchers have found that some teachers make more than $60,000 a year off the forced labor of their charges (see also the accompanying article, Senegal: Boys in Many Quranic Schools Suffer Severe Abuse as well as a 2008 article, Senegal: Why the ‘Talibe’ Problem Won’t Go Away). Nice job if you can get it, particularly in a country where the average person is living on $2 a day.

The saddening thing about this, is that parents who send their sons to these daaras, really are trying to give them a better chance in life. In her Q&A, Daniela Kon is careful to point out that abuse of students is a perversion of Islamic education, and that there are in fact good Islamic schools, where students get an education, rather than being exploited. They exist – just not for the poor. Meanwhile, the children run the risk of being run over as they weave through the busy traffic in Dakar, trying to make enough money not to get beaten when they return to the school. Babacar R. (14 years old) had this to say:

Begging is too difficult because if I do not have the daily quota, the grand
talibé beats me. He hits me everywhere—on the head, the back, everywhere,
and over and over. It’s difficult, it’s very painful…. I want to return home and
work in my village. I don’t want to be here.

Thirteen-year-old Seydou R. says that in fear of being beaten he and his friends occasionally turned to stealing:

Because we were scared of being beaten for not having the sum, all of us
would steal something and give the money to the marabout if we were in
danger of not collecting the sum. We would do anything to get the 300 CFA
($0.65)

With the children living in truly Dickensian conditions, beaten, not fed properly and neglected, it’s not surprising that quite a few talibés end up running away and swelling the numbers of children living on the streets of Dakar.

We need some good news, and as it happens, there is some. In Birmingham, Malala Yousafzai was just released from the hospital to recover at home with her family and prepare for another operation to rebuild her skull scheduled for late February. The New York Times has a video of Malala speaking fluently and passionately about education for girls. The human brain is a marvelous thing – particularly hers.

Want to know what you can do to help? Contribute to the Malala Fund.

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Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


Adapt, or Die

December 2, 2012 | Petra Lent

With parts of the East Coast still reeling from the destruction brought by Hurricane Sandy, I feel it’s time to state the obvious. Climate change isn’t coming at some dim point in the future. It’s here.

Years ago, Dr. Wangari Maathai told us something that has stuck with me. If you want to help poor children, she said, you must help the communities they live in. Focusing on children alone is a little bit like deciding to be an environmentalist, because baby seals are so adorable and shouldn’t be clubbed upside the head. They are, and they shouldn’t, but there’s a bigger picture to consider if you want to be effective. (more…)


The Persistence of Hope – An Open Letter to President Obama

November 12, 2012 | Len Morris

Mr. President,

Like millions of Americans, I was touched by your comments on election eve and again during your acceptance speech in Chicago, especially when you spoke of the future you envision for our children. You said

“All those kids in inner cities, small farm towns — kids dreaming of becoming scientists or doctors, engineers or entrepreneurs, diplomats or even a President (more…)


Letter to Malala

October 17, 2012 | Petra Lent

Dear Malala,

By now you’ve been airlifted to a hospital in the UK, and are, I hope, on the way to recovery. It is almost inconceivable to me that hatred and fear of women can be so strong, that the mere possibility of girls competing on an equal footing with boys could impel someone to shoot three children. Yet the spokesman for the Council of British Pakistanis is quoted as saying that the attack was “almost inevitable”, that “if you make a statement of that sort against the Taliban you will be targeted.” Clearly, it was naive of me to be surprised.

We have our own toxic forms of misogyny in this country. Within the past year, a prominent talk-show host actually called a student a prostitute for demanding that birth control be covered by health insurance. It seems as if the closer women come to true equality, the more panicked and rabid our enemies become. Whether this attack should have been foreseen or not, the fact is that your work matters, Malala. The education of girls will save your country. I believe that.

For one thing, educating girls measurably improves health and education and economic outcomes for the next generation. That would be the utilitarian argument. But there are other arguments to be made in favor of educating girls – human dignity, for example, or simply far more interesting conversations.

Perhaps the sticking point is the idea of competition itself, implying as it does a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain must be another person’s loss. When it comes to education, that’s not actually the case. Students achieve more, not less, when their peers are challenging. The Taliban and their followers (not to mention certain people on the right wing in this country) are frightened of a world in which women are educated and competent – full partners rather than subordinates. Perhaps they’re right to be. Education changes everything, and they may not be willing or able to change.

We honor your courage, Malala. We hope that you and your friends will recover and press on. We hope that you will endure and outlast the thugs blighting your country, and live to see them dwindle into a footnote in history.

Meanwhile, we have some changes to make here in the United States. First Focus and Save the Children have issued America’s Report Card 2012 this week, examining the wellbeing of children in terms of nutrition, shelter, access to education, health and general stability. The overall grade is a C-. We talk a good game, but our real funding priorities leave poor children behind, for the most part. We’ve also posted Policy Recommendations, a good thing to keep in mind when you’re deciding whom to vote for three weeks from now.

This week, Human Rights Watch put out a report, Growing Up Locked Down, on how teenagers imprisoned in adult jails are often put in solitary confinement for sustained periods of time to keep them safe from assault by other prisoners. This is a bad idea on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start. We’re taking a population of teenagers who were fragile to begin with and putting them in a situation that frequently undermines the sanity of adults. Sure, it’s better than being raped. But that can’t be the only option. We also have a video, US: Teens in Solitary Confinement.

Uzbekistan is bowing to pressure to stop using children for compulsory labor in the cotton fields. Unfortunately, someone had the brilliant notion to empty clinics and hospitals and use medical personnel to pick instead (see BBC news story). Breathtaking.

Hershey’s has finally responded to ten years worth of pressure and promised to clean up its supply chain. The company has pledged to make Scharffenberger chocolate slave-free by 2013 (high-end brands being more vulnerable to consumer pressure, for obvious reasons). The more familiar Hershey’s brand will take longer to clean up – 2020 is the date named. You can read up on what to look for at the International Labor Rights Forum’s “Raising the Bar” campaign. We shall see. I’m keeping the ban on using Hershey’s chocolate to make Smores in place for now, much to my daughter’s dismay. But if this is for real, it could be the tipping point in eradicating child labor in the cocoa industry, simply by virtue of the enormous amounts of cocoa Hershey’s buys…

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Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.


Slavery By Any Other Name

September 28, 2012 | Petra Lent

President Obama gave a very strong speech at the Clinton Global Initiative this week in which he identified trafficking people as a modern form of slavery. It’s a great speech, and definitely worth twenty minutes of your time. We’ve also posted a Viewpoint by Ron Ratney of ECPAT-USA, “Where are the Victims? Where are the Prosecutions?”. Mr. Ratney points out that given the known extent of sex trafficking in particular, just in New York City (he references this report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice) there are far fewer prosecutions of pimps and traffickers than you might expect. (more…)


Going to the Fair

September 20, 2012 | Petra Lent

Last weekend, I visited the grandly titled Tunbridge World’s Fair in Vermont, which is hands down my favorite fair, even up against stiff competition from our own local Agricultural Fair on the Vineyard. It was a crystalline September day, clear, warm, golden light. Families strolled through the fairgrounds, enjoying rides, the animals, the fair food. A quintessential American scene.

It was beautiful – and it was upsetting. Beautiful, because it was such a joyful family time. And upsetting, because an observer could so clearly make out which socioeconomic class a particular family belonged to. Signs of malnutrition were everywhere. Once you started seeing them, you couldn’t stop. Children at risk of diabetes in another fifteen or twenty years. Young mothers barely able to move fast enough to keep their toddlers safe. Malnutrition, American-style. It wasn’t that everyone there was morbidly obese, on the contrary. It was just that it was cruelly obvious, who in the crowd had the means to eat healthy food, and who did not.

It got me thinking about hunger in America, hunger and its other face, malnutrition. We know that in the United States fruits and vegetables are more expensive than processed food. The Food Research and Action Center has an excellent report, A Half-Empty Plate, on fruit and vegetable affordability and access challenges in America. Lots of reasons why, partly to do with farm subsidies that have had the unintended effect of privileging large soy and corn operations over smaller diversified farms. Subsidizing corn and soy has led to an overabundance of cheap processed food, which we are just coming to realize is a time-bomb in terms of public health. And yet, when the farm subsidies were first enacted, the pressing issue was getting the poor enough – anything! – to eat.

And it’s not like we’ve won that battle, by any means. FRAC also has a report, Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation, we’ve posted this week on the gaps in nutrition during the summer vacation, when children from poor families no longer can rely on school lunch for at least one full meal in a day. We have a short video this week courtesy of Feeding America, Real Stories of Hunger in America, which features three different families relating their experiences with hunger and coming around to getting help from a food bank. They aren’t Martians. Lose your job, and you could be in their shoes.

According to FRAC, nearly one in five American households struggles with food insecurity, making it critically important to preserve and ideally to beef up the SNAP food stamp program. The economic crisis has hollowed out the middle class in this country to such a degree that, as Saki Knafo and Joy Resmovits report for the Huffington Post, the number of homeless schoolchildren in the U.S. now tops 1 million.

What to do? James Weill, president of FRAC, has a plan in his blog on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, Ending Hunger in America: A Step-By-Step Approach. The first thing, says Mr. Weill, is creating jobs offering wages that can actually support a family, followed by more comprehensive family support programs to supplement shortfalls in income, as well as SNAP and WIC and other child nutrition programs. It’s not rocket science. It’s an excellent blog.

And then, I think, we could definitely learn something from some of the old guys growing vegetables. I have a black thumb myself, and I can’t imagine how I would feed myself if I had to rely on what I could grow. But there’s an old farmer on the Vineyard I’d go talk to. His land is sandy, thin soil, just off the most charmless road on the island. Nothing to write home about. But on this small unpromising plot of land, he and his wife, who unfortunately died last year, produced the most amazing abundance of beautiful vegetables I’ve ever seen. What with the garden, hunting and fishing, I doubt they bought more than twenty percent of their food, if that much. We could all use a little more of those skills.

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Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.

Sarah Johnson contributed research for this week’s offerings.