News Around the Globe


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Ever since a brutal rape and murder galvanized public outrage in 2012, women of New Delhi have been learning to defend themselves. Most girls and women have long felt vulnerable to sexual assault in the city, according to a survey conducted before the notorious assault. Government agencies and women’s organizations encourage women to learn to defend themselves – and they call upon men to take a stand against sexual aggression.
Aliya Bashir, GPJ India
February 25, 2015
“I don't feel safe even in my own car, or even my workplace. Wherever there are men, there are chances of facing violence in one or other form. ”

NEW DELHI, INDIA – Snehlata Sharma, 48, swiftly strikes a punching bag in a corner of the Martial Art Academy of India in Andrews Ganj, a suburb in south Delhi. She pants as she punches the bag with her red boxing gloves. On her trainer’s instructions, she keeps at it until she has delivered the 20th punch.  

Determined to prepare to defend herself, Sharma last month started taking boxing, kick-boxing and self-defense classes here four days a week.

Over the past few years, New Delhi, India’s capital and the largest city in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, has been rocked by brutal rapes and other assaults against women in public places.

“I can now disarm an attacker by launching an attack targeting pressure points in the body,” Sharma says with a giggle. “I can even hit his sensitive areas.”

Sharma was moved to learn self-defense by something she witnessed on a bus. She saw a man grope and rub himself against the only other woman on the bus, a woman she took to be about 30. When the woman resisted and tried to move away from the man, he looked her in the eye as if expecting her to be silent, Sharma says. The woman then protested loudly.

The other passengers looked on without intervening.

“It was there that I got scared and thought about self-defense,” Sharma says.

She signed up for self-defense training three days later.

“Women face different kinds of harassment at public places,” Sharma says. “Be that Eve teasing, provocative comments on her dress or way of walking, or harassment, despite of any age group or any specific background.”

Eve teasing, a reference to the biblical first woman as temptress, is an Indian term for public sexual harassment or groping.

Sharma lives alone in the southwestern part of Delhi, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from her workplace in New Delhi. She travels mostly by bus and gets home about 8:30 p.m. The cost of the class, 1,000 rupees ($16) a month, is worth the feeling of security she is acquiring, she says.

“I am learning effective skills that are easy to learn and remember, and do not merely rely on physical strength or age bar,” she says. “It made me much less afraid.”

Violent sexual assaults have commanded public attention in recent years. In December 2012, a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi as she returned home with a male friend. She and her friend, who was beaten unconscious, were thrown from the bus. The woman died of her injuries 13 days later.

All six of the assailants were arrested. Four adult men were convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death; a fifth died in custody before going to trial. The sixth assailant, a teenager, was sentenced to three years in juvenile detention.

The brutal attack spurred protests across the country. In response, the government formed a committee to hear suggestions and recommend changes to the law and judicial system. An ordinance adopted in 2013 on the committee’s recommendation allows for the imposition of the death penalty for a rape conviction.

But rapes and other sexual assaults in public continue. An Uber driver is awaiting trial in the December 2014 rape of a passenger, a 26-year-old woman.

Not relying on the police to protect them, women are taking up boxing and other forms of self-defense.

Reported incidents of rape in India increased 35 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

In Delhi, 1,636 rapes were reported in 2013. That means about four women were raped every day in Delhi.

In 2014, the number of reported rapes in Delhi increased to 2,166 – nearly six a day, says Rajan Bhagat, Delhi police spokesman.

It is difficult to say whether the number of rapes is rising or women are reporting rape at a higher rate, Bhagat says. Some women still refrain from reporting rapes because they fear stigma and lack support from family and society.

Nearly one in four men in Asia Pacific admitted to having committed a rape in a 2013 study by Partners for Prevention, a United Nations regional joint program to prevent violence against women and girls in Asia and the Pacific.

Worldwide, 35 percent of women have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence, according to the World Health Organization.

Some 200 training centers in New Delhi offer self-defense classes, says Ankur Sharma, lead trainer at Invictus, a fitness and martial arts training center in Safdarjung Enclave, a posh area of south Delhi.

Many of these centers have introduced self-defense classes since the notorious 2012 gang rape, Sharma says.

India is going through a critical stage of sexual violence against women, as shown by an unprecedented nationwide surge in the number of rapes, says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a nonprofit institution for the empowerment of women and girls in New Delhi.

Kumari believes India’s culture is partly to blame for the rising violence.

“The biggest challenge that needs to be addressed is the persistence of the patriarchal norms and the chauvinistic mind-sets,” she says.

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the International Center for Research on Women, nearly 75 percent of the 2,000 female respondents said they had faced sexual violence in their own neighborhoods in New Delhi.

Nine out of 10 had experienced sexual aggression or violence in a public space in their lifetimes. Women face high levels of sexual harassment at public transit sites, including roadsides and buses, the survey found.

Ritika Sharma, a 29-year-old human resources manager in Noida, a city in the National Capital Region, says there is no place where she feels safe.

“I don’t feel safe even in my own car or even my workplace,” she says. “Wherever there are men, there are chances of facing violence in one or other form.”

Sunil Negi, media consultant to the Delhi Commission for Women, a watchdog organization pushing enforcement of the 1994 Delhi Commission for Women Act, attributes the rising incidence of sexual assault in Delhi to increasing frustration among young people.

“There are disturbing attitudes in the form of economic as well as sexual frustration among youth,” he says. “The emotional response is often poured open on the opposite sex due to rising poverty, illiteracy, population explosion and unemployment.”

Among Indians ages 18 to 29, the unemployment rate in 2013-2014 was nearly 13 percent, according to a Ministry of Labor and Employment report.

In the same age category, up to 28 percent of Indians with higher education degrees were unemployed, according to the report.

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Amid Rise in Public Sex Assaults, New Delhi Women Learn Self-Defense
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NEW DELHI, INDIA – Snehlata Sharma, 48, swiftly strikes a punching bag in a corner of the Martial Art Academy of India in Andrews Ganj, a suburb in south Delhi. She pants as she punches the bag 20 times on her trainer’s instructions. 

Determined to prepare to defend herself, Sharma last month started taking boxing, kick-boxing and self-defense classes here four days a week.

Over the past few years, New Delhi, India’s capital and the largest city in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, has been rocked by brutal rapes and other assaults against women in public places.

“I can now disarm an attacker by launching an attack targeting pressure points in the body,” Sharma says with a giggle. “I can even hit his sensitive areas.”

Sharma was moved to learn self-defense when she saw a man grope and rub himself against the only other woman on a bus. When the woman resisted and tried to move away, he looked her in the eye as if expecting her to be silent, Sharma says. The woman then protested loudly.

The other passengers looked on without intervening.

“It was there that I got scared and thought about self-defense,” Sharma says.

She signed up for self-defense training three days later.

Sharma lives alone in the southwestern part of Delhi, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from her workplace in New Delhi. She travels mostly by bus and gets home about 8:30 p.m. The cost of the class, 1,000 rupees ($16) a month, is worth the feeling of security she is acquiring, she says.

“I am learning effective skills that are easy to learn and remember, and do not merely rely on physical strength or age bar,” she says. “It made me much less afraid.”

Violent sexual assaults have commanded public attention in recent years. In December 2012, a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi as she returned home with a male friend. She and her friend, who was beaten unconscious, were thrown from the bus. The woman died of her injuries 13 days later.

The brutal attack spurred protests across the country. In response, the government formed a committee to hear suggestions and recommend changes to the law and judicial system. An ordinance adopted on the committee’s recommendation allows for the imposition of the death penalty for a rape conviction.

But sexual assaults in public continue. An Uber driver is awaiting trial in the December 2014 rape of a passenger, a 26-year old woman.

Not relying on the police to protect them, women are taking up boxing and other forms of self-defense.

Some 200 training centers in New Delhi offer self-defense classes, says Ankur Sharma, lead trainer at Invictus, a fitness and martial arts training center in Safdarjung Enclave, a posh area of South Delhi.

No sources in this article are related.

Nut Graph: 

Ever since a brutal rape and murder galvanized public attention in 2012, women of New Delhi have been learning to defend themselves. Most girls and women have long felt vulnerable to sexual assault in the city, according to a survey conducted before the notorious assault. Government agencies and women’s organizations encourage women to learn to defend themselves – and they call upon men to take a stand against sexual aggression.

Main Quote: 

I don't feel safe even in my own car, or even my workplace. Wherever there are men, there are chances of facing violence in one or other form.
Ritika Sharma, 29, New Delhi resident

Background: 

A fatal 2012 gang rape spurred protests across India. In response, the government formed a committee to hear suggestions and recommend changes to the law and judicial system. An ordinance adopted in 2013 on the committee’s recommendation allows for the imposition of the death penalty for a rape conviction.

Not relying on the police to protect them, women are taking up boxing and other forms of self-defense. In New Delhi alone, some 200 training centers offer self-defense classes.

Quotes: 

“I am learning effective skills that are easy to learn and remember, and do not merely rely on physical strength or age bar,” says Snehlata Sharma, of Delhi. “It made me much less afraid.”

“There are disturbing attitudes in the form of economic as well as sexual frustration among youth,” says Sunil Negi, media consultant to the Delhi Commission for Women, a watchdog organization pushing enforcement of the 1994 Delhi Commission for Women Act. “The emotional response is often poured open on the opposite sex due to rising poverty, illiteracy, population explosion and unemployment.”

“The biggest challenge that needs to be addressed is the persistence of the patriarchal norms and the chauvinistic mind-sets,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a nonprofit institution for the empowerment of women and girls in New Delhi.

“I don’t feel safe even in my own car or even my workplace,” says self-defense student Ritika Sharma, 29, of Noida, a city in the National Capital Region of India. “Wherever there are men, there are chances of facing violence in one or other form.”

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Felicitas Ntang, one of the rare Cameroonian women who took up arms against the French, would like the government to honor her for the four years she battled for independence. Once feared for her association with a militia portrayed as brutal, Ntang wants a medal for her sacrifices. Still active in politics, Ntang urges Francophone and Anglophone Cameroonians to live in peace.
Nakinti Nofuru, GPJ Cameroon
February 23, 2015
“We started fighting with spears and cutlasses, and then later on we were given guns. We fired and killed many French soldiers, but we were hardly killed. ”

BABESSI, CAMEROON – Half a century ago, Felicitas Ntang took up arms and spent four years of her youth fighting for her nation’s independence. She lived in forests for months at a time, repeatedly battling French colonial troops. At times, she and her comrades took cover from enemy fire behind decomposing corpses.

Ntang had no contact with her family throughout her active service in the Maquis, the military arm of Cameroon’s first political party, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (“Union of the Peoples of Cameroon”). Politically and militarily, the UPC and the Maquis fought to drive out the French in the 1950s.

“Working as a Maquis exposed me to the most horrifying experiences, but it was worth it,” says Ntang, 74. “It was for the good of my country.”

Sitting in front of the light red secretariat she built for the local UPC on the outskirts of Babessi, a village in Cameroon’s Northwest region, Ntang says independence was worth her struggles and sacrifices. Ntang, who endured years of scorn and rejection when she returned from battle, just wishes her government would acknowledge her service.

Ntang joined the Maquis in 1958, when she left Babessi, an Anglophone village, at 19 to visit an uncle in the French-administered Ngoketunjia division. Her uncle introduced her to the region’s 3,000-member UPC party and persuaded her to fight for the country’s independence as a Maquisard, a member of the Cameroonian rebel movement named for the French fighters who had battled occupying German forces in World War II.

Cameroon was then jointly controlled by the French and the British.

“My uncle told me that it would be honorable to die in the name of my country,” Ntang says.

Although rebel forces suffered grave losses, Ntang says she and her comrades kept the pressure on colonial troops.

“We started fighting with spears and cutlasses, and then later on we were given guns,” she says. “We fired and killed many French soldiers, but we were hardly killed.”

Fighters were indebted to sorcerers who lived with them in the forest, Ntang says. The sorcerers performed rituals and rubbed medicine on their bodies, assuring the fighters they would be protected if they refrained from sex. The guerillas believed the medicine helped them dodge the French army’s bullets.

“I could hear bullets passing all around me, but none entered my body,” Ntang says, laughing.

More than five decades after Cameroon gained independence, the government still has not recognized the years Ntang dedicated to the country’s liberation, she says. Furthermore, it has not honored her as one of the few women who battled French colonialists. She has petitioned the government to hear her plea.

Although she feels unappreciated for her military service, Ntang continues her political advocacy with the UPC. She strives to foster unity between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians.

After World War II, Britain and France administered separate parts of Cameroon as a UN trusteeship. Cameroon then became a two-language country dominated by Francophones.

Formed in 1948, the UPC demanded independence and the reunification of French-controlled Cameroon with regions under British rule, says Agnes Ngum, a history teacher at Government Bilingual High School, Mambu-Bafut.

After French colonial forces killed UPC leader Ruben Um Nyobé in 1958, the party formed a military unit that recruited more than 80,000 Cameroonians to fight the French, Ngum says. Only a few women fought in the militia.

The armed struggle continued even after Cameroon gained independence in 1960, Ngum says. The colonialists still occupied some areas, and Cameroonians wanted full independence.

Thousands of Maquis died in battle. Because colonial forces targeted whole villages deemed rebel strongholds, an estimated 61,000 to 76,000 civilians also died in the struggle, according to a 2007 study by Meredith Terretta published in the Vienna Journal for African Studies.

French colonialists sought to undermine support for the Maquis by portraying members as heartless warriors bent on eliminating their enemies in any way possible, Ntang says. So, when Ntang returned to Babessi from the UPC camp, the sight of her terrified her family and fellow villagers.

“People used to see me and run away,” she says, a tear running down her cheek. “Children looked at me and cried. Men feared to approach me for marriage. Community members pointed fingers at me from a distance. I became a lonely woman in a community of many people.”

Ntang finally wed at 30, after her late husband obtained a sorcerer’s assurance that it was safe to marry her.

Having reintegrated into the village, Ntang has reflected on her life and wishes for acknowledgement.

“I don’t want anything big from the government,” she says. “All I want is a medal of recognition as one of the women who fought for Cameroon’s independence.”

Ntang has repeatedly made her request of the government for 10 years, she says. She doesn’t know of other Marquis who have received this kind of award.

Idrisuh Mendah, a 64-year-old man who has lived all his life in Babessi, understands the reception Ntang received upon her return to the village.

“Like other people, I used to take to my heels whenever I saw her coming my way,” he says. “I was convinced she could kill anybody at any time without mercy. I knew blood meant nothing to her.”

Only after Ntang had lived in the community for many years without committing a crime did Mendah begin to look at her differently. He even joined the village’s 32-member UPC unit, which Ntang heads.

“Felicitas Ntang is a very good woman with a wonderful heart,” he says. “She usually sacrifices her personal pleasures to support others.”

He thinks Ntang deserves the honor she has requested.

“Ntang is not only a freedom fighter, she is also a woman,” he says. “It is for this reason that she should be recognized as a woman who went to the battlefield with other men for the good of Cameroon.”

Today, Ntang advocates unity between Cameroon’s Anglophone and Francophone regions, which have yet to fully integrate since the French-British colonial period ended.

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In North Kivu, a conflict zone with limited infrastructure, most households have no access to electricity. Because many residents need cellphones to stay in touch with family and work, they rely on generator-powered shops that charge cellphones and other digital devices. While the nation’s power company plans to improve service to the region, entrepreneurs say the need for their powering services is far more consistent than today’s electrical supply.
Esther Nsapu, GPJ Democratic Republic of Congo
February 20, 2015
“My shop plays a crucial role in my community. Among other things, it provides the poorest people in my neighborhood with a chance to not miss important work-related or family calls because of power. ”

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – A King Max generator hums at the entrance to Charge Téléphone Dieu Est Bon, Franck Mushingi’s small shop on Sake Road in the Carmel neighborhood of Goma, a large city in eastern DRC. 

Inside the shop, the name of which translates as “God is Good Phone Charging,” radio batteries, a few computers and dozens of cellphones line the counter waiting to be charged.

The dusty shelves along the left wall are heavy with cables and cords coming out of electrical outlets, hungry for phones to charge.

Every day, dozens of customers leave their phones at Mushingi’s shop to charge because their homes often lack electricity.

Like many entrepreneurs, Mushingi says he was inspired by a pressing need in his community – power.

Just four of Goma’s 18 neighborhoods have consistent access to power, according to the National Electricity Company. (DRC residents call the utility SNEL, the acronym of its French name, La Société Nationale d'Électricité.)

Mushingi, a father of three and a graduate student in management at the University of Cepromad in Goma, decided to open a generator-powered shop to help his neighbors keep their phones charged.

“My shop plays a crucial role in my community,” he says. “Among other things, it provides the poorest people in my neighborhood with a chance to not miss important work-related or family calls because of power. That's why we provide charging services at lower prices – to enable everyone to have their phone charged.”

Mushingi charges 100 francs (11 cents) to charge a phone for a maximum of two hours. He earns about 84,000 francs (90 dollars) a week charging cellphones.

Most citizens of DRC live in poverty, by international standards. As of 2012, the nation’s per capita income was $220 a year, one of the world’s lowest, according to the World Bank.

In Goma, a conflict-prone city with limited infrastructure, cellphones can be lifelines. They connect people to family, job opportunities, mobile banking and even political participation.

But unable to charge phones in their homes, mobile users here rely on generator-powered shops like Mushingi’s.

Power outages are common in Goma, a city with limited infrastructure that relies on a far-off and aging electricity supply. Just 20 percent of Goma’s neighborhoods – the ones that house hospitals and government offices – have consistent access to electricity, according to SNEL.

Goma, a city in DRC’s North Kivu province, does not have its own power supply. It receives its electricity via high-tension cable from Bukavu, a city 221 kilometers (137 miles) away in the South Kivu province.

But that power source isn’t consistent. Dirt and debris collect at a retention pond near the power source in Bukavu, interfering with electrical transmission, according to SNEL. The company must cut power to the Goma substation every morning to clear the debris.

Furthermore, the Goma substation has only a 40-megawatt capacity – not enough to serve the power needs of Goma’s more than 2 million residents.

While electricity is scarce, the cellphone market is booming here.

As of 2013, 42 percent of people in DRC had mobile phone subscriptions, according to the World Bank. That’s despite the fact that just 55 percent of DRC residents live in areas covered by cellphone networks.

Many Congolese citizens who lack home access to electricity and water nonetheless own cellphones, according to a World Bank Institute report.

Mobile usage in big cities like Goma is much higher than in rural areas. Eighty percent of adults in Goma own cellphones, according to a 2014 study by Target SARL, a Kinshasa-based marketing consultancy. Many people own multiple phones to ensure that one is charged at all times, Mushingi says.

There were 41 million active cellphone connections in DRC, a country of over 70 million people, as of December 2014, according to GSMA Intelligence, a mobile operator data analysis firm. And 98 percent of those connections were prepaid plans, meaning consumers are buying low-cost phones and purchasing minutes in increments as low as 925 francs ($1).

Starting his business was a challenge, Mushingi says.

“Some people did not trust me with their phones at first,” he says.

And, at the beginning, there were some mix-ups.

“They gave me a phone that was not mine,” says Mamissa Alimasi, a young resident of the neighborhood. “They had confused it with someone else’s phone. That is something I was not willing to accept.”

Mushingi and his younger sister, who manages the shop with him, have designed a system to prevent confusion of that sort, he says. Now, when a customer drops off a phone, the shop writes the customer’s name on two numbered pieces of paper – one that is taped on the phone and one to be kept by the customer.

The shop has had no cases of theft or loss since it implemented the new system, Mushingi says. He has gained the trust of his clients.

“As time has gone by, residents realize we do a good job and work in their interest,” he says.

Now, residents come from all over the city to Charge Téléphone Dieu Est Bon, saying they know the shop’s generator will be working and their phones will get charged.

“Sometimes my phone was shut off for two days due to lack of electricity,” says Samuel Mbavumoja, a frequent customer. “As a result, I miss out on many opportunities. But thanks to Mushingi, I am online every day.”

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Unable to house their pets, and often unaware of the suffering they cause, Argentine households strained by runaway inflation have abandoned thousands of dogs to roam the streets and reproduce. To reduce the stray population and alleviate the animals’ suffering, more than 40 (CQ) neighborhood organizations in Buenos Aires raise funds to feed and care for the animals. While many citizens call for a systematic spaying and neutering program, professionals and activists say only wholesale cultural change will get to the root of the problem.
Ivonne Jeannot Laens, GPJ Argentina
February 18, 2015
“When people feel they have to shrink the budget because of inflation, they feel they need to get rid of what they have. And the first thing they get rid of is pets. This happens in different social classes. ”

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Five stray dogs lying in the afternoon sun in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, leap to their feet in unison, barking and wagging their tails as a woman approaches from a distance, bags hanging at her sides.

When she finally arrives, their happiness matches hers. Smiling wide, her eyes closed, she lets the dogs lick her until she distributes their food.

Noelia Oppedisano is one of the founders of the neighborhood group Dogs and Cats of Parque Chacabuco, which tends to abandoned dogs and cats in Buenos Aires’ Parque Chacabuco neighborhood and adjoining areas.

Four neighbors lead the group. The organization’s 12 regular volunteers feed the animals, take them to a neighborhood veterinary hospital, carry out adoption campaigns, and have strays spayed and neutered. To pay for their work, they raise money with collections, raffles and social events.

“We cannot sit idly by seeing how these animals are – sick, skinny,” Oppedisano says. “Every day we notice four or five new dogs wandering in the area, and there are more than 100 cats living in the park.”

Oppedisano has witnessed a lot of tragedies in the course of her work.

“We find burned cats, or with the tail cut off,” she says. “Dogs in garbage bags, newborns with the umbilical cord dangling. Violated Dogs. Some people move and leave the dog in the balcony. The other day, an older person died, and the family took everything from the apartment and threw the dog to the street.”

The abandonment of pets is increasing in Buenos Aires, professionals and activists say. They blame nationwide economic problems, lack of education, and insensitivity to animals.

Over the past five years, more than 40 citizens groups have formed to attend to homeless dogs and cats, according to official figures. The activism has spurred the Buenos Aires city government to create its own program. The city aims to extend the free spaying, neutering and primary care services it provides.

It’s hard to estimate how many stray animals roam the streets because they are constantly moving, says Cecilia Petrini, who heads the city’s Responsible Pet Ownership program.

In September 2004, Buenos Aires had between 800,000 and 1 million dogs and cats, including strays as well as those with homes, she says.

If that ratio has held steady, Buenos Aires would have one dog or cat for every three people, Petrini says. But in some areas, the government estimates there are seven dogs and cats for each person. The government is unable to determine if the stray population has increased since 2004.

Methodological problems have prevented the government from determining how many pets have homes, Petrini says. The government will include a question about pets in a housing survey planned for mid-2015.

So many stray animals are living on the streets that the people feel overwhelmed, Oppedisano says.

Parque Chacabuco is a middle-class neighborhood with a large park. Middle-class households – those in which the average per capita income is 39,500 Argentine pesos ($4,550) and the average family income is 85,680 pesos ($9,870) – comprise 55 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2013 report by the city government.

It is in poor neighborhoods that dogs are free to wander, Oppedisano says. Homeless, malnourished dogs with fleas, diseases and injuries wind up in the park, posing a threat to public health, she says.

Animal rescuer Beatriz Maldonado lives in Asentamiento Los Piletones, one of the poor neighborhoods adjoining Parque Chacabuco. For the past year, she has taken care of dogs and cats that she finds lying in the street.

“At 1 in the morning, I make my last tour of the neighborhood,” she says. “In my house, I now have 15 dogs.”

Some people in the neighborhood mistreat animals, Maldonado says. She considers animal abandonment part of the intrinsic evil of humans.

“Some burn the animals; they hit them, and they throw them to the street,” she says. “Sometimes they give a puppy to the kids so they can play, and when the animal grows, they throw it.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood is like that, Maldonado says. Some residents care for their pets as they do their children, even giving them the food from their mouths.

Some houses in the neighborhood are small and overcrowded. Households without enough space to keep animals indoors allow them to wander the streets. Some of these pets get lost and do not return.

Laura Gramajo, a veterinarian, assists in a monthly clinic in Asentamiento Los Piletones under the auspices of a University of Buenos Aires program, One World, One Health. She provides checkups, vaccinations and spaying and neutering surgeries.

In a time of runaway inflation, pet abandonment is widespread, Gramajo says.

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Sri Lankan Muslims are having difficulty finding women to prepare the bodies of girls and women for burial. Fearful of touching bodies and wary of being perceived as mercenary, Muslim women have increasingly avoided the task. Offsetting that trend, a few devout women provide the service to their community and teach the practice to students and the families they serve.
Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka
February 16, 2015
“If awareness is created among family members of this obligation, we can bridge the gap in the dearth of this service. ”

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – The first time Rizmina Hassan Ali bathed and shrouded a body in preparation for burial, the experience so upset her that she decided the vocation was not for her.

Those who prepare a body for a Muslim burial here place the deceased on a rattan bed over a long basin. Using soft cloths, they wash the body with gentle strokes. If the family can afford it, they then apply perfume, camphor or sandalwood.

The body Hassan Ali volunteered to prepare in 2000 was that of a neighbor’s 11-month-old daughter.

“My daughter was also 11 months old then, and it was so emotionally traumatic for me to wash and shroud the body of a baby girl the same age,” she says.

Hassan Ali decided not to undertake any more funerals.

Later, while taking a course on Islam at a local mosque, Hassan Ali learned of the importance of funeral preparations for Muslims, she says. Under Islamic law, only a woman can prepare a woman’s body for burial. The husband of the deceased is the only man permitted to participate in the preparations.

There is no dearth of men to prepare the bodies of men for burial. However, families often need outside women to provide the service, and practitioners face an element of prejudice, Hassan Ali says.

Some Muslims see the work as undignified and assume that practitioners are poor women who provide the service strictly for the money.

Five years after doing her first burial preparation, Hassan Ali realized that only a few women were providing this vital service in her community.

So, in 2005, Hassan Ali decided to set aside the trauma and immerse herself in performing the prescribed preparations.

“I realized and understood the merits a Muslim achieves in performing funeral rites,” Hassan Ali says. “I took this up as a community service.”

One of fewer than 10 women who provide this service in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s economic capital, Hassan Ali is much sought after today. To alleviate the dearth of women performing this service, she also trains others.  

The number of women providing preparations for Muslim women’s funerals has dwindled to a handful in Colombo, raising concerns among Muslims. Fear and a negative view of this service have kept many women from carrying out funeral preparations, even for their family members.

Community leaders are training young women in the rituals and teaching them the importance of this service.

Muslims are the third-largest religious group in Sri Lanka, after Buddhists and Hindus. They make up nearly 10 percent of the population, according to the Sri Lanka Census of Population and Housing, 2012.

Mohammed Nazeem Naim, president of the Colombo Muslim Association, says there has always been a dearth of women who prepare bodies for funerals.

Hassan Ali is one of five women in the association’s Janaza Welfare Society registered to provide funeral services. The association shares that information with all the mosques in Colombo. Since the women’s husbands coordinate the women’s communication with families and mosques, they are registered as contacts.

Men are more involved in mosque activities than women, and plenty of them are trained to prepare men’s bodies for burial, Naim says. And unlike women, men are able to oversee the entire process, from bathing and shrouding to transporting the body on a bier and during burial. In accordance with Muslim tradition, women do not accompany a body to the burial site.

Hassan Ali’s role in the community has been almost 30 years in the making.

Hassan Ali was 10 years old when she realized the importance of funeral preparation, she says. She remembers her grandmother getting upset about the way her great-grandmother’s body was prepared for burial. Her grandmother said she hoped a family member would one day provide this service.

Hassan Ali now lives with her husband, their six children and her mother in a one-room house in a tenement area in Colombo 2, a crowded commercial area of Colombo.

Her husband, who drives a three-wheel taxi, is the family’s primary breadwinner, Hassan Ali says. He is supportive of her work; he drives her to all the funeral preparation sites.

Hassan Ali estimates she has performed preparations for more than 2,000 funerals since 2005. She spends almost two hours preparing a body for burial.

“It’s hectic at times when there are up to four funerals on the same day,” Hassan Ali says with a gentle smile.

The families of women she prepares for burial give her a small monetary gift – about 2,000 rupees ($15), on average. They also cover her travel costs, which amount to about 1,500 rupees ($11) when she travels outside Colombo 2, she says.

“We don’t fix prices for our service, as we consider it more a social service,” Hassan Ali says.

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Needs of Sri Lanka’s Muslim Community Prompt Women to Learn, Offer Burial Preparations
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COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – The first time Rizmina Hassan Ali bathed and shrouded a body in preparation for burial, the experience so upset her that she concluded the vocation was not for her.

Those who prepare a body for a Muslim burial here place the deceased on a rattan bed over a long basin. Using soft cloths, they wash the body with gentle strokes. If the family can afford it, they then apply perfume, camphor or sandalwood.

The body Hassan Ali volunteered to prepare in 2000 was that of a neighbor’s 11-month-old daughter.

“My daughter was also 11 months old then, and it was so emotionally traumatic for me to wash and shroud the body of a baby girl the same age,” she says.

Hassan Ali decided not to undertake any more funerals.

Later, while taking a course on Islam at a local mosque, Hassan Ali learned of the importance of funeral preparations for Muslims, she says.

Under Islamic law, only a woman can prepare a woman’s body for burial. The husband is the only man permitted to participate in the ritual preparations.

There is no dearth of men to prepare the bodies of men for burial. However, families often need outside women to provide the service, and practitioners face an element of prejudice, Hassan Ali says.

Some Muslims see the work as undignified and assume that practitioners are poor women who provide the service strictly for the money.

Five years after her first burial preparation, Hassan Ali realized that only a few women were providing this vital service in her community.

So, in 2005, Hassan Ali decided to set aside her trauma and immerse herself in performing the funeral preparations.

“I realized and understood the merits a Muslim achieves in performing funeral rites,” Hassan Ali says. “I took this up as a community service.”

One of fewer than 10 women who provide this service in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s economic capital, Hassan Ali is much sought after today.

Hassan Ali estimates she has performed preparations for more than 2,000 funerals since 2005. She spends almost two hours preparing a body for burial.

The families of women she prepares for burial give her a small monetary gift – about 2,000 rupees ($15), on average. They also cover her travel costs.

Every two or three months, Hassan Ali is invited to demonstrate the funeral preparations for women’s gatherings organized by mosques and Muslim associations. Women who learn the procedure need not summon the few women who offer the service to the community.

 “With the help of Allah, I should be able to complete my task by empowering women to do this community service and receive merits,” she says. “My work will extend to all Muslim women.” 

Nut Graph: 

Sri Lankan Muslims are having difficulty finding women to prepare girls and women for burial. Fearful of touching bodies and wary of being perceived as mercenary, Muslim women have avoided the task in recent years. In Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, a few devout women provide the service to their community and teach the practice to young students and the families they serve.

Main Quote: 

“With the help of Allah, I should be able to complete my task by empowering women to do this community service and receive merits,” says Rizmina Hassan Ali, who prepares Muslim girls and women for burial in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “My work will extend to all Muslim women.” 

Background: 

Muslim tradition requires that the bodies of girls and women be prepared for burial by women. In Sri Lanka, the number of women performing that service for the Muslim community has dwindled to a handful in recent years. Those few women, much in demand, are passing along the tradition by teaching the preparation rites to students and the women of the households they serve.

At the same time, the larger Muslim community is taking steps to raise awareness of the tradition. Both at mosques and in classroom religion classes, Muslim youths are learning to value and perform preparation rites.   

Quotes: 

“One needs to be brave to handle a corpse in whatever condition it may be. Most shy away as they feel uneasy, even after training.” – Zeenath Shyam, who performs funeral preparations for women in Colombo, Sri Lanka

“If awareness is created among family members of this obligation, we can bridge the gap in the dearth of this service.” – Saadiqa Farih Fauz, who urges Muslim to learn to prepare bodies for Muslim burial

“With the help of Allah, I should be able to complete my task by empowering women to do this community service and receive merits. My work will extend to all Muslim women.” – Rizmina Hassan Ali Hassan, who prepares girls and women for Muslim burials

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