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April 25, 2011 / kathrynllewellyn

An invite to be ashamed of

I have had to rewrite this blog about 20 times. I was so angry the first few times I wrote it, that it barely made sense. I have had a week to reflect and with the help of the brilliant Paul Mason from Newsnight, who covered the story last week, there has been considerable noise made about this issue and I now feel calm enough to tell you about it.

I found out last week that the King of Swaziland has been invited to the Royal Wedding and that he would be attending with a large delegation of around 50 people and staying at the Dorchester Hotel in London. As many of your know I run a women’s rights charity in Swaziland called Positive Women and am desperately trying to help support some of the 80% of the population that live on less than $2 a day to work themselves out of poverty. It is infuriating to then see such extortionate amounts of money being spent on a trip to London at our monarchy’s request.

The people of Swaziland have bravely taken to the streets and demonstrated against the crisis the country is in. With the economy in serious trouble and human rights abuses sharply on the increase, is this really the right message we should be sending out?

Can you imagine the outcry if Mugabe was attending the wedding, or if Gadaffi was forgiven for the “big day” It is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to happen. We must not let this happen.

I have witnessed human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and let me tell you it is ugly – very ugly. But just as ugly is when it happens in Swaziland and trust me, it happens there too. Each life is important and each voice deserves to be heard, wherever it is speaking from.

The poverty I have witnessed in Swaziland has reduced me to tears. The people of Swaziland endure so much and for us to allow their King to come to the UK, at our request would be a huge blow to them. I for one will not let them suffer this complete lack of respect for their lives and their struggles, without a demonstration or two!

Swaziland has the lowest life expectancy in the world. Over 70% of the population live in absolute poverty. The people are demanding they have the right to hold the king and government accountable for public money that has gone missing yet when the king inflicts violence on his own people, the response of the UK is to invite him to the biggest national occasion of the year.

There is an important debate going on about UK foreign aid and corruption. Corruption is used as an argument against the UK giving aid to countries where it is desperately needed. Yet the message coming from our future King is that he is happy to invite to his wedding the corrupt leader of a country where people are lucky to see their 35th birthday and where freedom of the press is a dirty word.  This is just unacceptable.

Some of the amazing and brave people in Swaziland have asked if we could stage a protest in solidarity with them and talk to politicians in the UK, to see if we can at the very least highlight how grossly unfair and wrong it is that King Mswati III should be enjoying an extravagant trip to London, while the women and children we are fighting so hard to support, are left with no drugs in the clinics and are lucky if they see their 35th birthday.

Please join us by adding your voice to our petition: www.positivewomen.org/petition and show the people of Swaziland that we support them and that their voices and lives are important.

March 23, 2011 / kathrynllewellyn

Come Live Below the Line with me

Having been around extreme poverty in Africa, I honestly thought that I knew what it meant to live in extreme poverty. I’d seen it in the rural communities of Swaziland and through the times of hyper inflation in Zimbabwe.

When I first heard about this new campaign that was challenging people to Live Below the Line – eat and drink off £1 a day for 5 days – I thought, wow, what an amazing way to give people an insight into the extreme poverty I see in Africa. What an amazing way for people to get a true glimpse of that harsh reality.

Now, I have to admit I didn’t think I would gain anything personally from the experience and in fact, I undertook the challenge largely because I am running the campaign in the UK and I wanted to know about the logistics of doing it. Plus I wanted to be able to talk to people about the campaign with some understanding of what the challenge was like.

The way I tackled it was not the best, I have to admit and when I do it next time I will be using recipes and shopping lists prepared by people who actually cook!  I ‘m a coffee addict and so I decided I would do the challenge on £4 for the week and keep the £1 for a Starbucks coffee mid-week. I don’t recommend doing that. I was hungry and the coffee didn’t taste that great when I knew it was at the expense of a day’s worth of food. Anyway, I survived and when I undertake the challenge again, I will be doing it with a few friends and no starbucks!!

The thing that surprised me the most during those 5 days was that I was suddenly overwhelmed with a real sense of understanding. Those five days of having so many choices removed from my life. Having to sit and think about how I could eat from that £5, making tough decisions: do I buy two oranges or some slices of bread? It was like a light bulb went off and to my complete surprise I suddenly felt like I wanted to call some of my friends in Swaziland and Zimbabwe and tell that I actually get it now.

I really don’t want to go overboard with how much of an impact this experience had on me, but I feel like I really get it now. Living in extreme poverty is not about those images of poverty we are often faced with in the media, it’s far tougher than that. It’s about spending all day, everyday making tough decisions – life or death decisions.

The women I work with in Swaziland make decisions every day through the lack of choice. Do I feed my family, or do I buy medicine -there really isn’t a choice – they have to buy the food. Do I eat twice today and nothing tomorrow, do I feed my children all week and myself twice this week. Their choices are really no choices at all.

I have the most incredible respect for these women, who live below the poverty line and I am proud t o spend 5 days in May, taking the time to think about their bravery and raise some money that helps give them a few more choices.

I am choosing to Living Below the Line from the 2-5th May, because women and children in Swaziland have no choice but to live there every day and I just don’t think that’s acceptable and I am damn well going to change it.

Join me and sign up to Live Below the Line for Positive Women   www.livebelowtheline.org.uk/positivewomen or support me by donating: http://bit.ly/KatLlewellyn

November 11, 2010 / kathrynllewellyn

Someone like you

When you look into the eyes of a 12 year old girl who has lost both her parents and is raising their 10 year old sister as best they can, despite being in absolute poverty, do you know what you see? Still a child.

That was my biggest observation during my latest visit to Swaziland. I laughed, played and cried with hundreds of children and came to the conclusion that against all the odds these children have somehow managed to cling onto  being a child – just.

Child headed households are probably the most upsetting for me to walk away from. I find it impossible to imagine what it must be like for a child to lose both parents and become a parent themselves in one go. These children have to be supported and it’s not enough to say “God, that’s awful. Aren’t we lucky?” The sense of loss for these children must be enormous; loss of your parents, security and childhood, loss of your provider and your protector – these children are particularly vulnerable to rape, neglect and hunger. Stealing food and selling your body, even at a young age is often the only option.

I once met a girl (I’m going to call her Audrey) who was the head of a household. She was 13 and trying to care for her 3 younger brothers and sisters. She had been exchanging sex for food and was now pregnant and very sick. Her 2 sisters and brother are all in poor health and not in school. In Audrey’s words “we all wait for death”.  That was the story the 1 year ago. That is not their story now.

I met Audrey this year. She is now 14 and is caring for her 3 younger siblings and a baby of her own.  Her 2 sisters and brother are in school and doing really well. They are much healthier and eat at least twice a day. Audrey has a small vegetable plot that she manages and has food for her family and some left over to sell. All of them have access to a nurse once a month and are treated for worms, skin infections and other illnesses they have picked up along the way. Audrey is the only one of her family that is HIV positive and she is getting the support she needs to live healthily and positively.

I cannot put into words the transformation that I saw – these children are no longer awaiting a death sentence, they have a voice and a life, they have hope and ambitions. In fact, the three younger children want to be a dancer, doctor and a teacher. I reminded Audrey of what she said to me a year before, that they were waiting for death. She smiled at me and said, “That was then. I am a different me and we are now living. Death will have to wait a long time for us now.”

I don’t know what it is about Swaziland that fills me up with hope and joy.  Maybe because it’s a kingdom it evokes the thoughts of a fairytale ending. In the midst of some terrifying statistics, more orphans than they can support, women’s right violations, human rights abuses and poverty like you’ve never seen; this is a country that wants to succeed and wants to lift itself out of poverty. I’ve been coming to Swaziland for the past five years and there have been changes. The challenges that face the poorest people in Swaziland are still as complex and hard as they ever were. The change is in how people are addressing these challenges.

I always ask people what they need when I visit communities, I was greeted with responses that drive my work today –

“Chickens, I want to start a chicken business”

“Some land and inputs, I want to grow food for my children and sell some tomatos”

“Another candle making machine, we can’t keep up with the demand on candles”

“School fees for the orphans we have”

“We need to change the law for women and people with living with HIV, can you bring us a lawyer”

“I need to learn how to keep my books. I’m not good at maths. Can you get a book keeper to teach me?”

These are women we can easily help. They’re not looking for handouts and they’re no different to us – they want a little help to start a business. There are no small bank business loans for these women. They are empowered in mind; we just need to empower them in resources and giving them a louder voice.

I am writing this very different type of blog to my usual because I want to share with you the  amazing changes that are taking place in Swaziland and I want to inspire you to want to continue and start helping us though the 50:50:5 movement.

I am asking 50 people to give £5 a month and asking them to ask 50 more people to do the same. Having walked away from Swaziland seeing the difference already made, but meeting so many in the dire position that Audrey was in a year ago and knowing we can change that. I realised that it has to be us. We have to be the ones. We can’t look to the person next to us or the person after that. I also realised how little we need to transform someone’s life.

The cost of saving Audrey’s life was:

School fees for three:  £141

Start-up costs for a vegetable plot and training: £300

Medical support: £150

Counselling and guidance: £100

So, for £691 – 5 lives get changed. That’s £138.02 person. That’s £11.51 a month to transform a life.

If we can get 5000 people to join the 50:50:5 movement, we can transform the lives of 20,000 women and children in Swaziland through providing: education, medical support and counselling, training, income generation projects, legal support and most importantly giving them a voice.

My blog is not meant to make anyone feel guilty or pity the women and children we work for. It is meant to show you how you can be part of a movement that will empower women and children in Swaziland to take control of their destinies. It’s meant to inspire you to want to make a change and join us:  50:50:5 www.positivewomen.org

July 5, 2010 / kathrynllewellyn

Torture by any other name is still torture!

I was reading through the economist and I was so excited to see an article about female genital mutilation (I’m excited by the weirdest things). It’s an issue so under reported and known about, that an article in the economist is a great way to highlight this massively important issue. As I read it my excitement turned to anger. It was reporting on how the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), likened Female genital mutilation to ear-piercing.

How can someone who has never experienced such physical and psychological torture, lessen the horrific experience of way too many women and girls throughout the world. I am positive that if the person who made this statement had had their genitals cut, stitch back up and as a result had a life time of pain and unnecessary trauma, they would not be comparing it to ears being pierced.

Many of you may not know what Female Genital Mutilation is. If you want the full details then check this website and amazing organisation out: http://www.forwarduk.org.uk/key-issues/fgm

The shortened explanation of this practice is that young girls are forced to have their genitals cut (to differing levels) and in the extreme cases cut and then stitched back up.  This in itself is barbaric, but what makes it even more horrific is that it is done with no anaesthetic and using a razor (which is used on a number of girls) or sharp stones and knives.

I first heard about this practice when I was back home in Swansea, South Wales. I was volunteering at an asylum seeker charity and was so lucky to meet two incredible, young women who had somehow travelled from Somalia to Swansea. They both had young daughters and had fled their country because their families wanted to perform female genital mutilation on their children. Both women had experienced a severe form of the mutilation and one told me how she had to watch three other girls being pinned down and cut before she had to endure the same torture. She also told me about how she had difficulties having sex with her husband and how traumatic giving birth was for her.

How does being forced to watch other girls being pinned down, screaming and have their genitals cut with a razor and then having to experience the same thing yourself, not constitute as torture?

When the most extreme form of FGM is carried out, it involves the cutting away of all of the external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening, leaving only a gap the size of a matchstick head for the girl to menstruate and urinate through.  This is torture and nothing less. Only this torture lasts their entire life time.

How dare anyone torture young girls and leave them with a live time of misery and how dare they try and hide that torture in excuses of culture or religion. Torture is torture and as much as I love and respect that we live in a world with such varying and beautiful cultures that enrich our world; I have no respect for a tradition that empowers people to mutilate young girls in the name of chastity, religion or culture.

I feel so strongly about this issue that I wrote a 10,000 word thesis on it and I think everyone of my friends are now fully aware of the gory details of this practice (whether they want to be or not). Some of them use to tut at me and call me a “bloody feminist”. Well, yes I am a bloody feminist, but that’s not why this practice is wrong. It’s wrong because it is torture. It’s wrong because it undermines these girls’ basic human rights and any tradition that does that need eradicating and eradicating now.

April 13, 2010 / kathrynllewellyn

To vote or not to vote – when some people die for that choice.

I am amazed at how voting is so under valued, yet the criticism placed on politics and politicians so high. I understand completely that people feel let down by our politicians; particularly over the expenses issue, which was not party specific and affected all politicians and our belief and faith in them.  I felt incredibly let down too and it rocked my faith in certain individuals. But, you know what, that process also revealed that although there was the opportunity to abuse our trust, some of them didn’t. Some of them acted in a way that I want and expect my politicians to behave- honorably.

To turn your back on voting and disengage from the process of democracy is most definitely not the answer. I don’t want to bore you with the history of emancipation and the struggles that have gone on in the past for the right to vote. I am however going to tell you about the recent and current events that has led to my blogging plea to you to vote.

I’ve been talking to my friends in Zimbabwe and Swaziland about this lack of passion around voting and they can not understand why anyone would pass up such a precious gift. One of these Zimbabwean friends said “why Kathy, it is like someone giving you $100 note and instead of using it to buy something useful, or invest, you rip it up and throw it away because you don’t like the face on it.”  I really like this analogy, because voting is an investment in your future and your families future and what a waste to not use it.

These southern African friends I spoke to have been tortured, beaten, arrested and harassed. They undergo this shameful treatment on a regular basis, even today, all for the right to vote in democratic elections.  People across the world risk there lives for the right to vote. They feel that the right to determine how and who governs their country is worth that pain and suffering.

In the last elections in Zimbabwe people were had fingers cut off if they were found to have ink on them; a sign that they voted. Knowing the risks and being beaten before Election Day, having family members killed and property destroyed: they still voted. They voted because they didn’t want to be voiceless and have no opportunity to improve their circumstances. They voted because they believe in their right to chose who governs their country. They voted because it matters.

Those of you, who know me, know I will be voting for the Labour party. I personally feel that they represent me and my values and goals closest. Does that mean I agree with everything they say, of course not. But do I think that they will listen to me and my concerns and make real steps to address these concerns, absolutely yes.  For me, they have a track record in doing this. Gordon Brown was instrumental in the process of getting a UN agency for women onto the agenda in a serious way. In fact I would go as far as to say, he was the person who made it happen (see below blog for more detail on the women agency’s). We lobbied him, he listened and he acted.  He gets some pretty tough press, but I have to say I have found him to be a man of his word and a man of honor.

They are my political views and not one that I expect you all to share. But please have a view and please look at the policies that will affect you and your families and find out which party you think will represent your interests best. Above all please use the very precious right you have to vote, knowing that people not so far away, are dying for this right.

Politics is for all of us whether you want it to be or not. It gives us the power to shape our lives and futures. We don’t have to work for this power or right we just have to doing something that is so easy for us and so envied by others – VOTE!

July 26, 2009 / kathrynllewellyn

Zimbabwe – Problem solved?

God I love Zimbabwe. Every time I come back here things have changed.

When I first came to Zimbabwe in 2007 I have to say I was terrified. I had worked with Zimbabwe trade unionist for two years before and had seen and heard how hard and dangerous things could be in Zimbabwe. When I arrived at Harare airport my fears were pretty quickly replaced by utter surprise at how grand it was. I was expecting a dilapidated building – instead I felt like I was walking through a new, but very empty, hospital.

I was one of four people on the flight and the only non-Zimbabwean – so I caused a bit of a stir and quickly returned to being terrified with a fake smile plastered across my face. After a small hold up and a bit of fib telling to the security (who were a little on the scary side and felt the need to take me into a room to discuss my visit) away I went. During that visit you could quite literally feel the fear and mistrust amongst people. I never quite understood the term ‘there’s tension in the air’ but there really was.

I would ask people questions and they would look behind them and answer as though I was testing them. I am so glad I came to Zimbabwe during some of its darkest moments and got to spend time with the people at the front line of Zimbabwe’s problems; the poorest people and most vulnerable. Many were broken, scared and understandably fearful of having me in their communities, but, some were so warm and welcoming and glad that I had come to witness their lives. One woman in particular sticks with me when she said “You are brave coming to Zimbabwe. Please tell people to come, we don’t all hate the UK you know. Don’t ignore us!” I still don’t know how people survived the fear, inflation and poverty. But if they were looking for brave they need look no further than themselves.

Long before I came to Zimbabwe the Zimbabwean people touched my life. In particular one man who from the first time I met him, he inspire me completely. The man was Lovemore Matombo the president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. After spending about an hour in his company I was sold – Zimbabwe needed saving and it was the eternal optimism of the Zimbabwean people that would do it! I have never met a person with such grace and courage and a desire to make things right no matter what the personal cost.

I remember one time, Lovemore had been tortured for fighting for the rights of ordinary Zimbabweans and he suffered some serious injuries. I wanted to give up for him, but in response to his torture he said “these are just challenges Kathryn”. I tell you what, if those are challenges, I have no clue what a Zimbabwean problem is.

I came to Zimbabwe a few months ago and things were so positive – people were using US dollars instead of trillions of Zimbabwe dollars, goods were now in the stores and cars were back on the roads. The most striking change though was the complete hope that the new coalition government was going to make things happen and that change was on the way.

This time however the reality is starting to hit a little. Prices are moving slowly upwards and change isn’t happening quickly enough for most people. I am not an expert and I would not presume to understand how hard life is in Zimbabwe. I can however see changes. Power cuts are frequent, water is in short supply and those who are working, which is little more than 15% of the population, are paying nearly 50% of their salaries on tax.

Despite this the hope is there and people feel free to speak their mind and discuss issues that even 8months ago they would not have dared. It would be foolish of us to look away now though. Zimbabwe still needs us to be vigilant. The country is on the brink of another cholera outbreak and the government is in no position to make things right. Luckily aid agencies are prepared and will save people from the same fate of the last outbreak, but there will still be casualties.

Zimbabwe is still facing “challenges” and still, I too find myself filled with their optimism and hope. Still, I don’t and hope you don’t think that now we have a step in the right direction we need not worry about Zimbabwe. We can’t tick that box just yet. The pen is hovering, but let’s keep supporting the Zimbabwean people for a while yet. My fear is that if we look away now I will come back in another few months and feel that atmosphere that once scared the hell out of me. My hope however is that if we continue to support the people of Zimbabwe and we help them deal with all the “challenges” they face, I can come back and experience what people like Lovemore Matombo have been fighting for – true freedom.

March 31, 2009 / kathrynllewellyn

The faces of Water

I’ve been working for the charity Pump Aid for just over a year now and I have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of passion that the access to clean water inspires in people. So, everybody knows that people need water and everybody thinks it’s important that they get water but, it just doesn’t make people angry or passionate enough to really talk about it and act on it.

 

I have worked on campaigns about human rights abuses, women’s issues, even campaigns aimed at getting sanitary towels to women in Zimbabwe and every one of these campaigns got people so angry or so passionate that I just knew they would be down the pub on a Friday night ranting to their friends about how awful it was. I have never been sat in pub and heard anyone rant about how awful it is that people don’t have access to water – well except for me.

 

The big trigger for me thinking about this was when a friend of mine told me that I would never get people really caring about the lack of clean water in Africa because water didn’t have a face. I couldn’t stop thinking about it because for me water does have a face and a personality and a story and a tragedy. I’ve been lucky enough to meet the faces of water and have them inspire me, their situations frustrate me and ultimately make me care so much that I rant at my friends on a Friday night about it.

 

Water doesn’t have a face? Water has approximately 884 million too many faces

and I for one wish it had less.  

 

Young girls missing school and being put in a situation where they can and are sexually assaulted because they have to walk for five hours a day to get collect water is not ok. It’s not ok that 5000 children die every day because they drink water that they share with animals or that has human waste in it. Not only is it not ok, it makes me angry and it makes me want to change it.

 

Women losing five hours a day, everyday to collect water is not ok. I completed a money calculator on http://www.pumpaid.org/Women-bearing-the-weight-of-water.shtml and it worked out that if I had to spend five hours day collecting water I would lose, in one year, two thirds of my salary. It’s not ok that 40 billion working hours are lost because people don’t have access to clean water. It’s not ok, it makes me angry and I want to change it.  

 

Contrary to my blogs I’m not generally an angry person, quite the opposite actually. But I just can not stand to see injustice go unchallenged. The lack of access to clean water is one of the biggest injustices I have seen and the cause of some of the deepest grief, hurt and loss that I have witnessed and I just hope that more people get inspired to change this very changeable problem and so next time my friend says people aren’t passionate about this issue I can say – Yes they are!