Welcome, Louisiana — Last May, on the day she turned 69, Sharon Lavigne and three Protestant pastors hiked the levee beside the Mississippi River and looked across the highway at the lush sugarcane fields and wetlands where Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group planned to build one of the largest plastics factories in the world.
The complex would also disturb or destroy graves of enslaved Black people who were buried on the property, which was once a plantation.
A mile downriver from the Formosa site stands an elementary school, and a mile beyond that, Lavigne’s home.
Standing atop the levee, she and her companions recalled the Old Testament story in which Joshua circled the ancient city of Jericho and caused its walls to tumble. Lavigne and the pastors walked six times in a circle, reciting Psalm 23, and on the seventh, they raised their arms skyward and begged God almighty to stop Formosa.
A devout Catholic, Lavigne is at the forefront of a campaign to thwart construction of the plastics complex. Two years ago, she founded Rise St. James, a faith-based, grassroots group made up of residents of the Fifth District of St. James Parish, an area of sugarcane fields and historically black hamlets interlaced with pipelines and industrial facilities.
Backed by environmentalists and community organizations, the group is speaking out for Black communities in St. James that face a new wave of industrial pollution.
The group started with protest marches. When the coronavirus pandemic erupted, the activists adapted their strategies and message, pointing out that theirs is a struggle against environmental racism and linking it to national calls for racial justice.
The group’s Facebook posts include updates on actions and lawsuits against the corporation, articles on plastics pollution, video clips of parish council meetings where Formosa was on the agenda, and numerous clips of Lavigne urging local officials to rescind approval of the complex.
She often mentions God.
“If you are Christians, if you believe in God, change this,” Lavigne says in a Sept. 1 Facebook post. “I know you can’t sleep at night because you live in St. James, too. When I am poisoned, you will be poisoned, too. So I ask you to go back, to get on your knees and pray and ask God to put it in your hearts to go back and rescind this decision.”
The Formosa complex represents “an assault on human life at all of its stages,” says Jesuit Deacon Chris Kellerman of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans. In an Aug. 27 letter to the News Examiner-Enterprise, a St. James newspaper, Kellerman said ethylene oxide emissions from the facility would jeopardize the unborn, citing studies showing that exposure increases rates of premature births and miscarriages. He noted that adults and school-age children would also be at risk, and he mentioned the graves.
“And all of this without the express consent of the people,” wrote Kellerman, who urged local officials to “find other alternative ways of investing in St. James that won’t pose such an antilife, racist and existential threat to the parish.”
On his sixth attempt Wavel Ramkalawan, an Anglican cleric, has become Seychelles’ president ending decades in opposition, but as Tim Ecott reports from the Indian Ocean archipelago – he now has to bring the country together.
“After 43 years we have regained democracy. The road has been long and now we will reap its rewards.”
There was only the merest hint of triumphalism in President Wavel Ramkalawan’s acceptance speech as he addressed an audience of invited dignitaries assembled in the manicured grounds of State House.
His election marks a seismic change for the islands, where the presidency has been dominated by one party since 1977.
In front of the grand Victorian colonial mansion and accompanied by a military guard of honour, the 58-year-old was sworn in by the chief justice on Monday.
The new president is an ordained Anglican minister, and not surprisingly his overall message was one of peace, tolerance and an appeal for all Seychellois to work together for national unity, and to overcome the divisions of so many years of political wrangling.
Thanking outgoing President Danny Faure for keeping political dialogue open over the past few years, Mr Ramkalawan stressed the need for tolerance among the Seychellois people and appealed for what he called a return to civility, to a society where everyone says good morning to one another and where racial and social differences are put aside.
“Seychelles,” said the new president, “should be an example of tolerance for the whole world. We are 115 small islands in the Indian Ocean, but we are not insular.
“We will maintain friendly relations with all nations, and welcome help and assistance from our international allies whomsoever they may be.”
Behind the Christian sentiments expressed by the new president there is also political steel.
This was his sixth attempt at the presidency, a journey that began when he first contested the role in 1998.
He had entered politics several years earlier, and was criticised by the government for making what they saw as political statements from the pulpit during the one-party state era.
He had come tantalising close to winning the presidency several times, and in 2015 lost to James Michel by only 193 votes in a second round of voting.
Referring to the years in opposition, and his five previous defeats in presidential elections Mr Ramkalawan quoted Nelson Mandela: “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”
In spite of the positive messages in his inaugural address, there is no doubting the divisions within Seychellois society.
It is precisely 43 years since the islands were subjected to a violent coup by Albert René, who overthrew the democratically elected government of James Mancham, the man who had led the islands to independence from the UK in 1976.
Amid his appeals for peace and harmony, President Ramkalawan pointedly paid homage to Gerard Hoarau, an opponent of René assassinated in London in 1985, and whose killers have never been identified.
Hoarau was not the only person who died or disappeared during the one-party era that lasted from 1977 to 1991.
Many of the crimes committed during that period were exposed publicly during recent Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Seychelles.
There is no doubt that those revelations harmed the chances of Mr Faure and his United Seychelles party in these elections.
United Seychelles is the current name of the former Seychelles People’s Progressive Front, which was in power when René so ruthlessly imprisoned and persecuted his political opponents.
For all its convoluted political history in the decades since independence, the 97,000-strong population of Seychelles now faces very big challenges.
The economy is heavily reliant on tourism, with around 350,000 annual visitors accounting for 65% of GDP.
Covid-19 has reduced tourist arrivals to a tiny trickle, and the economy has already shrunk by around 14%.
Is it too late to change the course the world is on?
That’s a question that comes up more and more frequently. This week, I’ve heard reasons for hope, but also messages of urgency. That is, there’s still time, but we need to act now. And although the problem may look overwhelming, it can be broken down — like all the tasks on our to-do lists — into manageable chunks.
First, though, it’s important to understand where most of the greenhouse gases we humans produce come from and how we can set priorities for tackling them, with policies and our own actions. For an overview, check out this webinar by environmental scientist Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown.
“Drawdown” refers to the point at which humans’ greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing and begin to fall. That is the point at which we step back from the edge, and Foley says it’s within our grasp.
Which human activities cause the greatest greenhouse gas emissions? As it turns out, electricity and food account for nearly half.
Generating electricity produces 25% of total human-created emissions, while agriculture, food and land-use change (for instance, destroying forest for ranching or to grow crops like oil palm or soybeans) account for 24%. So doing those things more efficiently and less wastefully would go a long way toward reducing emissions, Foley reasons.
For energy, that means not only moving away from fossil fuels — something to which Illinois Catholic bishops lent their support late last month — and increasing our use of renewable sources like the sun, wind and waves, but also retrofitting the world’s buildings, so they use less energy.
For food, it means wasting less, at home and in supply lines, as well as decreasing consumption of beef and dairy products. That’s partly because cattle belch methane and partly because ranching drives tropical deforestation.
While climate solutions require policy changes, there are many things we can do, as individuals and communities, by making lifestyle changes, encouraging others — and, of course, voting.
An April evening in the suburbs of Khartoum. After months of undercover work, I had learned to time my visits to khalwas, Sudan’s Islamic schools,to coincide with evening prayers. I entered while the sheikhs (teachers) and 50-odd boys dressed in their white djellabas were busy praying. As they knelt, I heard the clanking of chains on the boys’ shackled legs. I sat down behind them and started filming, secretly.
I began investigating after allegations emerged of abuse inside some of these schools: children kept in chains, beaten and sexually abused. Khalwas have existed in Sudan for centuries. There are more than 30,000 of them across the country where children are taught to memorise the Qur’an. They are run by sheikhs who usually provide food, drink and shelter, free of charge. As a result, poor families often send their children to khalwas instead of public schools.
I had been working as a journalist in Sudan for five years, but this was the first time an assignment really felt personal. I was taught at a khalwa: a place where I would try to get through each day without being beaten.
In 2018, I began what would become a two-year investigation with BBC News Arabic and take me to 23 khalwas across Sudan. Before proper undercover equipment from the BBC arrived, I taped my phone inside a notebook, to secretly film.
Despite having gone to a khalwa myself, I was shocked by what I found. I saw children – some as young as five – beaten and shackled like animals. One boy with deep, raw wounds around his ankles told me: “We can be in groups of six or seven all chained together, and they [the sheikhs] make us run around in circles. Whenever one of us falls over we have to get up again because they keep whipping us … They say that this is good for us.”
One of the worst experiences I had was in 2018 at Ahmed Hanafy, a well-respected khalwa in Darfur. In a study room, under a hot corrugated iron roof, a small boy was held down and whipped more than 30 times by a teacher. The only sound in the room was the lashing of the whip and the boy’s anguished cries. I wanted to grab the whip and hit the sheikh, but I knew I couldn’t. When I later contacted the school, the sheikh confirmed they do beat children but denied this incident ever took place.
Another disturbing case was that of two 14-year-old boys, Mohamed Nader and Ismail. When I visited them in hospital they were lying on their stomachs, unconscious, their backs stripped of flesh. They were beaten and tortured so badly they nearly died.
“They kept them in a room for five days without food or water,” Mohamed Nader’s father, Nader, told me.
“They rubbed tar all over their bodies. [Mohamed Nader] has been so badly beaten you can even see his spine.”
I had filmed inside the same khalwa where this had happened, al-Khulafaa al-Rashideen, run by a man called Sheikh Hussein. The conditions there were the worst I had seen. Most of the boys were shackled and teachers hovered over them with whips in case they made any mistakes. One student pointed out a room with barred windows, which he described as a prison. It was the room in which Ismail and Mohamed Nader had been kept.
I kept in regular contact with the boys. Several months after the attack, as we played on a PlayStation together, Mohamed Nader began to tell me what happened when he was caught trying to escape with Ismail.
“They tied me up and laid me on my stomach before whipping me”, he said. The beatings went on for days. “A lot of people came to beat us while the rest of the khalwa was asleep. After that, I don’t know what happened, I woke up in the hospital.”
The police charged two teachers with assault, who were later released on bail. The khalwa remained open.
As he stared at the screen, Mohamed Nader said: “There is rape in the khalwa. They would call you for it, in a macho way.” He said the smaller or weaker boys were abused by older students.
Mohamed Nader and Ismail were not sexually assaulted, but several other people also told me that rape happened in the khalwa under the management of Sheikh Hussein.
When I returned to the khalwa to talk to him, Sheikh Hussein admitted that it was wrong to imprison children, but maintained that shackling was “packed with benefits” and that “most khalwas use chaining, not just me”. He told me he had stopped using chains and that “the prison” was now a storeroom. When I asked about allegations of sexual abuse he became angry, categorically denying these claims and accusing me of attacking the Qu’ran.
The sheikh died in a car accident earlier this year.
The new transitional government is now conducting a survey of all khalwas in Sudan. The minister of religious affairs, Nasreddine Mufreh, said they would be reformed. There should be “no beating, torture, violation of human rights or children’s rights whatsoever” inside khalwas.
When I told him about the abuse I had seen, he replied: “The old regime didn’t have laws regulating khalwas. I can’t solve a problem caused by 30 years of the old regime overnight.”
With the influence that sheikhs hold, it’s rare for families to seek justice. However, Mohamed Nader’s parents have decided to press charges. Although the public prosecutor’s office is obliged to look into all cases of violence against children, Mohamed Nader’s parents have had to hire a lawyer to fight their case.
On the way into court his mother, Fatima, said the 2018 revolution had made her more optimistic: “In the past, we had no rights but now it’s different. With the new government, we will get our rights, God willing.”
After several hours inside she emerged disappointed. One of the defendants had failed to turn up and the hearing was postponed. The teachers accused of beating the boys still haven’t entered a plea. The khalwa is now run by Sheikh Hussein’s brother who told me that under his management the beating of children would not be tolerated.
Mohamed Nader and Ismail are on a slow road to physical recovery. But thousands of other children across Sudan are still at risk.
SIAK, Indonesia, – Setiono Ono pauses his morning wildfire patrol near the northeastern coast of Sumatra island at a small timber dam between a logged area and an oil palm plantation.
Water the colour of charcoal is leaking out from the dam along a narrow canal cut to drain the surrounding peatland.
The dam, built by the local community here in the Siak regency of Riau province, is one of thousands of canal barriers constructed in recent years to protect Indonesia’s peatlands, seen as critical in the fight against climate change.
“We need to fix this,” said fire patrol leader Setiono, 40, before heading into the patchy forest with two other volunteers.
Peat accounts for about 3% of the world’s land surface, but peatlands store more carbon than all other terrestrial vegetation combined, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
When peatlands burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere, accounting for almost 6% of the annual carbon dioxide emissions fuelling global warming, the IUCN says.
Indonesia is home to more than a third of the world’s tropical peat, giving it a key role in safeguarding the carbon-rich ecosystem.
But in recent decades, its peatlands – 10 metres (33 ft) deep in places – have experienced rapid conversion into valuable commercial plantations to meet rising international demand for palm oil, pulp and paper.
That has helped lift small farmers out of poverty but also brought urgent environmental and public health risks.
Plantation trees fare poorly in drenched soil, so companies have dug thousands of kilometres of canals to drain off water.
But dissecting the landscape with these canals has dried it out and increased peatland fires, which smoulder underground for long periods and can often be doused only by heavy rain.
The threat is highest when climate patterns prolong Sumatra’s main dry season beyond September, as in 2015 and 2019.
In 2015, fires burned about 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land in Indonesia, an area 20 times larger than Los Angeles, about a third of it peat.
But in Setiono’s village, there have been no fires since 2017 – which many here attribute to the former illegal logger.
After leaving middle school as a teenager, Setiono spent almost a decade of his youth cutting down trees and dodging tigers and police in the peat forest he now looks after.
He suffered frequent injuries and was hospitalised after a chainsaw slipped and tore through his thigh. Eleven other illegal loggers he knew were jailed.
He guesses he felled more than 100 trees in the forest near the leaking dam.
“For me this is strong motivation,” said Setiono. “The bottom line is that I used to destroy nature.”
Setiono now heads the Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA), or “Fire Care Community”, for Rawa Mekar Jaya, a village on the north coast of Siak about 150 km (93 miles) west of Singapore.
Community fire initiatives began in Indonesia under pilot schemes in the early 2000s, before the government formally established the MPA programme in 2009.
At the peak of the 2015 fire crisis, state firefighters worked morning to night as power lines burned and schools closed for a month under a blanket of toxic haze.
“Everyone had respiratory infections, coughs, breathing difficulties,” Setiono told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A study by Harvard and Columbia universities indicated the 2015 air pollution could have caused 100,000 premature deaths.
Setiono heard about the community fire prevention programme that year and travelled to Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, for a month’s basic training.
Five years on, he has built one of Riau’s largest village fire brigades, with no dedicated funding.
Donated fire hoses and generators are stacked ready in a garden shed next to his red-brick bungalow.
Other equipment is stored a short drive away at the fire brigade’s office, surrounded by dark sumps and pineapple plants.
MPA members keep bees, using proceeds from honey sales to fund the community organisation.
“If there is a fire and smoke enters this village, then our children could become asthmatic,” said MPA volunteer and father-of-two Suroso Lilik, 37.
The group convenes every morning to check on the 16,800-hectare area it is responsible for.
Its 25 volunteers work in shifts, patrolling the river on a small barge and traversing degraded fields on foot.
“Our village is ours,” said Setiono. “If we don’t (do this), who else is there?”
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe — In the sweltering mid-October heat of Matobo, one of Zimbabwe’s hottest and driest districts, Spiwe Moyo tended her ripening tomato crop. Nearby, underneath a baobab tree, a few emaciated donkeys and a small herd of skinny cattle take shelter from the blazing sun.
Along with the onions, vegetables and green beans grown by other communal farmers as part of the Evergreen Community Market Garden, Moyo’s tomato crop is a virtual oasis of green, surrounded by bare red soil that receives little shade from the sparse leaves of the mopani trees and a few patches of dry grass long desolated by the high temperatures.
Despite the punishing heat, unfriendly surroundings and daily struggles for water for humans and domestic animals, she beamed a smile when she spoke of the prospects for her crop, which will ripen in the next week or so.
“I am just weeding out the crop and inspecting for pests and other diseases, because in this hot weather, crops can suddenly suffer diseases or pest attacks. We only water the crops in the morning or evening, to conserve the water,” Moyo told EarthBeat in an interview at the garden.
The water comes from a solar-powered well funded by Catholic Church organizations. Without it, she says, “there would be no green crops to talk about, as the rains are not sufficient.”
There has been practically no rain in the past two years in this arid part of Matebeleland South province, in southwestern Zimbabwe. This year, however, rains came suddenly, a month earlier than expected. Experts say that is one of the uncertainties caused by climate change, and it has combined with other climate-related disasters that have made food scarce in southern Africa.
Climate change has caused as many as 86 million people across sub-Saharan Africa to migrate from their land, according to a September UNICEF report. And drought and climate change are creating critical food scarcity for more than 11 million people in nine southern African countries, the report says.
In an effort to head off water wars and help farmers adapt to the changing climate, various Catholic agencies, including the Irish aid agency Trócaire, Britain’s Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, or CAFOD, and Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ aid and development agency, are funding agro-ecology learning centers and solar-powered community wells in southern African countries, including Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.
At the centers, which blend sustainable agriculture techniques with indigenous farming practices, local farmers learn skills such as contour plowing, drip irrigation and organic pest control, as well as practices such as “intercropping,” or combining multiple crops in one plot.
As a result, communal oases of green are appearing in various areas, as “model” farmers share their new knowledge with their neighbors.
“The seasons are changing and we are seeing the impact of climate change, because we usually have the first showers in August and at the end of October we then get the first planting rains. But in the last two years, there have basically been no rains here,” said Felix Ncube, who is a member of the management committee of St. Joseph’s Agro-Ecological Center in Matopos.
Committee members run the learning center and also train other people in the community, passing along their new knowledge to other farmers.
The problems related to climate change are worsened by unemployment and food insecurity, Ncube said. Although Caritas and the World Food Program assist the community with relief kits, they distribute aid only to the elderly, leaving younger people desperate, he said.
“The youths here have nothing to do to feed themselves or take care of their families, so they end up cutting down trees as a source of energy [for brick-making kilns], and this is contributing to the arid conditions in the area,” he said.
Because deforestation can affect local rainfall, the Catholic groups working with farmers hope that slowing the loss of tree cover will also help ease some of those conditions.
Competition for farmland and demand for charcoal both lead to deforestation. In Zambia, the Mother Earth Center, a sustainable farming project run by Comboni Sisters, encourages farmers to reforest their land.
The center trains farmers to combine agriculture with forestry, as a means of diversifying the tree and plant cover on their farms. This helps promote preservation of native tree species and also makes the farmers better prepared to withstand drought and floods.
Because of the high cost of electricity, charcoal is commonly used for cooking and heating in low- and middle-income households, even in cities, Sr. Annes James, who runs the Mother Earth Center, told EarthBeat in an email.
“Little or no investment seems to be made fast enough in the area of solar energy, despite the abundant sunshine enjoyed in these parts all year-round,” she said.
In Zambia, the drying and shifting flows of rivers are evidence that the effects of climate change are already at play in the region, Jesuit Fr. Andrew Simpasa, director of the Kasisi Agriculture Training Center in Lusaka, Zambia, told EarthBeat.
“In Zambia, the Chongwe and Ngwerere Rivers, which were once a catchment area for providing irrigation water for farms located on the eastern side of Lusaka city, have now become perennial rivers,” Simpasa said.
“This has caused water access disputes between commercial farmers, who have the machinery and equipment to domesticate the water, and small-scale farmers who struggle to access irrigation water during the dry season,” he added.
In Zimbabwe, Gwinyai Chibaira, agri-livelihoods project manager for Catholic Relief Services in Zimbabwe, has seen successive droughts and floods wipe out farmers’ crops. Even so, when the agency launched an agricultural training center in 2013 in Beitbridge, near the border with South Africa, only four farmers signed up, he said.
Now about 100 households have participated in the training programs, learning to grow fodder for livestock such as cattle and goats. They can then sell the animals to support their families and reinvest in their farms.
Oscar Singo, 36, has gone a step further. Besides growing fodder and cabbages for his herd of cattle, he buys animals from others and fattens them before auctioning them off.
As the climate changes, experts recommend planting earlier to reduce the risk of heavy storms and flooding before they can harvest their crops. They also encourage farmers to plant trees and other vegetation to retain moisture and create additional windbreaks, and to ensure that cattle and goats do not devour newly planted trees and other vegetation.
In Beitbridge, farmers find that fodder crops serve as animal feed, help avoid erosion and provide an additional source of income.
Timothy Ngulube, a 60-year-old livestock farmer in Fula, a village near Beitbridge, hopes to earn enough to install his own solar pump to irrigate the fields where he grows crops to feed his animals on his landholding of less than four acres.
“I used to grow tomatoes and maize,” he said, “but it is getting dryer and hotter here, hence I have to focus on livestock, which is resilient to these dry weather patterns.”
As I look across the horizon, I can see the hills run for miles and miles. Focusing on the sky and becoming entranced in the different colors of the sunset, along with the stars beginning to shine as the day comes to an end, I sit here and listen to the different sounds, taking in the beauty that surrounds me.
It is at this moment when I find myself at peace, when I acknowledge the energies around me and try to center myself between spirituality and reality. This balance is how I grew my passion for environmental justice.
I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and my indigeneity is what helped me to identify the connection between me and Uŋčí Makȟa (Mother Earth). I never fully recognized how different Indigenous beliefs toward the environment are compared to how non-natives view the environment.
Indigenous cultures revolve around this idea of equality with the Earth and can notice the different energies within every living thing on a spiritual level. We have lived off the land for generations and come to see it as equal to us. This connection is something that I believe to be unique to Indigenous peoples.
On the other hand, non-native peoples seem to have a physical sense of the Earth being important for every life form and understand the need to take care of it but lack the emotional and spiritual sense of importance that the Earth holds.
Now with environmental justice comes the understanding of the land, specifically the unpleasant history of it. In the United States, this history is particularly important because of how the government took the land from the people who were occupying it in the first place.
Historically, those who are not people of color have treated the environment as an object to gain profit from and have forced Indigenous peoples off their land in order to gain a sense of power and control. Ironically, in modern times, those who are not people of color have been seeking guidance from Indigenous peoples, whom their ancestors ridiculed for their culture, to understand the land that their ancestors stole.
This history is what has created my distrust of some of the people in power who claim to support environmentalism, but who will also support the oil industry and other large corporations. These people will put money over the environment if given the opportunity to do so. The land is seen as expendable, but in reality the land has lived and will continue to live without us. It is we who are expendable to the land, not the other way around.
I believe that gaining that spiritual sense of the environment is what would put others into that mindset of how to take care of yourself and take care of the world around you. This mindset is one that is difficult to fully understand, because people tend to put the environment over their own well-being or vice versa.
In reality, you need to be able to find that balance between your passion for environmental justice and your own mental health, because they both work within each other. Scientifically, the Earth is very similar to how the body works, meaning that your physical, mental and emotional well-being is like a smaller version of our environment. If you aren’t able to take care of your own mental, emotional and physical self, then how do you expect to successfully take care of the planet?
When I realized how my personal well-being and my passion for the environment connected to one another, I learned to find that balance between them. On the days my mental health is at a low, I tend to do anything that involves going outside and being alone because at these moments I can think clearly.
Most times I pray; other times I just rant to the world around me, because I know that Uŋčí Makȟa is listening to me. I look out to the world and I feel a sense of protection from her. As she listens to me, I listen to her. The heartbeat of the Earth goes unnoticed, but once your body, mind and spirit intertwine with hers, it’s a beautiful sound that you’ll never forget.
Ajmer, India – In a small football ground outside a remote village in India’s Rajasthan state, dozens of girls are busy practising, with shouts for passes ringing out as the sun set behind the small hills.
It was unheard of that girls from Hasiyawas and neighbouring villages in Ajmer district, about 400km (248 miles) from India’s capital, New Delhi, would play outdoor sports. The region is known for widespread child marriages and its lack of public space for women.
According to UNICEF, there are 223 million child brides in India, with nearly 15 million of them in the western state of Rajasthan.
Now, an initiative by a local NGO is using football to help girls from Ajmer overcome social taboos and give them a chance to strive for their dreams.
The Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), which loosely translates to Women’s Rights Committee, introduced football to female pupils in four villages in Ajmer district with the aim of empowering them. Since 2016, the Football for Girls programme has trained more than 400 girls in the four villages.
“We wanted to use sports and particularly football because it is considered a man’s sport, to break the gender barrier,” Indira Pancholi of MJAS told Al Jazeera.
“Football clubs have also helped us curb child marriage in these communities because girls became aware of their rights through our workshops. Earlier, they would have just went along if their parents tried to marry them but not now, they have the strength to say no.”
While girls are married off as children, they are sent to the husband’s house – in a ritual known as “gauna” – only when they reach the legal age for marriage, which is 18 for women and 21 for men.
According to government data, at least half of all child marriages in Ajmer took place in its villages.
About 30km (18 miles) from Ajmer, in Hasiyawas village, Mamata Gujjar, 16, recalls how it was tough to convince her parents to let her play football. “My father refused, saying it is a boy’s game, and he won’t let me wear shorts. I said, ‘All right, let me play in salwar kameez [a long tunic-like shirt and baggy trousers] then’,” Mamata told Al Jazeera.
Hasiyawas is a small village of about 150 families, most of them belonging to the Gujjar community, an agricultural and pastoral community with poor socio-economic conditions. The village is also home to a few Dalit families, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, once known as “untouchables”. Football, a contact sport, is now helping to bridge age-old social distancing among various caste groups.
After the match was over, 18-year old Suman Gujjar from Hasiyawas told Al Jazeera that, “earlier Dalits, especially women, were not allowed to sit in front of Gujjars, if they did sit, it was on the floor. Till I joined the football club I too thought that we were of ‘higher birth’ and Dalits were unclean and ‘lower’. I have realised how wrong I was because of the workshops I attended during training.” This year, Suman is among a handful of girls to gain entrance to college and will pursue humanities at a government college in Ajmer.
Nisha Parihar, who joined the football club in nearby Chachiyawas village four years ago, says the boys of her village objected to girls playing football and tried to disrupt their matches and pass offensive comments.
“They would puncture the ball, occupy the ground and refuse to make space for us to play. We had to fight them off sometimes. Finally, we complained to the village council who then asked boys to play at a separate time,” the 13-year-old said, with a smile which seemed to reflect pride.
Sapna, 17, the captain of the team, echoed her friend’s sentiments. “Till we started playing, boys were never seen in the sports field. Just to prevent us from playing, they too started coming to the field,” she said evoking giggles from other girls.
Before football entered their lives, like most girls in rural Rajasthan and many other states of India, their daily routine was restricted to cooking, cleaning, milking cattle and other housework.
“We are mostly at home doing household chores and sometimes watch TV. But boys are free to stay out and go wherever they want. We didn’t have the courage to even ask our parents to let us go to play. We couldn’t think we could do things boys do,” said Monica Gujjar, a striker from Hasiyawas.
The world is becoming less tolerant of migrants, according to a poll released on Wednesday as Europe prepared to unveil a new asylum plan in the wake of a blaze at an overcrowded camp in Greece that left thousands without shelter.
Seven European countries, led by North Macedonia, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia, topped the Gallup index of the world’s least-accepting countries.
But the sharpest changes in attitude were in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, which have seen an influx of Venezuelans fleeing turmoil at home.
Canada was the most welcoming country, followed by Iceland and New Zealand, according to the index based on more than 140,000 interviews in 145 countries and regions.
The poll asked people their views about having migrants living in their country, becoming their neighbours and marrying into their families.
Index scores ranged from 1.49 in North Macedonia to 8.46 in Canada, just below the maximum possible score of 9.
Gallup migration expert Julie Ray said the slight global fall in acceptance – 5.21 in 2019 down from 5.34 in 2016 – was driven by marked changes in Latin American countries.
Peru’s score tumbled to 3.61 from 6.33 in 2016, while the number of Colombians who said migrants living in their country was a good thing dropped to 29 percent from 61 percent.
The first Gallup Migrant Acceptance Index was conducted amid the backlash following the 2015 crisis in Europe when more than a million people headed to the continent fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond.
EU countries have long been at loggerheads over how to handle the influx of migrants, many of whom arrive in Mediterranean countries after perilous boat journeys.
The bloc’s executive will unveil a plan on Wednesday that will legally oblige all members to host their share of refugees – something rejected by Poland and Hungary, among others.
The proposal has been brought forward because of a fire on the Greek island of Lesbos a fortnight ago which destroyed a camp holding more than 12,000 refugees and migrants – four times the number it was supposed to.
Among European countries, only Sweden and Ireland made the Gallup top 10 of most-accepting countries.
Ray said some people would be surprised by the positive attitudes in the United States, where President Donald Trump has made curbing immigration a cornerstone of his policy.
“Despite the fact that immigration is such a hot topic in the US, Americans are mostly very accepting of migrants,” she said.
The US ranked sixth in the index, just behind Sierra Leone. Ray said Trump supporters were far more accepting of migrants than the global average, scoring 7.10.
Worldwide, the index showed acceptance of migrants was greater among younger generations, people with higher levels of education and those living in urban rather than rural areas.
HAUNA, Zimbabwe, – When the girls at Sahumani Secondary School in eastern Zimbabwe started playing rugby, they had to make do with the soccer pitch and the oversized football shirts used by the boys.
Five years on, several have represented their country in the sport, and many more credit it with saving them from becoming child brides in a nation where early marriage remains common despite being outlawed in 2016.
“I used to hate rugby. At the time I believed the sport was only for the elite and for men, not girls like me,” said Catherine Muranganwa, 20, who has played for Zimbabwe’s Under-18 and Under-20 women’s national rugby teams.
Muranganwa, whose two sisters were married before they turned 18 – the legal marriage age in Zimbabwe – said the game had awakened her to different possibilities.
“When I travel for rugby I meet amazing women and I have realised that getting married early is not the right choice,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her village in the Honde Valley, about 90 km (55 miles) from the city of Mutare.
Rugby is now compulsory for all the girls at Muranganwa’s school.
“When the Form 1s enrol with us we introduce them to rugby. There is a positive improvement regarding early marriages,” said headteacher Mwaradzika Makazouya, adding that the school’s long lockdown closure had raised the risk of girls being married off.
As of 2019, 32.6% of a representative sample of some 8,000 women aged 20 to 49 years had been married before 18, according to the Zimbabwe Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2019.
While there has been progress in the fight against early marriage in the southern African nation since it was banned, poverty and religious practices hamper efforts to stamp it out.
Education is a key factor in determining the risk, and with schools mostly still shut due to the coronavirus pandemic, campaigners are warning there could be an increase in the practice.
Around the world, an estimated 500,000 more girls are at risk of being forced into child marriage in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19, a report by Save the Children showed on Thursday.
That would mark a 4% year-on-year increase, reversing progress to reduce early marriage over the last 25 years, the charity said.
James Maiden, a chief of communication at the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said low levels of education and socio-economic status raised the risk of being married off early in Zimbabwe.
Girls from poor households were nearly four times more likely to be married compared before the legal marriage age than those from wealthy households, he added.
‘TOO LATE FOR MARRIAGE’
Muranganwa’s father, who was a polygamist with four wives, died when she was 12 and life has not been easy for her mother, a peasant farmer, and the rest of her family.
He was a member of a church known for polygamy and marrying off girls before they reach the legal age of marriage.
Muranganwa, who walks 10 km (six miles) to get to Sahumani Secondary School each day, said most girls who attend her church are married before they finish their primary education.
“Young girls are usually married off to older polygamous men at an annual church gathering,” she said, adding that her mother has supported her in rejecting a string of marriage proposals despite pressure from other relatives.
Velme Nyarumwe, 20, one of Muranganwa’s fellow players on the Zimbabwe Under-20 Women’s rugby team, said her four sisters were all wed before their 18th birthdays.
“To my family, at 20 I’m already too late for marriage. They pile on pressure daily,” she said.
Many of the rugby-playing girls are the first in their families to reach Form 4, the final year of Ordinary level education in Zimbabwe, said school rugby coach Patricia Makunike-Chakanya.
Sahumani starting teaching girls rugby in 2015 in an initiative spearheaded by teachers who had also trained as coaches under the banner of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union.
Makunike-Chakanya, herself a victim of gender-based violence, got interested in the game in the 1980s, when it was only played by men. She later trained as a coach, hoping to make the sport popular with girls too.
Besides honing their drop kicks, she spends time talking to the girls, listening to their worries and giving them advice.
“Staying with some of the girls at the school gives me an opportunity to counsel them and to protect them from predatory men in the village,” Makunike-Chakanya said.
Most parents have rallied behind the girls’ rugby team, called the “The Valley Giants”, and they no longer have to wear old soccer jerseys thanks to a sponsorship deal with a local seed company.
“We realised that by not supporting them they would give up on sport and get into the community where they become vulnerable to all sorts of abuse,” said Ivan Craig, a director responsible for sales and marketing at Agriseeds.
Muranganwa now dreams of making a career in rugby so she can help support her family, while also seeing the world.
“Marriage is not my priority now,” she said.
“I wish to play for independent clubs in Botswana and South Africa as well as in Europe. I know with rugby I’m going to change my family’s life.”