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Why Art, Literature Are Vital To Democracy

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Why are we here? Why
was I created? What’s the purpose of this thing called life?
To artists, whose essential purpose is creation, these grand questions are felt profoundly — the human condition is our stock in trade, even if it’s incredibly privileged to ponder it as one’s profession. As millions struggle to make enough money to eat, we struggle to make art. This is why every serious artist, at some point, questions: is what I do useful, or relevant to everyone — or is it simply luxurious?
As a creative writing practitioner and teacher, I wrestle with this constantly.
Beauty, identity, discourse, documentation, exaltation, or even just exposing a stink does indeed benefit humanity. But when the climate is changing alarmingly, and millions displaced by war are unwelcome in most places, and our leaders increasingly justify abusive power, it’s easy to question the value of telling stories or building sculpture. After all, what does a painting give to the populace? How can a writer take on a president?
Uncovering Larger Truths
The answers, perhaps, are found in art itself. One success proves the potential of all the rest.
If you remember in 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was to deliver to the United Nations a declaration of war against Iraq, the tapestry depicting Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was covered up. It was said that the image of the fascist bombardment of civilians was too shameful to face. How could we discuss an unprompted war in front of one of history’s greatest rebukes to warfare?
The details, however, were apparently more mundane. Camera crews had simply worried about the cluttered background the cubist tapestry would present behind speaking officials. And the number of journalists attending the press conference had swelled, requiring a more capacious venue down the hall.
Those facts, it is said, were behind why Guernica was censored (so to speak). Yet the covering of it, for whatever reason, uncovered a larger truth that resonated around the world. The implicit irony became explicit commentary. Picasso had unveiled the image in 1937, yet 66 years later, and 36 years after his death, the painter was still speaking to us.
A Matter of Words
At New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, where I am a professor of literature and creative writing, one of my courses examines books that sought to accomplish what Guernica did. In “Novels That Changed the World,” my students wrestle with the few fictions that stretched beyond personal or literary influence and launched revolutions, addressed colonial abuse, improved public policy, forged cultural identity, or challenged repressive dogma. The 10 books span nearly a century and a half, by writers from around the world, yet, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Satanic Verses,each shares a vital characteristic.
In 1896, the Filipino national hero Jose Rizal was tried for rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy, for satirizing the abuses of the colonial Spanish friars in a saga that started with his novel, Noli Me Tangere.
We all know how that turned out — he was executed by firing squad on the eve of the revolution that ousted Spain but was later hijacked by America.
In the early 1930s, Erich Maria Remarque’s honest condemnation of war, All Quiet on the Western Front, resonated around the world — so much so that a club-footed, insecure little man named Joseph Goebbels orchestrated mobs to attack the screenings of the film-adaptation. It was one of the first displays of Nazi thuggery. Thousands angrily set upon cinemas across Germany and Austria, which led to a ban on the film and the novel’s burning. Goebbels dubbed such attacks as a “cleansing of the German spirit.” Remarque’s citizenship was eventually revoked and he fled his own country, while the regime pursued its lethal attacks on “non-people.”
We all know how that turned out — millions were killed systematically as a continent was devastated by war.
In 1989, Salman Rushdie published a novel that, he said, criticized “a powerful tribe of clerics” who had “taken over Islam” — the religion of his upbringing. “These are the contemporary Thought Police,” Rushdie wrote even before a fatwa was declared by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who was irritated at having his past exile satirized — portrayed in the book as an exiled imam aspiring to power. Khomeini condemned the book as a tool of the “world devourers” with the “entire Zionism and arrogance behind it”— a “calculated” plot on behalf of “colonialism.” Rushdie went into hiding, and those associated with the publication suffered murders, stabbings, shootings, arson, and bombs. This was, according to Khomeini, “so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctity.”
We all know how that turned out — with many people now convinced that “free speech is responsible speech,” despite the fact that what is supposedly “responsible” will always be dictated by the powerful.
In my course, my students discovered that each novel on our reading list spoke against the injustices of its time, and in doing so highlighted the injustices of today. We found in every book a stubborn insistence on speaking out.
Everybody Raise Their Hands
Silence, it is said, implies consent. But that’s only half the story. Silence also confirms oppression, because the ability to speak out is too often a luxury of the privileged.
The aggressive populism we see today seems to be a testament to people refusing to be silent — and rightly so. Our societies have largely failed to provide equally for all, and technology now gives us new avenues through which to be heard, and with which to rebel against repressive ideas and structures. New leaders have latched onto that and now seek to speak for us, even though many of them are rallying us crudely around fear and mistrust.
But there is hope where there is life, even such as it is now. Because it reveals potential. This is where, counter-intuitively, literature and creative writing come in.
In 1969, Lee Kuan Yew, the president of Singapore, famously said: “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford. What is important for pupils is not literature, but a philosophy for life.” In this, the founding father of that impressive small nation was wrong. A philosophy for life is precisely what literature teaches us.
You need only open a book, from oldest scripture to contemporary novels. Moses refused to be enslaved, Odysseus spoke truth to power, Atticus Finch did not compromise justice, and Hermione Granger showed us how things are done. Plato imagined a just nation, Thomas Paine proved the importance of universal human rights, and John Stuart Mill empowered the individual and revealed the necessity of freedom of expression.
It’s all there on paper and in the ether. The self and society, tragedy and triumph, right and wrong, values and ideals — Lee Kuan Yew’s philosophies for life are easily accessible through bookshops, libraries, and the internet.
Yet while it’s conventional that wisdom exists in literature, creative writing has always been seen as more rarified or intimidating. It has been celebrated as personally palliative, yes, but it’s never been considered a method to increase participation in society. After all, what good is composing poetry and writing stories when you need a job, or a nation must be founded, or a war has to be won, or cancer is ravaging the bodies both human and politic?
But creative writing can be anyone’s best training for speaking out — and if you’ve ever read novels, heard scripture, watched movies or TV, listened to songs, or learned folklore, then you’ve been studying your entire life how storytelling works. By applying your hand at creating it, you are not just attempting art, you are learning vital skills and life lessons.
Fiction teaches us about characters and empathy, plot and consequences, and the value of nuance to truth. Poetry teaches us how to distill language, value silence, and understand metaphor. Non-fiction (which certainly includes journalism) teaches us accountability to facts, critical thinking about the systems in society, and the importance of getting out into the world to listen to others. These are but a few of the skills one learns from writing creatively.
Are those life lessons not vital to democracy? To have a voice is to have a vote. To have a vote is to be represented in society. To represent ourselves clearly and confidently empowers us citizens to air our own concerns and our community’s grievances, to be accountable for ourselves, and to demand the accountability of our leaders. If we are not trained to articulate our arguments properly, we will never be heard legitimately, and we can be ignored too conveniently.
Speaking Of Democracy
My own philosophy for life comes from the art of storytelling. I persevere in participating publicly in a hostile world by knowing that good always outweighs evil. This seemingly naive notion is proven by the stories every despot or mass murderer must tell of themselves.
Adolf Hitler, for example, was convinced of his righteousness; he loved his dog Blondi, was proud of his country, and thought noble ends justified his violent means. Similarly, the terrorists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, did so for a glory they believed was far greater than themselves; they must have thought they were heroically righting a historic wrong. The notion of good always prevails, even in warped minds that are objectively proven to be evil.
What’s perilous, however, is when such corrupted stories are believed by others. In the Philippines, where I am from, a subtle war is taking place — one of narrative; righteousness is its abiding theme.
The dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who stole billions of dollars and denied democracy for more than a decade, is having his story posthumously recast by his children and their allies who benefit from his undemocratic legacy. Fake news sites and online propagandists are being recruited by the powers that be to undermine human rights, due process, and the checks and balances required for democracy — that system that still remains our best course towards equality and the only method to ensure the bloodless removal of leaders who may turn abusive.
History, it’s said, is written by the victors, and in so being it all but guarantees that they remain the victors. This is why it’s estimated that some 80% of our higher elected offices in the Philippines remain in the hands of dynasties — which are family businesses that will always present a conflict of interest between kin and country. The story is theirs to tell.
This is why I write for newspapers, write novels, and teach creative writing. I see it as the long game — a dialogue with the subsequent generations who will hopefully learn from our mistakes of the past. Yet sometimes it feels that our leaders are so entrenched that an artist’s only recourse is to have the last word — to be brutally honest and mocking in judgment in works that we hope will outlive even the bronze statues these leaders erect to themselves. But there’s defeat in even that; in the Philippines we’d call that konswelo de bobo— the consolation of the stupid. The last word may be consolingly and powerfully final, but it’s still retroactive.
What would be proactive is helping others develop strong voices so that we citizens are no longer just arguing fallaciously on Facebook and Twitter over the daily outrage, while unsatisfactory leaders ride our division towards the next election.
The antidote to impunity is accountability. We all know that. But accountability can only be demanded if our voices have consequence. A lone voice, or the voices of the educated elite, cannot legitimately speak for the voiceless, and so cannot be truly consequential. If a voice is a vote, then they must be raised, as a majority, in demanding truer representation and better leadership.
So there is clearly work to be done. Not all art must be inclusive, but no art should be exclusive. Neither literature nor creative writing must ever be privileged as a luxury, for our story will be too easily controlled that way. And while art itself might not change the world, it’s abundantly clear that it can empower those who will.
This article, written by a Professor of Literature and Creative Writing, New York University, Abu Dhabi, was first published in 2017 as part of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN.

By: Miguel Syjuco

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‘Why Child’s Rights Act Still Doesn’t Apply Throughout Nigeria’

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Nigeria adopted the Child’s Rights Act in 2003, giving legal consent to both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child. The country’s constitution states that for an international law to take effect, Nigeria’s legislature must create a national version.
But as Nigeria operates a federal system of government, the law does not automatically become applicable in all of its 36 states. In terms of the constitution, children’s issues are the preserve of the constituent states. Each state legislature must make the national law applicable within its territory. And only 25 of the 36 states in Nigeria have localised the Child’s Rights Act.
Currently, 11 states, all in northern Nigeria, have yet to domesticate the Child’s Rights Act. There are no records of discussions or debates about the Act in these state legislatures. It has been argued that other laws, including the constitution, are able to protect children. But children in those states are still subject to practices like early marriage, female genital mutilation and begging.
Why The Law Has Not Been Adopted Fully:
Apart from the federal structure of Nigeria’s government, there are other reasons the Child’s Rights Act has not been adopted by all states. Chief of them is religion, coupled with ethnic and cultural diversity. The dominant religions in Nigeria are Christianity and Islam, with a significant population being adherents of traditional African religions.
It may be simplistic to describe Nigeria as comprising “a Muslim North” and “a Christian South”. There are significant numbers of Christians in the north and Muslims in the south. But Islam does dominate in the north, in comparison to the south.
And the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria, along with some legislators from the north, characterised the Child’s Rights Act as anti-culture, anti-tradition and anti-religion. Some of the contentious issues include the definition of the child (a person below 18 years) as it pertains to child marriage, particularly for girls.
Child marriage is a prevalent practice in parts of the north. Children about the age of 10 or 12 years get betrothed or married off. While the Child’s Rights Act prohibits child betrothal and child marriage, there are other operational laws that make exceptions.
The basis for this is that in Islam, puberty is a determining factor in a (girl) child’s readiness for marriage. Fixing 18 years as the minimum age does not fit the doctrine.
Other religious concerns against the acceptance of the Child’s Rights Act include children’s right to freedom of religion, differences in the inheritance rights of male and female children, and the Shariah’s prohibition of adoption, in favour of kafalah, which distinguishes between biological and non-biological children.
Implications:
By ratifying the Child’s Rights Convention and African Children’s Charter, the Nigerian government has the overall responsibility for ensuring these are implemented in a uniform and coherent manner. The government also took on the responsibility of discouraging religious, cultural, customary or traditional practices that are inconsistent with the Charter.
Yet, at the most basic level, the government is failing to live up to this obligation. Children, a most vulnerable group on account of physical and mental immaturity, bear the brunt of this inaction. They are being denied the full protection of the law. And the consequences for many children, besides child marriage and its health and other consequences, include negative impacts on their education and overall development.
With regard to education for example, the socio-cultural Almajiri system remains prevalent in the north. The practice allows children, usually from poor homes, to be sent to “Islamic boarding schools” for religious education. Many, however, end up on the streets as child beggars, seeking alms and menial jobs for daily survival.
Successive governments have failed to incorporate it as part of the formal school system, leaving children exposed to harmful practices and abuses prohibited by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Children’s Charter and the Child’s Rights Act. In Nigeria, recruitment of these child beggars by terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram is a real threat or option.
Children Need Uniform Protection
The Child’s Rights Act and the African Children’s Charter define a child as a person below 18 years. But various laws in Nigeria define children differently and for various purposes. The government needs to take the lead in harmonising the various definitions in conformity with these international and regional laws.
A constitutional amendment would ensure unification across the nation. It should leave no loopholes for contradictory laws, particularly at the state and local levels or based on religion or customs. But a constitutional amendment is a Herculean task, hampered by some of the obstacles facing the Child’s Rights Act. It should consider the multi-cultural and multi-religious nature of Nigerian society but focus on the best interest of all children.
While the constitution does not expressly declare Nigeria to be a secular state, a harmonious approach to law making that does not vilify religion is in the best interests of the child. Religious and traditional leaders are “gatekeepers” who cannot be jettisoned. Negotiations with them should not devalue their religion, but get them to become drivers of change for the benefit of children.
The importance of public education campaigns about the issues cannot be over emphasised. The voices of children must also be amplified. Increasingly, examples from the world over show that the power to cause real change begins with the populace. In other words, political will can be secured via a bottom-up rather than top-down approach.
States that have domesticated the Child’s Rights Act also have a role to play in challenging the remaining 11 states to do the same. They can do this by showing concrete evidence of the change in the lives of children in those states.
There is no strong case to be made for domestication if it has not translated into fulfilled rights for children. For example, female genital mutilation, a prohibited harmful traditional practice, is still common in parts of southern Nigeria.
Ultimately, where children are concerned, all actions must be in their best interests. The first step in that regard is applying the Child’s Rights Act across the country.

By: Usang Maria Assim
Assim is of the University of Western Cape.

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Three Years Of COVID -19: What Hope For Children?

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As 2022 progresses, the third year of the global pandemic, the harm done to children by COVID-19 crises is increasingly evident. There is a record rise in child poverty. Also, setbacks to progress on routine vaccinations and disruption to education which has been greatest among poorest children and job losses have been greatly borne by women and youth.
COVID-19 has been a uniquely dis-equalising crisis. It is a universal crisis and for some children, the impact may be lifelong.
Children and young people are not the face of this pandemic, but they risk being its biggest victims.
The economic crisis generated by COVID-19 threatens to hit children and families the hardest.
According to analysis by Florish Data Visualisation, even before the pandemic struck, 591 million children, that is almost one in three children in the mostly low and middle income countries were considered poor by national definitions.
The vast majority of them lived in Sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia.
As families lost their sources of income and home environments turned upside down due to the devastating effects of COVID 19, children and young people found themselves more vulnerable to poverty and deprivation of their basic needs.
Available data on the impact of unemployment and the loss of parents, income due to COVID-19 pandemic are not disaggregated by age and do not reflect the realities faced by children around the world.
According to reports, impact of COVID-19 on the welfare of households with children from data collected in 35 countries including Nigeria states that households with three or more children were most likely to have lost income with more than three quarters experiencing a reduction in earnings. The report also states that income losses have left adults in one in four households with children going without food for a day or more.
Adults in nearly half of households with children reported skipping a meal due to lack of money.
“The modest progress made in reducing child poverty in recent years risks being reversed in all parts of the world. Families have expressed loss at a staggering scale. Last year,2021, inflation reached its highest level in years, more than two thirds of households with children brought in less money. Families could not afford food or essential health care services. They could not afford housing. It was a dire picture and the poorest households were pushed even deeper in poverty”, said Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF Director of Programme Group.
Meanwhile, Nigeria was particularly vulnerable to the economic impacts of COVID-19 due to the absence of a functioning social security system capable of providing support to households that lost jobs and income during the crisis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet noted in 2021 that although the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of the right to social security, over 70 percent people worldwide had no or only partial social security coverage.
Nigeria‘s Constitution does not provide a legal right to social security. Nigerian laws create no entitlements to unemployment or child benefits.
However, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank have urged a rapid expansion of social protection systems for children and their families support may include the delivery of cash transfers and the universalisation of child benefits which are critical investments that can help lift families out of economic distress and help them prepare for future shocks. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 200 countries or territories have introduced thousands of social protection measures and the World Bank has supported countries with approximately $125 billion.

By: Ibinabo Ogolo

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Children And Adolescents More Vulnerable To Malaria Disease -Report

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All over the world, malaria is said to be responsible for approximately one to three million deaths per year. Malaria is one of the most deadly diseases in Africa and Nigeria contributes 24 percent of its prevalence.
At global level,the most vulnerable group to malaria deaths are children under five years old and in 2019 alone, they accounted for 55 percent of total deaths. Also, 80% – 90% of the deaths each year are in the rural sub-Saharan Africa.
Malaria is the world’s fourth leading cause of death in children and adolescents. Malaria is preventable and curable, however, the lack of prevention and treatment due to poverty, war and other economic instabilities in endemic areas, results in millions of deaths each year.
According to 2020 World Malaria Report, Nigeria had the highest number of global malaria cases(27% of global malaria cases) in 2019 and accounted for the highest number of deaths(23% of global malaria deaths).
Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.
There are five parasite species that cause malaria in humans and two of these species are P-falciparum and P-vivax, they pose the greatest threat. P-falciparum is the deadliest malaria parasite and the most prevalent on the African continent.
In 2007, the World Health Organisation (WHO) generated the idea of World Malaria Day from Africa Malaria Day which is an event that African governments observed against the disease beginning from 2001.
At the 60th session of the World Health Assembly which was sponsored by the WHO, it was proposed that African Malaria Day be changed to World Malaria Day. This was aimed at bringing greater awareness to the global fight and to recognise the existence of malaria across the globe.
However, the World Malaria Day which is observed annually every 25th April was to bring global attention to the effort being made to bring an end to malaria.
This year 2022 theme: “Harness innovation to reduce the malaria disease burden and save lives”  aimed to highlight the importance of investment in new tools as well as more effective use of available methods to prevent, diagnose and treat malaria particularly in worse hit countries.
Here in Rivers State, the government marked the World Malaria Day by  reiterating its political will and commitment to reduce malaria disease burden among its people.
This was stated by the state Deputy Governor, Dr Ipalibo Harry Banigo in a goodwill message to  commemorate World Malaria Day 2022.
She noted that since the inception of the administration of Chief Nyesom Wike in Rivers  State, the prevalence rate of malaria has reduced significantly, adding that, the state prevalence rate of malaria was 11.3 against the national prevalence of 24 percent.
Meanwhile, Permanent Secretary, Rivers State Ministry of Health, Dr Ndidi Chikaenele Utchay has called on the people of Rivers State to ensure that they get tested for malaria disease and also to endeavour  to sleep under Insecticide Treated Bed-Nets (ITBNS) in order to prevent mosquito bites. She described the treated nets as a sure safeguard against mosquitoes, noting that they are safe for use.
A report by BMC Journal on Public Health stated that children and adolescents between the ages of 5 and 19 in malaria endemic African countries are the most vulnerable group to be affected by malaria.
However, the hope of ending malaria disease recieved a boost in 2021 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) approved the use of first ever malaria vaccine. WHO estimates that the vaccine could save the lives of an additional 40,000 to 80,000 African children each year.
The vaccine RTS,S or mosquirix, is not just the first for malaria but also the first developed for any parasitic disease. The vaccine was found to surpass the 75 percent efficiency goal set by WHO for a malaria vaccine to receive a nod.
Although WHO said the vaccines could save tens of thousands of young lives each year, there are concerns it may not get to the children and young people who are most vulnerable to the disease. Health experts say children and young people mostly miss out on vaccination due to inaccessibility of vaccines and poor awareness by parents about their importance.
According to WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, “the vaccine supplies are limited. As such it is important that the doses that are available are utilised for maximum impact, while ensuring continued availability of other preventive measures to those most at risk.”
Dr Moeti said RTS,S vaccine pilots have sealed implementation in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi which reached up to 900,000 children. This require a focus on research and leveraging on available evidence to ensure that targeted interventions are efficient use of resources to produce measurable results.
Recent findings to avoid malaria infection include application of mosquito repellent with DEET (di ethyl toluamide) to exposed skin, drape mosquito netting over beds, put screens on windows and door, treat clothing, mosquito nets, tents, sleeping bags and other fabrics with an insect repellent called permethrin.
Meanwhile, a report from the World Health Organisation Strategic Advisory Group on Malaria Eradication has called for renewed research and development(R & D) to boost eradication efforts.
The latest World Malaria Report showed that  US $ 851 million is needed in the period  2021-2030 for R & D into malaria vaccines,antimalarial medicines,new technologies for vector control and innovations to tackle mosquito resistance to insecticides.

By: Ibinabo Ogolo

 

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