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From Sports to Work, Rohingya Women Face New Roles in World’s Largest Refugee Camp

On a blue mat in their mud and bamboo home in the middle of the world’s largest refugee settlement, Mohammad Selim is pacing his 9-year-old daughter Nasima Akter on her taekwondo drill.

As a local taekwondo champion in his Rohingya district in Myanmar before fleeing to Bangladesh 18 months ago, Selim dreamed of making a career of his sport but now he is hoping that his daughter can instead follow that path.

He said in Myanmar it was impossible to teach her, as taekwondo was considered improper for girls and he didn’t have time, but their flight to camps near Cox’s Bazar in southeast Bangladesh has started to change his society’s rules for women.

For women and girls make up about 55 percent of the 900,000 plus mainly Muslim Rohingya living in about 34 sprawling, crowded camps in the settlement and they are needed to work or to run households as many have lost their husbands.

“I want my daughter to learn taekwondo and one day represent us as a champion,” Selim, 35, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via an interpreter watched by his wife and three other younger children in their tidy, two-room shelter.

“Our society is conservative and we prefer covering our women but in taekwondo you are covered so people can’t question a girl participating. We practice inside to not get criticized but many people regret they cannot teach their daughters.”

With most Rohingya now in Bangladesh for 18 months and life starting to become more routine in the camps, Selim is not the only one breaking away from the Rohingya’s previous lifestyle, where women rarely left the house and were segregated from men.

He is hoping to get approval to teach taekwondo to other girls in the camps where children do not have access to a formal education but can attend learning centers until about age 14.

More than 730,000 Rohingya have fled Buddhist-dominated Myanmar since August 2017 to escape a military offensive the United Nations called “ethnic cleansing” of one of the world’s most oppressed people, joining others already in Bangladesh.

The chance of returning soon to Myanmar looks remote, with Bangladesh vowing to only repatriate volunteers.

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said in late January it was clear they cannot return “in the near future” with the situation in Myanmar unchanged.

Myanmar has denied most allegations of persecution.

Women-only areas

Aid agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) working alongside Bangladesh’s government in the camps were aware from the outset that women and girls were vulnerable to sexual and other violence, both on their journey and in the camps.

To address this, they have set up women-only projects and committees to encourage women to get involved in the community as well as counseling services for those who faced abuse.

But not all Rohingya men used to a conservative Islamic lifestyle are happy to see women taking on new roles and making decisions, adding to the risk of domestic violence which aid groups said is on the rise in the camps as time goes by.

“Some men say it is a sin for women to work because in Myanmar we never worked,” said Nuran Kis, 40, a Rohingya mother of eight, who is teaching others to sew in a women-only center.

“My husband supports me though because we need money and want to survive,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting cross-legged in her two-room home on a hill overlooking Balukhali camp, a maze of dirt roads and makeshift shelters.

Shameema Akhter, who co-ordinates eight women-friendly spaces in Balukhali camp for BRAC, Bangladesh’s largest NGO, said some men were initially reluctant to allow women and girls to come to these centers but gradually that was changing.

She said they ran craft sessions for the women and girls, taught them to sew, talked to them about the risk of rape, human trafficking, and child marriage, how to manage hygiene, and provided one-on-one counseling for anyone abused.

Akhter said when they arrived many girls were given sanitary pads, but had no idea how to use them and cut them up as face tissues while handouts of cereal, a food item not known to the Rohingya, were sold at markets for a fraction of the real value.

Most of the Rohingya are illiterate, having had limited access to education — and healthcare — in Myanmar’s Rakhine state where they were refused citizenship and free movement.

“Many of the girls were depressed and traumatized about being raped or being forced by their families to get married and very shy,” Akhter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the group’s center decorated with brightly colored paper cutouts.

“But now they want to come here and learn skills that might help them and their families in the future.”

Limited work

Under Bangladesh government rules, Rohingya cannot take formal employment, but they can join cash-for-work schemes run by NGOs in the camps to earn about 400 Bangladeshi taka (US$5) a day — and some women have taken roles previously only for men.

Dola Banu, 35, is one of the women building roads and other infrastructure under a Site Maintenance Engineering Project (SMEP) run by United Nations agencies International Organization for Migration (IOM), World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR.

“This is the first time I have ever done any kind of work like this,” Banu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via an interpreter during a break from carrying bricks for a new road.

“I like this work and want to keep doing it as long as I can to support my family,” said Banu, who is raising her four children as a single mother after her husband died.

Aid workers said these new roles were giving women more confidence and more were willing to take leadership roles in the community so they could raise issues such as the need for more lighting by latrines, where women fear being attacked at night.

“This is a group going through forced societal change and women are finding new forms of confidence,” said Gemma Snowdon, a WFP spokeswoman based in the beachside town of Cox’s Bazar about 40 km (25 miles) from the nearest of the camps.

She said a key barrier for female-led households was childcare so they planned to launch mobile child care and boost self-reliance by teaching women skills such as growing vegetables, sewing, and even repairing mobile phones.

Some help has come from outside the settlement as well.

Launched late last year, the Testimony Tailors website https://testimonytailors.com lets users fund and pick garments to be made by about 40 female Rohingya, with finished items donated to refugees in the camps.

Jamila Hanan, a British-based manager at #Hands4Rohingya, which supports the project, said all the women and girls involved in the project were aged between 15 and 40 and survivors of rape or massacres.

Many had witnessed family members being killed “This cooperative is them helping themselves… It has been incredible to see them supporting each other,” said Hanan.

While some Rohingya are struggling to accept women’s new roles and projects such as encouraging girls to play football, for others like Nasima Akter, the changes are part of adjusting to life in the camps for the foreseeable future.


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Australia Leads Global Renewable Energy Revolution

Australia is installing renewable energy facilities at a faster rate than any other country.  Research shows Australia is on track to meet its Paris climate commitments five years earlier than expected — in 2025.

Australia is enjoying a green energy revolution.  It is installing renewable energy facilities faster than anywhere else, and research shows Australia is on track to meet its Paris climate commitments five years early.  The agreement reached in the French capital in 2016 stressed the need for global action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Academics say at the current rate Australia can expect to be 100 percent powered by green sources within a decade-and-a-half.  

Andrew Blakers is a professor of engineering at the Australian National University.

“Currently above 20 percent renewable electricity. At this rate we are going to get to 50 percent in 2024, and 100 percent in about 2032 if we just keep doing exactly what we are doing now.  This is four or five faster per capita than the United States, China, Japan or the European Union,” he said.

The research from the Australian National University contrasts previous studies, which found Australia is not on track to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement.  The 2018 Emissions Gap Report from the United Nations listed Australia as a G20 country that will not meet its 2030 emission reduction target.

There is broad agreement, however, that renewable energy has an increasingly important part to play in Australia.   

It is a sunny and windy place.  It has a range of renewable power sources, including solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy, which taps heat in the earth.  It has a growing rooftop solar industry.  At the end of last year, more than 2 million Australian homes had rooftop solar systems.

Renewable energy will help to cut emissions in Australia, which still uses coal to generate much of its electricity.   

Recent extreme conditions in Australia have again focused attention on the impact of climate change.  

January was the hottest month ever documented, and 2018 was the third warmest year on record.  

The Bureau of Meteorology says that while it cannot attribute individual heatwaves to climate change, it states that as the planet warms, bursts of extreme heat will become more frequent and intense.

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Huawei Global Business Model Relied on Bribes and Corruption

In Algeria, it was banned from bidding for public contracts after one of its executives was convicted of bribery. 

In Zambia, it was probed over allegations of bribery involving a multi-million-dollar contract to build cell towers in rural areas.

In the Solomon Islands, it was accused of offering millions of dollars to the ruling party in exchange for an undersea fiber optic cable contract.

In all three cases – and half a dozen others in recent years – the alleged perpetrator was Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecom behemoth facing scrutiny from Western nations over allegations of intellectual property theft and espionage.

Saying it poses a national security threat, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have banned the company from building new, state of the art 5G telecom networks. Other Western countries are debating over a similar ban. 

Security concerns about Huawei and other Chinese telecom equipment providers are mounting after U.S. prosecutors last month charged the company founded by a former People’s Liberation Army officer with violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, purloining trade secrets from T-Mobile and encouraging its employees to steal intellectual property.

The focus on national security concerns about Huawei has eclipsed a little reported aspect of the company’s operations: Huawei’s involvement in corrupt business dealings.

The company has denied the allegations of corruption and said it has strong safeguards against corporate graft. 

In a statement on its website, Huawei says it has a “zero-tolerance” policy on graft.

“Huawei believes that corruption severely damages fair market competition and is a threat to the development of our society, economy and enterprises,” the statement said. 

But experts who have studied Huawei’s business practices say the company’s statements are contradicted by its conduct.

“The unfortunate reality of Huawei’s activities on the (African) continent is that they have a proven track record of engaging in corruption and other dodgy business dealings,” said Joshua Meservey, an Africa expert at the Heritage Foundation and author of a recent report on Chinese corporate corruption. 

With business operations in more than 170 countries and annual revenues of $108 billion, Huawei is the world’s largest supplier of telecom equipment. Last year, the multinational company beat Apple to become the No. 2 manufacturer of smartphones and tablets in the world.

In December, Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested by Canadian authorities and she is being held for possible extradition to the U.S. for violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

​Huawei has rejected the charges. In a recent letter to the U.K. Parliament made public last week, Huawei refuted allegations of espionage, saying if the company engaged “in malicious behavior, it would not go unnoticed – and it would certainly destroy our business.”

International corruption

In developing countries in Asia and Africa, the company’s corrupt business practices are a matter of great concern among industry officials and civil society activists.

In the last 12 years, Huawei and its smaller Chinese rival ZTE have been “investigated or found guilty of corruption” in as many as 21 countries, according to Andy Keiser, a former House Intelligence Committee professional staffer.

These include a dozen African countries such as Algeria and Ghana as well as the Philippines, Malaysia, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, the Solomon Islands and China itself, according to Keiser. 

“ZTE and Huawei have developed dubious reputations around the world,” Keiser testified before Congress last June. 

The transaction cost of Huawei’s corrupt business deals runs in the billions. RWR Advisory Group, a consulting firm that tracks Chinese investments around the world, estimates that Huawei has entered into more than $5 billion worth of business deals involving allegations of bribery and corruption.

The charges against Huawei range from outright bribery to making illegal donations to political parties in exchange for contracts and other business advantages.

The Algerian case involved an elaborate scheme in which Huawei and ZTE executives allegedly paid $10 million in bribes to a former state telecom operator executive and a businessman in exchange for winning contracts.

In 2012, an Algerian court convicted the former executive and another businessman of receiving bribes. The two Algerians were sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Three executives of the Chinese firms also were tried in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role in the scheme.

The government fined Huawei and ZTE and banned them from bidding on public contracts for two years.

In Ghana, Huawei has confronted accusations of illegally funding the ruling party, a charge Huawei and other Chinese companies have faced in other countries.

In 2012, an opposition group disclosed what it claimed was evidence that Huawei had made illegal campaign contributions to the ruling National Democratic Congress in exchange for a $43 million tax exemption.

Alliance for Accountable Governance (AFAG) produced invoices and other documents showing the Chinese telecom company had paid for millions of dollars worth of campaign paraphernalia for the ruling party’s 2012 election campaign.

In return, the group alleged, the government awarded “one of the juiciest contracts to be doled out by the government” – a $150 million contract to build an e-government platform.

Huawei and the government denied the charges.

In the Solomon Islands, Huawei has faced similar accusations. In 2017, a Parliamentary committee accused the government of awarding Huawei a contract to build a submarine fiber optic link to Australia after Huawei offered a $5.25 million campaign donation to the ruling party.

“The committee is of the view that this is the main reason for the government to bypass procurement requirements in favor of the company Huawei,” a parliamentary report said.

Huawei dismissed the allegations.

“As a global business entity, Huawei does not involve itself in politics. Huawei forbids all of its global subsidiaries from making any form of political donation, including in places where this practice is legal,” the company said in a statement. 

Bribery allegations have also plagued Huawei projects in South Africa, Nigeria, and Pakistan. But the company appears to have weathered the allegations, positioning itself as a major player in building 5G networks around the world. 

WATCH: 5G networks explained

​As of last February, Huawei had signed 25 memorandums of understanding with telecom operators around the world to trial 5G equipment, according to a Reuters survey of public announcements.

In recent years, Huawei has also found itself at the receiving end of a Chinese government crackdown on domestic corruption. In 2017, the head of Huawei’s consumer business group for China was detained on suspicion of taking bribes.

To root out corruption among its employees, Huawei says it has implemented policies including requiring executives to take a loyalty oath. But the safeguards are “of limited value if the material incentives for employees don’t reflect those priorities,” said Alexandra Wrage, president of anti-bribery business organization TRACE International.

“This danger can be compounded when an enterprise maintains financial and political backing from the government, which is often seen as fostering a greater tolerance for risk in pursuit of growth,” Wrage said.

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People Flee Escalating Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine, Southern Chin States

The U.N. refugee agency says it is worried by reports of people fleeing escalating violence in Myanmar’s southern Chin State and Rakhine State, adding to growing instability in these regions.

The U.N. refugee agency says it cannot assess the scale of the current humanitarian situation in these volatile areas because it has little access to these and other regions in Myanmar.   

But the UNHCR says reports it has received of the deteriorating security situation in southern Chin State and Rakhine State are very worrying.  It says it does not know how many people have fled their homes and have become internally displaced since violence flared up there in December.

Additionally, in Rakhine State, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said a number of Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh in search of asylum.

“We understand from some of the reports that some 200 people have sought shelter, have sought safety.  This is reportedly in a very remote area where we do not really have access,” he said. 

More than 720,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape persecution and violence in Myanmar.  Because of previous refugee crises in Myanmar, Bangladesh currently is home to nearly one million Rohingya refugees.

The UNHCR praises the country’s generosity and appeals to the authorities to continue to allow people fleeing violence in Myanmar to seek safety in Bangladesh.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a predominantly Buddhist country.  It has a long history of tension with its ethnic minorities, much of it based on religion.  Southern Chin State is the only State in Myanmar with a Christian majority.  It also is the poorest and least developed region in the country.

The large Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine State continues to suffer discrimination and repression from the majority Buddhist community.  Though they have lived in Myanmar for generations, the Rohingya are denied citizenship and remain stateless.

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South Korea Agrees to Pay More for US Troops

Officials signed a short-term agreement Sunday to boost South Korea’s contribution toward the upkeep of U.S. troops on the peninsula, after a previous deal lapsed amid U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for the South to pay more.

The new deal must still be approved by South Korea’s parliament, but it would boost its contribution to 1.03 trillion won ($890 million) from 960 billion won in 2018.

Unlike past agreements, which lasted for five years, this one is scheduled to expire in a year, potentially forcing both sides back to the bargaining table within months.

“It has been a very long process, but ultimately a very successful process,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters before another official from the foreign ministry initialed the agreement.

​Domestic criticism

While acknowledging lingering domestic criticism of the new deal and the need for parliamentary approval, Kang said the response had “been positive so far.”

U.S. State Department senior adviser for security negotiations and agreements, Timothy Betts, met Kang before signing the agreement on behalf of the United States, and told reporters the money represented a small but important part of South Korea’s support for the alliance.

“The United States government realizes that South Korea does a lot for our alliance and for peace and stability in this region,” he said.

​28,500 US troops

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, where the United States has maintained a military presence since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The allies had struggled to reach a breakthrough despite 10 rounds of talks since March, amid Trump’s repeated calls for a sharp increase in South Korea’s contribution.

South Korean officials have said they had sought to limit its burden to $1 trillion won and make the accord valid for at least three years.

A senior South Korean ruling party legislator said last month that negotiations were deadlocked after the United States made a “sudden, unacceptable” demand that Seoul pay more than 1.4 trillion won per year.

But both sides worked to reach a deal to minimize the impact of the lapse on South Korean workers on U.S. military bases, and focus on nuclear talks ahead of a second U.S.-North Korea summit, Seoul officials said.

The disagreement had raised the prospect that Trump could decide to withdraw at least some troops from South Korea, as he has in other countries like Syria. But on Sunday, South Korean officials told Yonhap news agency that the United States had affirmed it would not be changing its troop presence.

Trump said in his annual State of the Union address to Congress he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam, following their unprecedented meeting in June in Singapore.

Military exercises suspended

After the June summit, Trump announced a halt to joint military exercises with South Korea, saying they were expensive and paid for mostly by the United States.

Major joint exercises have been suspended, but some small-scale drills have continued, earning rebukes from North Korea’s state media in recent months.

About 70 percent of South Korea’s contribution covers the salaries of some 8,700 South Korean employees who provide administrative, technical and other services for the U.S. military.

Late last year, the U.S. military warned Korean workers on its bases they might be put on leave from mid-April if no deal was agreed.

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10 Years Later, Australia Remembers Deadliest Bushfire

Ten years ago, Australia suffered its worst bushfire disaster when 173 people died in the state of Victoria. Thousands of homes were destroyed as fires tore through the southern state. The tragedy led to sweeping changes in emergency warning systems.

“Black Saturday” is how Australians refer to the February 2009 bushfire that killed 173 people and left hundreds more injured.

The blaze left more than 2,000 homes in ruins, and thousands of people displaced. Authorities estimate that up to 1 million animals died.

There were not just a handful of fires, but hundreds. About 400 blazes burned across Victoria state. Most were sparked by lightning and faulty power lines, but others had been set deliberately by arsonists.

Carol Matthews’ son Sam was killed when the family home burned down. She recalls the last time she spoke with him on the phone as the flames moved closer.

“We only had a 30 second conversation,” she said. “When he started, he was anxious but not panicked. A tree blew up and then there was fire all around him and then I heard this ‘pop, pop, pop,’ and I said, ‘What is that?’ and he said, ‘All the windows have blown in.’ In my heart, as soon as the windows had blown in, I knew there was not much hope for him and although I tried about 15 to 20 times to ring him back, we never heard from him again.”

The disaster was caused by a deadly cocktail of record temperatures, unusually strong winds and a long-running drought — conditions that affect Australia today.

Earlier this month, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported that January was the hottest month ever recorded in the country, with a mean temperature that exceeded 30 degrees Celsius.

An official inquiry into the 2009 tragedy resulted in sweeping changes to the way Australia prepares for and fights bushfires, including better early warning systems for residents. New homes in vulnerable areas are also subject to stricter building regulations.

Southeastern Australia is one of the world’s most fire-prone regions.

Between 1967 and 2013, major bushfires in Australia have caused about 8,000 injuries and more than 430 deaths.

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Thai King Dashes Sister’s Political Dreams

Thailand’s king has crushed the plans of his older sister to become a candidate for the country’s prime minister.

The Thai Raksa Chart party had announced Friday that Princess Ubolratana, who is 67, would be the party’s prime minister nominee for the March 24 election.

The political hopes of the princess were dashed almost immediately when her younger brother, the king, issued a terse statement saying his sister’s candidacy was “highly inappropriate” and went against tradition and national culture.

On Saturday, the Thai Raksa Chart party swore loyalty to the king, saying in a statement that it “complies with the royal command.”

Puangthong Pawakapan, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, told the French news agency AFP that the king’s disapproval invalidated his sister’s candidacy.

In an Instagram post Saturday, the princess, without mentioning her brother or her dashed political plans, thanked her supporters for their “love and kindness” and expressed a desire to see the country expand rights and opportunities for citizens.

Thailand will hold elections on March 24, the first since a 2014 military coup. The takeover resulted in the installation of a junta intent on eradicating the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allies have won every national election since 2001.

Since Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006, Thailand’s establishment has had little success in trying to weaken his political machine with constitutional amendments, court rulings and changes to the electoral system.  

Thaksin, who has been in exile to avoid a jail sentence on a conflict of interest conviction, is believed by many to have played a role in establishing Ubolratana’s candidacy. His alleged involvement rattled royalists who see their campaign against Thaksin as a way to protect the monarchy.

As a candidate, Ubolratana would have attempted to oust junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the preferred choice of the military.

Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932.

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Top US University Suspends New Research Projects with Chinese Telecom Giant Huawei

One of the world’s top research universities, the U.S.-based University of California, Berkeley, has stopped new research projects with Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecommunications giant.

The university’s suspension, which took effect on January 30, came after the U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal charges against the corporation and some of its affiliates two days earlier. The department announced a 13-count indictment against Huawei, accusing it of stealing trade secrets, obstruction of justice, violations of economic sanctions and wire fraud.

Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz said in a letter addressed to the Chancellor’s cabinet members the campus would continue to honor existing commitments with Huawei that provide funding for current research projects.

Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, has been under house arrest in Canada since December 1 for allegedly deceiving U.S. banks into clearing funds for a subsidiary that interacted with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. Her extradition to the U.S. is pending.

Meng’s arrest has prompted some observers to question whether her detention was an attempt to pressure China in its ongoing trade war with the U.S.  She is the daughter of the corporation’s founder, a relationship that places her among the most influential corporate executives in China.

UC Berkeley and other leading U.S. universities, meanwhile, are getting rid of telecom equipment made by Huawei and other Chinese companies to prevent losing federal funds under a new national security law.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump alleges Chinese telecom companies are manufacturing equipment that allows the Chinese government to spy on users in other countries, including Western researchers working on innovative technologies.

UC Berkeley has removed a Huawei video-conferencing system, a university official said. The University of California, Irvine is also replacing Chinese-made audio-video equipment. Other schools, such as the University of Wisconsin, are reviewing their telecom suppliers.

The action is in response to a law Trump signed in August. A provision of the National Defense Authorization Act prohibits recipients of federal funding from using telecom and networking equipment made by Hauwei or ZTE.

Universities that fail to comply with the law by August 2020 could lose federal government research grants and other funding.