NS Christmas campaign: Show your solidarity for Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman

The Egyptian activist was beaten by soldiers as she tried to come to a woman's aid during last year's protests in Tahrir Square.

It was the quest for freedom, justice and democracy which spurred thousands, like Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman to protest in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere across Egypt last year.

Determined to dwell in a country based on human rights and democracy, ordinary men and women gathered in Tahrir Square to call for the overthrow of President Mubarak and for a new regime across Egypt. 

For many Egyptians, including Azza, the demise of President Mubarak provided a sense of relief and the promise of the beginning of a more just and fair society.

It is tragic then to see how the recent actions of current ruler, President Morsi have compelled thousands of Egyptians to return to Tahrir Square once again to reiterate demands for the freedoms for which they so bitterly fought last year.

Azza is one of the thousands who suffered at the hands of the security forces in Egypt last year. In spite of her own physical and emotional trauma she has returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to fight again.

On 17 December 2011 – exactly one year ago - Azza was brutally attacked by soldiers in Egypt. She was in Tahrir Square when she saw soldiers attacking another woman – stripping her of her clothes and beating her.

Immediately, Azza and a few other demonstrators rushed to the woman and tried to carry her away from the attacking soldiers.

Enraged, the soldiers turned their fury towards Azza. They beat her so viciously that she fell to the ground unconscious. Azza ended up with her skull fractured in two places, and she now suffers from severe memory loss as a result.  

She is still waiting for justice from the authorities for this violent attack.

Today Azza fights two battles. On one hand, Azza still demands justice and democracy for Egypt. On the other she is also fighting for justice in her own case.

As one of the cases featured in Amnesty’s Write for Rights Campaign, Azza’s case has already received attention from several quarters including Dame Vivienne Westwood. 

“Empathy is what makes us human,” Vivienne Westwood tell us in a new Amnesty film (see below).

She later told us, “The bravery shown by Azza Suleiman who dared to stand up for another woman who was being beaten, and paid a heavy price in doing so, is both awe-inspiring and humbling.”

Show your empathy by taking action for Azza at www.amnesty.org.uk/azza

Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman is still fighting for democracy in Egypt and also justice in her own case.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

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Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org