Monday, December 8


The UN secretary-general urges that physicians not refuse to do abortions on women who report being raped in the camps serving refugees from Iraq and Syria. 

""The Secretary-general’s comments are part of an ongoing dispute between nations and the UN bureaucracy on how best to end rape and sexual violence in conflict," reports Susan Yoshihara for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and "Like the work of the [UN Security] Council, major political initiatives in the last few years have emphasized ending impunity for perpetrators and making reparations to survivors of violence.... UN staff, however, have promoted a feminist agenda which views deconstructing traditional social relationships and abortion rights as necessary steps to ending discrimination and violence."

The secretary-general suggests that his recommendation is in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2122, adopted in 2013. The resolution does not specify abortion, but does recognize "the importance of Member States and United Nations entities seeking to ensure humanitarian aid and funding includes provision for the full range of medical, legal, psychosocial and livelihood services to women affected by armed conflict and post-conflict situations, and noting the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination...."  

The resolution also points out that women are especially vulnerable in armed conflict with "forced displacement," "unequal citizen rights," "gender-biased application of asylum laws," and "increased risk of violence." It also urges participation of women and consideration of gender-related issues. 

Syria and Iraq are "red" countries on the World Abortion Laws map from the Center for Reproductive Rights: In Syria, abortion is explicitly permitted to save a woman's life, but spousal authorization and parental notification are required. In Iraq, the law is not explicit on exceptions on saving a woman's life. 

Permanent members of the UN Security Council - United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom - are "green" countries, where abortion is generally permitted for most women without restriction on reason. Non-permanent members are a mixed bag: Chile and Nigeria are red which allow for saving a woman's life or are prohibited; Argentina (allows for cases of rape), Chad (allows for fetal impairment), Jordan, Republic of Korea (allowed for incest and rape; spousal authorization required) and Rwanda (allowed for incest and rape) are orange, allowed for various health puproses; Australia, Lithuania, Luxembourg are green. 

"According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 3 million have fled to Syria's immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria," reports the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, also noting that "the influx of refugees has been an enormous challenge for Syria’s neighbours, with strong implications for the stability of the entire region." 

As of July, 22 countries, most in Europe, have agreed to help resettle more than 34,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to a second country. The United States, Kuwait, European Commission, United Kingdom, Canada and Japan lead in pledging funds to support UN appeals to assist Syrian refugees, reported the UN Tribune. 

The camps are bleak places offering little in the way of education for children or work for parents. More than 30 million children worldwide cannot attend school because of violent conflicts, reports UNICEF. 

Allure of Deceit, to be released in February 2015, is a mystery novel about post-war Afghanistan and the small village of Laashekoh. The novel explores how charitable giving can come with a hidden agenda and upend incentives. Children run away to an orphanage. A caregiver accepts donor funds for women's health care, but lacks patients. A Michigan foundation director pursues programs for the purpose of solving the murder of her wealthy son. Lying is a means of self-defense. 

Contact the publisher for review copies. 

July 2013 photo of Za'atri camp for Syrian refugees is from the US State Department and Wikimedia Commons. 

Wednesday, December 3


"Stunning" - that is the consensus on the cover for Allure of Deceit, the sequel to Fear of Beauty set in the remote and fictional Afghan village in northern reaches of Helmand province, due to be published in February.

Most then wonder about the identity of the little girl in the cover photo. Many have asked how they can help her and her family.

Her identity is unknown and the image comes from Corbis, a company that supplies stock images. The AP photo was taken by photographer Emilio Morenatti in Peshawar, Pakistan. "Emilio has years of experience in war zones, working for AP in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel and Palestinian Territories," notes his bio. "While on assignment in Afghanistan on 11 August 2009, Emilio was injured in a bomb blast. He is now back in action and based in Barcelona as the AP chief photographer for Spain and Portugal."

The Corbis site offers a simple caption about the child: "A Pakistani child looks on as women covered with burqas from the tribal region of Bajur and Mohmand agency wait to be registered at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan on Friday, Jan. 30, 2009. More than 200,000 people have fled the fighting in Bajur and Mohmand agency to camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The young girl with visible bruises is probably a teenager by now and could have moved on anywhere in the region. We hope the bruises have healed. As briefly touched upon in Fear of Beauty, it's not unusual for communities and families to be displaced by fighting and violence time and time again. 

Conflict has driven millions of Afghans to flee to crowded refugee camps. Pakistan hosts 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees, "the largest protracted refugee situation globally, reports the UN Refugee Agency. The agency has helped return of 3.8 million Afghan refugees, or more than 10 percent of the Afghan population. With support from the Pakistan government, refugee children have access to public schools and there health clinics for families, the agency reports. Returns are voluntary with agency and NGO assistance.

More than 40 NGO partners assist the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees. "Within the 2014 budget, USD 58.1 million is allocated for the refugee programme, USD 28.6 million for the protection and assistance of conflict-related IDPs and USD 60.8 million for development projects aimed at the peaceful coexistence of refugees and host communities."

The UN agency has identified more than 10 million refugees of concern worldwide. A special area of concern is Syria, where brutal conflict has driven more than 2 million people to flee the country and displaced 4 million more internally.

Funding is tight for refugee services. The World Food Programme has announced it is ending food vouchers for Syrian refugees: "the United Nations said it simply doesn't have the funds to continue providing the vouchers, explaining it needs 51 million euros to support the refugees just until the end of December," reports Ruth Michaelson for RFI.  

The United States may grant refugee status or asylum to those persecuted or fearing persecution over race, religion, nationality or over social groups and political opinions. Hunger, joblessness, a lack of classrooms and education in refugee camps, supposed to be temporary, present a humanitarian and global security crisis.

Photo of Afghan boy in a Kabul refugee camp, 2011, courtesy of  SrA Christopher Hatch and Wikimedia Commons. Much thanks to photographer Emilio Morenatti and designer Jacqueline Nasso Cooke for the cover of Allure of Deceit. 

Tuesday, December 2

Top givers

The Global Journal  assesses hundreds of NGOs and then ranks them in terms of impact, innovation and sustainability. The top five with their headquarters and goals: 

BRAC, Bangladesh, micro-finance and programs for agriculture and food security; education, climate change reduction, health and poverty reduction; started as a limited relief operation in 1972 and turned into the largest development organization in the world. 

The Wikimedia Foundation, United States, free and open access internet source for mutlilingual and educational articles, images and reference materials. Founded in 2003 to promote free internet content and reference materials.

Acumen Fund, United States, loan, venture capital and investment programs to reduce global poverty; raises charitable donations to invest in companies, leaders and ideas to change how the world tackles poverty; incorporated in 2001 with seed capital from foundations and philanthropists.

Danish Refugee Council, Denmark, aims to protect refugees and offer durable solutions for ending conflicts; Founded in 1956, the group assists with housing, food security, job creation and more.

Partners in Health, United States, strives to reduce poverty that exacerbates infectious diseases. Founded in 1987 to deliver care in Haiti, the NGO has expanded its mission to establish long-term relationships in impoverished areas and maintains that health is a human right.  

Allure of Deceit is a mystery novel about a woman who runs a new and massive NGO that operates in developing nations, and how she uses that foundation to solve the murder of her wealthy son just days after his wedding.

Photograph of community health volunteer in Dhaka who goes door to door providing guidance for pregnant women and offers referrals on medical care - courtesy of UK Department for International Development and Wikimedia Commons. 

Saturday, November 22

Talking back

Talking is a foundation of relationships. Yet words can betray us, too, especially if we don't completely understand the meanings and how they're received.

Besides parrots, a few songbirds can mimic human speech - including the Hill mynas, common mynas, some crows, European starlings, the Northern mockingbird. Among the top 10 talking birds, the Hill Myna is the only non-parrot.

The birds that speak are typically young, and the words are limited. Researchers may debate over just how much the birds understand, but the mynas seem to have minds of their own. They can pick up the odd phrase and surprise and reject phrases despite repeat recitations and pleas. Kaleo is a talking myna who goes through a repertoire of insisting he is a "turkey talker," a duck and a chicken - and it's hard to believe the bird does not understand some of what is saying.

The Hill myna, Gracula religiosa, is a native of south Asia - including Afghanistan and India, reports "Hill Mynahs are sought, in the west, as pets, because of their endearing mimicking of the human voice. Ironically they are rarely encountered in pet shops as demand hugely outstrips supply," notes

Common mynas are less prone to taking and have been introduced to other countries, including Australia and South Africa, to eat insects, but now are regarded as pests themselves when they attack fruit crops. But the bird is adaptable. "The common mynah is one of the very few species that have greatly benefited from the sorts of ecological changes that humans are causing on Earth,"

Mynas are believed to mate for life. The average lifespan is 12 to 25 years.

Animals can serve as  mirrors for their human caretakers, reflecting nature, moods and basic needs all very much in the present rather than past or future.

Talking about the future too much can disappoint or mislead. So-called goal-setting exercises may not be a good idea and dreamers should be especially wary when talking about big goals "Repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen," said  Derek Sivers in a TED Talk. He explains how talking about a goal can trick the brain into a feeling of accomplishment - long before the work is completed - and that diminishes motivation. "Ideally, you would not be satisfied until you had actually done the work. But when you tell someone your goal and they acknowledge it, psychologists have found that it's called a 'social reality.'"

Conversation should serve both parties - and the talking mynas abide by most elements of a good conversation: relying on words familiar to the listener, keeping an even tone that is respectful, sticking to the point. Cocking their heads, they definitely sound and look as if they are interested in what others have to say. But the myna can't resist being the center of attention and they do not understand open-ended questions. They also tend to change the subject, repeat a lot, and ask too much.

Talking may not be doing, but it is about connecting.

I first saw a myna bird many years ago at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. This tropical bird was kept in a display case that was two meters in height, width and depth - with a microphone. The walls were white and the Hill myna was alert, waiting on its roost for passersby. Sometimes the bird spoke and sometimes it did not. Sometimes the myna would speak only once the visitor started to walk away. Other times, the myna was on a roll, repeating words while cocking its head to listen.

I was only six years old at the time. but I felt sorry for the bird alone in its case. I visited the National Aviary earlier this year and asked about the myna but the staff members did not remember a creature who was once the popular star of the place. This is the myna I remembered for the scenes in Allure of Deceit.

Photo of Hill myna courtesy of  Spencer Wright and Wikimedia Commonsphoto of parrot and open indoor space, courtesy of the National Aviary and D. Olsen. 

Tuesday, November 18


In Allure of Deceit, an antagonist incites murder of a rival by finding extremists and suggesting the woman destroyed a copy of the Koran.

Farfetched? Not really.

"Six-hundred people were charged today for the gruesome murder of a Pakistani Christian couple accused of desecrating the Quran in Punjab province," reports the Economic Times in India. The man and his pregnant wife, in their 30s and parents of four, were beaten and burned alive in a brick kiln where they worked after announcements in "two mosques of the village that Shahzad and his wife had committed blasphemy by burning pages of the holy Quran."

Entire families take on debt to work in such kilns. "According to the U.N., 21 percent of the population of  Pakistan lives below the poverty line and some are left with no choice but to take out loans in exchange for labor," reports the Borgen Project, which urges global leaders to make endign poverty a priority. "These loans can have very high interest rates, creating a cycle of bonded labor. Workers labor in the hot sun to pay off their debt and, many times, their family’s debt, which can be passed down through the generations."

Lies can be a form of self-defense or a motive for murder.

Photo courtesy of the Borgen Project.

Tuesday, November 11

Life imitates art

Authorities arrested 13 people in a Greater Manchester trafficking ring run by a gang, reports the BBC News. A 20-year-old woman from Slovakia was tricked into thinking she was traveling to visit a sister:

"She was met by a man who claimed to be her sister's friend and was taken to an address in Failsworth, Oldham before being sold to another man. In July, she was married under Sharia law in Rochdale. The woman was later taken to hospital for an appointment by a woman who acted as an interpreter and told staff she wanted an abortion."

An interpreter at the hospital uncovered the plot. Some gangs suggest that a pregnant wife is useful for securing immigration status in the UK.

Imagine the vulnerability of young women in a country where the CIA World Factbook reports the overall literacy rate is 28 percent,  12.6 percent for women; where the child labor rate is 25 percent; where more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 24; the unemployment rate is estimated as high as 35 percent; and one third of the population lives below the poverty line.  Imagine a land where there is one physician for every 5000 people, one nurse or midwife for every 10,000 and one hospital bed for every 2000 people, as reported by the World Bank, with rates much lower for rural areas. The rates for Afghanistan are but a fraction of what's available in the developed nations like the United Kingdom.

Allure of Deceit is set in Afghanistan. No one should suggest that the tale of a sham abortion that haunts one caregiver, ruining the lives of many, is unrealistic.

Photo by Todd Huffman and from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license. He writes: "A woman in conservative parts of the country without male support can do nothing but beg to survive."

Monday, November 3


US voters head to the polls on Tuesday, and their decisions have influence over daily routines for Americans and sometimes for the rest of the world - from climate change to global security:

"As globalization’s forces buffet the world..., the internal politics of any state can permanently alter course for other nations."

On the ballots is every seat for the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate. But turnout is low for the mid-terms when the presidency is not being decided: 37 percent of registered voters turned out for the 2010 congressional race compared with 54 percent for the 2012 presidential election, reports the Pew Research Center.

Compare that to Afghanistan turnout, despite threats of Taliban violence: 50 percent in the 2014 presidential race, 29 percent in the 2010 parliamentary race and 67 percent in the 2004 presidential race.

The percentage of women voting was 35 percent in the first round and 38 percent for the second.

Voting is not compulsory in either country.