Iran: One Year on, What’s Changed?

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Economy & Trade, Featured, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, TerraViva United Nations, Youth


Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Sep 19 2023 (IPS) – It’s a year since a photo of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini – bruised and in a coma she would never recover from after being arrested by the morality police for her supposedly improperly worn hijab – went viral, sending people onto the streets.

The protests became the fiercest challenge ever faced by Iran’s theocratic regime. The unprecedented scale of the protests was matched by the unparalleled brutality of the crackdown, which clearly revealed the regime’s fear for its own survival.

Led by women and young people, mobilisations under the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ banner articulated broader demands for social and political change. They spread like wildfire – to streets across Iran, to universities, even to cemeteries where growing numbers of the regime’s victims were being buried. They were echoed and amplified by the Iranian diaspora around the world. The Iranian people made it abundantly clear they wanted the Islamic Republic gone.

A year on, the theocratic regime still stands, but that doesn’t mean nothing has changed. By sheer force, the authorities have regained control – at least for now. But subtle changes in daily life reveal the presence of active undercurrents that could once again spark mass protests. The regime knows this, hence the fear with which it has awaited this date and its redoubled repression as it neared.

A glimpse of change

Last December, as protests raged and the authorities were busy trying to stop them, women could be seen on Iranian streets without their hijabs for the first time in decades. After the protests were quelled, many simply refused to resubmit to the old rules. A tactical shift followed, with mass street mobilisation turning into more elusive civil disobedience.

Women, particularly Gen Z women just like Mahsa, continue to protest on a daily basis, simply by not abiding by hijab rules. Young people express their defiance by dancing or showing affection in public. Cities wake up to acts of civil disobedience emblazoned on their walls. Anti-regime slogans are heard coming from seemingly nowhere. In parts of the country where many people from excluded ethnic minorities live, protest follows Friday prayers. It may take little for the embers of rebellion to reignite.

Preventative repression

Ahead of the anniversary, family members of those killed during the 2022 protests were pressured not to hold memorial services for their loved ones. The lawyer representing Mahsa Amini’s family was charged with ‘propaganda against the state’ due to interviews with foreign media. University professors suspected to be critical of the regime were dismissed, suspended, forced to retire, or didn’t have their contracts renewed. Students were subjected to disciplinary measures in retaliation for their activism.

Artists who expressed support for the protest movement faced reprisals, including arrests and prosecution under ridiculous charges such as ‘releasing an illegal song’. Some were kept in detention on more serious charges and subjected to physical and psychological torture, including solitary confinement and beatings.

Two months ago, the regime put the morality police back on the streets. Initial attempts to arrest women found in violation of hijab regulations, however, were met with resistance, leading to clashes between sympathetic bystanders and police. Women, including celebrities, have been prosecuted for appearing in public without their hijab. Car drivers carrying passengers not wearing hijab have been issued with traffic citations and private businesses have been closed for noncompliance with hijab laws.

The most conservative elements of the regime have doubled down, proposing a new ‘hijab and chastity’ law that seeks to impose harsher penalties, including lashes, heavy fines and prison sentences of up to 10 years for those appearing without the hijab. The bill is now being reviewed by Iran’s Guardian Council, a 12-member, all-male body led by a 97-year-old cleric.

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If not now, then anytime

In the run-up to 16 September, security force street presence consistently increased, with snap checkpoints set up and internet access disrupted. The government clearly feared something big might happen.

As the anniversary passes, the hardline ruling elite remains united and the military and security forces are on its side, while the protest movement has no leadership and has taken a bad hit. Some argue that what made it spread so fast – the role of young people, and young women in particular – also limited its appeal among wider Iranian society, and particularly among low-income people concerned above all with economic strife, rising inflation and increasing poverty.

There are ideological differences among the Iranian diaspora, which formed through successive waves of exiles and includes left and right-wing groups, monarchists and ethnic separatists. While most share the goal of replacing the authoritarian theocracy with a secular democracy, they’re divided over strategy and tactics, and particularly on whether sanctions are the best way to deal with the regime.

Ever since the protests took off last year, thousands of people around the world have shown their support and called on their governments to act. And some have, starting with the USA, which early on imposed sanctions on the morality police and senior police and security officials. New sanctions affecting 29 additional people and entities, including 18 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and security forces, were imposed on the eve of the anniversary of the protests, 15 September, International Day of Democracy. That day, US President Joe Biden made a statement about Mahsa Amini’s inspiration of a ‘historic movement’ for democracy and human dignity.

The continuing outpouring of international solidarity shows that the world still cares and is watching. A new regime isn’t around the corner in Iran, but neither is it game over in the quest for democracy. For those living under a murderous regime, every day of the year is the anniversary of a death, an indignity or a violation of rights. Each day will therefore bring along a new opportunity to resurrect rebellion.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


Halfway to 2030: Our 5 Asks at the SDG Summit

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Development & Aid, Environment, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Inequality, Poverty & SDGs, Press Freedom, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations


A protest for women’s rights in Puebla, Mexico. Credit: Melania Torres/Forus

NEW YORK, Sep 15 2023 (IPS) – At the UN SDG Summit in New York, the Forus global civil society network is calling for decisive action on SDG implementation. Clearly, as we hit the midpoint towards the “finish line” of the Agenda 2030, progress is stagnating.

The 2023 Special Edition of the SDG Progress Report emphasized that we’re falling short in implementing the SDGs. In April this year, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres deplored that “Progress on more than 50 per cent of targets of the SDGs is weak and insufficient; on 30 per cent, it has stalled or gone into reverse,” disproportionately impacting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.

As we approach the halfway mark of the 2030 Agenda, we urge world leaders at the UN General Assembly to address the precarious state of SDG implementation. Here’s our 5 asks.

Walk the talk with clear implementation plans and benchmarks for the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals.

“In Guatemala, there are two worlds, one for a small group that benefits from this macroeconomic stability, this weakness of democracy, this co-optation of state institutions, and a large majority of the population that faces poverty and inequality,” says Alejandro Aguirre Batres, Executive Director of CONGCOOP, the national platform of NGOs in Guatemala that recently published an alternative report on the implementation of the SDGs in the country.

Human rights activists in Cartagena, Colombia from the Coalition of Human Rights in Development at the Finance in Common Summit. Credit: Sebastian Barros/Forus

Governments must make specific national implementation plans to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, with clear benchmarks on when to achieve the targets set in 2015. Following the SDG Summit, we call on the United Nations and its partners to ensure that the “National Commitments to SDG Transformation” called for by the Secretary-General are adequately compiled and tracked, including by providing a transparent and inclusive platform for showcasing these commitments, helping to ensure adequate implementation, follow-up and accountability. All efforts and commitments must focus on breaching the increassing gap in inequalities, healing polarisation and restoring socio-environmental rights at the core of Agenda 2030 implementation as no form of development should come at the cost of environmental degradation and injustice.

Presenting a viewpoint from Asia, Jyotsna Mohan Singh, representing the Asia Development Alliance, emphasizes that while the SDGs look good on paper, their real-world implementation remains far from satisfactory. She explains, “Governments should develop a policy coherence for sustainable development roadmap with timebound targets,” adding that it’s all about creating spaces grounded in equity where civil society and other stakeholders can join discussions and connect with local communities.

In regions like the Sahel, stretching 5,000 kilometers below the Sahara Desert from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, challenges like conflict, political instability, extreme poverty, and food insecurity affect nearly 26 million people. Yet, this region is teeming with opportunities, boasting abundant resources and a young population, including 50% young women and girls. As civil society leader Mavalow Christelle Kalhoule, Forus Chair and President of SPONG, the Burkina Faso NGO network, puts it, “What unfolds in the Sahel and in so many other forgotten communities ripples across the globe, impacting us all even if we choose to look away. Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals is vital to unlock a different future. But for global change to truly happen, we need countries to come together, we need solidarity, horizontal spaces, and for world leaders to start listening and acting accordingly.”

Commit to the protection of civic space and human rights.

“Although the state of Pakistan has ratified many global instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the SDGs, the irony is that none of them have been transformed into local policies and regulatory frameworks. Unfortunately, civil rights advocates and organizations have either transformed themselves into humanitarian organizations or practiced self-censorship to avoid state atrocities. Pakistan is failing to achieve SDGs due to disengagement with civil society and other stakeholders. Ironically, the government is unable to provide reliable data on any of their own priority indicators to measure progress towards the implementation of SDGs, particularly on rights-based indicators,” says Zia ur Rehman, National Convener of the Pakistan Development Alliance. Their newly published Pakistan Civic Space Monitor reveals a generally restricted civic space, including restraints on freedom of speech, assembly, information, rule of law, governance, and public participation, with further deterioration. This rings true for 92% of Forus members – comprising national and regional civil society networks in over 124 countries – who consider the protection of civic space and human rights a top priority.

Fridays for Future activists during a Climate March in Brussels, Belgium. Credit: Both Nomads/Forus

Indeed, over the past decade, thousands of civil society organizations have faced increasing challenges due to restrictions on their formation and activities. Nine out of 10 people now live in countries where civil liberties are severely restricted, including freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression, according to the CIVICUS Monitor. Forus reports confirm that civil society deals with increasing restrictions, involving extra-legal actions, misinformation and disinformation about their work both online and offline. Research also highlights the insufficiency of current institutional mechanisms to ensure an enabling environment for civil society, including addressing impunity for attacks on civil society and human right defenders, implementing supportive laws and regulations, and facilitating effective and inclusive policy dialogue. A recent ARTICLE 19 report highlights the inadequate integration of crucial elements like freedom of expression and access to information into SDGs, hampering progress. Journalist killings increased in 2022. Additionally, monitoring access to information mainly focuses on having a legal framework, ignoring its quality and adoption. Strengthening these rights is vital for advancing all SDGs. The growing number of human rights defenders being killed every year – at least 401 in 26 countries were murdered for their peaceful work in 2022 – is another worrying trend that needs to be reversed as the protection and promotion of human rights is the cornerstone of achieving sustainable development. Without human rights we will just move backwards.

Strengthen and Catalyze Robust Financing for the SDGs.

From the recent Summit for a new global financing pact to the Finance in Common initiative, it’s clear that the focus this year has been on increasing investment. But we need quality not just quantity, as expressed in a join civil society declaration aimed at public development banks signed by over 100 civil society organisations from 50+ countries. While we welcome UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s call for a SDG Stimulus, we remind Governments, International Financial Institutions, public development banks and donors that more efforts must be done to scale up investments for the realization of the SDGs at all levels, including through additional support for civil society and by involving communities in all “development talks”. The role of the private sector and financial institutions in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda must be talked about openly. It is important to include in all development projects being carried out specific budgets for actions linked to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Discussions about financial reforms that are being repeatedly undertaken by several countries cannot happen behind close doors and in non-inclusive forums such as the G7 and G20. Instead, they should be open, inclusive, and transparent, involving a broader spectrum of protagonists, including civil society, to ensure fairness and sustainability in shaping global financial policies.

“The SDGs are severely off track as we reach the critical half-way point of Agenda 2030. We need a renewed global ambition on financial commitments to make progress on the SDGs. Reforms of global financial architecture are a crucial part of this to ensure we have a fairer, more effective, inclusive and transparent system supporting lower-income countries that are at the forefront of the global climate, debt, poverty, food, and humanitarian crises. It’s not about a lack of finance, it is about political will and getting our priorities right,” says Sandra Martinsone, Policy Manager – Sustainable Economic Development at Bond UK.

Mobilize Transformative Commitments for SDG16+.

Recognizing the vital role of SDG16+ as a critical enabler for the entire 2030 Agenda, governments should come to the SDG Summit with targeted, integrated, focused and transformative commitments to accelerate action on SDG16+. As developed in the #SDG16Now collective campaign, this includes domestic policies and resources, legal reforms and initiatives to advance SDG16+ at the international, national and local levels, as well as ambitious global commitments to strengthen multilateralism and international resolve to promote peace, justice, the rule of law, inclusion and institution-building. Additionally, governments must use key moments – such as the 2024 High-Level Political Forum and the Summit of the Future – to advance implementation and delivery of the SDGs through similar commitments to action, and ensure adequate follow-up to these commitments going forward.

Ensure civil society participation and listen to communities, reinvigorate commitments to SDG17.

The 2030 Agenda overall cannot be achieved without building on the role of civil society and fostering a true global partnership. Every year at the fringes of the UN General Assembly, initiatives such as the Global People’s Assembly bring to the ears of world leaders the voices of communities historically marginalised. Governments need to reinvigorate engagement towards SDG17 to trengthen the means of implementing sustainable development goals and revitalising global partnerships for sustainable development. It’s high time we move away from conducting discussions about the future of development in closed-door settings. Tokenistic participation of civil society, where their involvement is merely symbolic or superficial, undermines the core principles of nclusivity, hurting genuine progress and meaningful collaboration. A more inclusive approach must be embraced that actively involves civil society and communities. Let’s #UNmute their voices and perspectives by bringing about reforms to current participation mechanisms, and giving them a real platform to be heard.

In 2015 every government in the world agreed as a global community on what we want for our comon future for people and planet. So many efforts and work went on to reach such an agreement. Now is the time for governments and world leaders to walk the walk and prioritize people and the planet, delivering the 2030 Agenda, essential to secure our shared future. It is time for world leaders to act decisively and uphold their commitments to the SDGs.

IPS UN Bureau


The UN’s Own Relevance Is at Stake at This Year’s General Assembly

Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Climate Change, Crime & Justice, Development & Aid, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Inequality, Peace, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations


United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses the 22nd session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations headquarters in New York City on 17 April 17 2023. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

NEW YORK, Sep 7 2023 (IPS) – This September, world leaders and public policy advocates from around the world will descend on New York for the UN General Assembly. Alongside conversations on peace and security, global development and climate change, progress – or the lack of it – on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is expected to take centre-stage. A major SDG Summit will be held on 18 and 19 September. The UN hopes that it will serve as a ‘rallying cry to recharge momentum for world leaders to come together to reflect on where we stand and resolve to do more’. But are the world’s leaders in a mood to uphold the UN’s purpose, and can the UN’s leadership rise to the occasion by resolutely addressing destructive behaviours?

Sadly, the world is facing an acute crisis of leadership. In far too many countries authoritarian leaders have seized power through a combination of populist political discourse, outright repression and military coups. Our findings on the CIVICUS Monitor – a participatory research platform that measures civic freedoms in every country – show that 85% of the world’s population live in places where serious attacks on basic fundamental freedoms to organise, speak out and protest are taking place. Respect for these freedoms is essential so that people and civil society organisations can have a say in inclusive decision making.

UN undermined

The UN Charter begins with the words, ‘We the Peoples’ and a resolve to save future generations from the scourge of war. Its ideals, such as respect for human rights and the dignity of every person, are being eroded by powerful states that have introduced slippery concepts such as ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘development with national characteristics’. The consensus to seek solutions to global challenges through the UN appears to be at breaking point. As we speak hostilities are raging in Ukraine, Sudan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Sahel region even as millions of people reel from the negative consequences of protracted conflicts and oppression in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Syria and Yemen, to name a few.

Article 1 of the UN Charter underscores the UN’s role in harmonising the actions of nations towards the attainment of common ends, including in relation to solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. But in a time of eye-watering inequality within and between countries, big economic decisions affecting people and the planet are not being made collectively at the UN but by the G20 group of the world’s biggest economies, whose leaders are meeting prior to the UN General Assembly to make economic decisions with ramifications for all countries.

Economic and development cooperation policies for a large chunk of the globe are also determined through the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Established in 1961, the OECD comprises 38 countries with a stated commitment to democratic values and market-based economics. Civil society has worked hard to get the OECD to take action on issues such as fair taxation, social protection and civic space.

More recently, the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – grouping of countries that together account for 40 per cent of the world’s population and a quarter of the globe’s GDP are seeking to emerge as a counterweight to the OECD. However, concerns remain about the values that bind this alliance. At its recent summit in South Africa six new members were admitted, four of which – Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are ruled by totalitarian governments with a history of repressing civil society voices. This comes on top of concerns that China and Russia are driving the BRICS agenda despite credible allegations that their governments have committed crimes against humanity.

The challenge before the UN’s leadership this September is to find ways to bring coherence and harmony to decisions being taken at the G20, OECD, BRICS and elsewhere to serve the best interests of excluded people around the globe. A focus on the SDGs by emphasising their universality and indivisibility can provide some hope.

SDGs off-track

The adoption of the SDGs in 2015 was a groundbreaking moment. The 17 ambitious SDGs and their 169 targets have been called the greatest ever human endeavour to create peaceful, just, equal and sustainable societies. The SDGs include promises to tackle inequality and corruption, promote women’s equality and empowerment, support inclusive and participatory governance, ensure sustainable consumption and production, usher in rule of law and catalyse effective partnerships for development.

But seven years on the SDGs are seriously off-track. The UN Secretary-General’s SDG progress report released this July laments that the promise to ‘leave no one behind’ is in peril. As many as 30 per cent of the targets are reported to have seen no progress or worse to have regressed below their 2015 baseline. The climate crisis, war in Ukraine, a weak global economy and the COVID-19 pandemic are cited as some of the reasons why progress is lacking.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is pushing for an SDG stimulus plan to scale up financing to the tune of US$500 billion. It remains to be seen how successful this would be given the self-interest being pursued by major powers that have the financial resources to contribute. Moreover, without civic participation and guarantees for enabled civil societies, there is a high probability that SDG stimulus funds could be misused by authoritarian governments to reinforce networks of patronage and to shore up repressive state apparatuses.

Also up for discussion at the UN General Assembly will be plans for a major Summit for the Future in 2024 to deliver the UN Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report, released in 2021. This proposes among other things the appointment of a UN Envoy for Future Generations, an upgrade of key UN institutions, digital cooperation across the board and boosting partnerships to drive access and inclusion at the UN. But with multilateralism stymied by hostility and divisions among big powers on the implementation of internationally agreed norms, achieving progress on this agenda implies a huge responsibility on the UN’s leadership to forge consensus while speaking truth to power and challenging damaging behaviours by states and their leaders.

The UN’s leadership have found its voice on the issue of climate change. Secretary-General Guterres has been remarkably candid about the negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry and its supporters. This July, he warned that ‘The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived’. Similar candour is required to call out the twin plagues of authoritarianism and populism which are causing immense suffering to people around the world while exacerbating conflict, inequality and climate change.

The formation of the UN as the conscience of the world in 1945 was an exercise in optimism and altruism. This September that spirit will be needed more than ever to start creating a better world for all, and to prove the UN’s value.

Mandeep S. Tiwana is chief officer for evidence and engagement + representative to the UN headquarters at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance.


Civil Society Organizations Unite to Urge Public Development Banks to Change the Way Development Is Done

Biodiversity, Civil Society, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Energy, Environment, Green Economy, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations


CARTAGENA, Colombia, Sep 4 2023 (IPS) – In the midst of a complex web of crises, spanning climate change, biodiversity depletion, constraints on civic space and mounting debt burdens, civil society organizations and human rights defenders from over 50 countries have united their voices to call for immediate and impactful action from Public Development Banks (PDBs).

The global coalition’s message is clear: when it comes to financing for development, principles of rights, justice, sustainability, transparency, accountability and dignity for all cannot remain mere slogans. They must form the core of all projects undertaken by all Public Development Banks.

The Finance in Common Summit has become a pivotal platform for Public Development Banks from around the world. The fact that this year’s summit is taking place in Cartagena, Colombia, the deadliest country in the world in 2022 for human rights, envrionmental and indigenous activists, development banks must acknowledge and integrate the protection of human rights into their projects.

“Development banks are advocating to play an even bigger role in the global economy. But are they truly fit for this purpose? Unfortunately, the stories of communities around the world show us that development banks are failing to address the root causes of the very problems they claim to solve. We need to hold them accountable for this,” says Ivahanna Larrosa, Regional Coordinator for Latin America at the Coalition for Human Rights in Development.

“When PDB projects cause harm to people and the environment, PDBs must remedy these harms. All PDBs should implement an effective accountability mechanism to address concerns with projects and should commit to preventing and fully remediating any harm to communities,” adds Stephanie Amoako, Senior Policy Associate at Accountability Counsel.

The ongoing crises demand a transformation in the quality of financing and a power shift to include the voices of communities. The existing financial architecture not only impedes governments’ ability to safeguard both their citizens and the environment but also contributes to the escalating issue of chronic indebtedness. Policy-based lending and conditionalities enforced by International Financial Institutions have steered countries toward privatization of essential services, reduced social spending and preferential treatment for the private sector. This burdens the population with higher taxes, inflation, and weakened social safety nets.

“The same multinational companies that have polluted and violated human rights in Latin America are now obtaining financing from development banks for energy transition projects. Another example is the development of the green hydrogen industry in Chile, which carries a very high environmental and social risk,” says Maia Seeger, director of the Chilean civil society organization Sustentarse.

Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive and sustainable transformation of the financial architecture as well as holistic reforms and synergies with civil society and communities. Environmental and neo-colonial debts need to be a thing of the past and equitable reforms the thing of the present.

Global civil society, in response to these challenges, demands bold and decisive actions in a collective declaration signed by over 100 organisations. The demands are the result of a 4-year process in which a coalition of civil society organisations has come together to call on all PDBs at the Finance in Common Summit to embrace tangible actions that genuinely prioritize and protect people.

Just last month we have seen that change is possible when communities are involved, as the people of Ecuador voted to ban oil drilling in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon rainforest.

“The global financial system needs not just a rethink but a surgical operation, and that requires bold action. Governments and institutions such as the Public Development Banks must cancel the debt of the countries that require it and put in place concrete and immediate measures to put an end to public financing of fossil fuels, to have financing based on subsidies so as not to fall into the debt trap once again. It is time for the rich countries, the biggest polluters and creditors, to offer real solutions to the multiple crises we are currently experiencing,” says Gaïa Febvre, International Policy Coordinator at Réseau Action climat France.

“Public and Multilateral Development Banks must divest from funding false climate solutions and projects that harm forests, biodiversity and communities. Instead, they should redirect finance to support gender just, rights based and ecosystems approaches that contribute to transformative changes leading to real solutions that address climate change, loss of biodiversity and create sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous Peoples, women in all their diversities and local communities. Public funds must support community governed agroecological practices, small scale farming and traditional animal rearing practices instead of large scale agri-business which perpetuates highly polluting and emitting industrial agriculture and unsustainable livestock production, the root cause for deforestation and food insecurity,” adds Souparna Lahiri, Senior Climate and Biodiversity Policy Advisor at the Global Forest Coalition (GFC).

The call to action emphasizes that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), effective climate action aligned with the Paris Agreement and successful implementation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework require Public Development Banks to pivot from a top-down profit-driven approach to one that prioritizes community-led involvement and human rights-based approaches.

“It is important that civil society participation be strengthened at the Finance in Common Summit (FICS). In previous years, civil society has been sidelined. Clearly, there is still some room for improvement for civil society participation to become truly meaningful. The lack of civil society representative on the opening panel this year is just one example of that. PDBs should promote and support an enabling environment for civil society and systematically incorporate civic space, human rights and gender analysis. This year, we are working towards ensuring that civil society voices, including those from communities are heard at the FICS. In collaboration with the FICS Secretariat, Forus seeks to establish a formal mechanism between civil society and PDBs and to ensure that civil society is recognised as an official engagement group,” says Marianne Buenaventura Goldman, Project Coordinator, Finance for Development at the global civil society network Forus.

IPS UN Bureau


Two Years after the Taliban Took over, More Should Be Done to Rescue Afghanistan

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Education, Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


A young girl in school uniform and covered in veil walks alone in the empty corridor of Tajrobawai girls primary and secondary school seen on September 16, 2021 in Herat, Afghanistan. The Taliban has forbidden girls at high school level to attend schools throughout Afghanistan. Credit: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

KUALA LUMPUR / JOHANNESBURG, Aug 28 2023 (IPS) – His name is Matiullah Wesa, a girls education campaigner who now symbolises the “war” waged by the Taliban against the education and empowerment of women and girls. Exactly two years since the Taliban took over, Afghanistan is on a downward trajectory and unfortunately, global attention that was drawn by families chasing planes to flee a few days after the Taliban assumed control of the government has waned over the last two years.

Any improvements made in advancing human rights, especially the rights of women and access to education have been quickly reversed and replaced with severe restrictions that have almost completely wiped away the rights of women in almost all sectors and spheres of life. In a brazen move that provided a clear indication to the international community that the Taliban had an anti-human rights agenda, human rights defenders and members of their families have been harassed, detained and attacked in their homes while Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission was dissolved and its premises confiscated. In the absence of any internal human rights mechanism, the Taliban are only accountable to themselves and act with utmost impunity.

Matiullah was arrested in March 2023 for his dedication to provide education to girls particularly in rural areas. Through his organisation – PenPath which he founded in 2009, he campaigned for the right to education for girls, working with tribal leaders to provide mobile libraries to ensure girls have access to education. Penpath has successfully reopened 100 schools (including those closed for more than a decade due to war and the Taliban’s restrictions on education) in 16 provinces.

Matiullah Wesa, Afghan educational activist, reads to students in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matiullah Wesa/PenPath

In an interview with CIVICUS, a year before he was arbitrarily arrested, Matiullah pointed out that they had provided education facilities for about 110000 children, about 60% were girls and distributed 1.5 million stationary and collected 34000 books through its book donation campaigns. His continued detention means, at best this much needed support provided to communities has been scaled back substantively and at worse has almost completely stopped. Yet, Matiullah is just one among hundreds who have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Afghans over the years and are unable to do so either because they are in detention, have fled the country to avoid reprisals or have been forced to self censor.

The de facto Taliban regime has over the last two years institutionalised restrictions against women, dismissed women in public service, prevented girls from attending school and university and in December 2022, banned women from working with NGOs and aid agencies. It followed this decision exactly four months later by banning women from working for the UN in Afghanistan – as they had been exempted from the previous ban.

Through the Directorate for Intelligence, the regime monitors and targets women activists on social media and those identified as protest leaders. Others who participate in protests are identified through pictures posted on social media and through interrogations and arrested. On 11 February 2023, women’s rights activist and founder of the social movement – the Takhar Women’s Protest Movement – Parisa Mobarez, was arrested together with her brother in Takhar province and physically assaulted before they were released.

Matiullah Wesa, Afghan educational activist, reads to students in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matiullah Wesa/PenPath

A day after, activist Nargis Sadat was arrested for protesting against the restrictions on women’s right to work and education and released after two months. In response to an announcement by the Taliban regime that it would close beauty salons, women protesters converged at the Shar-e Naw district in Kabul on 19 July, displaying protest signs with calls for ‘bread,’ ‘work’ and ‘justice.’ The women protesters were rounded up as security forces fired shots into the air and physically assaulted some of the women using electric stun guns.

The above restrictions are happening in a context of an ever increasing humanitarian crises exacerbated by growing social and economic challenges. Human rights groups report that the number of people living in poverty has increased to 97%, an increase of about 47% over the last three years and that more than half of the population – about 28 million people urgently need humanitarian assistance. The restrictions placed on women in government ministries and the ban on women from working for NGOs have a devastating impact on the families of these women and communities including women and children who have benefited from services provided. In addition, most women have literally been confined to their homes as they are banned from gyms, swimming pools and public parks.

Afghan women are fighting back

Despite the reprisals from the Taliban and threats of violence and arrests, Afghan women continue to mobilise to keep the face they face on the agenda of the international community. The resilience of these brave Afghan women and their sustained protests continue to shed light on the state of human rights in Afghanistan, especially at a time when the international community seems to have moved on to other crises. As women protesters, journalists and human rights defenders and families face increased attacks, protests have been moved indoors and online. Some of the protesters continue to cover their faces to avoid reprisals while others remain unveiled to encourage others.

Photo courtesy of PenPath

What can be done?

The current situation is especially tricky for many international actors and though the Taliban craves for international recognition to boast its legitimacy, members of the international community including the European Union, United Kingdom and India who engage with the Taliban as well as humanitarian organisations and civil society groups should respect the wishes of Afghans and not provide any form of formal recognition to the de facto regime. They should also support Afghan women rights activists in exile.

Millions of Afghans will continue to need humanitarian assistance for the foreseeable future and ongoing and future dialogues to negotiate for space and access through humanitarian corridors should be premised on respect for human rights and lifting of current restrictions on women and girls.

At the level of the United Nations, the UN Security Council Resolution on Afghanistan which accused the Taliban of violating human rights and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan are important steps in the right direction but nearly not enough. The Security Council should continue to prioritise Afghanistan and push for accountability mechanisms inside of Afghanistan which would serve as some kind of a deterrent and a check on impunity. Lastly, there is a need for an intra-Afghan dialogue that is inclusive and should be led by a neutral party.

Josef Benedict is a researcher covering the Asia Pacific region for the CIVICUS Monitor. Malaysia. David Kode is the advocacy and campaigns lead for CIVICUS. South Africa

IPS UN Bureau


Moving From Trauma to Healing: Practicing Self-Care in Refugee Camps

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Migration & Refugees

A young child in Cox’s Bazar engages with her peers at one of BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs. CREDIT: BRAC

A young child in Cox’s Bazar engages with her peers at one of BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs. CREDIT: BRAC

NEW YORK, Aug 21 2023 (IPS) – A Rohingya woman tells a forum of peer counselors the story of her divorce. A survivor of domestic abuse, she has started a new life alone with her daughter. She has weathered a storm of neighbors telling her she was the problem. Now, she provides the support she didn’t have to other women like her.

Similar scenes occur across refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Here, BRAC, an international NGO based in Bangladesh, has developed a program to train counselors who can provide mental health services to Rohingya refugees. This includes 200 community members who have begun to practice the psychosocial skills they’ve learned in their own lives.

A Growing Need for Support

Over 900,000 Rohingya have fled to Cox’s Bazar since massive-scale violence against Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State began in 2017, the UN Refugee Agency reports. The prolonged exposure of the ethnic minority group to persecution and displacement has likely increased the refugees’ vulnerability to an array of mental health issues, a 2019 systematic review found. Their struggles include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and gender-based violence.

Around the world, there is growing attention to the importance of socio-emotional learning as a skill to help people in areas of crisis cope with challenges. Educators are often tasked not only with providing traditional academic instruction but with building resilience in children. They are asked to create a sense of normalcy in environments that are anything but normal.

The teaching the children need is much more than about reading, writing, and math; but about giving young children a safe space to practice socio-emotional skills. CREDIT: BRAC

“It’s about not only teaching [kids] how to read and how to do mathematics … in these settings, kids and teachers themselves have the need for psychosocial support,” Ramya Vivekanandan, the senior education specialist at the Global Partnership for Education, said.

Teachers, caregivers, and frontline mental health providers are overburdened, Vivekanandan explains. They lack adequate pay, working conditions, and professional development. As they try to support the growing number of people in crisis, who will support them?

For some counselors in Cox’s Bazar, the answer is each other.

Community Care

Even when resources are available, stigmas around mental health can prevent support from being received. Taifur Islam, a Bangladeshi psychologist responsible for mental health training and supervision at BRAC, says people in the communities he works with are rarely taught to identify their feelings. When you are struggling to access basic needs, Islam explains, it is easy to forget that emotional well-being can improve productivity. If a person seeks help, they may be labeled ‘crazy.’

Training people to take care of their own communities can be a powerful way to overcome stigma in a culturally relevant way.

BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs were established in 2017 to give Rohingya children a safe space to practice socio-emotional skills through play. Erum Mariam, the executive director of the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, explains that each play lab is tailored to fit the community it serves. Rohingya children now rhyme, chant, and dance in 304 Humanitarian Play Labs across the camps in Cox’s Bazar.

“We discovered the Rohingya culture through the children. And the whole model is based on knowing the culture,” Mariam said.

‘Play leaders’ are recruited from the camps and trained in play pedagogy. Mariam watched Rohingya women who had never worked before embracing their new roles. As they covered the ceilings of their play spaces with rainbows of flowers – the kind of tapestry that would hang from their homes in Myanmar – Mariam realized that a new kind of social capital could be earned by nurturing joy. Traditional play didn’t just help uprooted children shape their sense of identity – it was also healing for the community.

If a play leader notices a child is withdrawn or restless, they can refer the child to a ‘para counselor’ who has been trained by BRAC’s psychologists to address the mental health needs of children and their family members. Almost half of the 469 para counselors in Cox’s Bazar are recruited from the Rohingya community, while the rest come from around Bangladesh. Most para counselors are women.

Many para counselors are uniquely positioned to empathize with the people they serve as they go door to door, building awareness. This is crucial because it creates a bottom-up system of care without prescribing what well-being should look like, Chris Henderson, a specialist on education in emergencies, says.

At the same time, by supporting others, mental health providers are learning to take care of themselves.

Learning by Doing

A play leader engages the children in the session. Humanitarian professionals encourage frontline teachers, caretakers, and counselors to actualize their own ideas for improvement. CREDIT: BRAC

A play leader engages the children in the session. Humanitarian professionals encourage frontline teachers, caregivers, and counselors to actualize their own ideas for improvement. CREDIT: BRAC

For months, Suchitra Rani watched violence against Rohingya people every time she turned on the news. When she was recruited by BRAC to become a para counselor in Cox’s Bazar, she saw an opportunity to make a difference. Alongside fellow trainees, Rani, a social worker originally from Magura, poured over new words she learned in the foreign Rohingya dialect and worked to find her place in the community.

Rani tested what she had learned about the value of psychosocial support and cultural sensitivity when she met a 15-year-old Rohingya girl too scared to tell her single mother she was pregnant. Terrified of bringing shame to the family, the girl had an abortion at home. As the young woman spiraled into depression, Rani felt herself slipping into her own fears of inadequacy.

It took time for Rani to convince the girl to open up to her mother. Talking through feelings of guilt slowly led to acceptance. As they worked to heal fractured family bonds, Rani began to feel surer of herself, too.

Now, the Rohingya community calls Rani a “sister of peace.” Rani says she has become confident in her ability to use the socio-emotional skills she’s learned to both help others and resolve problems in her personal life.

Throughout the program, para counselors have changed the way they communicate their feelings and felt empowered to create more empathetic environments.

Islam recounts a 26-year-old Rohingya refugee’s perilous journey to Cox’s Bazar: In Myanmar, the woman’s husband was killed in front of her. One of her two young children drowned during a river crossing as they fled the country. She arrived at the camp as a single mother without a support network. Only once she had the support of others willing to listen could she speak openly.

Islam remembers counselors telling the woman about the importance of self-care: “If you actually take care of yourself, then you can take care of your child also.”

Toward Empowerment 

According to Henderson, evidence shows that one of the best ways to support someone is to give them a role to help others. In places where there may be a stigma against prioritizing ‘self-care,’ people with their own post-crisis trauma are willing to learn well-being skills to help children.

A collection of teacher stories collected by the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies reveals a similar pattern. Teachers in crisis areas around the world say the socio-emotional skills they learned to help students helped them reduce stress in their own lives, too.

Henderson suggests that the best way international agencies can promote trauma support is by holding up a mirror to the strength already shown by refugee communities like the Rohingya.

Instead of seeing what they lack, Henderson encourages humanitarian professionals to help give frontline teachers, caregivers, and counselors the agency to actualize their own ideas for improvement. Empowered community leaders empower the young people they work with, who, in turn, learn to empower each other. This creates “systems where everyone sees their position of leadership as supporting the next person’s leadership and resilience.”

At the end of her para counselor training, the Rohingya domestic abuse survivor said she wasn’t sure what she would do with the skills she’d learned for working through trauma, Islam remembers. But she did say she wished they were skills she had known before. According to Islam, she is now one of their best para counselors.

“The training is not only to serve the community; that training is something that can actually change your life,” Islam says. It’s why he became a psychologist.

IPS UN Bureau Report