Focusing on the wellbeing of the individual on World Social Work Day

The 19th of March is World Social Work Day, and this year the theme is ‘Promoting Social and Economic Equalities’.

Official poster for World Social Work Day 2013.
Official poster for World Social Work Day 2013.

World Social Work Day is an annual opportunity to celebrate the contribution social work makes in societies, and to promote a social work perspective in political agendas around the world. Social work is an interdisciplinary field that includes theories from economics, education, sociology, medicine, philosophy, politics, anthropology, and psychology. It brings all these competencies together to address the quality of life and wellbeing of individuals and groups, particularly those that are vulnerable – the old, the young and the disabled.

By applying a holistic, interdisciplinary approach focusing on the humanitarian aspects of society, social workers certainly have a meaningful contribution to make to politics, to ensure that the wellbeing of the individual remains high on the agenda.

Today, lets take some time to recognise the valuable contribution made by the professionals working in Social Work Services, whether it involves empowering the elderly, protecting the young or supporting the disabled.

Staining the seas at the Boston Tea Party

It’s quite an uncanny coincidence, but a day after International Tea Day, we have the commemoration of the Boston Tea Party, a political protest by a group called the Sons of Liberty, in Boston, Massachusetts. The protest was aimed against the tax policy of the British government and the East India Company that controlled all the tea imported into British colonies.

British colonies had long rebelled against taxes imposed by the British Parliament, claiming they had no obligation to pay. Parliament ended up retracting the taxes, but kept a duty on tea. While this meant tea would be cheaper to the colonies than before, the duty that was still charged was seen as a statement by Parliament that it retained the right to tax colonies, and this resulted in widespread reaction.

When three tea ships from the East India Company arrived in Boston, a furious reaction followed. On 16 December 1773, 7000 locals gathered at the wharf where the ships were docked. It was insisted that the tea ships should leave the harbour without paying the required customs duty, but the Collector of Customs would not release the ships before they paid their duties. This stalemate pushed events to a head, and by early evening a group of about 200 men in disguise gathered on a nearby hill, marched to the wharf, boarded the ships and proceeded to turn Boston Harbour into a giant teacup by dumping all the crates of tea from the three ships into the harbour.

The Boston Tea Party - more than a storm in a teacup!(© All Rights Reserved)
The Boston Tea Party – more than a storm in a teacup!
(© All Rights Reserved)

The act of defiance was initially simply known as “the destruction of the tea”, and only started being referred to as the Boston Tea Party some 50 years later, when newspapers started referencing the event as such. Two books released in the 1830’s, “Traits of the Tea Party” and “A Retrospect of the Tea-Party”, cemented the name in popular culture.

From the Boston revolt, action spread to other colonies, with cities such as New York, Charleston and Annapolis also experiencing tea dumped off ships or burned in protest. Over the years the Boston Tea Party became a symbol of protest to many political activists.

Personally, I am just curious what all the tea dumped in the harbour did to the local marine population?  Given the range of suggested health benefits of tea that I mentioned yesterday, I can just imagine there must have been some fish swimming around with extremely strong cardiovascular systems and super immunity!

Commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Designated an international United Nations observance in 1999, the day commemorates the deaths of three sisters, Patria Mercedes Mirabal, María Argentina Minerva Mirabal and Antonia María Teresa Mirabal, who were assassinated on this day in 1960 in the Dominican Republic, on the orders of the Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo. They were activists fighting the dictatorship of Trujillo.

Beyond commemorating the deaths of the Mirabal sisters, the day has become an occasion for governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations to raise awareness of violence against women in general. Events on the day include public rallies, fundraising activities and more.

According to World Bank data, women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In an attempt to raise awareness of the plight of women who have been victimised and abused, the United Nations have released a fact sheet sharing information information on the situation worldwide, and it’s quite a sobering read. According to the fact sheet, an astonishing 70% of all women is subjected to violence sometime in their lives, with the most common form being physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. Percentages of women subjected to sexual violence by their partners range from 6% in Japan to almost 60% in Ethiopia.

Globally about half of all women who are murdered die at the hands of their current or former husbands or partners.

It is estimated, furthermore, that one in five women become victims of rape or attempted rape in their lives, leaving them with devastating physical and psychological scars. These numbers rise shockingly in conflict situations, where women of all ages suffer sexual abuse from soldiers and rebel forces. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, an average of 36 women and girls are raped every day, with more than 200 000 women having been sexually violated since the country fell into a state of armed conflict.

This is just the the tip of the iceberg, and the fact sheet includes many more horrifying facts.

And amazingly, many of the perpetrators go unpunished. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Women and girls are afraid to speak out because of a culture of impunity. We must fight the sense of fear and shame that punishes victims who have already endured crime and now face stigma. It is the perpetrators who should feel disgraced, not their victims.”

On this day, join the millions of men and women worldwide who say enough is enough – join the Say NO to Violence Against Women campaign’s global call to action. Every voice of support matters.

Say hello to world peace

It’s World Hello Day today. The 40th Annual World Hello Day, to be exact.

Taking part in this day is the easiest thing ever – simply say ‘hello’ to 10 different people, and you’ve done your part. ‘What’s the point?’, you may ask. Well, according to the day’s creators, Brian and Michael McCormack, they started the day to express their concern for world peace. They wanted to use the idea of a friendly greeting between people as a message to governments and world leaders that confllicts can be settled more effectively by communication than by force and aggression.

A lifelong friendship can start with a simple ‘Hello’.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The first Hello Day, celebrated in 1973, was specifically in reaction to the Yorn Kippur War between Egypt and Israel. Since that early start it has grown into a global event observed by people in more than 180 countries. According to the World Hello Day website, 31 past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize count among the supporters of the day.

OK, so I don’t have much of a science angle today, but what the heck, a bit of extra goodwill can’t hurt, can it? Go ahead, share a friendly greeting with a stranger – even if it doesn’t quite bring about world peace, you may just brighten someone’s day.

Looking at the world through a child’s eyes

Today is Universal Children’s Day – established by the UN to promote the welfare of the children of the world. While the ‘generic’ day is celebrated on 20 November, many countries have special Children’s Day’s celebrated throughout the year.

Children are key to all the strategies and activities of the UN – the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), while aimed at benefiting all of humankind, are primarily focused on children. As UNICEF notes, “six of the eight goals relate directly to children and meeting the last two will also make critical improvements in their lives.”

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela
(© All Rights Reserved)

From an adult point of view, another important benefit of this day is that it reminds us of the innocence and wonder of being young. It reminds us that we don’t always have to over-complicate matters; that sometimes the best strategy is to approach matters afresh, with curiosity and without prejudice, the way children do by default.

This applies in life, as in the sciences. To quote physicist Frederick Seitz: “A good scientist is a person in whom the childhood quality of perennial curiosity lingers on. Once he gets an answer, he has other questions.” Marie Curie shared this sentiment when she said: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.”

So, on this day, consider the children – may their best interest guide your actions, and may their example inform your ways. Happy Universal Children’s Day!

Show that you give a shit on World Toilet Day

Today, 19 November, we celebrate World Toilet Day. Together with Global Handwashing Day, that I wrote about some time ago, these two days represent the main ‘personal hygiene for health’ days celebrated annually.

Sadly, despite its importance from a health point of view, the day is also one of the most ridiculed annual observances (toilet humour rules, I guess), to such an extent that the United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) has even published an ‘International stop-making-fun-of-world-toilet day!’ page.

Considering the huge health impact that basic sanitaton can make to preserving human health, this is indeed no laughing matter. According to UN figures, about 4000 children die every day as a result of a disease directly related to poor sanitation. That equates to a death almost every 20 seconds – more than the combined deaths caused by HIV AIDS, malaria and measles.

Millions of children, mainly in the developing world, rely of primitive, shared toilets for their basic sanitation requirements. And these are the ‘lucky ones’, given that millions more have no access to a toilet at all.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Given the above, global provision of basic sanitation is a key target underlying the UN’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of ‘Reducing by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate’. It is, unfortunately, also the area where the least progress has been made, mainly because the sanitation sector is desperately under-funded (probably as a result of it being a much less ‘glamorous’ cause than HIV AIDS etc).

According to Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Human Rights Rapporteur on Water and Sanitation, it was estimated in 2006 that almost $15 billion will be required annually to provide universal access to sanitation by 2015. By now, with the target date being so much closer, I am sure that number is much higher. Currently, 2.5 billion people still do not have access to a private toilet, and 1.1 billion people defacate in the open, with no sanitation system in place to address this pollution. That means one in three people do not have access to a private toilet, and one in seven have no access to a toilet at all. It is a humanitarian crisis touching the basic dignity of billions worldwide.

Many public, shared toilet facilities do little to facilitate basic human dignity, often being open, shared spaces with little or no privacy.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Unlike complex diseases, sanitation is a ‘simple’ problem – it is easy to solve if only enough money is made available. As such, it is one of those areas where widespread public awareness campaigning can actually make a difference, to force governments into addressing and funding the problem.  To this end, a punchy awareness campagin has been launched under the theme of ‘I give a shit, do you?’, and tweets around the topic can be tagged with the hashtag #IGiveAShit to extend its reach and potential impact.

So, show that you give a shit, and start talking about sanitation. It may be a crappy subject, but as long as it is not addressed, millions of people will continue to die unnecessary deaths, deaths that can so easily be avoided. For suggestions about how to get involved, visit the World Toilet Day action page.

To get you started, here’s a neat little YouTube video about World Toilet Day – please have a look, and share widely:


Celebrating the International Day of Non-violence

The UN seems to be busy in October. Following hot on the heels of our discussions on World Rivers Day and yesterday’s World Habitat Day, today features another UN observance, the International Day of Non-Violence.

October 2nd is the commemoration of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience paved the way for Indian independence and inspired movements for non-violence, civil rights and freedom across the world. A most suitable date, therefore, to be declared International Day of Non-Violence by the UN General Assembly in 2007. The aim of the day is to promote and disseminate the message of non-violence in different ways, including through education and public awareness. It reaffirms “the universal relevance of the principle of non-violence” and the desire “to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”.

“It may be easier to pick up a weapon than to lay down a grudge. It may be simpler to find fault than to find forgiveness” – UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.
(The above image incorporates “The Blue Marble” photograph of Earth, taken from Apollo 17.)

Non-violence, or non-violent resistance, as it is also known, is about achieving social or political change without resorting to physical violence. It is a form of social struggle that has been successfully adopted by groups the world over in social justice campaigns, and has rightfully been referred to as ‘the politics of ordinary people’. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “the foundation for non-violence will be built by people: teachers and faith leaders, parents and community voices, business people and grass-roots groups”.

The three main categories of non-violent action are:

  • protest and persuasion, including marches and vigils;
  • non-cooperation; and
  • non-violent intervention, such as blockades and occupations.

Non-violence thus does not imply a lack of action. It is a very active instigator of change, only achieved without violence, and this is what gives it such power. The Occupy Wall Street movement we discussed recently would be a good recent example of citizen-led non-violent resistance.

In celebration of this day, perhaps the most succinct and profound statement comes from the great Gandhi himself:
“There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”

Joining hands on Black Ribbon Day

Today is International Black Ribbon Day; also celebrated as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism in Europe. While it is a day highlighting a dark part of history, more than anything else, today is a celebration of the human spirit, about unity and about how amazing things can be achieved by joining hands and standing together (quite literally, in this case).

Joining hands to overcome hardship (and to solve mathematical problems!).
(© All Rights Reserved)

Black Ribbon Day originated in the 1980s, as a annual series of demonstrations, held on 23 August in various western countries to highlight crimes and human rights violations in the former Soviet Union. The date marks the anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Nazi and Soviet Communist regimes – an event described by President Jerzy Buzek of the European Parliament as “the collusion of the two worst forms of totalitarianism in the history of humanity.”

Starting with initial participation of western countries only, it spread to the Baltic states in 1987, and in 1989 culminated in a historic event known as the Baltic Way. The Baltic Way, also referred to as the Baltic Chain, the Chain of Freedom and the Singing Revolution, was a peaceful demonstration involving almost two million people joining hands to form a 600km long human chain across the three Baltic states (Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR), to protest against continued Soviet occupation.

The Baltic Way was meant to highlight the Baltic states’ desire for independence and to show the solidarity between the 3 nations. It proved an effective, emotionally captivating event. Within 6 months of the protest, Lithuania became the first Republic of the Soviet Union to declare independence, with Estonia and Latvia following in 1991.

Now you may be wondering why I’m discussing International Black Ribbon Day and the Baltic Way on this blog. Well, besides it being an opportunity to celebrate the strength of the human spirit in overcoming adversity, what caught my attention was something small and (almost) unrelated that grew out of it – the Baltic Way Mathematical Contest.

This maths contest has been organised annually since 1990, in commemoration of the Baltic Way human chain demonstrations. It differs from most other international mathematical competitions in that it is a true team contest. Teams, consisting of 5 secondary school students each, are presented with 20 problems, and they have four and a half ours to collaboratively solve these.

Initial participation was limited to the three Baltic states, but the competition has grown to include all countries around the Baltic Sea. Germany participates with a northern regions team, and Russia with a team from St Petersburg. Iceland has a special invitation for being the first state to recognise the independence of the Baltic States, and guest countries (including Israel, Belarus, Belgium and South Africa) have been invited in particular years, at the discretion of the organisers.

From people joining hands to overcome political hardship to students teaming up to solve complex mathematical problems, today truly is a day to celebrate strength in unity.