Occupier and the occupied

 

I’m a white female I’ve never had to question my national identity. You could call me privileged. I live in Australia, and have dual Australian and British citizenship. Although I come from a country with one of history’s most horrific annihilations of a people and culture, my family’s status as white Australians is firmly embedded in our identity – even though only a few generations ago we migrated to Australia from the United Kingdom, where 95% of my ancestry comes from. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to live in Palestine (or Israel, as most of the world calls it) that I really began to question my own national identity.

The issue of identity has been an ongoing struggle for Palestinians since the occupation of their land in 1948. I didn’t fully understand the Israel/Palestine conflict until I met my boyfriend and lived with his family in their village, which is one of few Arab villages in the area. Even so, Israeli settlements have been inching closer over the years, threatening to take over the Palestinian homes, land, and businesses, as the rest of the country has witnessed.

There are four groups of Palestinians: those who live in the 48 states (what others call Israel) who personally identify as Palestinian but have Israeli citizenship (like my boyfriend); those living in West Bank, which has a self-governing authority but doesn’t have the sovereignty of a formally recognised country; those living in Gaza, which is under the rule of Hamas (a Palestinian Islamic organisation) and is under direct Israeli occupation; and the Palestinians who are living abroad either as refugees or citizens of other countries. It was only when I moved to Palestine that I began to understand the consequences of the formation of Israel that are a part of daily life for Palestinians; constant reminders that the land, their land, is occupied.

But so is Australia. It’s easy to forget, since I was born with enough time since the massacres, forced displacement and destruction of culture to believe that the Australia I call home has always been the way it is now: a white Australia. My boyfriend regularly makes a Freudian slip and says that I come from Europe – “Australia,” I am quick to correct him. But when I think about it, I am unable to ignore the truth in his words. With a Scottish father and Australian mother (who’s family line comes from the UK), my DNA is almost entirely European. In fact, judging by my freckles, auburn hair and blue eyes, I can be certain that I have no Aboriginal ancestors down the line. But is being born in modern Australia enough to qualify me as being Australian? What does it mean to belong to a place?

I didn’t have to ask myself this question until I came to Palestine, because the conflict between the Indigenous Australians and the white settlers is hundreds of years older than the Israel/Palestine situation. In Australia, there are no separation walls, no soldiers, no bullets. But the fight is the same. In Australia the separation wall is invisible, snaking through society and dividing us without us realising. In Australia, the soldiers are the policemen who arrest and beat up young Aboriginals, when a warning would have been issued for anyone else. In Australia, the bullets are the lower levels of education and employment, the poorer health, the shorter life expectancies, the higher rates of mental health issues and suicide, the higher percentage of substance abuse, and the absurdly high numbers of child detention and incarceration. In the land that was once theirs, Indigenous Australians now only account for 3% of the population.

None of these problems would exist if my ancestors didn’t invade Australia. And the discrimination and identity crisis my boyfriend faces every day would not exist if Israel did not occupy Palestine. I don’t know if I can rightfully stand in solidarity with the Palestinians and Indigenous Australians when my present situation is thanks to a destruction of culture I benefit from, but didn’t witness. I can’t say if the world exists in contrasts of black and white, or shades of grey. What I see are the colours.

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The author as the only woman in a restaurant full of men.

The reality of travelling in India as a woman

I have travelled to many countries as a solo female traveller. I’ve been in earthquakes, snowed in at an airport for three days, and followed by strangers. But the most challenging experience for me has been dealing with the men in India. I have never felt more vulnerable simply to be a woman, and a white woman at that. Every day my strength and patience are tested as Indian men do the things I despise as a woman, am appalled at as a feminist, and have never experienced personally until now. Here is my story of being a white woman in India.

I had been to India twice as a child, when I was 10 and 12. I have vague memories of those trips, but one always stood out. In the later trip, my parents and I were staying with a local family in a town called Navadeep. The family had a son, who was a few years older than me and took a liking to me. I was small, pale with freckles and had golden-brown hair. I remember him taking me up to their rooftop and asking me to sit on his lap. As a twelve-year old, I was completely naive to what sexuality was, and complied. Although nothing else happened, I wish I could go back in time to stop my younger self from unknowingly participating in this boy’s fantasies.

I came back to India 12 years later, as a 24 year old. Still small, pale and freckled, still the object of Indian men’s desires, but this time not a naive child. I had already travelled solo in Vietnam, Nepal and Scotland, as well as travelling to many other countries with friends and now ex boyfriends. My dad, who lived in Delhi for five years, told me that India was a very different story to the other countries in Asia. I took heed of his advice, and prepared my backpack, bought my tickets and set off to the land of spices and elephants. And stares.

Nothing could have prepared me for the stares. Wherever I go in India, men stare at me. Not a glance, like I am used to in Australia. The men here will continue staring at me until I am out of their sight, even if that means turning their heads like owls to look back at me. This doesn’t depend on the clothes I wear; most of the time I cover my shoulders and knees. But it doesn’t stop at staring.

Another intrusive behaviour Indian men have is to ask to take selfies with you. In Goa, when I would walk down the beach (in clothes), many Indian tourists would approach me, with their camera already facing me, and ask for a selfie. When I declined, they would get defensive and offended. When I asked why they wanted the photos, I never got a sufficient answer. I have a few ideas about what they do with the photos, and I don’t want to be any part of it. There were a few instances when the photo was taken without my permission, and one man even grabbed me and hugged me from behind while I struggled to get away from him. He and his friends laughed and took photos.

In another instance, my boyfriend and I were sitting in a restaurant booth when an Indian man sat across from me in our booth and proceeded to stare straight at me, grinning. I shook my head to decline whatever he wanted, and my boyfriend told him to leave. He didn’t leave, and continued to grin at me. We told him again and again to leave, as we were eating our dinner. After a few minutes, when my boyfriend was nearly ready to fight the man, a waiter came and told the man to leave. Even though I repeatedly told him to leave, he stayed. My consent meant nothing to him.

 

I have asked many of my Indian friends why Indian men exhibit sexist, intrusive behaviour and forms of harassment, and why this is accepted. And to be honest, none of the answers I have received are good enough. A few excuses include the fact that it is rare for these men to see white women, or they don’t see staring as something invasive and unwanted, or they are sexually frustrated because of the sex after marriage structure of their society.

I live in Australia, where women’s rights are at the forefront of social discourse. The standards of male behaviour in society are generally acceptable, and it is not common for me to feel unsafe because of men in Australia. Of course, when alcohol, solitude, and night are involved, it’s a different story, but this is the case everywhere. The general atmosphere of women’s safety and support in Australia is strong. To come from this environment to one where I am viewed as the lesser sex and an outlet for men’s desires is hard to reconcile. 

It seems like this behaviour is the consequence of a patriarchal, misogynist society that has normalised sexual harassment – even more so towards white or other coloured foreign women. This may be due to the effect the media has had on the collective male consciousness, wherein the sexualisation of women in the media has come to mean that foreign women are seen as objects for sex without the right to consent. This doesn’t have to involve physical touch – staring at a woman’s body without her permission, beyond the point of what is acceptable, after she has made it clear that she doesn’t want you to do so by not engaging with you, is a form of sexual harassment.

I’d like to kid myself into believing this isn’t the case. But I’m not a naive 12 year old anymore, and if this doesn’t speak for anything then the statistics of sexual harassment and rape in India do. Travelling in India is still a wonderful experience and shows you the beautiful – and ugly – sides of humanity. I travel to learn about the world, not to be comfortable. And India has definitely taught me some lessons.

 

How to live in India on a very tight budget

I came to India two months ago with no plans and almost no money in my bank account. Now, I’m living in a house with my boyfriend, with a comfortable lifestyle and almost no income. How do we do it? There are a number of ways we are able to survive without selling our souls to money.

  1. Make food at home 

Very quickly into my trip I noticed how much money I was spending on food. Even though it’s dirt cheap compared to prices at home, everything is relative over here. If you want to start saving money, you have to think of expenses relative to the costs in India. Sometimes, if you’re staying in a hostel, you won’t have the chance to cook in a kitchen. But if you do, make the most of it! Plus, it’s a great opportunity to practice your skills at making local food.

     2. Eat at local restaurants

In India, the prices for tourists inflate to twice or triple the local prices, even if you’re told you’re getting a good price. This goes for food too. When you’re travelling, do as the locals do! Eat the specialties of the area. Go to the small, local restaurants where you can see locals eating. It might not be as fancy as a tourist restaurant, but the food will be half the price and more delicious.

  1. Don’t drink alcohol

This point might not be a popular one, but it’s the truth. Alcohol is expensive, and if you make drinking it a regular habit, you’re going to spend a lot of money on it. If you’re a long term traveller who is serious about saving money, this will save you a considerable amount. If you’re really bent on drinking, go for spirits over beer or buy in bulk.

  1. Don’t stay in hostels

Although you may not be in the position to stay in one place for an extended period of time, I found that renting a house with my boyfriend for one month cut my accommodation costs dramatically. When I was staying in a hostel, I was paying 400 Rs per day for my own bed and a shared bathroom (and a roommate who snored). Now, my boyfriend and I are paying 250 Rs a day each for our house (15,000 Rs per month) which has a bathroom, kitchen, garden, living room, and best of all, privacy!

  1. Volunteer

Volunteering is a great way to gain knowledge, meet people and save some money. There is a plethora of volunteering opportunities in India; just decide on your area of interest and go from there. Through volunteering you may be offered free meals throughout the day (like I was when I volunteered at an international primary school for a few weeks) or accommodation (like my boyfriend when he volunteered at a hostel), or both!

  1. Trade your skills

Money isn’t the only form of currency. Trading your skills is another brilliant way to exchange your time or services and get something in return. For example, a friend of mine is a master in remedial massage, another friend is a talented musician, and another is a woodcarver. All three trade their knowledge with other people and get something in return, and all they have to do is teach others the thing they love. Sounds good to me.

  1. Sell your skills

If you’ve got a skill that you can make money from, don’t be shy. Advertise yourself! You never know what other travellers might need. Web design, hair cutting, ukulele lessons, or even just busking on the street – give it a try, you have nothing to lose. Stick up some posters around town, advertise on your local community page, make friends and let them know what you offer. You might be surprised.

  1. Work online

Travelling is no longer an obstacle for reaching the internet. In India, the internet speeds are sometimes faster than Australia. Buy yourself a 4G SIM card, or use the Wifi at a cafe or your hostel. The internet is everywhere, and you can make good use of it. Whatever skills you have, use them. My boyfriend does computer programming for clients online, and I do freelance writing. If you can make money through blogging, Youtube tutorials, business online, anything, do it!

  1. Spend your money wisely

This one is pretty straightforward, but still worth mentioning. Spend your money on necessities and make it last. Don’t buy things that aren’t essential to your survival and comfort; for example, new clothes or touristy trinkets aren’t really going to make your life better, but if you want to start doing yoga, invest in a yoga mat. In order to survive, you need to be happy; don’t deprive yourself of all creature comforts, but make smart decisions.

  1. Choose the cheapest transport

If you’re living somewhere and need to rent a scooter or motorbike, it’s best to rent it for long term as this is always cheaper. If you’re travelling around, always get the local bus or ride in third class on the trains. It might not be as comfortable as the tourist transport (and you won’t get air-con), but you’ll save a lot of money and you’ll have a more authentic travelling experience.

  1. Make friends with the locals

Make friends everywhere you go, or engage in conversation with a stranger sitting next to you (if you feel safe to do so). You will be surprised at how much useful knowledge you will gain from being friends with the locals – they know all the tricks and corners to cut. As well as showing you ways to save money by acting like a local, you will also understand the culture and people around you more. Absorb yourself in the culture and ways of the people around you, and you will be rewarded in more ways than just saving money.

  1. Learn to haggle

This is so important in India. As I mentioned before, no matter what shopkeepers tell you, the first price they offer is always double the price they will settle on. I repeat: the first price you are offered is always double the price you can get. Learn to haggle. Watch others doing it, learn methods from your local friends. And don’t feel bad about haggling; this is how people do business in India, and if you end up compromising on a price, all you’re doing is losing money. It’s harsh, but true.

If you follow these twelve points, you should be able to survive anywhere in the world with very little money. Happy saving!

Liveable For Some: Melbourne’s Unending Homelessness Crisis

What does it mean to be homeless? Some people call the streets or the city their home, travellers carry home in their backpacks, some people say they have no home. The word homeless carries implications of exclusion, yet it does not convey the dead end people living on the streets face. With no fixed address, they can’t access help from Centrelink or Medicare, rental properties, employment, not to mention showering, sleeping under a roof, safety, or warmth. Without a home, you are bereft from most opportunities society offers. And it’s not easy to get back on your feet. But my only experience of homelessness is glimpses of it as I walk home through the city. A ragged blanket covering an anonymous sleeping figure: someone’s sister, mother or friend. A hand holding out a takeaway coffee cup for donations. A plea for the generosity of strangers because nobody else will help. I don’t understand what it feels like to have no more options left, and I don’t understand why homelessness exists, even though I walk past it every day. So I took this opportunity to explore how a country as economically stable as Australia can fail so many people in the simple matter of housing. The ‘simple’ matter that that leads to an unequal quality of life.

Homelessness is Melbourne’s elephant in the room. The tragedy that we walk past every day, yet barely see. But in the city voted most liveable six years in a row, it seems like an oxymoron that so many people are living on the streets. Why, I wondered, isn’t anyone doing anything about this? I decided to do some research about the services for homeless people, and found surprising results.

A study commissioned by Melbourne University found that it is cheaper for governments to provide last-resort housing rather than have people sleeping on the streets, as reported by the ABC News. The article explained that the accumulated costs of healthcare, emergency services and the police force required to maintain the safety of homeless people costs more than it does to provide government housing. A Google search for ‘homeless accommodation Melbourne’ found a wide range of crisis accommodation, boarding houses, community housing, hostels and specialist housing available for homeless people to use for little to no cost. There are also the well-known charities that operate op shops throughout the city, such as The Brotherhood of St Lawrence, Sacred Heart Mission and St Vincent De Paul, which all donate their profits towards services for the homeless as well as providing safe spaces to sleep, soup kitchens and clothing. From this preliminary search, it seemed that there wasn’t a shortage of housing opportunities for homeless people living in Melbourne. Why, then, are so many people living on the street? It was clear to me that the best way to understand the issue more would be to talk to someone who lives on the street.

The next time I walked along Swanston St, I didn’t avert my eyes as I passed the people sleeping or sitting on the sidewalk next to the constant stream of people going somewhere. I began to really look at them as people. The brothers and fathers and sons. Many homeless people have cardboard signs explaining their situation, others just ask for compassion. Some have blankets that constitute a makeshift bed, or faithful pets, or trolleys of possessions; others have nothing but their clothes. I approached two people, asking if they would be willing to share their story; the first woman told me that she’d had enough bad experiences with journalists, and the second man didn’t give an explanation. The third time I was lucky.

John didn’t look like he should be homeless. With blue eyes, steady hands and a genuine smile, his demeanour caught my attention as I walked past. His neatly folded blanket housed his few possessions, and his cardboard sign stated that he would really appreciate anyone’s help. I found him at his favourite location, outside the 7Eleven on Bourke St. When John agreed to talk to me, I sat down and saw the street from his perspective. Seas of legs endlessly walked past. I discovered that a series of unlucky circumstances led to John having nowhere to live. When he found himself unable to afford rent anymore, his only option was to live in community housing. But far from feeling like home, the community housing was a place of drug use and violence. “You’re better off out on the street. It’s a lot safer out here,” John said. Finding a quiet street to sleep on during the night, and setting up his blanket and cardboard sign on the street in the daytime, John seems to be resigned to the only option left to him. “I haven’t had any trouble myself. I sort of keep to myself, because I know there are some idiots out there that just want to take you for what you’ve got.”

John didn’t elaborate on the “idiots” he mentioned, but I had a few ideas. With police brutality making the news more and more frequently, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that this is what John was talking about. In fact, rumours had been circulating in the news about a proposed homeless camping ban and fines for people who leave their possessions on the street. The camping ban had already gained criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Leilani Farha, who said to The Age “The criminalisation of human rights is deeply concerning violated international human rights law.” She continued “The proposed law goes further and is discriminatory – stopping people from engaging in life-sustaining activities, and penalising them because they are poor and have no place to live.” Many organisations have submitted official letters of opposition, including the Sacred Heart Mission, which stated in the letter published on its website “We are concerned that the amendment may lead to people being demonised and displaced, resulting in further marginalisation and exclusion”. Earlier this year, a group of Melbournians staged a protest outside Mayor Robert Doyle’s house in opposition to the law proposal. However, it is yet to be released whether the law has been passed.

The next time I saw John, I asked him if he has had any trouble with the police. All of the police officers I approached for an interview declined to talk to me. “No, not as yet,” John said. “It probably will happen but it hasn’t yet. But as long as you keep your nose clean and quiet they don’t really hassle you.” With police brutality out of the picture, I was able to focus on something else that John had mentioned: drug abuse.

Drug use and possession was receiving a lot of attention from the media at the time. Victorian police had recently begun a crack-down on drug use along Chapel St in Prahran, using sniffer dogs and random testing to find, and persecute, people on or with drugs. Twenty people had already been arrested at the time of writing. Superintendent Phillip Green promised the Herald Sun that “We will prosecute as long and as hard as we can.” While the news stories about the arrests mentioned club-goers using party drugs such as cocaine, ketamine, MDMA and marijuana, it did not mention the use of harder drugs, such as heroin, ice and speed that are more typically used by homeless people, nor the arrests of any homeless people. However, I couldn’t ignore the stereotype embedded in my mind of homeless people as drug users, and wondered if there was any correlation between drug use and homelessness.

Kevin, who spends nearly all day, every day on the street, believes that there is a direct link between homelessness and drug use. However, he is not homeless; Kevin is a jewellery-maker and his stall is located on the Bourke and Swanston St intersection. He has spent years working on the street, getting to know the locals, and witnessing their lives from an insider’s vantage point. He sees more than most do. According to Kevin, the cycle of homelessness and drug use has been going on for a long time. “Homelessness and particularly the begging in Melbourne is fundamentally caused by drug addiction,” he said. “95-99% of the people are on a heroin addiction. They raise between two-hundred to three-hundred dollars a day by begging on the street.” As we sat down to talk about this issue, many times Kevin nodded at acquaintances walking past. He seemed to know all types of people in the city, including those living on the street, and I assumed that his knowledge of the situation was rooted in stories from the streets.

Although I have read news articles about Melbourne’s drug problem, I felt uncomfortable making the assumption that homelessness and drug use are inextricably linked. Perhaps, like John’s story, the two are more commonly circumstantially linked. I had come across stories similar to John’s, such as the 2014 case when authorities found tenants of community housing in Fitzroy dealing ice from their apartments. The community house was consequently closed and its tenants were made homeless, sadly contradicting the purpose of community housing. Many studies, such as one conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, have found that although substance abuse is more prevalent among homeless people rather than in the general population, this information must be kept in context and should take consideration of the circumstances that led to the homelessness.

Cameron, a twenty-nine year old musician who has experienced homelessness in the past but now lives in rental accommodation, explained his perspective. “Backpackers [accommodation] and hostels have become the modern day debtor’s prison to those who can’t afford affordable housing on welfare, those of which who probably had previous mental health issues… You spend long enough in those scenarios [i.e. being homeless], the notion of a normal existence becomes further and further away. All the things these people consider luxuries are basics; having your own space, knowing that people won’t steal your food, sleeping well.” Cameron then showed how drug use can be linked to homelessness, saying “With the uncertainty of the situation it can become more of a temptation to alleviate anxiety by drug use, which further compounds mental health and poverty issues”.

Or as masters student Michael put it more bluntly, ‘If I was homeless I would spend my money on alcohol or drugs because it would be a horrible life.” Of the studies I researched about this issue, most came to the conclusion that drug use can be both a cause and result of homelessness. The chicken and the egg.

But my original question had only been partially answered. I learnt that there are a lot of services available for homeless people in Melbourne, that drug addiction and homelessness go hand in hand, and that some people feel safer sleeping on the streets than in community housing. Puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together. But perhaps the fact that this equation doesn’t make sense is a clue in itself; it shows that this is a complex issue that has no easy answer. Maybe the numbers of people who are still homeless tell a story of a society that has many deep-seated problems. So, when there is no obvious way to eradicate homelessness, what can we do to mitigate it?

Cameron had an idea about why the system isn’t working. “The services that the government offers, like NewStart [which offers $527.60 per fortnight], don’t keep up with the cost of living. Once you pay your rent for the week, buy groceries, pay the bills, and pay for transport or whatever other necessary costs there are, you’re left with nothing. It’s fine that you’ve got accommodation, but if you need to buy new clothes or shoes for work, you just can’t afford it.” This is just one idea to mitigate homelessness: to raise government payments to be able to keep up with the cost of living, especially in the city. Another option would involve ensuring that developers create affordable accommodation through inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to make a proportion of new dwellings (5 or 10 per cent, for example) low-cost or affordable. This is practiced in South Australia with apparently successful results. Among the many issues that perpetuate homelessness, the affordability of permanent accommodation is crucial because, as I learned from Cameron, the living conditions in crisis housing or hostels is too far from normality to sustain a beneficial environment to live in comfortably.

Another way to reduce homelessness would involve stopping it before it starts, by offering more services for drug addiction, mental health issues and transitions from school to work. As I have learnt throughout the research for this article, once someone has fallen into the spiral of homelessness, it is extremely difficult to get out of it. This isn’t a simple problem, and there are no quick fixes. It requires support and dedication from the government and whatever services are available to ensure that from the moment of birth, we are all able to access the same opportunities and standards of living. Nobody deserves to be ignored. Nobody deserves to be homeless.

When the Himalayas shuddered

 

Tim had his feet stretched on the table in front of him when the legs of his plastic chair began to vibrate. It was the 25th April 2015, and Tim Payne was reclining on the balcony of his hostel. He had been in Nepal for two weeks before arriving in Pokhara, the lakeside town on every travelers list. It was a hot day, but the New Yorker hadn’t broken a sweat – he had been living out of a backpack in humid Asia for nearly a year now. Tim knew what to do in the midday heat: relax at the hostel, and leave exploring till later, when the dusty roads weren’t choking and the sun wasn’t blistering. Reading his tattered Walt Whitman poetry book, Tim suddenly felt an unfamiliar sensation of not being on solid ground. With a hazy confusion, he lowered his feet from the table and realized that the balcony was vibrating too. It was then that his primal instincts kicked in, and without thinking he ran to the courtyard below. Standing with the other bewildered travelers and Nepalis, Tim tried to keep his balance, and his calm, as the ground shook beneath him in the most violent earthquake Nepal has experienced since the 1930s. During that minute, which felt eternal, thousands of lives were changed, or taken away, forever.

The 7.8 magnitude that struck the Ghorka district in Kathmandu, Nepal on April 25th was unpredicted, unexpected and unplanned for. A perfect mixture of circumstances allowed it to wreak as much damage as possible, leaving the nation in a state of havoc. In a developing country already experiencing extreme poverty, political instability, and a deep-seated economic dependence on the tourism industry, a natural disaster of this magnitude was the last thing Nepal needed. Yet just before noon, the tectonic plates that created the Himalayas collided with each other, letting out about a century’s worth of built-up strain. The ancient city Kathmandu is home to many World Heritage sites dating back as far as the 15th century, such as Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square, the Boudhanath Stupa and the Swayumbhunath Stupa. Many of these sites were irreversibly damaged or destroyed, as their structures were too weak to withstand the force of the earthquake. While the loss of such sites is detrimental to the nation’s culture, as well as its tourism industry, the death of almost 9000 people was what shocked Nepal, and the world, into silence.

Vuban Dahal, who lives in Kathmandu, still experiences this silence every day. Not in the volume of the city, which after a year has returned to its chaotic bustle, but in the way people think and act. As in most cases, children exhibit the emotions adults often try to hide or deny. And Vuban can see the children of Kathmandu acting differently now; the carefree innocence that all children should enjoy has been replaced with a fearful hyperawareness. They are scared to walk to school, afraid to remain inside buildings, fearful that city they live in could fall down on top of them any day. Vuban is barely out of childhood himself, yet at 24 he has already seen more than many people will see in their entire lives.

The earthquake occurred at 11:56 a.m., with its epicentre about 34 kilometers east-southeast of Lamjung, or 53 km’s from Bharatapur, the nearest major city. It lasted about 50 seconds, and its depth was only 15km (which is considered shallow and therefore more damaging). According to the India Meterological Department, over thirty-eight aftershocks occurred during the remainder of that day, with one reaching magnitude 6.8. A sudden release of built-up stress between the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate caused the earthquake, moving Kathmandu three meters to the south in a matter of thirty seconds. Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, was specifically targeted because it lies on top of a block of crust that is part of the fault line that ruptured. In a city of around 1 million people, most of whom live in structurally unstable houses, apartment buildings, or slums, the earthquake hit Nepal’s most vulnerable region.

Had the earthquake occurred in a developed country, with buildings meeting the safety standards that ensure they can withstand an earthquake, many deaths could have been prevented. However, the extremely poor standard of building safety in Kathmandu and its surrounding areas resulted in many thousands of people being crushed to death inside buildings. The political instability and subsequent low standard of life in Nepal is common to many developing countries. These circumstances have a varying range of ramifications, some which affect the lives of citizens directly. In the case of the Kathmandu earthquake, unmonitored building conditions allowed for the rampant construction of unsafe buildings throughout the city. Over the years, stories have been added on top of existing structures, structural corners cut to lessen costs, and the materials that are used are often substandard. The consequence of the government’s failure to oversee the safety of buildings within Kathmandu was the death of many thousands of people. Yet, no government or person can be held accountable for a natural disaster; it is simply a tragedy that the country was not prepared for.

When the earthquake happened, Vuban was at work in Thamel, the tourist mecca of Nepal. The district is made up of winding cobbled alleyways lined with mismatched towering apartments stacked on top of each other. Clothes lines of saris swing from balcony to balcony. On the ground level, the streets crawl with lazy rickshaw drivers, insistent taxis, shop owners coaxing customers inside, the smell of pakoras sizzling from a wok in a doorway, mangy dogs skirting between human legs, tourists in baggy colourful clothing, Nepali women with baskets of vegetables at their hips, and mischievous street children. From inside his cool shop, Vuban could escape from the sun and dust, occasionally convince a traveler to buy some hemp clothing, or watch the streets of Thamel from the doorstep.

This is what he was doing when the world began to shake, and within fifty seconds the whole street had transformed from a busy Saturday morning into a scene of destruction and confusion. “Four or five buildings broke down in front of my eyes…one of those buildings was a guest house with about 24 guests inside, it just totally broke down,” Vuban said. Like Tim, his instinct was to run outside. On the street, women and old men prayed to God to stop the earthquake. People tried desperately to contact their relatives, but the phone connections were down. A few hours after the initial earthquake, Vuban discovered that his school friend had been killed in his home when it collapsed on him.

Over the next week, the country was transfigured into a state of shambolic emergency. There was no movement between cities as main roads had been swallowed, only leaving a gash of tar and dirt. “I wanted to get out of Pokhara and out of Nepal – the whole thing shook me pretty badly to be honest – but all the main roads were destroyed,” Tim remembered. There was a shortage of medical supplies, volunteers to search through the rubble to find bodies, fresh water, food, and shelter. Seas of tents were erected in the main square of every city to house the thousands of injured or now homeless people. Those living in the mountains surrounding Kathmandu had to wait three or four days before assistance came to help with their injured or dead.

And while all of this was happening, the aftershocks continued. In the villages, away from the noise of the city, a deep faint growl emanated from the distant mountains, giving the people a five or ten second warning before the ground started to shake again. But in the city, all the people could do was wait in tense anticipation for the next earthquake to happen. “The aftershocks happened every day, sometimes twice a day… but they couldn’t really predict when they were going to happen, so for a whole week we just had to try and act normal while we were anticipating another earthquake every day,” Tim said.

Those trekking in the Himalayas were in even worse conditions. Nepal is home to some of the most popular treks in the world, including the Annapurna Circuit trek and the Everest Base Camp trek, which leads trekkers to the base of the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. During these treks, which can last anywhere from a week to months, people abandon all but the necessary items to survive from a backpack. Some bring their own tents and food, but most opt to stay in the lodging huts along the length of the track, which provide a bed and a meal for a night. This way, people can navigate their way up the mountain with a map, backpack, a sturdy pair of boots, and little else. What draws people to such places is the isolation and the simplicity of life in the mountains. There are no cars up there; if you need to go somewhere, you walk. Food and supplies are delivered by lumbering trains of yaks with bells around their necks. Only an emergency case of altitude sickness can bring a helicopter to the area, and even then there are only a number of designated areas where a helicopter can land. In normal circumstances, this isolation is a welcome refuge. In an earthquake, it means death.

And it did mean death for 21 mountaineers who were located at Everest Base Camp when the earthquake triggered an avalanche. The base camp, which was made up of yellow tents that look like strange flowers in the white snow, were helpless against the rush of snow and ice that was shaken from the mountains in the earthquake. This disaster is now known as the deadliest day in the mountain’s history. All the way down the trail to Lukla, where trekkers arrive and depart by a rickety plane, tragedies proliferated as whole villages became stranded from any outside contact or help. Trekkers were unable to call their families at home, and the number of missing persons steadily increased.

For the first few hours after the earthquake, Tim didn’t realise the extent of the disaster. With all television, radio and mobile networks down, the town of Pokhara was trapped in isolation from any news or information. “At first we thought that it was just Pokhara that had the earthquake, and didn’t really take it too seriously. We had a drink afterwards and laughed nervously about it, but we didn’t actually realise how bad it was until about five in the afternoon. Then it really hit me,” he said. When the telephone networks began to work again, Tim and the rest of the town learnt about the destruction in Kathmandu, the avalanches on Mount Everest, and the death toll that kept on rising. “I eventually got onto my parents in New York and they were freaking out. The earthquake had been all over the news and they thought I was dead.”

Tim and Vuban were both lucky to be in the right place at the right time, although almost 9000 people weren’t so fortunate. While Tim was able to leave the country about two weeks after the earthquake and return home to America, Vuban had to adapt to this new reality he, his family, and his country were now faced with. Over a year later, Vuban still sees the destruction of the earthquake every day; in the destroyed and abandoned buildings throughout the city; in the tent he and his family now live in; but most of all in the shattering of the his people’s trust. But from fear arises bravery, and although Vuban doesn’t admit it, he and Tim and every person who survived the earthquake and continued on with their lives – their hope is as strong as the force that made the Himalayas shudder.

Made in Bangladesh

Three years ago, in April 2013, an eight-storey building in Bangladesh called  Rana Plaza fell to the ground and killed more than 1,100 people. Whilst 2,500 people managed to escape death, many now have life-long disabilities. All were garment factory workers. The Rana Plaza tragedy became known as the biggest catastrophe in garment industry history, because the collapse of the building was entirely preventable. It provoked enquiries from around the world into the exploitation of workers in this industry, as the unsafe working conditions and extremely low wages of garment factories was revealed. In the wake of this disaster, fashion companies were called upon to provide transparency of their supply chains, and both Oxfam and Baptist World Aid Australia conducted assessments and released reports on their findings in June 2016. This article reflects on these reports,  asks what has been done to ensure the safety of workers, and questions whether the low price of fast-fashion still comes at a life-threatening cost for workers.

Background

Ready-made garments are mass-produced finished textile products of the clothing industry. The first factory established to create ready-made garments was in New York in 1831, when soldiers required uniforms for the American Civil War. At the end of the nineteenth century ready-made clothing was being produced for both the low and middle classes and by the late 1860s, 25% percent of garments produced in the U.S. were ready- made. This figure rose to 60% by 1890 and by 1951, 90% percent of garments sold in the United States were ready-made. It is since this time that the readymade garment industry has begun to grow exponentially.  Global production outside the U.S. has quickly opened itself up to a wider population,  as it promised higher paid, somewhat secure work. This attracted multitudes of workers in developing countries who sought an alternative from their low-paying agricultural jobs, and migration to the city soon became popular. By 2014, Bangladesh saw its GDP grow almost 27 times in four decades. Today 60 million people work in garment factories globally, with 15 million of these in Asia. More than 3.6 million of these workers are in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Production and Wages

In order to keep up with the growth of fast, affordable fashion, the industry has chased the lowest possible costs for production and favoured countries offering the most attractive deals. This has resulted in the wages of workers being kept exploitatively minimal to maintain low production costs. This is particularly evident in Bangladesh.  A monthly living wage in Bangladesh is 6900 taka (AUD $117) which is supposed to ensure that a person is able to afford food, water, shelter, clothing, power, healthcare and education. The national poverty line is 6,340 taka (AUD $107). However in the garment industry in Bangladesh, workers are on a minimum wage of 3,500 taka (approximately AUD $60) per month. In 2013, with even a full-time job at the minimum wage, this is clearly not sufficient to provide a decent standard of living.

Furthermore, this industry is the largest employer of women in Bangladesh, who are generally cheaper workers than men. A study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that in the garment industry, women are paid up to 30% less than men.

The flip side of this is that as most formal jobs in the city exclude migrant women, the garment sector provides financial independence and empowerment that many other trades in developing countries do not. With the means to support their families, women are able to achieve a sense of independence and assured a stable income.  Unfortunately however, common to most of the garment sector throughout Asia, the garment industry often operates under corrupt circumstances. In Bangladesh, trade unions are almost non-existent, and garment factory owners often have political ties that make it difficult to discern between legal and illegal business dealings. These are additional factors that only serve to perpetuate the exploitation of garment factory workers.

The Rana Plaza Incident

The Rana Plaza collapsed on the 24th April 2013, one day after cracks had been discovered in the building’s walls. It has now been revealed that before the factory was built, the owner, Sohel Rana, only obtained permission to build a five storey building. But due to his political connections, authorities turned a blind eye to the illegal construction of the top three stories. The site of the building (which was once a pond) was  not strong enough to support these top three storeys. Since its collapse, experts have concluded that the vibration of the sewing machines was too much for the already unstable building to handle.  Had a safety inspection occurred, Rana Plaza would have been immediately closed. But the day after the cracks appeared in the walls, the factory owners insisted that the building was safe and threatened employees who refused to go to work. Without safety experts to discount these assertions, the factory workers had no choice but to work.

It is a sad reality of this industry that the factory owners put more value in meeting their daily quotas than in the safety of their employees.  

For many, the Rana Plaza collapse was the last straw. The disaster exposed the fashion industry’s elusive supply chain, which irrevocably connected consumers in the western world with exploited garment factory workers in developing countries. For many, this connection had never been made before. As more questions have been asked it has been revealed that to produce their clothing, factories were not meeting sourcing guidelines or maintaining basic living wages, average working hours, or regular safety inspections.   Responses From the International Community In late 2013, as a result of the tremendous pressure from international worker advocacy groups, NGOs, buyers and brands, the minimum wage in Bangladesh was raised to 5,300 taka (AUD $90). While this is still below the living wage, it is an improvement.

Around the same time, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) established plans with the Bangladesh government to improve working conditions in the garment sector through the National Tripartite Plan of Action (NTPA). They also committed to rebuild the Department of Inspections of Factories and Establishments (DIFE).  Two other agreements; the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, have been established between international retailers, which includes Australian brands Cotton On Group, Forever New, Kmart, Target and Woolworths.These agreements include routine inspections of 1,600 garment factories throughout Bangladesh, with full details provided on their websites. Thirty-nine factories were closed in late 2015 for posing a danger to workers.

The bad news is of the 5,000 garment factories in operation in Bangladesh, an approximate 4,961 are still operating without these inspections.

 What Can You Do?

There are a number of ways you can ensure that the clothes you buy have not been made by people who have been exploited. Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) has developed an accreditation program that monitors the supply chains of companies and ensures that the entire process is fully transparent and legally compliant. Some well-known brands that are signed with the ECA include Cue, Jeanswest and R. M. Williams.  Fairtrade options are also becoming increasingly available and can be trusted to provide ethical and sustainable manufacturing environments that meet social and environmental standards. Australia is involved with the Fair Trade Association, which encompasses Fair Trade International (FLO) and the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO). Clothing accredited by these organisations can be found throughout Australia. While the price of Fairtrade products may be a little higher, it means that you can buy clothes that have been made ethically, and wear them with a clear conscience.

Conclusion

Since the devastation of the Rana Plaza collapse, the garment industry has seemingly turned a new corner. Realistically and logistically, a structural overhaul of the industry may take years to eventuate, during which time the potential is huge for similar disasters to the Rana Plaza collapse. While many initiatives have been suggested and some implemented, time will tell whether they will provide ongoing safe working conditions and acceptable wages, or whether they will fall apart at the seams. Consumers are not helpless, but in fact command the lifeline of the garment industry and by extension, the standard of life of its workers. Next time you go shopping will you see these clothes for what they really are – cheap price-tags on the lives of garment factory workers? And will you turn a blind eye and buy the garment anyway, or next time, will you choose differently?

Lentil As Anything Opens Arms to All Except Poverty

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The eclectic, homely interior of the Thornbury Lentil As Anything.

It’s like having a meal at a friend’s house. In return for a delicious vegan meal, you’ll repay them with whatever you can afford, whether that’s $10 or a few hours of your time.

It doesn’t sound like a regular restaurant, and it’s not. It’s Lentil As Anything (or to its regulars, Lentils), a not-for-profit, volunteer-run organisation that sees community involvement as its currency. Its values revolve around community, compassion, hope and human dignity rather than money.

The rise of poverty, as witnessed over the past few years in Australia, may push more people to seek alternative ways to live in the city as living costs continue to rise. With 50.6 per cent of those receiving Youth Allowance (which caters to 16 to 24 year-olds) living under the poverty line, it seems as though the younger generation will have to think creatively, as Lentil founder Shanaka Fernando did 13 years ago.

Beyond the basic needs of food, clean water, shelter and clothing, humans need social participation and equal opportunities. Recognising this was the first step of Fernando after noticing the homeless and refugees on the streets of Melbourne. They couldn’t afford to pay for meals, but they could repay with their time instead.

“We get people from completely different walks of life sitting next to each other on a table and talking to each other, and that’s probably one of my favourite parts of [Lentils] because it brings people together,” explains Jenny, a Lentil volunteer.

Social exclusion has been recognised as a major detrimental effect of poverty, affecting the well-being of those who aren’t able to engage in the social or cultural activities they would like to. For some, this may be going to a restaurant with friends.

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A diverse range of regulars frequent Lentil As Anything.

Tootsie, like many other Lentil volunteers, found her life transformed when she started participating in the organisation. Now a manager at the four Lentil locations, Preston, Thornbury, Abbotsford and St Kilda, her history of unemployment, depression and social anxiety feels like another life.

“When everyone comes in the door I greet them happily because that’s how I was greeted when I first came here and I want other people to feel that same welcoming and wholeness I got,” she said.

Under her red apron, Tootsie’s t-shirt proclaims the Lentil philosophy: Everyone Deserves a Seat at the Table. Having experienced poverty first-hand, Tootsie believes that the problem goes much farther than money.

“To be poor… is to be alone. If you’re not involved or a part of anything, that loneliness creates the poverty,” she said.

The word ‘poverty’ is not synonymous with Australia, which ranks as the 15th richest country. But the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) found in its 2014 poverty report that 13.9 per cent of Australians are living below the poverty line. Or, in other words, a shocking 2.5 million Australians are surviving on under $400 a week.

The reason this issue is neglected may be because Australia’s social standards make it near impossible to compare our poverty to that of most developing countries. But that’s the key point: there is no comparison.

Poverty can be assessed through two frames; absolute poverty, which refers to a set standard regardless of the country, or relative poverty, which is based on the society of a citizen, and therefore the country and timeframe. The misconception that the standards of absolute poverty applies to every country has led to the general disregard of poverty as an issue in Australia, as it is not extreme in the same sense as it is in developing countries.

Yet for 2.5 million people, getting through the week is a struggle.

Since moving to Melbourne from North-East NSW for the wider job opportunities, 21 year-old Sapodia has struggled to pay the rent and make her money last through the week.  For her, poverty effects more than her bank account.

“It’s something that really effects my wellbeing as everything seems so overwhelming and hard to deal with,” she said. “It makes me depressed, loathsome and self-hating when I’m not ordinarily that way.”

Similarly, Jenny found herself with few prospects after dropping out of Year 12 last year before discovering Lentil As Anything.

“I was feeling really unmotivated and not active in my life or in the community and I started volunteering here and it just completely changed everything,” she said.

“I found a place where I felt motivated and driven and welcomed and included.”

It is Lentil’s acceptance and diversity that inspires so many to join their network of volunteers.

“We don’t pay people to be here,” Tootsie explains. “People are involved because they want to be part of the community.”

You can’t help noticing a buoyancy of spirit as you walk out the door with a full stomach and a feeling that there is good in the world.