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Kenyan girls to fly to Google HQ after inventing app to end FGM
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TECHNOLOGY

Kenyan girls to fly to Google HQ after inventing app to end FGM

2 August 2017 4:43PM UTC | By: THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

 
   

Animated chatter spills out from a corner of tech giant Google’s Nairobi offices as five Kenyan schoolgirls discuss their upcoming trip to California where they hope to win $15,000 for I-cut, an app to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

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From left: Stacy Owino, Purity Achieng, Ivy Akinyi, Synthia Otieno and Macrine Atieno outside a classroom in school. The five girls from Kenya will be representing Africa in the annual Technovation challenge in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Technovation

The five teenagers, aged 15 to 17, are the only Africans selected to take part in this year’s international Technovation competition, where girls develop mobile apps to end problems in their communities.

“FGM is a big problem affecting girls worldwide and it is a problem we want to solve,” Stacy Owino told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, while snacking on chocolate on a break from boarding school before flying to the United States on Aug. 6.

“This whole experience will change our lives. Whether we win or not, our perspective of the world and the possibilities it has will change for the better.”

The five girls from Kenya’s western city of Kisumu call themselves the ‘Restorers’ because they want to “restore hope to hopeless girls”, said Synthia Otieno, one of the team.

One in four Kenyan women and girls have undergone FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, even though it is illegal in the East African nation.

Although the girls’ Luo community does not practice FGM, they have friends who have been cut.

“We were very close but after she was cut she never came back to school,” said Purity Achieng, describing a classmate who underwent FGM. “She was among the smartest girls I knew.”

I-cut connects girls at risk of FGM with rescue centres and gives legal and medical help to those who have been cut.

Its simple interface has five buttons – help, rescue, report, information on FGM, donate and feedback – offering users different services.

Kenya is one of the most technologically advanced countries in Africa, known for its pioneering mobile money transfer apps.

Technovation, which is sponsored by Google, Verizon and the United Nations, aims to teach girls the skills they need to become tech entrepreneurs and leaders.

“We just have to use this opportunity as a stepping stone to the next level,” said schoolgirl Ivy Akinyi who plans to become a computer programmer.

This story was originally published at Thomson Reuters Foundation News. Reporting by Daniel Wesangula; Editing by Katy Migiro and Ros Russell.

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THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION
2 August 2017 4:43PM UTC

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AUG. 8, 2017

Crowds Welcome New Refugees Outside Montreal’s Olympic Stadium

The crowds held signs and balloons to show their support for the newcomers.

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Just days after Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was turned into temporary housing for refugees, Montrealers have gathered to show their support for the city’s newcomers.

Hundreds of people stood outside the stadium on Sunday to let the refugees know they were welcome.

The event was organized by Solidarity Across Borders and the Non-Status Action Committee, who believe in the regularization of undocumented immigrants.

“We are here with them, to support them and to help them establish themselves,” Serge Bouchereau, an organizer from the Non-Status Action Committee, said into a megaphone. “This is a vast, rich country that can welcome many, many people who are in bad situations and can't stay in their own countries.”

Read More: Montreal’s Olympic Stadium Is Now Housing Refugees

The group of people held signs and balloons, and shouted "refugees welcome!" in Creole.

Among the crowd were people that had arrived in Canada as immigrants and wanted to show their support.

“I’m an immigrant myself, so this is very near and dear to my heart. I had to go through the immigration system as well, I know it’s difficult, and I’m really hoping that our administrations will put forward the resources to actually help these people, that they’ll have [the] occasion to actually live in dignity in Canada,” Alexis Audoin told The Canadian Press.

Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is being used to temporarily house some of the more than 1,000 asylum seekers who entered Quebec from the United States in July.

There has been a significant surge in asylum seekers coming from the US. Between 250 and 300 people are now crossing the Canada-US border every day, according to City of Montreal.

Read More: Salma Hayek Pinault Just Explained Exactly Why Trump's Wall Will Never Get Built

Many of these people are originally from Haiti and worried that US President Trump will revoke the protective status they received in the US following the country’s earthquake in 2010.

Up to 58,000 people could be deported to Haiti in January 2018, according to CBC.

A demonstration against the arrival of the asylum seekers was supposed to take place but it was announced that it was cancelled on Saturday.

Jackie Marchildon is a Bilingual Editor at Global Citizen in Toronto.

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698
GIRLS AND WOMEN

12 African game-changers you need to know

April 20 2017 | By: ROBYN DETORO

 
   

Who is changing the game in Africa? That’s the question NewAfricanWoman magazine put to the public as they prepared to host the New African Woman Awards 2017 – an annual ceremony that honors and celebrates Africa’s most influential and impactful women. After weeks of nominations a special panel of judges took on the tough task of narrowing the candidates down to just twelve winners. Here are this year’s winners:

New African Woman of the Year: Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajan, Gambia
Vice-President of the Gambia, Minister of Women Affairs and a fierce human rights activist she’s rightfully claimed this award for her key contributions to the ouster of Gambia’s former long-term leader, Yahya Jammeh.

New African Woman in Civil Society: Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, Malawi
With over 300 child marriage annulments under her belt, you can bet Chief Kachindamoto is a force to be reckoned with. A strong advocate against the practice, she played a major role in influencing the Malawian government to outlaw child marriage altogether earlier this year.

AF-Women-Award-Individual-Graphic1.jpgNew African Women in Health, Science and Technology: Dr. Helena Ndume, Namibia
We can’t think of a doctor more deserving of a win. Dr. Helena Ndume is a game changing ophthalmologist and cataract surgeon who’s provided vision restoring surgery to over 35,000 Namibians for free.

New African Woman on the Rise (The Next Generation): Vivian Onano, Kenya
This avid youth activist (and ONE Member!) has called for improved girls rights and strongly encourages men to get involved in the fight for equal rights. As a UN Women Youth Advisor, it’s clear that she’s on the path to achieve her goals.

New African Woman in Politics and Public Office: Amina J. Mohammed, Nigeria
Years of experience have earned Amina a key position with the United Nations as its Deputy Secretary-General. The former Nigerian Minister of Environment played a big role in assessing how the Sustainable Development Goals and Millennium Development Goals would impact African women across the continent.

AF-Women-Award-Individual-Graphic2.jpgNew African Woman in Arts and Culture: Joan Okorodudu, Nigeria
Joan Okorodudu is the brains and force behind one of Africa’s fastest growing modeling agencies and is credited with raising the profile of Nigerian fashion to a global level.

New African Woman Award in Education: Tsitsi Masiyiwa, Zimbabwe
We know educating young girls and boys is one of the best ways to equip them for success in life. As the founder of the Higherlife Foundation, a non-profit organisation that provides vulnerable and orphaned children with scholarships which has already benefitted over 250,000 children, it’s clear Tsitsi Masiyiwa knows this too!

AF-Women-Award-Individual-Graphic4.jpgNew African Woman in Finance: Binta Touré Ndoye, Mali
Competition for this award was high, but Binta’s game changing work with Oragroup – a Malian banking enterprise – earned her the top spot.

New African Woman in Media: Amira Yahyaoui, Tunisia
This blogger and political activist is a brazen advocate for human rights, transparency and public accountability. Amira’s goal is to empower citizens to participate in civil society and to encourage governments to establish good governance and political ethics.

New African Woman in Agriculture: Tumusiime Rhoda Peace, Uganda
The former African Union Commissioner of Agriculture and Rural Development played a key role in promoting the importance of food security across the continent. Throughout her career she has championed women’s empowerment and poverty eradication.AF-Women-Award-Individual-Graphic3.jpgNew African woman Award in Business: Salwa Idrissi Akhannouch, Morocco
She’s one of Africa’s most successful businesswomen. Heading up the Akwa Group franchise group Askal landed her 68th place on Forbes Middle East’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Businesswomen.

New African Woman in Sport: Fatma Samoura, Senegal
Fatma’s not only the first female Secretary General of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), she is also the first non-European to hold the role!

Congratulations to all of the well-deserving winners and nominees!

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ROBYN DETORO
April 20 2017

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AUG. 14, 2017

Report Reveals the Sick Reason Boko Haram Uses Young Girls as Suicide Bombers

The Islamist jihadists use more women & girls in bombings than any other insurgency in history.

 

Brought to you by: Thomson Reuters Foundation

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screen_shot_2017-02-24_at_31158_pm.pngReinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images
 

By Kieran Guilbert

DAKAR, Aug 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The global outrage sparked by the 2014 kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok in Nigeria inspired Boko Haram to start strapping suicide bombs to women in a bid to gain notoriety through "shock and awe" tactics, researchers said.

The Islamist jihadists have used more women and girls in bombing attacks than any other insurgency in history — 244 since 2014 — according to a report by researchers at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, a leading U.S. military academy.

Boko Haram is also the first militant group to use more female than male bombers, with women accounting for at least 56 percent of 434 suicide attacks carried out during its eight-year campaign to carve out an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.

Take Action:  Email the Human Rights High Commissioner to Achieve Justice for the Yazidis

Women and girls are deployed as bombers by Boko Haram — many are forced to do so but some blow themselves up willingly — as they arouse less suspicion and are seen by the militants as more expendable than men, said the "Exploding Stereotypes" report.

But the fact Boko Haram only started using female bombers in 2014 — after the Chibok kidnappings — suggests the group adopted the tactic to grab headlines by "eliciting shock and awe from the local and international community", the report authors said.

Related StoriesFeb. 9, 2017Thomson Reuters FoundationBoko Haram Wives Adjust to Life After Being Seduced by PowerSept. 29, 20162.2 Million Nigerians Are Starving Because of Boko Haram

"Through the global response to the Chibok abductions, the insurgency learned the potent symbolic value of young female bodies ... that using them as bombers would attract attention and spread pervasive insecurity," said co-author Hilary Matfess.

"I think the media attention and international campaign around the girls motivated Boko Haram ... to enact atrocities on women as a means of building its brand," Matfess told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Thousands of women and girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram, with many being used as cooks, sex slaves and suicide bombers, and others being deployed as fighters, activists say.

The kidnapping of the Chibok girls in April 2014 remains the group's most high-profile attack - provoking an international outcry and a viral celebrity-backed campaign on social media with the hashtag "bringbackourgirls".

The militants have killed more than 20,000 people and forced 2.7 million to flee their homes across Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and show no signs of slowing down despite assertions by the army and state that they are on the verge of defeat.

"One thing that has remained constant about Boko Haram is its relentless innovation - it is a remarkably flexible group," Matfess said. "Expect them to continue to innovate in their suicide bombings tactics, to cause ever more shock and fear."

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Astrid Zweynert. @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

 

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PARTNEREDUCATION
AUG. 9, 2017

HP + Global Citizen Come Together at Cannes to Show Why Education Cannot Wait

Education currently receives less than 2% of humanitarian aid.

Madge Thomas

By Madge Thomas

Brought to you by: HP Inc.

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On the one-year anniversary of the World Humanitarian Summit, Global Citizen and HP joined forces, hosting the Educate Every Child, Everywhere event during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival. The event brought together corporate partners, members of international press associations and global citizens, to spotlight the progress and dire need for education in emergencies, including through the Education Cannot Wait (ECW) fund.

Education currently receives less than 2% of humanitarian aid. That’s a catastrophic oversight for the 75 million children and youth currently missing out on an education — over half of whom are girls. Educating these children is the first step toward lifting them out of trauma and helping them to rebuild their future and their communities.

Speaking at the event in Cannes, HP Chief Supply Chain Officer Stuart Pann movingly recalled why this issue resonates so strongly for him through his own family’s tale of forced migration II. He spoke of HP's support for the most vulnerable and displaced to access learning and opportunity, including through the power of digital technology and access to quality education.

Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans outlined the role Global Citizens — including international star, Rihanna — played  in the launch and first financial commitments generated in support of ECW, which is the first-ever fund for education in emergencies. Appropriately, given the event was in France, Evans recalled the now-viral tweetsRihanna and global citizens sent to French President Francois Hollande resulting in that country’s pledge to Education Cannot Wait last year. In speaking about the 75 million children who are out of school due to conflict and natural disaster, Evans suggested that bringing education to those who have lost so much could be a game changer for refugee children and young people.

Read More:  How Can We Empower 100 Million People to Create a Better Future for Themselves?

Yasmine Sherif, who has just been appointed as the Director of the ECW fund, made her first public appearance at the event to call on all those gathered, including the private sector, to come together to support and address the critical issue of education in emergencies. Ms Sherif has about 20 years of UN expertise, including field roles in conflict and crisis affected areas. She attended the event following a visit to projects and stakeholders in Baghdad, reminded the audience that ECW can connect those who have, and can give, with those who have lost and will give back. She cited successful investments in the fund in Syria, Yemen and Chad, and upcoming investments in Ethiopia that are already bringing education to over 3 million kids.

This was a fitting way for three partners, all working to ensure education for every child, everywhere, to come together and use their voices and platforms to amplify a critical issue. While historically the Cannes Film Festival didn’t always promote social issues, in recent years, its films have focused more on humanitarian and global challenges, including refugees and climate change. It is great to see corporations like HP, which has been a long-time sponsor of the Cannes Film Festival, use the platform of the festival to encourage action on an issue it cares deeply about. With a problem so vast, everyone has to play their part to help fix it. That includes corporations.

This is also not the first time Global Citizens have seen HP step up on education in emergencies. When Global Citizen targeted companies in 2016, with the help of 23,738 emails from Global Citizens, three companies, including HP, made individual commitments at the Global Citizen Festival that totalled more than $4.5 million collectively, set to affect the lives of 150,000 refugees. As part of this, HP committed more than $1 million in technology and training support to help refugees, alleviate poverty, and improve the lives of over 100,000 people in the coming year. Its work establishing six HP Learning Studios in the Middle East is further evidence of progress towards this commitment.

By driving action through its business and programs and supporting the work of Global Citizen and advocacy on Education Cannot Wait, HP is helping advance quality education for every child, everywhere.

Madge Thomas is the Global Policy and Advocacy Manager for the Global Poverty Project and leads GPP’s Education policy campaigning. A former Human Rights Lawyer, she has previously worked with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Department of Foreign Affairs in Australia and is an executive committee member of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (WA), which promotes understanding and awareness of International Affairs in their Western Australia and Australia.

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About Our Partner

HP Inc. creates technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere. Through its portfolio of printers, PCs, mobile devices, solutions, and services, HP engineers experiences that amaze. Sustainability serves as a guiding principle for how the company does business—fueling its innovation and growth. HP believes technology can and should make life better for everyone, everywhere—and in so doing, make a better world.

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These women’s rights activists inspire us to fight for equality
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GIRLS AND WOMEN

These women’s rights activists inspire us to fight for equality

February 9 2017 | By: SAMANTHA URBAN

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Right now, our newsfeeds are packed with incredible stories of women taking action. To honor the persistence and drive of those women, we’re taking a look at some truly influential women’s rights activists:

Suffragists around the world

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A 1915 photograph of large crowd of suffragists on Capitol steps, some with banners, one with American flag, some in academic gowns, overseen by two uniformed policemen. (Photo credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Suffrage has been a worldwide movement with countless determined activists organizing for the right to vote in their respective countries. (See the timeline of women’s suffrage here.)For example, activists like Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst in the United Kingdom and Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in the United States organized marches and demonstrations in order to fight for the right of women to vote in their respective countries.

Lillian Ngoyi (1911 – 1980)

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This anti-apartheid activist in South Africa organized marches for women’s rights, including one with 20,000 women to the Union Buildings of Pretoria in protest against the apartheid government requiring women to carry passbooks. A President of the Women’s League, she went on to be the first woman elected to the executive committee of the African National Congress, and helped launch the Federation of South African Women.

Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez (1925 – )

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(Photo credit: Jerome Rainey/Wikimedia Commons)

The first Latina student to graduate from Swarthmore College, Elizabeth worked as a researcher in the United Nations Secretariat in the 1950s, and as a coordinator for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. (She was one of only two Latina women who worked for the SNCC.) Since moving to California in 1976, Martínez has organized around Latino community issues, taught Women’s Studies, conducted anti-racist training workshops, and worked with youth groups — she even ran for governor in 1982.

Manasi Pradhan (1962 – )

Manasi_Pradhan_with_Dr._Nirmala_Deshpand

Women’s rights activist Manasi Pradhan with social activist Padma Vibhushan. (Photo credit: Sravanimohanty/Wikimedia Commons)

Known as one of the pioneers of the 21st century global feminist movement, Manasi founded two major organizations: OYSS Women, which aimed to help female students achieve higher education and develop them as future leaders in the society, and the Honour for Women National Campaign, a nationwide movement to end violence against women in India.

Malala Yousafsai (1997 – )

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As part of WOW 2014, Malala Yousafzai talked about the systemic nature of gender inequality and bringing about change. (Photo credit: Southbank Centre/Wikimedia Commons)

This inspirational Pakistani woman was attacked by the Taliban because she was a vocal advocate for girls’ education. Today, she continues to campaign for women’s rights and is the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate.

ONE members (2004 – )

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While the above list of women show the power that just one person has to make a huge difference, our members remind us of the power we have in numbers, as well. For more than 10 years, our members have been campaigning and organizing to fight poverty and preventable disease. Together, they have stood together and told world leaders that poverty is sexist. This year, they’ll keep fighting for the rights of girls around the world to get the education they deserve. Join them today.

Did we leave out your favorite activist? Tell us about them in the comments!

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SAMANTHA URBAN
February 9 2017

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61
YOUTH AMBASSADORS

PODCAST: ONE’s young campaigners talk about their activism

10 August 2017 1:11PM UTC | By: ALEXANDRA KIRGIOS

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Did you know that the 12th August is International Youth Day?

At ONE, we’re lucky to have some of the best and brightest young campaigners in our movement and to celebrate International Youth Day, we’ve recorded our first ever podcast.

Our movement is global and our young activists fight for a world without extreme poverty every day. For the podcast, we were lucky to be joined by our Youth Ambassadors in Europe, our Champions in Nigeria and Campus Leaders from the US to talk about their experiences and engagement with ONE.

You can listen to the podcast right here!

What do you think about youth activism? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below or tweet using the hashtag #ONEyouth17

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10 August 2017 1:11PM UTC

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AUG. 14, 2017

17 Quotes About Peace to Give You Strength Today

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Phineas Rueckert
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mlk_2.pngLibrary of Congress/ Graphic: Global Citizen
 

Over the weekend, the US city of Charlottesville, Virginia erupted into racist violence. 

On Friday night, white nationalists holding tiki torches marched through the campus of the University of Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. 

On Saturday, the white nationalists were met by counter-protesters at Emancipation Park and clashes ensued — leading Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency. Later that afternoon, at a mall downtown, a white nationalist and suspected Nazi sympathizer, James Alex Fields, Jr., drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring more than a dozen. 

Take Action: Urge the UN Human Rights Commissioner to Establish a Commission of Inquiry and Investigate War Crimes Against the Yazidi

The nation is reeling from this violence, and President Donald Trump has been criticizedby politicians on both sides of the aisle for saying the violence came from “many sides” and failing to condemn white nationalist ideologies.  

The roots of white supremacist violence in the United States run deep, and the history of slavery continues to contribute to immense income, educational, and incarceraldisparities for people of color in the US. 

The Global Goals enshrine reduced inequality within and among countries as a requisites for ending extreme poverty by 2030, but this weekend’s events show legacies of inequality and violence against minorities still afflict countries of all sizes and income-levels. 

Read More: This Woman Stared Down a Far-Right Racist With the Ultimate Act of Defiance

Nonetheless, peaceful dialogue and sustainable, equitable development offer an alternative to this weekend’s violence. 

Saturday night, after the violence had subsided, former US president Barack Obama took to Twitter with a quote from former South African President and peace activist Nelson Mandela that perfectly summed up the need for peace in times of violence: 

Today, Global Citizen is bringing you this quote, and 16 others, about peace as the nation endures this trying moment. 

1. “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” — Malcolm X 

2. “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” — Maya Angelou 

 

3. “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” — Thurgood Marshall 

4.  “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” — Robert F. Kennedy 

5. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ―  Nelson Mandela 

 

6. “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” — Malala Yousafzai

7. “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.” — John F. Kennedy

8. “Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.” — Dalai Lama XIV

9. "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." —  Mother Teresa 

 

10. “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

11. “I believe our sorrow can make us a better country.  I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace.” — Barack Obama 

12. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. 

13. "Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding." — Albert Einstein

14. “It’s my conviction that nothing enduring can be built on violence.” — Mahatma Gandhi 

 

15. "If you want peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies." — Desmond Tutu 

16. “Peace is never a perfect achievement.” — Kofi Annan

17. “I, too, am America.” — Langston Hughes 

 

Phineas Rueckert is a writer at Global Citizen. He graduated from Macalester College with a degree in Political Science and International Studies, and spent the past year teaching English in Toulouse, France. He is originally from Brooklyn, New York.

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Genes can push you toward obesity, but there are things you can do to prevent that

 
 
 
genetics_online.jpg?uuid=_0ZbQH4REeeDx1vVRg8Nfg
Darrel Rees for The Washington Post
By Marlene Cimons August 13

The role of genes in obesity is one of science’s great puzzles, even though researchers have learned much in recent years. They have identified dozens of genetic variants that increase the risk but are still untangling how these genes interact with other factors to help make us fat.

The experts are fairly confident about one thing, however: Except in rare instances, people genetically susceptible to obesity should not regard themselves as doomed.

“I like to say that obesity is 80 percent genetic and 100 percent environmental,” says Philip F. Smith, co-director of the office of obesity research at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, or NIDDK. “You won’t become obese unless you overeat.”

A growing body of research suggests that although genes can tilt you toward obesity, you can prevent it with healthy behaviors, including diet and exercise. You might have to work a little harder, but it can be done.

“For most people, I can say unequivocally that genes are not your destiny,” Smith says. “They can predispose you to obesity, but only if you consume more calories than you burn off.”

 

In the United States, more than a third of adults (36.5 percent) and 17 percent of youths are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, obesity has more than doubled since 1980, with more than 600 million adults afflicted, according to the World Health Organization. The worldwide obesity rate among adults is 13 percent, far less than the U.S. rate.

Most of the world’s people live in countries where being overweight or obese results in more deaths than being underweight, according to the WHO. Obesity is related to heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, including breast, colorectal and pancreatic. According to a CDC estimate, the medical cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion in 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available.

The quest to learn more about obesity genes began nearly 30 years ago with the launch of the first “twins” studies that compared siblings who were reared together with pairs who were reared apart. “They found that obesity had a strong genetic component,” says Marc Reitman, senior investigator and chief of ­NIDDK’s diabetes, endocrinology and obesity branch.

But since then it has become apparent that “we live in an ‘obesogenic’ environment,” Reitman says. “Obesity has been increasing since the 1970s, but genes are the same. Genes can’t be the deciding factor, so it must be something in the environment. Both contribute.”

Advances in molecular biology in addition to information from the Human Genome Project, including genome-wide association studies, have helped identify about 200 loci, or genetic markers, pointing to genes that increase the risk of obesity. A genome-wide association study scans thousands of individuals’ complete sets of DNA looking for genetic changes that might be linked to a particular disease — in this case, obesity.

While not genes themselves, these markers — almost like signposts on a road — are DNA regions probably located near genes responsible for obesity risk. These association studies suggest that obesity involves “not one gene, but a combination of many genes, and their influence appears to be low,” Reitman says. “It’s amazingly complicated, but even the genetic variants that contribute the most have a low risk.”

Researchers using a genome-wide association study identified the first obesity-linked gene variants in 2007, related to what is known as the “fat mass and obesity-associated” (FTO) gene on chromosome 16. People who carry an FTO variant have a 20 to 30 percent greater likelihood of becoming obese compared with those who don’t carry a variant. The risk might be even higher for those who overeat and don’t exercise, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

 

“Because the genetic variants for obesity are numerous, it is virtually impossible for someone to not carry any of these variants,’’’ says Frank Hu, chair of the school’s department of nutrition, who has conducted a number of studies related to genes, obesity and diet. “However, some people may carry much fewer variants than others, but they can still become obese with an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle.”

“This is an important finding that has emerged in the last few years: that much depends on our own behaviors,” he adds.

In a 2012 study, Hu and colleagues found that people genetically predisposed to obesity were more likely to experience increases in their BMI (body mass index, a measure of obesity) with a higher intake of beverages sweetened with sugar than their genetic peers who had fewer of these drinks.

Similarly, in a 2014 study, Hu and his team found that those with a genetic predisposition to obesity were more likely to gain weight if they ate fried foods four or five times a week than did those with the same genetic characteristics who shunned or rarely ate the high-fat items.

“We looked at the risk of becoming obese for those who were not obese at the beginning of the study,” Hu explains. “Those with a genetic predisposition were more likely to become obese four years later, especially for those who consumed sugary beverages or ate fried foods on a regular basis. Although we did not specifically analyze weight gain per se, the results on obesity imply that the findings would apply to weight gain as well.”

Regularly consuming fried foods or sugary drinks “exacerbates the genetic effects of obesity,” Hu says. “Our findings indicate that genetic risk of obesity can be mitigated by simply changing an eating habit,” he says.

Regular physical activity also seems to reduce the impact of genetics.

In 2011, researchers analyzed data from several dozen studies involving more than 200,000 people to examine the effects of exercise on those with an FTO gene variant. Although those with the variant had a 23 percent higher risk of obesity than those who did not have it, the researchers found that being physically active lowered the risk. In fact, active adults with the gene variant showed a risk of obesity 27 percent lower than that of inactive adults.

“As a hypothetical example, for a group of sedentary people who carry one FTO gene variant, their likelihood of obesity is 10 percent,” Hu says. “For a group of physically active people who also carry one gene variant, their likelihood of obesity would be lower, at 7.3 percent.”

The results underscore “the importance of being physically active in obesity prevention, especially among those who are genetically predisposed to obesity,” Hu says.

The current body of research shows that “it absolutely is not a life sentence to obesity if you have one or more of these variants,” Smith says.

The only exceptions to what is called “common obesity” — where many genes are involved in raising the risk of obesity — occur in what is known as “monogenic” obesity. This is when a mutation in a single gene produces a very high risk of obesity, one that is difficult — sometimes impossible — to counteract. But these cases are extremely rare.

Still, researchers believe there is more to be done, including studies that look at whether any variants protect against obesity.

“We haven’t thought enough about people who are resistant to the disease of obesity,” Smith says. “There are people out there who should be obese — look at all the bad food they eat and their lifestyle — and they aren’t.”

Some such work is underway. Ayo P. Doumatey, a staff scientist at the National Human Genome Research Institute, for example, is studying the gene related to the production of adiponectin, a hormone secreted by adipose tissue, which is where the body stores fat. Obese people tend to have low levels of adiponectin, while thin people have more.

“Some people may have a variant of the gene that allows them to produce more,” Doumatey says. “The more you have of it, the better. Individuals who tend to have more adiponectin do not develop obesity.”

Scientists also want to know more about the interplay between genes and the environment. Obesity clusters in families, but family members also tend to cook and eat the same foods and also may engage in the same sedentary lifestyles.

Genes don’t explain it all, but they could “determine tendencies or behaviors to eat certain kinds of foods or beverages,” Hu says. “Genes may have weak effects overall, but they could have stronger effects in certain groups of people who are exposed to certain environments.”

Experts also wonder whether genes affect willpower or compulsive eating behavior, such as the urge to snack after dinner.

“It could be when you and I go to a restaurant, you say ‘no thanks’ when the waiter offers us a rich dessert, but my genes predispose me to say ‘yes,’ ” Reitman says.

“Why are some foods addictive? Why do we still eat when we feel full?” he adds. “The wiring and physiology around obesity is complicated, and we are just starting to try to figure it out.”

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The microbes in your gut may be making you fat or keeping you thin

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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