First Death Reported in Tonga Volcano Blast as Nation Remains Cut Off

The first death from a massive underwater volcanic blast near the Pacific island nation of Tonga has been confirmed, as the extent of the damage remained unknown Monday. 

Tonga remained virtually cut off from the rest of the world, after the eruption crippled communications and stalled emergency relief efforts. 

It is two days since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano exploded, cloaking Tonga in a film of ash, triggering a Pacific-wide tsunami and releasing shock waves that wrapped around the entire Earth. 

But with phone lines still down and an undersea internet cable cut — and not expected to be repaired for weeks — the true toll of the dual eruption-tsunami disaster is not yet known. 

The first known death in Tonga itself was confirmed: that of a British woman swept away by the tsunami. She was identified as Angela Glover, 50, who lived in the Tonga capital with her husband, James, Glover’s brother Nick Eleini told British media.

Two women also drowned Saturday in northern Peru in big waves recorded after the volcanic blast, authorities there said. 

Only fragments of information have filtered out via a handful of satellite phones on the islands, home to just over 100,000 people. 

In one of the few communications with the outside world, two stranded Mexican marine biologists made a plea for help from their government, using a satellite phone provided by the British Embassy to call their family. 

“They said they were sheltering in a hotel near the airport, and they asked us for help to leave the island,” Amelia Nava, the sister of 34-year-old Leslie Nava, told AFP in Mexico. 

Tonga’s worried neighbors are still scrambling to grasp the scale of the damage, which New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Ardern said was believed to be “significant.” 

Both Wellington and Canberra scrambled reconnaissance planes Monday in an attempt to get a sense of the damage from the air. 

And both have put C-130 military transport aircraft on standby to drop emergency supplies or to land if runways are deemed operational and ash clouds allow. 

There are initial reports that areas of Tonga’s west coast may have been badly hit. 

Australia’s international development minister Zed Seselja said a small contingent of Australian police stationed in Tonga had delivered a “pretty concerning” initial evaluation. 

They were “able to do an assessment of some of the Western beaches area, and there was some pretty significant damage to things like roads and some houses,” Seselja said. 

“One of the good pieces of news is that I understand the airport has not suffered any significant damage,” he added.

“That will be very, very important as the ash cloud clears and we are able to have flights coming into Tonga for humanitarian purposes.” 

Major aid agencies, who would usually rush in to provide emergency humanitarian relief, said they were stuck in a holding pattern, unable to contact local staff. 

“From what little updates we have, the scale of the devastation could be immense, especially for outlying islands,” said Katie Greenwood, IFRC’s Pacific Head of Delegation. 

Even when relief efforts get under way, they may be complicated by COVID-19 entry restrictions. Tonga only recently reported its first-ever coronavirus case. 

France, which has territories in the South Pacific, pledged to help the people of Tonga. 

“France is willing to respond to the population’s most urgent needs,” the Foreign Ministry said. This assistance would be provided through a humanitarian aid mechanism with Australia and New Zealand that is known as FRANZ, the ministry added.

What is known is that Saturday’s volcanic blast was one the largest recorded in decades, erupting 30 kilometers into the air and depositing ash, gas and acid rain across a swath of the Pacific. 

The eruption was recorded around the world and heard as far away as Alaska, triggering a tsunami that flooded Pacific coastlines from Japan to the United States. 

The Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, was estimated to be cloaked in 1-2 centimeters of ash, potentially poisoning water supplies and causing breathing difficulties.

“We know water is an immediate need,” Ardern told reporters. 

After speaking to the New Zealand Embassy in Tonga, she described how boats and “large boulders” washed ashore. 

Wellington’s defense minister said he understood the island nation had managed to restore power in “large parts” of the city. 

But communications were still cut. The eruption severed an undersea communications cable between Tonga and Fiji that operators said would take weeks to repair. 

“We’re getting sketchy information, but it looks like the cable has been cut,” Southern Cross Cable Network’s networks director Dean Veverka told Agence France-Presse. 

“It could take up to two weeks to get it repaired. The nearest cable-laying vessel is in Port Moresby,” he added, referring to the Papua New Guinea capital more than 4,000 kilometers from Tonga. 

Tonga was isolated for two weeks in 2019 when a ship’s anchor cut the cable. A small, locally operated satellite service was set up to allow minimal contact with the outside world until the cable could be repaired. 

 

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Funeral Services Held for 12 Killed in Philadelphia Fire 

Funeral services were held Monday for nine children and three adults who died in a Philadelphia fire five days into the new year, the deadliest blaze in the city in more than a century. 

A funeral procession on the rain-soaked streets of the city Monday morning was followed by services at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, to which members of the community were invited and asked to wear white. 

Those in attendance at the three-hour service listened to Bible readings, official proclamations and music. Relatives spoke about their loss and their memories of their loved ones from two microphones behind tables bearing caskets amid white flowers and large pictures of the victims. 

“None of us know what to do with a funeral with 12 people,” said the Reverend Dr. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. “We’re in a space of grief and pain we wish on no one else.”

One speaker, an aunt of the children, tearfully said she believed there was “a family reunion in heaven.”

“I believe they’re with their dad. I believe they’re with my mother. I believe they’re with my father, their uncles and aunts,” she said. “The hurt is deep, but it will subside.” 

The victims of the January 5 fire were all on the third floor of a duplex north of the city center near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The three-story brick duplex was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which is the city’s public housing agency and the state’s biggest landlord. 

Three sisters — Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas and Quinsha White — and nine of their children died in the blaze, according to family members. The city last week identified the other victims as Quintien Tate-McDonald, Destiny McDonald, Dekwan Robinson, J’Kwon Robinson, Taniesha Robinson, Tiffany Robinson, Shaniece Wayne, Natasha Wayne and Janiyah Roberts. Officials did not provide their ages.

Investigators last week confirmed the fire started at a Christmas tree but stopped short of officially saying that it was sparked by a child playing with a lighter. 

The blaze had been the deadliest fire in years at a U.S. residential building but was surpassed days later by a fire in a high-rise in New York City’s Bronx borough that killed 17 people, including several children. 

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Medics: Sudan Security Forces Kill 7 Protesters in Anti-coup Rallies

Sudanese forces killed seven anti-coup protesters Monday in one of the deadliest days of recent rallies against a military takeover, medics said, as security chiefs vowed to hold to account those they accused of causing “chaos.”

The latest violence comes ahead of a visit by U.S. diplomats, as Washington seeks to broker an end to the monthslong crisis in the northeast African nation.

The deaths Monday bring to 71 the number of protesters killed since the army’s October 25 takeover led by General Abdel-Fattah Burhan.

The military power grab triggered international condemnation and derailed a fragile transition to civilian rule following the April 2019 ouster of longtime autocratic president Omar al-Bashir.

On Monday, three protesters “were killed by live bullets” by “militias of the putschist military council,” anti-coup medics said on the Facebook page of Khartoum state’s health ministry.

Later, four more demonstrators were killed “during the massacre by the coup authorities who were seeking to disperse the protests,” according to the independent Central Committee of Sudan Doctors. 

Medics also counted multiple wounds by “live rounds.”

Government responds

Burhan on Monday held an emergency meeting with security chiefs and agreed to form a counterterrorism force “to confront possible threats,” according to a statement by Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council.

The statement said the officials blamed the “chaos” on protesters who “deviated from legitimate peaceful demonstration” and vowed to hold to account those involved in “violations” during protests. 

Authorities have repeatedly denied using live ammunition in confronting demonstrators and insist scores of security personnel have been wounded during protests.

On Thursday, Sudanese authorities said protesters stabbed to death a police general, the first fatality among security forces.

Protesters — sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands — have regularly taken to the streets despite the security clampdown and periodic cuts to communications since the coup.

On Monday, security officers in Khartoum deployed in large numbers, firing volleys of tear gas at protesters heading toward the presidential palace, an AFP correspondent said.

Several people appeared to have difficulty breathing, and others bled from wounds caused by tear gas canisters, the correspondent said.

Sawsan Salah, from the capital’s twin city of Omdurman, said protesters burned car tires and carried photos of people killed during other demonstrations since the coup.

In Wad Madani, “around 2,000 people took to the streets as they called for civilian rule,” said Emad Mohammed, a witness there.

In North Khartoum, thousands of protesters demanded that troops return to their barracks and chanted in favor of civilian rule, witnesses said.

U.S. officials to visit

U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa David Satterfield and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee are expected in Sudan in coming days.

Washington’s push comes after the United Nations said last week it would launch talks involving political, military and social actors to help resolve the crisis.

On Monday, the U.S. diplomats were expected to meet in Saudi Arabia with the Friends of Sudan, a group calling for the restoration of the country’s transitional government.

The meeting aims to “marshal international support” for the U.N. mission to “facilitate a renewed civilian-led transition to democracy” in Sudan, the U.S. State Department said.

The diplomats then travel to Khartoum for meetings with pro-democracy activists, civic groups, and military and political leaders.

“Their message will be clear: the United States is committed to freedom, peace, and justice for the Sudanese people,” the State Department said.

The mainstream civilian faction of the Forces of Freedom and Change, the leading civilian pro-democracy group, has said it will accept the U.N. offer for talks if it revives the transition to civilian rule.

Proposed talks have been welcomed by the ruling Sovereign Council, which Burhan restaffed following the coup with himself as chairman.

Burhan has insisted that the military takeover “was not a coup” but only meant to “rectify” the course of the transition after al-Bashir’s deposal.

Earlier this month, Sudan’s civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigned, saying the country was now at a “dangerous crossroads threatening its very survival.” 

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Right-Wing Hindu Posters Banning Non-Hindus From Ganges Ghats Draw Outrage

Rights activists in India are outraged after members of two right-wing Hindu groups put up posters around the ghats of the Ganges River in Varanasi, asking “non-Hindus” to stay away from the bank of the river in the north Indian city.

With the posters, members of Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Council and its youth wing Bajrang Dal (BD) tried to whip up anti-minority passion and polarize the society on a communal line, activists said.

VHP leaders said that some activists from the organization put up the posters without knowledge of the group’s leaders. “We have suspended from our organization two activists who were involved in the Varanasi ghat case,” the national spokesperson of VHP, Vinod Bansal, told VOA.

Hindus view the Ganges as a holy river, and every year, millions of Hindu pilgrims from India and other countries visit the ghats of the Ganges and the nearby temples of Varanasi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The centuries-old ghats – steps leading down to the river — are also very popular among foreign tourists who are largely Christian and Buddhist.

‘This is a warning, not a request’

The posters that the VHP and BD activists put up around the ghats of the Ganges in Varanasi on January 6 and 7 had “Entry Prohibited for Non-Hindus” written on top.

“The ghats and temples along the bank of Mother Ganga are symbols of the Sanatan Dharma [Hindu religion], Indian culture and faith. Those who follow the Sanatan Dharma are welcome here. Others should note, it’s not a picnic spot,” read one of the posters in Hindi. “This is a warning, not a request,” a highlighted line of the poster read.

Local leaders of the VHP and BD appeared in separate videos warning non-Hindus to stay away. Both were arrested and released on personal bonds.

VHP spokesperson Bansal said the posters reflect feelings of the Hindu activists who are angry with what he called the “anti-Hindu activities of the jihadis.”

“However, the activists in Varanasi did this without taking consent from the central authority of our organization. We disapprove of their posters…This is not the policy of VHP to boycott any religious community or stop it from entering any public place,” Bansal said.

Varanasi is the parliamentary constituency of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), happens to be the ruling party of Uttar Pradesh, where crucial state elections will be held in seven phases between February 10 and March 7.

‘Strategy to humiliate India’s minorities’

The right-wing Hindu activists, whose ideology is known as Hindutva, released the posters in Varanasi with a plan to polarize the society along communal lines and help the BJP win more votes in the upcoming state elections, Dhananjay Tripathi, a local school teacher and social activist told VOA.

“Varanasi has a history of all religious communities living together peacefully for generations. With the posters the VHP and Bajrang Dal activists threaten to destroy the legacy of the city’s communal harmony,” Tripathi said.

Many are of the view that since Modi became prime minister in 2014, Muslim and Christian minorities have found themselves marginalized, attacked by right-wing Hindu groups and subjected to many discriminatory practices as his party pursues a Hindu nationalist agenda.

“The posters at the Ghats of Varanasi manifest the continuation of their strategy to humiliate India’s minorities, particularly Muslims, by openly infringing upon their fundamental human rights,” Professor Ashok Swain, head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden, told VOA.

“The overall strategy of Hindutva forces is to reduce India’s minorities as second-class citizens of the country in all spheres of life,” he said.

Hindus make up an estimated three-fourths of India’s 1.4 billion people.

Zafarul-Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said that the Hindu right-wing activists operate as foot soldiers of the BJP.

“In recent years, the spike in cases like those of forcing Muslims to chant Hindu slogans, beating up Muslims on trumped-up charges, lynching them, framing them in false ‘love jihad’ cases shows that the perpetrators, who are the Hindutva groups, enjoy impunity,” Khan told VOA.

“Love jihad” is a controversial term used by Hindu nationalists who say that Muslim men marry non-Muslim women to spread Islam.

Professor Apoorvanand, who teaches at Delhi University and uses one name, agrees that impunity helps Hindutva groups in their campaign to marginalize the non-Hindu minorities.

“The ideology of Hindutva claims that Hindus have the first claim over all the natural and cultural resources of India. For the last decade or so, non-Hindus, mostly Muslims, are being pushed out of economic activities and common public spaces and they find it increasingly difficult to buy houses or land in Hindu-dominated areas. The idea is to create a segregated India making its large parts free of Muslims,” Apoorvanand told VOA.

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US Civil Rights Leaders Push for Voting Rights Overhaul

Descendants of slain U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and their supporters marched on Washington Monday to urge Senate Democrats to overcome Republican opposition and obstruction within their own ranks to push through a national overhaul of voting rights.

They rallied on the national holiday honoring King on the 93rd anniversary of his birth. The march occurred just days after two centrist Senate Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, said they would oppose attempts to change legislative rules in the politically divided 100-member chamber to allow Democrats to set uniform national election rules over the objections of all 50 Republican senators.  

King’s son, Martin Luther King, III, his wife Arndrea Waters King, and their teenage daughter, Yolanda Renee King, joined several hundred activists as they walked in chilly weather across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, symbolizing recent congressional support for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure.

“You were successful with infrastructure, which was a great thing,” King told the crowd. “But we need you to use that same energy to ensure that all Americans have the unencumbered right to vote.”

Watch related video by Laurel Bowman:

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a video address that Americans must commit to the unfinished work of Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering jobs, justice and protecting “the sacred right to vote, a right from which all other rights flow.”

“It’s time for every elected official in America to make it clear where they stand,” Biden said. “It’s time for every American to stand up. Speak out, be heard. Where do you stand?”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is calling for a vote as early as Tuesday on the legislation that would expand access to mail-in voting and early voting before the official election days in early November, strengthen federal oversight of elections in states with a history of racial discrimination and tighten campaign finance rules.

Democratic supporters say the legislation is needed to counter new restrictions on voting passed in 19 Republican-led states that some critics say would make it harder for minority and low-income voters to cast ballots. Republicans say the legislation is a partisan power grab by Democrats and would be a federal takeover of elections that the 50 states have typically managed with state-by-state rules.

But the legislation is almost certainly to be killed unless Sinema and Manchin suddenly reverse their opposition to ending use of the Senate filibuster rule that allows opponents of contentious legislation, either Republicans or Democrats, to demand that a 60-vote supermajority be amassed for passage.   

Marches supporting voting rights and other civil rights measures were planned in several U.S. cities on the King holiday.

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While Attacks Persist, Nigerian Authorities Say They’re Responding 

Nigerian authorities say the military is responding to a series of killings and kidnappings by gunmen in the country’s northwest. In the latest attack, gunmen on motorcycles Saturday raided a village in Kebbi State, killing at least 50 people, according to locals.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s senior aide Garba Shehu said on Twitter Sunday that the president has ordered the military to “respond robustly to the cases of killings and kidnappings.”

He added, “The federal government is willing to strengthen support and cooperation with all the states,” and said the president believes that with the full cooperation of the citizens, Nigeria will surely overcome this problem.

It is not the first time the president has issued strong worded threats against armed gangs in the country, known locally as bandits.

But gangs continue to raid communities, looting for supplies and killing and kidnapping for ransom, mostly in the northwest and central regions. The latest incident occurred in Dankade village in Kebbi state over the weekend. More than 50 people were reportedly killed.

Last week, more than 200 people were killed in attacks that lasted three days in northwestern Zamfara state.

However, security analyst Kabiru Adamu says recent efforts by authorities are paying off.

“Since the president renewed his calls to the security forces, what we’ve seen is military airstrikes in forests where these bandits are holding their victims. We’ve also seen an increase in police operations. All of that has affected the ability of these bandits to operate,” he said.

Late last year, Nigeria officially classified armed gangs as terrorists, putting them in the same category with Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa province (ISWAP).

Experts say the designation was a major step in taking deterrent measures against the groups.

“The attacks do not diminish that fact that yes there’s progress,” said Senator Iroegbu, a security analyst. “The terrorists’ capacities have been greatly diminished, so there’s definitely progress from what it used to be.”

Nigeria’s armed forces said last week they killed 537 armed bandits and other criminal elements” in the region and arrested 374 others since May of last year.It said 452 kidnapped civilians have been rescued.

Still, the armed forces are struggling to maintain basic security.

More than 10,000 people were killed in Nigeria in banditry and terror related attacks last year, according to the U.S.-based Council for Foreign Relations.

This month, Nigeria received clearance to deploy fighter jets purchased from the United States after months of delay due to human rights concerns.

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Hindu Monk Jailed After Calling for ‘Genocide’ of Muslims

Indian authorities have charged a Hindu monk with inciting religious violence after he called for the “genocide” of India’s Muslims at a meeting of right-wing supporters, police said Monday.

Senior police officer Swatantra Kumar said Yati Narsinghanand Giri, an outspoken supporter of far-right nationalists who also heads a Hindu monastery, was initially arrested on Saturday on allegations that he made derogatory remarks against women. He appeared the following day in a court in the town of Haridwar, where he was sent into 14 days of custody for hate speech against Muslims and calling for violence against them.

Kumar said the monk Giri, whom he described as a “repeat offender,” was formally charged Monday for promoting “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.” The charge can carry a jail term of five years.

In December, Giri and other religious leaders called on Hindus to arm themselves for “a genocide” against Muslims during a meeting in Haridwar, a northern holy town in Uttarakhand, according to a police complaint. He is the second person to be arrested in the case after India’s Supreme Court intervened  last week.

Uttarakhand state is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata. The political party’s rise to power in 2014, and landslide reelection in 2019, has led to a spike in attacks against Muslims and other minorities.

Muslims comprise nearly 14% of India’s 1.4 billion people, a largely Hindu country that has long proclaimed its multicultural character.

The three-day conference that the monk Giri helped to organized was called the “Dharam Sansad” or “Religious Parliament” and followed on years of rising anti-Muslim hate speech. The closed-door meetings witnessed some of the most explicit calls for violence yet.  

Videos from the conference showed multiple Hindu monks, some of whom have close ties to Modi’s ruling party, saying Hindus should kill Muslims.

“If 100 of us are ready to kill two million of them, then we will win and make India a Hindu nation,” said Pooja Shakun Pandey, a Hindu nationalist leader, referring to the country’s Muslim population. Her calls for such a massacre were met with applause from the audience.

Pandey is being investigated by police for insulting religious beliefs.

During the congregation, Hindu monks and other supporters, including Giri, took an oath calling for the killing of those who were perceived to be enemies of the Hindu religion.

The calls for violence were met with public outrage and drew sharp criticism from former military chiefs, retired judges, and rights activists. Many questioned the Modi government’s silence, warning hate speech against Muslims will only grow as several Indian states, including Uttarakhand, head to the polls in February.

Last week, students and faculty at the Indian Institute of Management — one of India’s most prestigious business schools — submitted a letter to Modi in which they wrote his silence “emboldens” hate and “threatens the unity and integrity of our country.”

Modi’s ruling party has faced fierce criticism over rising attacks against Muslims in recent years.

Opposition leaders and rights groups have accused it of encouraging violence by hardline Hindu nationalists against Muslims and other minorities. The party denies the allegation.

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Cameroon Says Separatists Abducted Rubber Plantation Workers

Authorities in Cameroon are blaming anglophone separatists for the abduction of eight rubber plantation workers Friday in the country’s volatile Southwest region. The country’s Agricultural Workers Trade Union is pleading for the workers’ safe release.

A man speaks in pidgin English as he presents eight men and women as enemies of separatist groups fighting to carve out an independent, English-speaking state in western Cameroon. 

In the audio, extracted from a video widely circulated on social media, the man says fighters abducted the civilians for collaborating with Cameroonian government troops. 

The video also appears to show the men and women holding rifles. The speaker in the video says separatists expect the civilians to use the rifles to fight the government.

The civilians are also forced to sing a song the speaker in the video calls the national anthem of Ambazonia. Ambazonia is the name of the state separatists say they are fighting to create. 

Cameroon’s military says people seen in the video are rubber plantation workers abducted Friday from the town of Tiko.

Bernard Okalia Bilai, governor of the Southwest region where Tiko is located, says the eight abductees are employees of the Cameroon Development Corporation. 

Gabriel Nbene Vefonge, president of Cameroon Agriculture and Allied Workers Trade Union, called for the workers’ release.

“We are appealing to who so ever group of persons that is keeping these workers, to kindly release them. Workers have nothing to do with the armed conflict. They should leave workers alone,” he said.

Speaking over a messaging app from Tiko, Vefonge said a breastfeeding mother is among the abducted workers. 

Adamu Chinda, who works at the Tiko rubber plantation, says workers took the woman’s three-month-old daughter to the Tiko hospital Monday. 

“I am going there now to see how we can raise money and buy the essential things that she [the baby] needs. Let them even release that breastfeeding mother so that she can take care of the child rather than the child dying because of lack of care,” he said. 

 

This is not the first time Cameroon Development Corporation workers have been attacked. In 2020 officials of the agro-industrial complex said that more than 6,000 of its 20,000 workers had fled attacks, killings and kidnappings. 

Cameroon’s separatist conflict began in 2016, after teachers and lawyers in the North- and Southwest regions, where English is the predominant language, protested alleged discrimination from the country’s French-speaking majority.

The conflict has killed an estimated 4,000 people and displaced more than three quarters of a million. 

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UN Experts: Taliban Steadily Erasing Afghan Women from Public Life

A group of United Nations human rights experts Monday alleged Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban government was attempting to steadily erase women and girls from public life. 

 

Taliban leaders “are institutionalizing large scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence” against women, the experts said in a statement issued by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

 

The experts reiterated their alarm at a series of restrictive measures, particularly those concerning women and girls, that the Taliban have introduced since seizing power last August. “Taken together, these policies constitute a collective punishment of women and girls, grounded on gender-based bias and harmful practices,” the experts said. 

The Taliban have barred most Afghan women from returning to their jobs, ordered taxi drivers to offer rides only to those female passengers wearing hijabs, required a male relative to accompany women traveling further than 72 kilometers, and imposed a strict dress code on women and girls.

 

“In addition to severely limiting their freedom of movement, expression and association, and their participation in public and political affairs, these policies have also affected the ability of women to work and to make a living, pushing them further into poverty,” the experts said.

 

The majority of girls’ secondary schools remain closed across Afghanistan. 

Taliban leaders have said they hope to be able to allow all girls to go back to school following the Afghan new year, which starts in early March. They say challenges such as paying salaries to teachers and ensuring a safe environment for female students in line with Islamic teachings are causing the delay. 

“We respect women’s rights but require them to observe hijab,” Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban permanent representative-designate to the U.N., told VOA. 

Critics continue to question the integrity of Taliban pledges concerning girls and schools. 

“We are also deeply troubled by the harsh manner with which the de facto authorities have responded to Afghan women and girls claiming their fundamental rights, with reports of peaceful protesters having been often beaten, ill-treated, threatened, and in confirmed instances detained arbitrarily,” the experts said. 

 

Women have routinely taken to the streets in Kabul and other cities to protest Taliban rollbacks of their rights. Taliban forces at times have used violence to disperse these protests and banned unsanctioned demonstrations. 

 

On Sunday, Taliban police fired pepper spray at a group of about 20 women who protested in the Afghan capital, decrying restrictions on their rights, including the mandatory hijab, participants alleged. During the rally, protesters set fire to a burqa or veil the Taliban’s ministry for Islamic guidance has mandated for women. 

 

The Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice responded by warning that the Islamic holy book, the Quran, has ordered Muslim women to wear the hijab. 

 

“Opposing hijab is in fact opposing the Quranic commandment and the Prophet’s teachings. We request our Muslim sisters to not be influenced by foreigners and to not encourage the opposition of hijab,” the ministry asserted in a tweeted statement, referring to the Prophet Muhammad. 

 

Critics such as Heather Barr at Human Rights Watch questioned the Taliban assertions. 

 

“The obsession with how women dress has often been the least of their concerns, but it is indicative of the Taliban’s desire to dictate and restrict every aspect of women’s lives,” Barr told VOA.

“The Taliban seem to believe they are the only people on the planet who fully understand and respect Islam,” she said.

 

The fundamentalist group’s oppression of women during their previous hold on power in Afghanistan in the 1990s is one of the main reasons the global community has refused to recognize the new government in Kabul and blocked its access to Afghan foreign cash reserves, largely held in the United States.

 

The financial restrictions and continued sanctions on Taliban leaders have led to the collapse of the Afghan economy and worsened humanitarian upheavals in the conflict-torn country. 

 

The U.N. experts called on the global community to step up urgently needed humanitarian aid for Afghans. They stressed the need to pressure Taliban authorities to ensure that restrictions on the fundamental rights of women and girls are removed immediately.

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South African University Students Fight COVID Vaccine Mandates

South African university students are fighting mandates that require they be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to the classroom on February 14. Even students who are vaccinated, and want others to get inoculated, are against the policy and the students’ union is threatening protests across the country. Linda Givetash reports from Johannesburg. Camera – Zaheer Cassim. Video editors – Zaheer Cassim and Marcus Harton.

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