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2013: The year income inequality went mainstream

After decades of sitting on the back burner, the data — and the pain — became too much to ignore.
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A man smokes a cigarette outside a restaurant in Hong Kong on September 28, 2013. The same day, Hong Kong announced its first benchmark to measure poverty and found almost 20 percent of residents live in such conditions, a move hailed as a step towards tackling worsening inequality (Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Viewed from the towering heights of America’s financial capital, there are reasons aplenty to celebrate the coming new year.

The official unemployment rate — which peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 — fell to 7 percent by the start of December, a level that prompted President Obama to claim the US economy is “ready for lift off” in 2014.

Perhaps, but Spaceship USA seems intent on leaving an awful lot of people behind on the launch pad.


Three years later, Tunisian youth push the revolution forward

Tunisia touched off the Arab Spring, but has fallen out of the international spotlight. Here's how the country's youth are taking its future into their own hands.
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Tunisian children wave the national flag as they gather to mark the third anniversary of the uprising that toppled deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Sidi Bouzid's Mohamed Bouazizi square on December 17, 2013. The square was named after the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the revolution that ousted the long-standing dictator and ignited the Arab Spring. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

It has been three years since the Arab Spring began with the revolution in Tunisia, which ultimately led former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia. A lot has happened since then, and while the country has yet to find its footing, new hope is emerging for Tunisian youth.

Although Tunisia remains fragile and deeply divided, with troubled economic and political realities, a new uprising of young political revolutionaries is growing — led by young, educated Tunisians who are volunteering to join the interim government for free.

With Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain all showing signs of failure to bring about fundamental change, Tunisia has been called "the last hope of the Arab Spring." 

If you haven’t been paying attention to Tunisia, here’s what you’ve been missing:


Western-style activism may be hurting gay rights in Africa

After years of legislative limbo, Uganda passed a law Friday offering a life sentence for "aggravated homosexuality." Experts say Western activism may be making matters worse for African gays.
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Gay rights activist Juliet Mphande of Zambia( L), US Ambassador Samantha Power (C) and Russian journalist Masha Gessen (R) at the United Nations in New York City in December 2013. (Randy Gener/GlobalPost)

For gay rights activists in most African countries, the fight for same-sex marriage is a long way off. The prevalence of homophobia — hate crimes, societal repression and government-encouraged intolerance of gay sex — is so severe that many gay people cannot live openly and African activists who ask the government for fundamental human rights risk imprisonment or death. A number of experts say such activism could actually make the problem worse in some countries.

Case in point: the Ugandan parliament passed a law Friday that would imprison gay people for life for committing acts of “aggravated homosexuality.” The bill had been a matter of global activist concern since its introduction in 2010, though the new law excludes the death penalty clause that earned it the moniker the “Kill the Gays Bill.”


Why Madagascar's children have the most at stake in Friday's presidential election

Madagascar’s children have borne the highest costs of the nation's social and economic turmoil since the 2009 coup d'etat. And it will be up to the new president to refocus government priorities.
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Children carry bricks on December 19, 2013 in Antananarivo, ahead of the upcoming presidential election. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — As the east African island nation of Madagascar picks a president on Friday, five years after a coup d’état sent the country spiraling into crisis, the political dynamics will be closely scrutinized. Will there be post-election violence? How will the impasse between the toppled former president Marc Ravalomanana and his successor, Andry Rajoelina, resolve itself? Will the government shed its pariah status among the international community?

But those with the most at stake will play no role in the political intrigue. Amid unprecedented social and economic turmoil since the 2009 coup, Madagascar’s children have borne the highest costs.

“It’s what you would see in countries like DRC,” says Steve Lauwerier, the UNICEF country director. Except, he adds, “We didn’t have a war. There was no big economic crisis. There was no reason that this should happen.”

What has happened is a peacetime humanitarian collapse of startling proportions. While other African nations have progressed rapidly in health and education, Madagascar has stagnated or regressed. Half of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnourishment, or “stunting,” the fourth-highest rate in the world. At least 1.5 million children do not attend school — which the world bank estimates could be an increase of 600,000 since 2009.


Tanzanian teachers learning education doesn't pay

Like their colleagues in many other countries, public school teachers here lead huge classes for shrinking pay. Some warn they won't put up with it much longer.
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Children practice their English at Bunge Primary School in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Public schools throughout the country are crowded, and the average student/teacher ration is 48 to 1. (Jacob Kushner/GlobalPost)

ARUSHA, Tanzania — Five days a week, Caroline Benedict Kessy stands before a class of 77 third-grade students and struggles to devise a way to teach all of them how to read and write.

The other two days she spends at home baking wedding cakes to sell. Each cake earns her an average of 300,000 shillings (about $187 US). That’s equivalent to half her monthly teaching salary for just one day of baking.


Talking Peace: This week in global diplomatic negotiations

What you need to know about Ukraine, India and Israel.
Right-wing Indian Hindu activists dressed as US President Barack Obama take part in a protest near the US Embassy in New Delhi on December 18, 2013. India vowed Wednesday to bring one of its diplomats home at any price after her arrest in New York, as she told how she broke down in tears after being stripped and cavity-searched. (MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukrainian protesters might be deflated after officials on Wednesday announced support for the Russian financial aid package that helped ignite the country’s unrest. As protest leaders regrouped to devise a new strategy for having their demands met, the German chancellor proposed a possible solution that would allow Ukraine to integrate its economy with the European Union while keeping its agreement with Russia.

And the arrest of an Indian diplomat and her subsequent strip-search aggravated the relationship between India and the United States, causing a diplomatic spat. The European Union warned Israel against doing something that could be detrimental to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Here’s a closer look:


Anti-corruption protests in Bucharest take off as Romanians get political

"I don't want to be an activist," said one demonstrator. "But I want kids, and I don't want to them to grow up in a world like this so I will keep coming as long as they need me."

BUCHAREST, Romania — At least a thousand people took to the streets of Bucharest on Sunday night to protest a series of amendments to the criminal code passed in secret earlier last week, which reduces criminal consequences for politicians and eliminates public investigation of their crimes.

Government watchdogs believe the changes to the code "shield elected officials from corruption prosecution" by giving officials the option of instead replacing lost funds and paying a criminal fine.

"In other words," said activist group Transparency International Romania, "the grand corrupt will be able to buy their freedom."

The amendments also recriminalize "defamation" — which had been decriminalized in 2006 — which the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said could "stifle debate and be used to protect public officials from criticism. Fear of criminal charges might lead to self-censorship and can ultimately have a chilling effect on investigative journalism." 

The United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany and European Commission have all criticized the recent amendments to the criminal code, according to a Romanian national news agency and an official press release from the US government.

What started as static protests in Bucharest’s University Square, quickly turned more aggressive as protesters marched to Palatul Victoria, the seat of the Romanian government. Hundreds of riot police, sometimes three deep, armed with batons and gas, formed barricades as protesters attempted to reach the government building.

Police officers broke protesters into groups and blockaded their march to the government building. After breaking through the lines of riot police, demonstrators moved against traffic through standstill cars, many which honked in solidarity, and continued almost 2 kilometers to the government headquarters.

Protests in Romania have grown in frequency, happening every Sunday night for the past several months since September 1, when more than 20,000 people came out against the Rosia Montana project. Many Romanians said these kinds of protests are out of character for this country, even considering the 1989 fall of the communist regime.

But these rallies seem different, demonstrators said.


The year Indian women became visible

Analysis: One year after the Delhi rape, government reforms and daily coverage in the Indian press show how vast India’s rape crisis has become.
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Indian students take part in a candle-light vigil commemorating the December 2012 fatal gang-rape of an Indian woman, in New Delhi on December 16, 2013. The fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi shattered India's silence over sexual violence and emboldened victims to speak out, family members and campaigners said on the first anniversary of the attack. (MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The brutality of last year’s gang-rape in Delhi was hard to ignore: a 23-year old physiology student was lured onto a public bus by six men who raped her so savagely, at times with a metal pole, that she died of her injuries five days later.

The news of the rape quickly captured the media’s attention; it tapped into a latent anger in India, spurring thousands to take to the streets to protest the treatment of women in their country. These events have highlighted the wider problem of rape in India, giving Indian women and their everyday struggles with sexual violence unprecedented visibility.

After the Delhi rape and the ensuing protests, the Indian government reacted quickly to toughen laws on sexual offenses. In March, it passed landmark legislation broadening the definition of rape, identifying stalking, acid attacks, sexual harassment and voyeurism as crimes and imposing harsher punishments on sexual offenses.

These reforms are important because they send the message that the Indian government considers sexual violence a serious violation, but their effectiveness will depend on how well they are implemented. So far, real change has been slow to come because India’s criminal justice system is too inefficient and overburdened to adequately enforce the new laws and procedures.

The public outcry surrounding the Delhi case spurred India’s top officials into action, resulting in a quick resolution to the case.


From Havana to Quito: A refugee's fight for LGBT rights in Cuba

For members of Cuba's LGBT community, two choices exist: remain in country and face possible persecution, or brave the lengthy, uncertain road to asylum.
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Members of Cuba's gay and lesbian community participate in a march against homophobia on May 11, 2013 in Havana. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

QUITO, Ecuador — In Cuba, on her 15th birthday, a girl gets a big coming out party. A boy might get cash to go out on the town.

For Alberto Garcia Martinez's 15th birthday, in 1974, his parents gave him money to go shopping in Havana's city center, where he was subsequently picked up in a police sweep targeting gays. For an effeminate teen who did not yet realize he was gay, the experience was both terrifying and confusing.

At his court appearance, his mother, a high-ranking Cuban bureaucrat, sat next to him, weeping out of shame.

We spoke in the office of Asylum Access Ecuador, a legal aid group helping refugees in Ecuador’s capital, where Garcia says he fled after being persecuted in Cuba for his advocacy on behalf of gay rights. His story offers a window into the ongoing struggles of the LGBT community that challenges Cuba’s official narrative of progress on the issue. It also highlights the reluctance of Ecuador’s own government to recognize the limits of political dissent there.

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, many gay men became involved in a prostitution industry that catered to military personnel and tourists from the US, although homosexuality at the time was criminalized. In the decades following the Revolution, gays and lesbians faced official persecution in Cuba, including the threat of forced labor and prison.

Critics argue that, while the revolution may have inherited the biases of the prevailing Roman Catholic cultural order, persecution of the LGBT community was really institutionalized under Castro, who associated homosexuality with bourgeois decadence and the American sex tourist-oriented prostitution industry of the Batista years.


Young Sikh basketballers find support at Los Angeles camp

Followers of Sikhism in the United States regularly experience harsh discrimination. One sports workshop aims to help young Sikhs rediscover pride in their identity.

LOS ANGELES — Prateek Singh could not wait to get out onto the court.

With his friends and family packed tightly into a small high school gym, the basketball-obsessed, turban-wearing Prateek took the floor to warm up for his first high school game. It was 1992 and Singh was a sophomore at Burbank High School, a public school in north Los Angeles.

But his first taste of high school sport was interrupted by a brand of bigotry all too familiar to adherents of the Sikh religion living in the United States, including the diasporic hub of Southern California.

“One of the referees came up to our coach and said, ‘That kid over there — with that thing on his head — can’t play in the game,’” said Prateek, now in his mid-30s. “I still hold that to heart.”

That “thing” was Prateek’s dastar, or turban, a staple amongst devout male Sikhs that represents piety and self-respect. For the rest of the season, Prateek had to present a letter from the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) each game that allowed him to play in his turban.

Today Prateek is the treasurer of a top-tier mortgage company and a coach at the Singh Sensations Basketball Camp, a free, annual workshop for young Southern California Sikhs.

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