Jolie to seek end to sexual violence as war weapon at London summit


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Jolie to seek end to sexual violence as war weapon at London summit

Angelina Jolie has said she hopes a global summit on sexual violence she will co-host in London with the UK government will bring lasting change to global peacekeeping and war crimes prosecutions, deterring the use of mass rape as a weapon in future conflicts.

The four-day summit, beginning on 10 June, will bring together governments from 141 countries to discuss how to improve and standardise the investigation of large scale sexual violence in wartime, to bring an end a culture of impunity that has severely limited prosecutions up to now.

Speaking to The Guardian during a visit to Bosnia, Jolie said: “I would hope that years down the line when war breaks out, people who are considering raping a man, woman or child would be very aware of the consequences of their actions, and that a woman crossing a checkpoint would be aware there was someone collecting evidence and that evidence would have a … result for her.”

“When that begins to happen on masse, then things will change. That’s why its important that this effort isn’t just one single [approach]. We are working with everyone who has worked on this issue for years, with every NGO and every government, to assist these people on all fronts.”

Jolie visited Bosnia at the end of last week with Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, as part of a two-year partnership aimed at preventing sexual violence in conflict. In the course of the trip they spoke in private to several women survivors of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, where the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys has overshadowed another crime against humanity committed at the same time, the systematic rape of women and girls.

The meeting with the Srebrenica women took place in a disused battery factory where in July 1995, thousands of Bosnian Muslims sought the shelter of Dutch UN peacekeepers. The UN promise of protection proved hollow and the factory is now echoing and empty apart from a sombre memorial – two black boxes each as big as a house. In a cemetery outside a stone monument records the names of the 8,000 men and boys slaughtered by General Ratko Mladic’s Serb army.

One of the women, Edina Karic, was taken from her family by Serb soldiers and held at a nearby lead and zinc mine, where she was repeatedly raped.

“I was taken to the mine, where I was raped many times along with two other girls. Then we were eight days in an abandoned house where we were raped again,” Karic said. “When these things were happening to me, it was as if I wasn’t there in my body. I was looking at it from outside.”

None of Karic’s rapists has been prosecuted, even though she could definitively identify at least three of them, and has followed their lives, in a town a few miles away, through Facebook.

More than 20,000 Bosnian women and girls were raped. Over a decade in the Democratic Republic of Congo there are thought to have been 200,000 victims. There were up to half a million rapes in Rwanda in 1994, and there are widespread reports of systematic sexual violence in Syria.

The silence surrounding rape as a war crime is deepened because the victims are often shunned by their own communities. Edina Karic is a rarity in that she is prepared to speak openly about what happened to her.

“I realised I’m not the one who should feel shame. It’s for the perpetrators to feel ashamed,” she said.

In Sarajevo, Hague and Jolie spoke to a hall full of Bosnian army officers who have, with British assistance, developed a training course meant to equip peacekeeping contingents from around the world to detect and prevent the commission of mass rape. As part of the Hague-Jolie campaign, every UN peacekeeping mission is now supposed to provide for the protection of civilians against sexual violence in conflict.

“At times, you may be all that stands between a child and violence that will scar him or her forever,” Jolie told the soldiers in Sarajevo. You may sometimes be the first person outside their family that a survivor of rape encounters. Your actions may make the difference between a successful prosecution, or aggressors going unpunished.”

So far, for the 20,000-50,000 wartime rapes in Bosnia, there have been 30 convictions at the Hague war crimes tribunal and another 33 at the Bosnia state court. Thousands more perpetrators, like Edina Karic’s rapists, remain at liberty.

“There is no forensic evidence, often no medical reports. All you have usually are witness statements, and in a very conservative society, most victims don’t want people to know what happened to them, so most rapes are not reported,” said Dubravko Campara, a Bosnian war crimes prosecutor.

The Bosnian state court has hundreds of open investigations on its docket and just 17 prosecutors. But with the help of UK funding, another 15 are going to be added to the staff to ease the backlog. The court now has a witness support unit to ease the pressure on women witnesses.

The global Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative was launched two years ago after Hague saw Jolie’s 2012 film about the Bosnian rape camps, Land of Blood and Honey. The hardest part of the effort is likely to be translating goodwill at the summit into real change in future conflicts. When Hague and Jolie visited Goma in DRC last March, they heard that women fleeing the fighting with their families were being frequently raped when they ventured out of refugee camps to look for firewood, despite the proximity of thousands of UN peacekeepers nearby. Keeping the women safe was not part of the soldiers’ mandate.

Hague conceded that progress in changing UN peacekeeping practices had been slow, but added: “The UN will be heavily involved in the summit. A big ally of ours is Zainab Bangura, the UN special representative on sexual violence. I think we are getting somewhere with that, but it means systematically building our objectives into all peacekeeping training.”

“There is a lot of goodwill,” Jolie said. There is a lot of understanding of what’s right and wrong, but there is a disconnect. So if we can try to put the pieces together and fill the holes, then maybe there can be a real change.”

War is over – now Serbs and Bosniaks fight to win control of a brutal history


War is over – now Serbs and Bosniaks fight to win control of a brutal history

After survivors and bereaved families put up a memorial to the mass slaughter in 1992 of Muslims in Višegrad, the response of the Serb authorities in the eastern Bosnian town was as unsubtle as it was symbolic. They ordered the word “genocide” chiselled off the stone monument.

A group of Višegrad widows soon restored the word in lipstick, only for it to be obscured by municipal white paint a few days later. This is a battle the town hall is not prepared to lose. When it sent a surveyor and workman into the town’s Muslim cemetery with an angle grinder to erase the offending term on 23 January, they were accompanied by 150 policemen in riot gear. The message was clear.

The graveyard spat is a skirmish in a much bigger battle being fought in Bosnia – the continuation by bureaucratic means of the murderous four-year war of two decades ago. It is a struggle over collective memory and the power to write history.

“Those who committed the war crimes against us are still winning. They are killing our truth,” said Bakira Hasečić, a Višegrad survivor who was raped multiple times by Serb paramilitaries at her home and in the local police station in 1992. Her sister was raped and killed. Her 18-year-old daughter was raped and had her head smashed by a rifle butt, but survived.

Hasečić now runs the Association of Women Victims of War. She and other Višegrad rape victims tried to protect the monument last month but failed because the town authorities turned up an hour earlier than announced, and in force.

“The huge numbers of police in their uniforms and caps brought back the memories of 1992. You relive those moments. My legs were shaking. When we arrived, we had no idea they had already done that to the monument. People started crying when they found out. I couldn’t bring myself to look at it.”

However, the same morning and less than 200 yards away, Hasečić and other Bosniak survivors were successful in stopping another act of demolition. The Serb authorities want to knock down a house on Pionirska Street, where 59 Muslim women, children and pensioners were locked into a single room and incinerated on 14 June 1992. Relatives of the dead, with Hasečić’s help, are trying to restore the house as a memorial.

The town council has countered by expropriating the building, claiming the road needs to be widened. Yet the house is set well back from the existing road and the immediate Serb neighbours – who have mostly been supportive of the Bosniaks’ restoration attempts, offering to help with water and electricity connections – say no other houses on the street have been targeted in the same way.

But no one in the neighbourhood believes the issue is really about town planning. Serb nationalists are striving to suppress reminders of atrocities committed in the name of separatism, mostly against the country’s Muslims (known as Bosniaks) and to construct an alternative history in which Serbs were the principal victims. Many Bosniaks and outside observers fear that this refusal to come to terms with the past means there are few guarantees that such acts will not be repeated.

Bosniaks and Croats have also been slow to allow memorials to civilian victims from other ethnicities, but it is in the Republika Srpska, the Serb-run half of Bosnia, where the scale of the killing was by far the greatest, and where the culture of denial is now the deepest.

Višegrad is a grim example. An eastern Bosnian town set dramatically along a break in the white limestone ravines of the River Drina, it is home to Bosnia’s best-known cultural artefact, the 16th century Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge, a graceful span of 11 masonry arches made legendary by the Yugoslav Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić.

In his 1945 novel, the Bridge on the Drina, it is silent witness to atrocities across generations. In 1992, it was spattered with blood once more. Serb paramilitaries calling themselves “The Avengers” and the “White Eagles” went on a killing spree through the town and surrounding villages, executing Muslims. Men, women and over a hundred children were slaughtered, many on the bridge itself, and their bodies dumped in the Drina.

The practice of barricading people into houses and setting them alight with grenades was reproduced several times. In another incident in nearby Bikavac, there were 60 victims, against mostly women and children.

A couple of miles outside Višegrad, young women and girls as young as 14 were held captive and repeatedly raped in the Vilina Vlas spa hotel. It was where the paramilitaries led by a pair of sadistic local cousins, Milan and Sredoje Lukić, made their wartime base. Muslim men were routinely tortured next door to where the women were raped and killed.

The estimates of the total number of victims in the Višegrad municipality range from 1,600 to 3,000. The rest of the area’s Muslims fled; most made their way south to Goražde, which became a Bosniak enclave and survived a three-year Serbian siege. Before the war, the Višegrad municipality had a population over 21,000, two thirds Muslim. Now the population is 12,000, 1,500 of them Bosniaks.

Today’s survivors are post-war returnees to the Višegrad outskirts, often living in villages or houses where their loved ones were executed. Twenty years after the bloodletting they remain a marginalised community, routinely denied the meagre social benefits doled out by Višegrad’s authorities.

After an interregnum in which slightly more moderate parties held sway, the Serb Democratic Party (or SDS for Srpska Demokratska Stranka) regained control of the municipality in October 2012. The extreme nationalist party of Radovan Karadzic, which hacked out the Republika Srpska and oversaw the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims and Croats, is back in charge in Višegrad and 24 other Serb towns with its own version of what happened between 1992 and 1995, and its own way of doing things. Hence the municipal use of angle-grinders and bulldozers.

“With the old mayor we could co-operate much better. We had different opinions but it was discussed in a more civilised way,” said Bilal Memišević, the head of Višegrad’s Islamic community council. Both his parents were murdered in 1992, when he was studying abroad. “Since the SDS came to power, they started ignoring us. They don’t mention employment, or the economy. It’s all about the war and the manipulation of 1992. They have been able to target a vulnerable population and they have been successful. They have built an alternative reality.”

That alternative reality is visible everywhere in town. In the main square, there is large statue of a knight bearing a cross and a sword, dedicated to “the defenders of the Republika Srpska, with the gratitude of the people of Višegrad”. Nearby a large swath of land had been expropriated for a literary theme-park, Andrićgrad, masterminded by Emir Kusturica, Serbia’s most famous film director, twice awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

The complex, a pastiche on the town’s history, due to be completed in June this year, is being built on the site of a former sports centre that was used as a detention camp by Serb paramilitaries.

In mid-March each year, hundreds of Serbs come from around the region to parade through the town to commemorate Draža Mihajlović, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Chetnik movement during the second world war, who carried out a series of atrocities against Muslims in the Drina valley. They come as Chetniks, with long wild beards, fur hats, and black skull-and-crossbone flags. Many of the killers in 1992 dressed exactly the same way. It is a terrifying annual spectacle for Višegrad’s remaining Bosniaks, all the more so in 2010 when Mitar Vasiljevic, a Lukić henchman sentenced 15 years by the Hague war crimes tribunal for his part in the 1992 killings, made a triumphant return after early release. He paraded in full Chetnik garb and was given a hero’s welcome, complete with patriotic music and a motorcade through the town.

Milan Lukić himself was transferred from the Hague this month to serve his life term in Estonia. His cousin Sredoje is serving 27 years in Norway.

The most powerful man in town now is Miroslav Kojić, a soldier and secret policeman for Republika Srpska during the war and now Višegrad’s SDS representative in the Republika Srpska parliament.

He provides a legal defence of the municipality’s actions, arguing that there have been no convictions at the Hague tribunal specifically for genocide that would justify the disputed memorial. (Višegrad was taken from the list of municipalities in Karadzic’s genocide indictment to slim the charge sheet and speed up his trial, but the tribunal has declared the town was subjected to “one of the most comprehensive and ruthless campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian conflict”). As for Pionirska Street, Kojić says the issue is a long-running non-political town planning matter.

Of his own wartime role, Kojić – an energetic man with a piercing stare – is heated, launching into a strangely inverted version of Višegrad’s wartime history, in which Bakira Hasečić supposedly tortured Serb policemen and soldiers, and Višegrad’s Serbs withstood a brutal Bosniak siege in 1992 and 1993.

The narrative of Serb victimhood is pieced together from sporadic Bosniak acts of resistance during the war. After the former Yugoslav National Army bombarded Muslim areas of Višegrad at the outbreak of conflict in the first week of April 1992, a group of armed Muslims took some Serb policemen hostage and threatened to blow up a nearby hydroelectric dam if shelling continued. The dam was retaken by the army which then withdrew on May 19, handing the town over to Serb nationalists and paramilitaries that carried out the atrocities against Bosniak civilians.

In summer 1992, survivors of the concentration camps helped form a Bosniak First Višegrad Brigade which fought a guerrilla campaign for a year in the wooded hills on the west bank of the Drina, but never came close to surrounding or threatening the city before being driven back into the Bosniak enclave of Goražde in 1993. After surviving multiple rapes, Hasečić, did join the Bosnian army, but there is no evidence of her mistreating Serbs.

Today the Bosniak resistance effort is the justification for public memorials in central Višegrad for Serb soldiers and even Russian volunteer fighters on the Serb side, and the absence of equivalent monuments to Bosniak civilians. It is a pattern repeated around the Republika Srpska. Further up the Drina is the town of Foca which became a byword for mass rape during the war. Bosnian Serbs imprisoned Muslim women and girls and raped them on such a scale the town made legal history. As a result of what happened in Foca, such systematic rape was finally classed as a crime against humanity.

There is no sign of such a grim history in Foca now, just another granite and marble monument to the Serb fallen. There is also no plaque at the most notorious concentration camp at Omarska, now within an iron ore mine run by a Luxembourg-based multinational steel corporation, ArcelorMittal, which says it is a matter for the Serb-run local authority in Prijedor to decide. In the neighbouring camp, at Trnopolje, where torture and rape were rife and where hundreds of Bosniaks and Croats were killed, a concrete memorial to fallen Serb soldiers has been placed at the entrance inscribed with an ode to “freedom”.

In Višegrad, the remaining Bosniaks have become accustomed to the official state of denial. Omar Bosankić and Elvedin Musanović, two Muslim men in their mid-30s out strolling one recent afternoon on Višegrad’s bridge, insist that relations with their Serb neighbours are fine as long as the war is not mentioned.

“No one wants to admit anything. They never want to talk about it,” Bosankić said. As a 14-year-old boy, he helped fish bodies of murdered Muslims out of the Drina at night in his home village of Barimo, five miles downstream. “I still have images that come back all the time. There a woman with her hands tied behind her back and a man with a screwdriver still stuck in his neck.”

Musanović says that Bosniaks on the bridge were slaughtered with whatever the Lukićs’ “Avengers” or “White Eagles” could find, often blades of broken glass. A water tanker would come in the evening to wash away the gore from the ancient stones of the bridge where they now take their daily walk. In the absence of any jobs, there is not much else to do.

The two men are unimpressed by the municipality’s legal objections to the Bosniak memorial.

“What else happened here but genocide?” Bosankić asked. Twenty-six people were murdered in his village in August 1992, the youngest, Emir Bajrić, was only 12 years old. He points out that the fact that no one has so far been convicted for the crime does not mean it did not happen. “Everybody who lives here knows what happened.”

Another stolen generation: how Australia still wrecks Aboriginal families


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Another stolen generation: how Australia still wrecks Aboriginal families

The tape is searing. There is the voice of an infant screaming as he is wrenched from his mother, who pleads, “There is nothing wrong with my baby. Why are you doing this to us? I would’ve been hung years ago, wouldn’t I? Because [as an Aboriginal Australian] you’re guilty before you’re found innocent.” The child’s grandmother demands to know why “the stealing of our kids is happening all over again”. A welfare official says, “I’m gunna take him, mate.”

This happened to an Aboriginal family in outback New South Wales. It is happening across Australia in a scandalous and largely unrecognised abuse of human rights that evokes the infamous stolen generation of the last century. Up to the 1970s, thousands of mixed-race children were stolen from their mothers by welfare officials. The children were given to institutions as cheap or slave labour; many were abused.

Described by a chief protector of Aborigines as “breeding out the colour”, the policy was known as assimilation. It was influenced by the same eugenics movement that inspired the Nazis. In 1997 a landmark report, Bringing Them Home, disclosed that as many 50,000 children and their mothers had endured “the humiliation, the degradation and sheer brutality of the act of forced separation … the product of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state”. The report called this genocide.

Assimilation remains Australian government policy in all but name. Euphemisms such as “reconciliation” and “Stronger Futures” cover similar social engineering and an enduring, insidious racism in the political elite, the bureaucracy and wider Australian society. When in 2008 prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the stolen generation, he added: “I want to be blunt about this. There will be no compensation.” The Sydney Morning Herald congratulated Rudd on a “shrewd manoeuvre” that “cleared away a piece of political wreckage in a way that responds to some of its own supporters’ emotional needs, yet changes nothing”.

Today, the theft of Aboriginal children – including babies taken from the birth table – is now more widespread than at any time during the last century. As of June last year, almost 14,000 Aboriginal children had been “removed”. This is five times the number when Bringing Them Home was written. More than a third of all removed children are Aboriginal – from 3% of the population. At the present rate, this mass removal of Aboriginal children will result in a stolen generation of more than 3,300 children in the Northern Territory alone.

Pat (not her real name) is the mother whose anguish was secretly recorded on a phone as four department of child services officials, and six police, descended on her home. On the tape an official claims they have come only for an “assessment”. But two of the police officers, who knew Pat, told her they saw no risk to her child and warned her to “get out of here quick”. Pat fled, cradling her infant, but the one-year-old was eventually seized without her knowing why. The next morning a police officer returned to apologise to her and said her baby should never have been taken away. Pat has no idea where her son is.

Once she was “invited” by officials to bring her children to “neutral” offices to discuss a “care plan”. The doors were locked and officials seized the children, with one of the youngest dragging on a police officer’s gun belt. Many Indigenous mothers are unaware of their legal rights. A secretive children’s court has become notorious for rubber-stamping removals.

Most Aboriginal families live on the edge. Their life expectancy in towns a short flight from Sydney is as low as 37. Dickensian diseases are rife; Australia is the only developed country not to have eradicated trachoma, which blinds Aboriginal children.

Pat has both complied with and struggled bravely against a punitive bureaucracy that can remove children on hearsay. She has twice been acquitted of false charges, including “kidnapping” her own children. A psychologist has described her as a capable and good mother.

Josie Crawshaw, the former director of a respected families’ support organisation in Darwin, told me: “In remote areas, officials will go in with a plane in the early hours and fly the child thousands of kilometres from their community. There’ll be no explanation, no support, and the child may be gone forever.”

In 2012 the co-ordinator general of remote services for the Northern Territory, Olga Havnen, was sacked when she revealed that almost A$80m (£44m) was spent on the surveillance and removal of Aboriginal children compared with only A$500,000 (£275,000) on supporting the same impoverished families. She told me: “The primary reasons for removing children are welfare issues directly related to poverty and inequality. The impact is just horrendous because if they are not reunited within six months, it’s likely they won’t see each other again. If South Africa was doing this, there’d be an international outcry.”

She and others with long experience I have interviewed have echoed the Bringing them Home report, which described an official “attitude” in Australia that regarded all Aboriginal people as “morally deficient”. A department of family and community services spokesman said that most removed Indigenous children in New South Wales were placed with Indigenous carers. According to Indigenous support networks, this is a smokescreen; it does not mean families, and it is control by divisiveness that is the bureaucracy’s real achievement.

I met a group of Aboriginal grandmothers, all survivors of the first stolen generation, all now with stolen grandchildren. “We live in a state of fear, again,” they said. David Shoebridge, a state Greens MP, told me: “The truth is, there is a market among whites for these kids, especially babies.”

The New South Wales parliament is soon to debate legislation that introduces forced adoption and “guardianship”. Children under two years old will be liable – without the mother’s consent – if “removed” for more than six months. For many Aboriginal mothers like Pat, it can take six months merely to make contact with their children. “It’s setting up Aboriginal families to fail,” said Shoebridge.

I asked Josie Crawshaw why. “The wilful ignorance in Australia about its first people has now become the kind of intolerance that gets to the point where you can smash an entire group of humanity and there is no fuss.”

Self-harm sites and cyberbullying: the threat to children from web’s dark side


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Self-harm sites and cyberbullying: the threat to children from web’s dark side

“Some of the images do scare me, especially if it’s my friends. Once my friend cut lines down the side of his face as a ‘Chelsea Smile’, he put it online and it was the worst thing I had ever seen. He’s my friend, I don’t want to see him that upset. He got so much hate for it and ended up going into hibernation, nobody heard from him for over a week and we honestly thought he had killed himself.”

Frankie* is 15 and lives in the Midlands. For the past year or so she has updated her Tumblr blog most days. On other social networks she uses her real name, but on Tumblr – a blogging platform – she shares her darkest thoughts about depression, anxiety and self-harm anonymously. “The other day I put up a self-harm picture,” she says. “I was alone and in a dark place. […] Of course, nobody would help, but posting it boosted my confidence a little; finding it buried in amongst all the other self-harm posts reminded me I’m not alone.”

Fears about self-harm sites have been growing since the suicides of two teenagers who, it emerged, were obsessed with self-harm and depression blogs, with mental health campaigners and experts warning that the UK’s teens are at risk of becoming a lost generation if parents and adults cannot reach out to them across the digital divide.

Tallulah Wilson, a 15-year-old who killed herself in 2012, was caught up in a “toxic digital world”, according to her mother, while the parents of Sasha Steadman, a 16-year-old who died from a suspected drug overdose in January after looking at self-harm sites, said her “impressionable mind” had been filled “with their damning gospel of darkness”.

For the uninitiated, self-harm blogs present a surreal world of fantasy and pain. Countless sites dedicated to self-harm and depression are filled with images of bleeding wounds juxtaposed with pixelated gifs, flickering eerily with snippets of Hollywood angst. Helen, who is now 18, visited them regularly, before stopping to help herself move on from self-harming. “You have people asking you how to cut yourself deep enough because their therapist said it wasn’t bad enough,” she says. “I have had people tell me to kill myself. I think the most traumatic is when you find someone’s suicide note online and there is no way to actually get in contact with the person.”

Isolated and lonely, she used the blogs because they gave her a sense of belonging. “You want to find people who are similar to you. That is what humans do,” she says. “It starts off as trying to help, but then it becomes competitive and dangerous. You get sucked into this world of who can cut the deepest/be the skinniest and avoid notice by the outside world. You end up spending hours a day searching these sites for reassurance, but it just makes it harder.”

Keeping children safe online is the “child protection challenge of this generation”, according to Peter Wanless, head of the NSPCC. ChildLine, part of the organisation, registered an 87% rise in calls about cyberbullying last year, a 41% increase in calls about self-harm, and a 33% increase in calls about suicide, with the biggest increase among 12- to 15-year-olds.

While the internet provides unprecedented opportunities for young people to communicate and learn, it can be a dangerous place for vulnerable teenagers, says Sue Minto, the head of ChildLine. “Children are communicating in a way we have never seen before – all the time and instantly,” she says. “Personally, I think this kind of relentless exposure is the biggest challenge we have ever faced.”

Minto notes that while peer pressure and bullying have been around for a long time, the ability to be contacted at all times is new. The cloak of anonymity can lead children to make comments they would shy away from in “real” life, she says. “The pressure on children is immense and very worrying – there is no break for these young people, it is quite relentless. Children who are being bullied tell us there is no point in turning off their phone, because the messages will just be there waiting for them.”

recent survey carried out by youth charities,YouthNet and YoungMinds revealed that 61% of the 4,000 young people who responded said they self harmed because they felt alone, while 25% cited bullying. Almost 40% said they had never spoken to anyone in the “real world” about it.

Rachel Welch, director of, which supports young people affected by self-harm, says there is a huge gap between what adults see of the online world and their children’s experience. “So many young people are drifting into a world where they are completely disconnected,” she says.

But how dangerous are self-harm sites? Do they simply show teenage angst and creative expression, or highlight a worrying deterioration of teenage mental health?

Mary Hassell, the coroner presiding over the inquest of Tallulah Wilson, was concerned enough to write to Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, to warn him of a risk of future deaths without a greater understanding of children’s online worlds. Although Tallulah was treated by healthcare professionals, they didn’t have “a good enough understanding of the evolving way that the internet is used by young people, most particularly in terms of the online life that is quite separate from the rest of life”, she wrote.

A study into possible links between suicide and the internet has just been commissioned by the Department of Health and will report in two and a half years: a department spokeswoman said children’s mental health was a priority for the government and pointed to the introduction of “family-friendly filters” and internet safety into the national curriculum.

But for Sarah Brennan, chief executive of the youth mental health charity Young Minds, the real issue is ignorance of the scale of the problem, or even denial that the problem exists. The current NHS commissioning of youth mental health services is based on data collected in 2004 – the year Facebook launched.

“It is shocking that the government is allowing NHS commissioners to plan services based on out of date and inaccurate data,” Brennan says, adding that a Young Minds freedom of information request recently revealed that 34 out of 51 local authorities in England have reduced the budget for their children and adolescent mental health services since 2010, while a Community Care/BBC investigation this week showed that a growing number of seriously ill children are being admitted to adult psychiatric wards or sent hundreds of miles from home for hospital care.

“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb here,” says Brennan. “At the same time that we are seeing an increase in need, youth mental health services are being cut. There is an explosion of bullying online and young people struggling to cope with mental health issues, anxiety, eating disorders. If we don’t do something about it we could have a lost generation.”

What can be done? Since Tallulah Wilson’s suicide, Tumblr has introduced a warning that pops up when users search for terms related to self-harm, directing them towards sites offering support and calling on users to report blogs with “inappropriate content” so they can be taken down. A Tumblr spokeswoman said the site was “deeply committed to protecting our users’ freedom of expression”, but that it draws lines “around a few categories of content we consider damaging to our community, including blogs that encourage self-harm”.

And while there have been calls to shut down certain sites, such as – which allows users to ask anonymous questions and has been linked to teen suicides – teenagers and professionals spoken to by the Guardian agreed that simply banning sites or “dangerous” search terms was futile. Regulation can also backfire – recent efforts to impose opt-out “objectionable content filters”, backed by the prime minister, have resulted in sites such as ChildLine and Refuge also being blocked.

“We cannot put our head in the sand, simply blame these sites or hope to regulate our way out of this,” says Minto. “We are playing catch-up, but we need to take responsibility. You wouldn’t let your child cross the road without talking to them about road safety and the same goes for the risks of the internet – if we don’t tackle this it’s like opening the door and letting them walk through this cyberworld completely unequipped.”

Welch at agrees: “Calling for any type of ban is just missing the point. What we have to do is make sure our young people are emotionally resilient, emotionally aware and they know where to go to get help if they need it.”

Others say that while parts of the internet can be dangerous for vulnerable children, it can also provide the means to keep others safe and let them talk about their problems. As many young people contact ChildLine online as call its helpline. Online friends can be a force for good.

Samantha, a 17-year-old who started self-harming when she was 14, says her Tumblr site helped her recover from depression. “I felt like I belonged somewhere, they understood me in a way I felt I had never been understood before,” she says. At one point, she was off school with depression and spent all day online, answering 10-15 messages from other troubled teenagers every day. Now she “has a life” again and is online less frequently. “I’ve been told that I’ve saved lives and it made me feel good about myself that I was helping other people,” she says. “It’s really odd – but it works for me.”

Frankie, who is still working towards recovery, has mixed emotions. While she recognises that some blogs might encourage self-harmers, or make them feel worse, she still believes they can help. “I think for [people] like myself it can be reassuring just to know there are others out there that do it too [but] what scares me is thinking how many there are, how they are all posting it online, are they all cries for help? If that many people are crying for help then something needs to be done, and fast.”

*Names of young people have been changed. If you face any of the issues in this piece, you can call ChildLine on 0800 1111

UK launches £500,000 fund to help male victims of rape and sexual abuse


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UK launches £500,000 fund to help male victims of rape and sexual abuse

A £500,000 fund to provide help, including counselling and advice, to male victims of rape and sexual violence is to be launched on Thursday.

The creation of the fund comes as the latest set of crime figures showed there were 2,164 rapes and sexual assaults against men and boys aged 13 or over recorded by the police in the 12 months to last November.

The crime survey for England and Wales estimates that there are as many as 72,000 male victims of sexual offences every year, whether they are reported to the police or not.

The victims minister, Damian Green, said the new fund would also help “historic victims” who were under 13 at the time. He said: “We believe around 12% of rapes are against men. Yet many choose not to come forward, either to report the crime or seek the support they need. I am determined to help break the silence on a subject still seen as a taboo.”

Green said the average sentences for male rape had increased but there was still more to do: “That is why we are toughening up sentencing and have introduced a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of a second very serious sexual or violent crime.”

Duncan Craig of Survivors Manchester, which specialises in helping male survivors of rape and sexual abuse, welcomed the new funding. He said: “In the past, there has not been enough support in the UK for male victims of sexual violence. But in the future I would like to see both the government and society begin talking more openly about boys and men as victims and see us trying to make a positive change to pulling down those barriers that stop boys and men speaking up. This funding will help to raise awareness of the issue and ensure that male victims are no longer ignored.”

The launch of the fund comes as the justice ministry starts a social media #breakthesilence campaign to encourage male victims to speak about their experiences. The Channel 4 teenage soap Hollyoaks recently featured a male rape storyline.

A Firm Grasp on Comfort


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A Firm Grasp on Comfort

“Where’s your baby?” said the mother to her sobbing 3-year-old daughter. “You need your baby!”

Her older daughter began digging through the two large diaper bags, and triumphantly extracted a fuzzy pink blanket. The 3-year-old grabbed the blanket and tucked it up under her chin, gripping it tightly. “There’s your baby!” the mother and the older sister said in unison. The crying subsided, and we went on with the medical exam.

So-called transitional objects — beloved blankets, tattered stuffed animals, irreplaceable garments — are frequent in the pediatric exam room. Some children clutch them to ease the stress of being examined or immunized, while others simply never leave the house without their favorites. Ask any small group of parents about transitional objects — or blankies, or lovies — and you’ll get a good story, usually of a precious item misplaced or lost at some critical juncture.

Ask adults, and the most unlikely people tell you the names of their treasured childhood blankets or get misty-eyed about a stuffed bear.

The British experts who first wrote about the term mentioned Winnie the Pooh and Aloysius, the teddy bear in “Brideshead Revisited”; a recent literary incarnation is Knuffle Bunny, in the series of three picture books by Mo Willems. But the formative American take on transitional objects is probably Linus, with his blanket, in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons, which date to the 1950s and the moment of the original psychoanalytic discussion of the phenomenon.

In 1953, Dr. Donald Woods Winnicott, a prominent pediatrician and psychoanalyst, presented a paper to the British Psycho-Analytical Society: “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena — A Study of the First Not-Me Possession.” The paper, published in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, combines psychoanalytic theory with a clear pediatric familiarity with children and their blankies.

“The parents get to know its value and carry it round when travelling,” Dr. Winnicott wrote. “The mother lets it get dirty and even smelly, knowing that by washing it she introduces a break in continuity in the infant’s experience.” In Dr. Winnicott’s view, the object, together with what he called a “good enough mother,” helps the young child navigate the essential problem of separation.

“The baby knows the teddy bear is not Mom, but the baby can get a certain satisfaction. It is neither Mom nor totally just a stuffed animal,” said Steve Tuber, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at City College, and the author of a book on Winnicott.

The specificity of the child’s preference — and affection — parallels the developing ability to feel a strong specific attachment to particular people. The transitional object is “a bridge between the mother and the external world,” said Alicia Lieberman, an expert in infant mental health and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Arietta Slade, a professor of clinical and developmental psychology at the City University of New York, said: “It’s a very adaptive mechanism, if you think about it, that there are things other than mother that kids can hang on to that help them retain that comforted and comforting feeling.”

Some parents are able to “suggest” a convenient object (and buy multiples to keep in reserve), but children are guided mostly by their own mysterious and passionate preferences, and they do not necessarily accept substitutes — witness all those stories about turning the car around to go back for the one true blankie.

The transitional object “has to be created by the baby,” Dr. Tuber said. “A child has to pick the one that really becomes theirs.”

Inevitably, there are parents who worry that the object has become too important, and that caring for it and curating it has become a major burden — or that it’s being held on to past some age of expected maturity and independence.

“Parents get upset because they think they’re going to lose the transitional object, they think it collects germs, they think it looks babyish, which is a problem in American culture,” said Dr. Barbara Howard, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Johns Hopkins.

“The biggest problem is stigmatization. There is no ultimate age where it’s bad, but you can get teased for it,” she added.

As children get older, some transitional objects — especially stuffed animals — take on distinct personalities, moving toward a combined role as comforter and imaginary friend. Think of how Winnie the Pooh serves as Christopher Robin’s playmate, companion and sometimes problem child. Aloysius, the teddy bear in “Brideshead Revisited,” is taken along to Oxford.

Indeed, Dr. Howard suggested that as many as 25 percent of young women going to college take along something identifiable as a childhood transitional object. The young adult going off to college, with or without stuffed animals or scraps of a favorite old blanket, should be a reminder that the challenges of separation — and the consolations and complexities of attachment — are not developmentally confined to the first years of life.

The familiar image of the small child and the transitional object, generally sweet and mildly humorous, occasionally frantic and even desperate, reminds us that learning to negotiate, and even enjoy, partings and reunions is part of the whole assignment, for parents and for children.

France faces up to scandal of Réunion’s stolen children


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France faces up to scandal of Réunion’s stolen children

Jean-Jacques Martial was six years old when he arrived at Orly airport in Paris one November morning wearing flip-flops and shorts. He had been removed from his grandmother’s care in the French island territory of Réunion as part of an official scheme to help boost the falling population in the rural heart of the mother country. He had only one idea in his head: “I was going to cultivate myself and I would denounce what had happened to me,” he said.

Martial went on to do just that, and on Tuesday the French national assembly will address this shameful chapter of its history for the first time when members vote on a motion to formally recognise the state’s role in the scandal of Réunion’s “stolen children”. From 1963 to 1982 a total of 1,615 children were forcibly dispatched from the Indian Ocean territory, whose population was exploding, in order to repopulate rural areas.

“They took babies who were only six months old,” said Ericka Bareigts, one of the territory’s deputies who is behind the initiative. Poor and illiterate families were informed that their children would be sent to France, “and of course they imagined Paris and the Eiffel tower,” she said. “They were promised a home, schooling, and told they would succeed. The families were told the children would return for the holidays. But it was all a lie.”

Martial, who is now 55, was initially placed in a home before being transferred to Guéret, in the Creuse district of central France, where he was brought up by an elderly farmer and his wife. Martial has recounted his experiences in a memoir, Une Enfance Volée (Stolen Childhood), which describes how, after four years in the Creuse, he was fostered by a young couple in the Normandy harbour town of Saint Vaast la Hougue.

The scandal was only brought to the attention of the wider French public when Martial tried to sue the state for €1bn in 2002 for “kidnapping and sequestration of minors, roundup and deportation”.

“It’s a lot of money, but how much is a stolen childhood worth?” he asked. His case failed because the events took place outside the statute of limitations.

He returned to Réunion in 2006, but will be back in France for the debate, the final leg of a long journey for justice. “After the national assembly, I’m going to turn the page,” he said. “I’m tired.”

Another victim, Simon A-Poi, was 12 years old when he was driven to Guéret on 6 September 1966 with one of two coachloads of children from Réunion. “There were children of all ages – 12, 15, 17, even three,” he recalled on Sunday. He was an orphan who was removed from his grandmother’s care with four brothers and sisters, and 12 cousins. “We were the largest family to arrive in the Creuse.

“We thought we were going to Paris, to see the Eiffel tower, and the Arc de Triomphe. And we ended up in a home in Guéret. In October it was the first time we had seen snow, we thought it was cotton wool falling,” he told a local TV station in Réunion.

The children’s forced removal was the brainchild of Michel Debré, a former Gaullist minister who was then a deputy for Réunion. In 1963 he discovered an island suffering from a 60% redundancy rate and a booming population. “He must have thought that it was a logical solution to a problem of depopulation somewhere else in France. Never mind that it was a two-day journey from Réunion, where the temperature was 40 degrees. He completely denied the human aspect, and the diversity,” said Bareigts.

The resettlements were organised by the state-run Office for the Development of Migration in Overseas Territories, with most of the victims being sent to the Creuse. The children worked on the farms or became the servants of bourgeois families. Some took their own lives, while others were interned in psychiatric hospitals. The Office was disbanded in 1983, two years after the Socialist president François Mitterrand came to power.

The motion to be debated on Tuesday does not provide for compensation, but will carry a strong moral weight. The draft denounces the “forced migration” of the children from Réunion Island and describes their fate as “irreparable”.

France is not the only state to have sinned against its own children. The Australian government apologised in 2008 for the removal of an estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children who were forcibly assimilated from the 1890s to the 1970s. The United States and Canada had similar policies for their indigenous peoples.

Colonial Britain exported 100,000 children to populate Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada under the “home children” programme. And the story of Philomena, now an Oscar-nominated film, highlights Ireland’s treatment of thousands of single mothers whose children were forcibly removed by the Catholic church.

Yvan Combeau, a historian from Réunion, noted that the French motion did not ask for an apology, but he said every word had been carefully weighed so that historical archives could be opened up. “The text seeks reparation through a recognition of the history of these exiles. Reparation must come through knowledge and recognition,” he said in an email.

“We need to analyse this from a political point of view,” said Bareigts. “Réunion used to be a colony. We have known slavery. We can’t sweep these things under the carpet. We need to recognise what happened so that we and the victims can move on.”

Mind over cancer: can meditation aid recovery?


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Mind over cancer: can meditation aid recovery?

Cancer leaves many scars. For survivors, the wounds that run deepest are often those left on the mind. Fear, anxiety and depression are common during recovery. But instead of popping a pill, could practising a few minutes of mindfulness a day be as effective as any drug?

While Buddhists have been practising the meditation technique for more than 2,000 years, medical science is finally beginning to catch up, discovering the extent to which focusing the mind on the present moment can help treat a range of mental conditions associated with cancer recovery.

In the largest trial to date, published last year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, breast cancer survivors who practised mindfulness were found to have increased calm and wellbeing, better sleep and less physical pain. Clinical trials by Oxford University have shown that mindfulness is as effective as antidepressants, and in patients with multiple episodes of depression can reduce the recurrence rate by 40-50% compared with usual care.

Andy Puddicombe’s 20 years of practice were put to the test when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer last April. While the mindfulness expert and former Tibetan Buddhist monk expected the physical pain after surgery to remove his right testicle, he was surprised by the emotional and mental impact of recovery.

“The biggest shock about recovery is that there is no end point,” he says. “People often talk about having beaten cancer, but I find that hard to relate to. I would say that nature has simply taken its course and I am very fortunate that it didn’t spread.”

Puddicombe, who aims to demystify meditation with his Headspace app, explains that mindfulness allows us to step back from our thoughts and feelings and view them with a different perspective. It would be very easy, he adds, to get caught up in negative thinking or feelings of anxiety and depression. But mindfulness gave him enough space to be able to embrace these emotions without getting lost in them.

“Rather than it being a terrible experience, it became a transformative one,” he reveals. “It may sound a bit fluffy, but the reality is anything but. In fact, it was life-changing.”

Psychotherapist Elana Rosenbaum has been practising and teaching mindfulness stress reduction techniques since the early 1980s. She believes her ability to focus the mind on the present moment and break patterns of negative thought helped her survive an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which required bone marrow transplant surgery to remove.

She explains that recovering from cancer was a frightening experience. Once she had finished her treatment, she felt lost without the help and support of medical staff. Mindfulness helped her to face those fears.

Rosenbaum, who helps others use mindfulness in cancer recovery at the University of Massachusetts medical school, says: “People think you are the same. They think you have gone back to what used to be normal. But you’re really different. It’s a new normal and you don’t know what that is. I have had several recurrences of the cancer and I live with uncertainty, but it’s not my focus. Mindfulness helps me to value this moment.”

Nice, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, approved a technique developed by Cambridge and Toronto Universities for the management of depression in 2004, which means the therapy is already available on the NHS.

Headspace’s chief medical officer, Dr David Cox, prescribes cancer recoverers a dose of 10 to 40 minutes mindfulness practice a day. But once you are proficient at that, you have to remember to be mindful in anything and everything you do as much as possible, whether that’s walking the dog or washing the dishes.

He believes the link between mind and body has been neglected for far too long and it is a breath of fresh air for many doctors that someone is finally asking the question. Cox says medical professionals have known about the benefits for a while and mindfulness offers a “glimmer of hope” for tackling the spiralling cost of healthcare on the NHS. Because sufferers of depression tend to be more apathetic about looking after themselves and taking medication, compliance with treatment is therefore worse.

One of the reasons that mindfulness is really catching on is that it can be delivered in a way that is entirely secular, stripped of any religious connotations, making it entirely acceptable to the wider population.

“Around 30 years ago, yoga was probably sniffed at a little bit and now it’s much more mainstream,” Cox adds. “To me, it’s the perfect storm for something that can really help a vast number of people. I hope in five years’ time it will have the same level of acceptance as brushing your teeth every day, eating your five a day and doing 30 minutes’ exercise.”

Loneliness twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people, study finds


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Loneliness twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people, study finds

Loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity, according to researchers who found that feelings of isolation can have a devastating impact on older people.

The scientists tracked more than 2,000 people aged 50 and over and found that the loneliest were nearly twice as likely to die during the six-year study than the least lonely.

Compared with the average person in the study, those who reported being lonely had a 14% greater risk of dying. The figure means that loneliness has around twice the impact on an early death as obesity. Poverty increased the risk of an early death by 19%.

The findings point to a coming crisis as the population ages and people increasingly live alone or far from their families. A study of loneliness in older Britons in 2012 found that more than a fifth felt lonely all the time, and a quarter became more lonely over five years. Half of those who took part in the survey said their loneliness was worse at weekends, and three-quarters suffered more at night.

Previous studies have linked loneliness to a range of health problems, from high blood pressure and a weakened immune system to a greater risk of depression, heart attack and strokes. In his recent book, Loneliness, John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, says that the pain of loneliness is akin to physical pain.

Cacioppo said the world was experiencing a “silver tsunami” as baby boomers reached retirement age. “People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality,” he said.

In light of the damaging health effects of loneliness, Cacioppo said people approaching retirement age might want to think twice about pulling up their roots and heading to fresh pastures to live out their retirement. He described results from the study at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

“We have mythic notions of retirement. We think that retirement means leaving friends and family and buying a place down in Florida where it is warm and living happily ever after. But that’s probably not the best idea,” he said.

“We find people who continue to interact with co-workers after retirement and have friends close by are less lonely. Take time to enjoy yourself and share good times with family and friends. Non-lonely people enjoy themselves with other people.”

The researchers found that some people were happy living a life of solitude. Others still felt lonely, and suffered the health impacts of loneliness, even with family and friends close by. The findings suggest that people needed to feel involved and valued by those near to them, and that company alone was not enough.

Caroline Abrahams at Age UK said the study added to a growing body of research showing that being lonely not only made life miserable for older people, but also made them more vulnerable to illness and disease.

“It’s time we took loneliness seriously as a threat to a happy and healthy later life. We need to do more to support older people to stay socially connected. This is a big part of our job at Age UK and everyone can help by being a good friend or neighbour to the older people they know,” she said.

Local branches of Age UK help older people through befriending schemes and other services that include home visits and phone calls for people who are feeling lonely or isolated, she added.

Young people are sexting – but that doesn’t mean they necessarily want to be, says research


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Young people are sexting – but that doesn’t mean they necessarily want to be, says research

With the rise of smartphones and Snapchat, sexting is in vogue – but a new study has found that many young people engage in the practice without really wanting to.

More than half (52.3 per cent) of young adults have engaged in “ unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner”, according to research to be published in February in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour.

Most did so for flirtation, foreplay, to fulfil a partner’s needs, or for intimacy, but women were more likely to consent to unwanted sexting because of anxieties about their relationships.

The research, which was carried out by scientists at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), polled 155 undergraduates in committed relationships on their sexting habits.

Fifty-five per cent of the female respondents said they had previously engaged in unwanted sexting, while 48 per cent of men had done the same.

The results show similarities between sexual behaviour online and off: in both cases, couples will willingly go along with sex, even when they do not feel like it, from reasons ranging from satisfying their partner to avoiding an argument.

But while women are often considered to engage in unwanted sex more than men, the research shows only a small difference in the number of men and women partaking in unwanted sexting.

The authors of the article argued “gender-role expectations” could be to blame. Men might be more likely to agree to undesired sexting because doing so is “relatively easy and does not require them to invest more into the relationship,” while women might be discouraged from virtual sex because it fails to help them attain their relationship “goals”.

The survey also showed that people who were anxious about their relationships were more likely to send begrudging sexts, in a bid to alleviate fears about alienation or abandonment by their partners.


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