Magsaysay AwardThe Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s premier prize and honor similar to a Nobel Prize, was given this year to two Indian social rights advocates. Recipients Bezwada Wilson and Thodur Madabusi Krishna were recognized for their dedication to advocacy for the poorest citizens in India.

Wilson received the award for organizing a grass-roots movement to end the demeaning work of manual scavenging, the practice of removing and disposing of excrement from dry latrines. The work, which usually falls to women and girls of the Dalit caste for little pay, was banned in 1993. Regardless, 180,000 households still service 790,000 public and private latrines.

Wilson was born into a manual scavenging family and was the first in his family to pursue higher education. His organization, Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), has helped to liberate over 300,000 of the estimated 600,000 manual scavengers in India. SKA keeps self-emancipation at the core of its mission, and the Magsaysay Award Foundation recognized his “moral energy and prodigious skill in leading a grassroots movement to eradicate the degrading servitude.”

Krishna was born into a more affluent Brahmin family and trained in the classical Carnatic music style from the age of 6. Realizing Carnatic music was needlessly reserved for only the Brahmin class, Krishna set out to create a more inclusive music culture in India. He spread Carnatic music by playing in public schools and venues that had never seen a classical Carnatic musician before.

Krishna has familiarized himself with the whole of India’s music culture and is working to make all aspects, from Dalit music tradition to Carnatic music, more open and democratic. He has developed the first Carnatic music curriculum to bring to communities that would otherwise have very little exposure. He has worked to bring divided communities together through music and is being recognized for his advocacy and resolve to share his passion with others.

The Magsaysay Award Foundation has recognized these two men for their dedication to helping others overcome social obstacles. Even after a restrictive social hierarchy is officially abolished, lingering cultural practices make social mobility and freedom difficult for many. It is only with the hard work of people like Wilson, Krishna, members of SKA, children open to learning new music and culture and others like them that change can occur.

Lia Jean Ferguson

Photo: Flickr

gang violence

In March, El Salvador, a country that has been struggling to reinvent itself since its bitter 12-year civil war between Marxist rebels and the government ended in 1993, experienced the highest levels of gang-related deaths in over a decade.

According to the BBC, March was the deadliest month in El Salvadorian history since the end of the civil war — with over 11 percent of the population engaged in some form of gang-related activity. Much of this violence was, and continues to be, perpetrated by gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang, both of which have origins in Los Angeles, where they were founded by Central American immigrants. Following forced expulsion out of the United States and back to their home countries, these migrants then settled back into life in El Salvador — carving neighborhoods into various gang-controlled territories in the process.

In 2012, El Salvador’s main gangs signed a truce in an effort to end gang-sponsored violence, which initially saw a drop in gang-related death by 40 percent. Since then, however, gang activity has picked up again at an increasingly violent pace. Currently, El Salvador is on the path to becoming one of the deadliest peacetime countries in the world, with roughly 15 homicides occurring every day in the country of six million, according to PBS.

However, since March, there has been a slight decrease in the number of violent incidences. This is thanks to the efforts of private companies, which have begun to recruit former gang members as employees in an effort to help stall the surge of violence currently overtaking the country.

League Central America, for instance, is a private company that works stitching logos onto American University clothing, such as sweaters bound for Harvard and Brown. One out of ten employees at League Central America are former gang members, who mainly hail from the country’s most notorious gangs; the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha.

According to one employee, who went by the name Jorge, “There are lots of former gang members who want to change their lives but [don’t] have a way out…because of the lack of work, the poverty.”

Company boss Rodrigo Bolanos, however, stated that companies can help improve the situation, saying, “In the process of suffocating the economy and the country the private companies need to take a position to look for a dignified way out.”

In light of this, private companies like League Central America are making important strides in starting to help the country battle against increasing rates of homicide, by helping former gang members find a way out of poverty by offering them entrance jobs with the chance of upwards mobility.

Jorge has stated that he is eternally grateful to the company for offering him a way out of the gangs and gang violence — and a new chance at life.

Jorge, who only recently started working at the company, is now the chief pattern cutter.

Ana Powell

Sources: BBC 1, BBC 2, PBS
Photo: Flickr

Investing in the Future with Universal Pre-KIn his State of the Union address, President Obama called for action on something just as unprecedented as universal healthcare in America – universal preschool.

The White House has released an infographic sharing that at-risk children who do not receive a high-quality early education are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent, 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education, 60 percent more likely to never attend college and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

The investment in preschools, therefore, means investing in the future of American life, according to an administration that has championed demands that every child one day receive an affordable college education, and who has also called for sharp restrictions to be placed on assault weapons as a result of increasingly sensationalized acts of gun violence.

The investment in early education may raise a generation out of poverty, as current reports claim that the United States provides, at the moment, some of the least access to the social mobility of the world’s utmost developed nation. This has proven disheartening to a society that functions on the ideals of the American Dream, which is that anyone can achieve anything if they work hard enough.

Investing in the future is a principle that is both bipartisan and essential to the capitalist identity of America. We can only hope that legislators can overcome their differences to invest in this preventative social program, as has been done in the states of Georgia and Oklahoma.

– Nina Narang

Sources: The Huffington Post, The Washington Post
Photo: Post University