Afghan girls struggle with poor internet as they turn to online classes
One of the most striking changes since Taliban were first in power from 1996 to 2001 is the explosion of internet
The Taliban administration has allowed girls to study individually at home and has not moved to ban the internet
Updated 27 March 2023
KABUL: Sofia logs in to class on a laptop in Kabul for an online English course run by one of a growing number of educational institutes trying to reach Afghanistan's girls and women digitally in their homes.
But when the teacher calls on Sofia to read a passage her computer screen freezes.
"Can you hear me?" she asks repeatedly, checking her connection.
After a while, her computer stutters back to life.
"As usual," a fellow student equally frustrated with the poor communications sighs as the class gets going again.
Sofia, 22, is one of a growing stream of Afghan girls and women going online as a last resort to get around the Taliban administration's restrictions on studying and working.
Taliban officials, citing what they call problems including issues related to Islamic dress, have closed girls' highschools, barred their access to universities and stopped most women from working at non-governmental organisations.
One of the most striking changes since the Taliban were first in power from 1996 to 2001, is the explosion of the internet.
Virtually no one had access to the internet when the Taliban were forced from power in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
After nearly two decades of Western-led intervention and engagement with the world, 18% of the population had internet access, according to the World Bank.
The Taliban administration has allowed girls to study individually at home and has not moved to ban the internet, which its officials use to make announcements via social media.
But girls and women face a host of problems from power cuts, to cripplingly slow internet speeds, let alone the cost of computers and wifi in a country where 97% of people live in poverty.
"For girls in Afghanistan, we have a bad, awful internet problem," Sofia said.
Her online school, Rumi Academy, saw its enrolment of mostly females rise from about 50 students to more than 500 after the Taliban took over in 2021.
It has had hundreds more applications but cannot enrol them for now because of a lack of funds for teachers and to pay for equipment and internet packages, a representative of the academy said.
Sakina Nazari tried a virtual language class at her home in the west of Kabul for a week after she was forced to leave her university in December. But she abandoned it in frustration after battling the problems.
"I couldn't continue," she said. "It's too hard to access internet in Afghanistan and sometimes we have half an hour of power in 24 hours."
Seattle-based Ookla, which compiles global internet speeds, put Afghanistan's mobile internet as the slowest of 137 countries and its fixed internet as the second slowest of 180 countries.
Some Afghans have started calling on SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk to introduce its satellite internet service Starlink to Afghanistan, as it has done in Ukraine and Iran, posting requests for help on Twitter, which he owns.
"We also call on Elon Musk to help us," Sofia said.
"If they would be able to (introduce) that in Afghanistan, it would be very, very impactful for women."
SpaceX spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.
Online schools are trying their best to accommodate Afghanistan's pupils.
Daniel Kalmanson, spokesperson for online University of the People, which has had more than 15,000 applications from Afghan girls and women since the Taliban took over, said students could attend lectures at any time that conditions allowed them to, and professors granted extensions for assignments and exams when students faced connection problems.
The non-profit group Learn Afghanistan, which runs several community-based schools in which some teachers run classes remotely, makes its curriculum available for free in Afghanistan's main languages.
Executive director Pashtana Durrani said the group also ensured that lessons were available via radio, which is widely used in rural areas. She was working with international companies to find solutions to poor internet access but said she could not elaborate.
"Afghanistan needs to be a country where the internet is accessible, digital devices need to be pumped in," Durrani said.
Sofia said Afghan women had grown used to problems over years of war and they would persevere no matter what.
"We still have dreams and we will not give up, ever."
More than 200 killed and 800 hurt after 2 trains derail in India
About 400 people were taken to hospitals after the accident, which happened in eastern India
Nearly 500 police officers and rescue workers with 75 ambulances and buses responded to the accident
Updated 03 June 2023
NEW DELHI: Two passenger trains derailed Friday in India, killing more than 200 people and trapping hundreds of others inside more than a dozen damaged rail cars, officials said.
The accident that happened about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southwest of Kolkata created a chaotic scene of twisted wreckage and desperate rescuers as teams tried to free passengers and recover bodies. The cause was under investigation.
Fire Services Chief Sudhanshu Sarangi told the Press Trust of India that more than 800 people were hurt.
Ten to 12 coaches of one train derailed, and debris from some of the mangled coaches fell onto a nearby track, said Amitabh Sharma, a railroad ministry spokesperson.
The debris was hit by another passenger train coming from the opposite direction, and up to three coaches of the second train also derailed, Sharma said.
The Press Trust reported that a third train carrying freight was also involved, but there was no immediate confirmation from railroad authorities. The Press Trust report said some of the derailed passenger coaches hit cars from the freight train.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the night. As dawn approached, the top bureaucrat in the eastern state of Odisha announced that at least 207 were dead.
In the aftermath, television images showed rescuers climbing atop the wreckage to break open doors and windows and using cutting torches to free survivors.
Passenger Vandana Kaleda told the New Delhi Television news channel that she “found people falling on each other” as her coach shook violently and veered off the tracks. She said she was lucky to survive.
Another survivor who did not give his name said he was sleeping when the impact woke him up. He said he saw other passengers with broken limbs and disfigured faces.
Nearly 500 police officers and rescue workers with 75 ambulances and buses responded to the scene, said Pradeep Jena, the top bureaucrat of the Odisha state.
Rescuers were attempting to free 200 people feared trapped in the wreckage, Shinde said.
The Press Trust said the derailed Coromandel Express was traveling from Howrah in West Bengal state to Chennai, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his thoughts were with the bereaved families.
"May the injured recover soon,” tweeted Modi, who said he had spoken to the railway minister and that “all possible assistance” was being offered.
Despite government efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, the largest train network under one management in the world.
In August 1995, two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people in the worst train accident in India’s history.
Most train accidents are blamed on human error or outdated signaling equipment.
More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India every day, traveling on 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) of track.
BRICS sees strength in numbers as it envisions a multipolar world order
Summit of foreign ministers in Cape Town sets the stage for a more ambitious role for BRICS in a multipolar world
Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi minister of foreign affairs, attended ministerial meeting of the “Friends of BRICS” in Cape Town
Updated 03 June 2023
Alex Whiteman Robert Edwards
LONDON: Foreign ministers from BRICS countries Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have expressed their willingness to admit new members, including Saudi Arabia, as the bloc seeks a larger voice in the international arena.
At a two-day conference in Cape Town on Thursday and Friday, attended by Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi minister of foreign affairs, the group presented itself as a force for a “rebalancing” of the global order away from Western-dominated institutions.
Prince Faisal held bilateral talks with several of his counterparts and attended a ministerial meeting of the “Friends of BRICS” under the theme “Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development, and Inclusive Multilateralism.”
He also held talks with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, to examine steps “to implement the agreement between the two countries signed in Beijing, including intensifying bilateral work to ensure international peace and security,” according to a statement from the Saudi delegation.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Cuba, DRC, Comoros, Gabon, and Kazakhstan all sent representatives to Cape Town for the talks, while Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Indonesia participated virtually.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “more than a dozen” countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS. Meanwhile, Ma Zhaoxu, China’s vice foreign minister, told a press conference: “We expect more countries to join our big family.”
According to reports, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Iran have all formally asked to join the BRICS, as have several other nations who appear intent upon recalibrating international ties in line with an increasingly multipolar world order.
According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia is also in talks with the New Development Bank, the Shanghai-based lender better known as the “BRICS bank,” to admit the Kingdom as its ninth member.
A heads of state summit is scheduled to take place in Johannesburg in August.
The BRICS economic bloc is positioning itself as an alternative to Western-dominated centers of power. However, experts seem uncertain about its potential, pointing to innate divisions between the central BRICS powers and a lack of clarity on what membership might entail.
Nevertheless, for several countries seeking financial assistance, the stringent demands often attached to bailouts by Western-dominated institutions like the IMF and World Bank have proved increasingly unpalatable, leading many nations to look elsewhere for partnerships.
One such example is Tunisia.
Battered by diminishing output, high debt and rampant inflation, with food and fuel prices spiking, many saw the IMF’s offer of a $1.9 billion loan as Tunisia’s only way out of an escalating economic and political crisis.
President Kais Saied disagreed with this perspective, however, making his views on the deal very clear at the start of April, rejecting demands to cut energy and food subsidies and reduce the public wage bill, which the loan had been made contingent upon.
“I will not hear diktats,” Saied said, noting the deadly riots that ensued in 1983 after bread prices were raised, telling Tunisians they instead had to “count on themselves.”
Others close to Saied seem to think that he has different plans to stop the country’s economic rot.
Echoing Saied, Mahmoud bin Mabrouk, a spokesperson for the pro-presidential July 25 Movement, told Arab News that Tunisia would “not accept diktats or interference” and would now look to the BRICS as “a political, economic and financial alternative that will enable Tunisia to open up to the new world.”
Should bin Mabrouk’s claim hold weight, Tunisia would become the latest North African country to gravitate toward the bloc after Algeria applied to join late last year.
Such a move would suggest that the BRICS bloc is an expanding entity offering an alternative to the IMF and World Bank for states seeking bailouts.
However, Jim O’Neill, the economist who coined the BRICS acronym, questions “what” Tunisia would actually be signing up for, describing the bloc as more of a “political club” than any defined economic grouping, and one that seems to have had negative effects financially.
“As I’ve argued before, since the politic club came around, ironically, its economic strength has weakened,” O’Neill told Arab News. He further questions what criteria the bloc would seek in new members, suggesting that in the case of Algeria and Tunisia “it all just seems (like) symbolism.”
Symbolism or not, Algeria and Tunisia are not alone in their pivot toward the nascent bloc, with Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkiye all considering tethering their futures to it.
Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East Program, believes that Tunisia’s move should be taken seriously as it represents “an intentional geopolitical shift on its behalf,” noting the increased criticism of Tunisia from both Europe and the US.
“Tunisia is desperate for financial assistance and since the West is focused on conditioning aid to Tunisia on democratic reforms, it makes sense that Saied would seek assistance from countries that are less concerned with human rights and freedom,” Yerkes told Arab News.
However, like O’Neill, she questions whether the BRICS can offer an alternative to the IMF and World Bank, pointing to the bloc’s weak record when it comes to “assisting other countries and helping them achieve real, sustained economic prosperity.”
Internally, the BRICS group, at least, seems confident that it can rival the West. And, with the group set to meet in Johannesburg this August, South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor has reportedly suggested the launch of the economic bloc’s own currency, intended as a rival to dollar hegemony, would be firmly on the discussion table.
Even so, few commentators offer a defense of BRICS as a new economic bloc, with Elie Abouaoun, director of MENA at the US Institute of Peace, seeing Tunisia’s addition as a weight around the neck of a limited pool of “GDP contributors.”
“At this stage, the main contributors to global GDP among the BRICS countries are China and India, and most of the countries listed as potential candidates to become members are loan consumers rather than solid contributors to the global GDP,” Abouaoun told Arab News.
“With seven or eight new consumer countries integrating into the alliance, I see challenges for the largest BRICS member states and less, if any, financial benefit to the new ones. The alliance will certainly be weaker with more members so desperate to receive economic aid.”
Similarly, Liam Campling, professor of international business and development at Queen Mary University’s School of Business and Management, London, said that agreement by the BRICS cohort to admit Tunisia would be “slightly puzzling, given that it is a mid-level power.”
“When you look at the existing members, they are all sub-regional powers, each dominant in their part of the world, but when you look at Tunisia it is not dominant in North Africa in the same way Egypt is,” Campling told Arab News.
“So, from the BRICS perspective, it is not an obvious ally, but from the Tunisia side, it could obviously be an effort to garner wider macroeconomic support. Although what I think is happening is it is playing both sides, which is part of the play for any mid-ranking country.”
Campling’s skepticism stems from his assertion that while Tunisia may have fallen foul of the US, with increased political acrimony between the two, it is still very much economically “in bed” with the Europeans, adding “it’s not going to jeopardize its EU connections for this.”
And like the others, Campling has wider reservations about the BRICS project, pointing to what he terms the “central tension at the heart of it,” namely the long-running border disputes between China and India.
This, he suggests, renders the bloc more of an ad-hoc alliance than a cohesive unit that can direct global trade, policy and finance in a manner akin to that of the IMF or World Bank, and thus he questions the assertion that BRICS could become an alternative economic bloc.
“Essentially, I do not see it being able to offer a sustained alternative until that central tension between India and China is resolved, and I do not see that being resolved, which means there is nothing really holding it together, leaving little space for a more sustained role,” he said.
Abouaoun says what is really missing is a “normative model” that other countries can buy into beyond the BRICS bloc’s defense of “multipolarity.” Scratch beneath the surface and there seems to be an absence of substance — an opinion shared by Yerkes.
“At this point it doesn’t seem much more than a potential counterweight to Europe and the US, and without a foundational ideology, particularly with members with vastly different economic philosophies, it doesn’t seem likely that it would be a strong competitor,” she said.
Consensus on BRICS’ prospects notwithstanding, O’Neill is at odds with the others when it comes to the question of whether the world needs another economic bloc, believing focus should instead be on strengthening every economy, rather than acting in collectives.
Yerkes, Campling and Abouaoun seem less opposed to the notion of a new bloc, recognizing that US unipolarity seems to be on the way out. Nevertheless, they stress that the bloc’s value would be dependent on its make-up and its intentions.
Indeed, with the likes of Saudi Arabia potentially among its ranks, the BRICS could attain new levels of financial and diplomatic clout, transforming the international arena.
“Historically, the dominance of the West, and its various international bodies and institutions, has been extremely self-serving, producing contradictory outcomes leading to a world that is more volatile and more uneven and increasingly depending on indebtedness,” Campling said.
“This has all been pushed in the interest of Europeans and the US. Maybe we should look to the 1970s and the Non-Aligned Movement — made up of many of those purportedly looking to join BRICS — for inspiration.”
Nine people were killed on Thursday after popular opposition politician, Ousmane Sonko, was sentenced to two years in jail
The EU and Senegal's former colonial power France also expressed concern over the violence
Updated 02 June 2023
DAKAR: The United Nations and African Union called for calm in Senegal Friday after an outbreak of deadly violence that prompted authorities to deploy the army.
Nine people were killed on Thursday after popular opposition politician, Ousmane Sonko, was sentenced to two years in jail, which may take him out of the running in 2024 presidential elections.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the violence and “urged all those involved to (...) exercise restraint,” a spokesman said.
The African Union said its commission president, Moussa Faki Mahamat, strongly condemned the violence and urged leaders to avoid acts which “tarnish the face of Senegalese democracy, of which Africa has always been proud.”
The Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called on all parties to “defend the country’s laudable reputation as a bastion of peace and stability.”
The EU and Senegal’s former colonial power France also expressed concern over the violence.
Sonko was convicted for “corrupting” a young woman, in a case which has deeply divided Senegal, usually a bastion of stability in West Africa.
After some of the worst political violence in years on Thursday, tensions remained high on Friday, with sporadic clashes reported in the capital and soldiers deployed on the streets.
Sonko, who was tried in absentia, has yet to be taken into custody for his jail term, which is likely to cause further tensions.
The streets of the capital were largely deserted, AFP journalists observed.
The government acknowledged that it had restricted access to social networks such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter in order to stop “the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages.”
There was extensive destruction on the main university campus, where prolonged clashes took place on Thursday.
Students with suitcases lined the streets outside the university, struggling to find transportation after being told to leave campus.
“We didn’t expect this, political affairs shouldn’t concern us,” said Babacar Ndiaye, a 26-year-old student.
“But there is injustice,” he added, referring to Sonko’s conviction.
Since 2021, when Sonko was initially arrested, around 30 civilians have been killed in unrest largely linked to his legal affairs.
The government and the opposition blame each other for the violence.
Sonko was initially charged with rape and issuing death threats against an employee of a beauty salon where he said he received massages.
However, the court acquitted him on these charges and convicted him for “debauching” a person under the age of 21, without clarifying the immoral acts he is alleged to have committed.
Under the electoral code, the verdict would appear to render him ineligible for next year’s election.
Sonko has maintained his innocence and claims the president is trying to frame him to keep him out of next year’s election — a charge the government denies.
The head of the PASTEF-Patriots party could be arrested “at any time,” Justice Minister Ismaila Madior Fall told journalists after the ruling on Thursday.
Dakar residents interviewed by AFP said they feared the possible consequences of an arrest.
“If they arrest him, we have to fear the worst,” says Yankouba Sane, a university employee.
“If there’s one person who will never go to prison in Senegal, it’s Ousmane Sonko,” said Alioune Diop, a 46-year-old shopkeeper. “If they put him on trial, they’re going to make the situation worse.”
Sonko is presumed to remain in his Dakar home, where he has been blocked in by security forces since the weekend. He alleges he is being “illegally held.”
International football star Sadio Mane, who is Senegalese, and the Khalifa General of Medina Baye, Serigne Mahi Ibrahim Niass — an eminent religious dignitary — have also called for peace.
Amnesty International urged authorities to stop “arbitrary arrests” and lift restrictions on access to social networks.
The NGO Reporters Without Borders also called on authorities to fully restore Internet access.
“Socio-political violence must not be used as a pretext to restrict the right to inform,” it said.
Novartis drug cuts recurrence risk by 25 percent in early-stage breast cancer
The company on Friday said the relative risk reduction of cancer recurrence was 25.2%
The results were broadly consistent regardless of patients' menopausal status or cancer progression status
Updated 02 June 2023
FRANKFURT: Novartis breast cancer drug Kisqali cut the risk of recurrence by more than 25 percent in a pivotal trial on women diagnosed at an early stage, positioning the Swiss drugmaker to win new patients and but facing strong competition from Eli Lilly.
The company on Friday said the relative risk reduction of cancer recurrence was 25.2 percent and that the results were broadly consistent regardless of patients’ menopausal status or cancer progression status. The results were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.
The Swiss drugmaker’s shares rose, even as the efficacy read-out fell short of that of a drug by Lilly, but a more favorable side effect profile might swing the balance in favor of Kisqali.
The drug was used in the trial together with standard endocrine therapy to treat a type of cancer that grows in response to hormones and it was compared to endocrine therapy alone.
The Novartis treatment has been approved to treat hormone-driven breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, where Novartis has taken market share from Pfizer’s Ibrance.
But an earlier diagnosis, when tumors can still be surgically removed, is much more common, representing about 90 percent of patients.
Still, better drugs are needed after surgery because the cancer later returns in between a third and one half of cases.
Eli Lilly is ahead with the approval of rival drug Verzenio in the early setting. But that is in a subset of women who are at high risk of recurrence after surgery, typically diagnosed based on signs of cancer in the lymph nodes.
Here, Novartis will face tough competition because the US drugmaker has said Verzenio reduces the risk of recurrence by 35 percent in that group.
But Kisqali looks set to be a pioneer in a wider market because it was tested successfully in both high-risk and medium-risk patients, a population that is twice as large.
Analysts have said investors could be disappointed if the Kisqali read-out fell well short of Verzenio’s efficacy and Jefferies analysts said on Friday the efficacy read-out was “closer to our downside scenario.”
But Novartis stressed very low rates of symptomatic side effects in its trial, important to patients facing years-long treatment, with severe diarrhea affecting only 0.6 percent of participants on Kisqali.
That compares with 8 percent-20 percent of the women in trials with Eli Lilly’s Verzenio being affected by severe diarrhea.
“This may be very relevant commercially,” said Evercore ISI analyst Umer Raffat.
Novartis shares were up 1.5 percent at 1430 GMT, rebounding from initial losses after the news. Lilly shares gained 0.9 percent.
“We know diarrhea can be a very troublesome, burdensome adverse event for patients taking anti-cancer medicines,” said Jeff Legos, Head of Oncology & Hematology Development at Novartis.
The March trial update boosted market confidence in targets issued by CEO Vas Narasimhan for annual sales growth of 4 percent through 2027 and a core operating income margin of 40 percent from 2027, analysts have said.
Novartis will request approval for wider use in the US and Europe before the end of the year, it added.
Novartis gave a brief preview of the Kisqali data in March, boosting its shares and growth prospects.
Ukraine’s Zelensky: NATO membership ‘impossible’ until Russia war ends
Western governments are wary of any move that might take the alliance closer to war with Russia
Updated 02 June 2023
KYIV: President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday he knew it would be “impossible” for Ukraine to join NATO while Russia was waging war on his country.
Zelensky has pressed for Ukrainian membership of the military alliance but allies are divided over how fast that should happen. Western governments are wary of any move that might take the alliance closer to war with Russia.
In a joint briefing in the Ukrainian capital with Estonian President Alar Karis, he said joining the alliance was still the best security guarantee for Kyiv.
“But we are adequate people and understand that we will not pull any NATO country into a war,” Zelensky said. “And that’s why we understand that we won’t be a member of NATO while this war is ongoing. Not because we don’t want to, because it’s impossible.”