2019
March
08
Friday

Women are half the world’s population. Obviously, they have a huge role to play in the creation of prosperity around the globe. But in too many places, laws, customs, and tradition hinder what they can do to contribute to national economies.

The good news is those restrictions are declining. A new World Bank report lists progress in economic-related legal equality for women in every country. Ten years ago no nation had a perfect score, by World Bank criteria. Now six do: Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden.

The region that’s made the most progress in promoting gender economic equality? That’s sub-Saharan Africa. In the Republic of Congo, reforms now allow married women to register businesses, open bank accounts, and sign contracts. Burundi, Zambia, and three other countries in the region introduced laws on workplace sexual harassment as well as domestic violence.

Africa still has room for progress. But so does the United States. It ranked 62nd on the World Bank’s list, which considers property ownership and inheritance laws, job protections, pension policies, and laws on pay and personal safety. There are U.S. advances, however: By some measures more women are now working than men. 

March 8 is International Women’s Day. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the U.S. national women’s soccer team chose today to file a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. Discrimination has affected how much they get paid, how they’re coached, and even how they travel, the team’s 28 members said in the suit.

The soccer federation hasn’t yet responded. The team begins its defense of its Women’s World Cup final in the next few months.

Now to our five stories for your Friday.

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1. Beyond the big splash: What SpaceX success means for America

With the successful return of SpaceX’s crew capsule, the United States appears poised once again to lead human spaceflight. For many Americans, space travel is part of their national identity.

Peter
NASA/AP
The SpaceX team watches from Hawthorne, California, as the company’s Crew Dragon docks with the International Space Station’s Harmony module March 3. SpaceX is one of several American private companies hoping to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

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American spaceflight hasn’t been so American for the past eight years. Since NASA’s space shuttle program shut down in 2011, the only way to the International Space Station has been aboard Russian spacecraft. So that’s how U.S. astronauts have traveled. But that may be about to change.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule concluded a critical test flight to the International Space Station on Friday morning. And if the next safety test goes well, the spacecraft could ferry astronauts from U.S. soil to the space station as soon as this summer. Boeing is hot on SpaceX’s heels with its own Starliner spacecraft, also designed to be an astronaut taxi.

Spaceflight has long been a point of national pride for Americans. “There is sort of a cultural belief that [spaceflight] is what a great nation does, and we are a great nation,” says Roger Launius, a former NASA chief historian and National Air and Space Museum curator emeritus. “It’s a part of a sense of American exceptionalism.”

If the private companies succeed, the US could be on track to reclaim a portion of its pioneering identity.

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Beyond the big splash: What SpaceX success means for America

It sounds like a quirky children’s film: Ripley the mannequin blasts off in a rocket with nothing but her trusty stuffed Earth. The two get separated on the International Space Station, but Ripley returns home from her weeklong voyage alone, yet triumphant. But that’s just what happened this week. And it could signal a new era in American spaceflight.

Ripley, named for Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” movie franchise, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean Friday morning at 8:45 a.m. EST in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. Thus concluded the spacecraft’s first test flight to the International Space Station – a milestone for the American private spaceflight industry. If a subsequent test of the craft’s in-flight abort system goes well, the capsule could ferry actual NASA astronauts to the space station as soon as July.

Spaceflight has been a point of national pride for Americans since the dawn of the Space Age. But the United States hasn’t launched astronauts from American soil in eight years. Now, with the successful return of the capsule, the nation is poised to lead human space travel anew – and reclaim a portion of its pioneering identity.

“It’s part of the American ethos,” says Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight division. “If we were to say that we were never going to have a U.S. human space transportation capability, I think that America and Americans would feel diminished in some way.”

After NASA’s space shuttle program shut down in 2011, the only way for astronauts to get to the International Space Station (ISS) has been aboard Russia’s Soyuz launch system. (The only other nation currently capable of human spaceflight is China, but the U.S. prohibits collaboration due to military concerns.)

That’s a far cry from the Cold War competition between the former Soviet Union and the U.S. that first launched people into space. But the tensions of the original space race helped sow the idea of human spaceflight as a display of national prowess.

“We saw ourselves as the great power after World War II, unchallenged,” says Roger Handberg, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. But national self-confidence was shaken as the USSR shot out ahead of the U.S. in the space race, he says. Being first to set foot on the moon restored that confidence.

“There is sort of a cultural belief that [spaceflight] is what a great nation does, and we are a great nation,” says Roger Launius, former NASA chief historian and National Air and Space Museum curator emeritus. “It’s a part of a sense of American exceptionalism.”

NASA/AP
SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast Friday, March 8, 2019. If a subsequent test of the craft’s in-flight abort system goes well, the capsule could ferry actual NASA astronauts to the space station as soon as July.

NASA’s space shuttle program was supposed to lay the groundwork for space to become familiar, accessible territory for all. But political will waned as costs and safety concerns soared. After 30 years, the program folded to shift funds for human spaceflight endeavors beyond low-Earth orbit.

Achieving “firsts” was the hallmark of the space race, and each new milestone represented bragging rights. So refocusing on charging into new frontiers was supposed to be a continuation of American leadership in space – and therefore earn more global prestige. But subsequent projects have been dogged by funding problems and delays.

In the meantime, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to the ISS, a flight that can cost as much as $81 million a head. But more than that, this arrangement has meant that the U.S. has ceded control, says Valerie Neal, chair of the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum.

“Our human spaceflight program is contingent on the capabilities and the goodwill and the fiscal policy of another space agency,” she says. “That compromises the United States’ ability to do what it wants to in space on its own terms. It takes away some of that independence and autonomy.”

NASA leads in space in myriad other ways. The U.S. has launched numerous satellites and sent robotic envoys hurtling into the farthest reaches of the solar system. NASA can do (and does) almost everything humanity can do in space. The only thing currently missing is the ability to launch American astronauts from American soil.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft would bring back that capability. But it is designed to carry just a few people to low-Earth orbit, not forge into unknown territory. And as a result, for some, the capsule’s successful test flight isn’t much to crow about just yet.

“We’re kind of where we were during the first couple of shuttle flights,” says David Portree, space historian and community outreach specialist at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “Realistically, where are we going? It could be we’ll see the same story repeat, or maybe we’ll see something really great happen. We don’t know at this point.”

The goal, says NASA’s Mr. McAlister, is to have private companies running the show in low-Earth orbit. Just as government officials fly on commercial airlines today, NASA would simply purchase rides on the space companies’ launch systems. That could save the agency money, Mr. McAlister says, freeing up funding for NASA to aim for places no other space agency has gone.

Having multiple players flying humans into low-Earth orbit also creates redundancy in the system, Mr. McAlister adds. If one nation or company’s spacecraft were to fail, others could step in and ensure that astronauts on the ISS have a ride home, for example. Furthermore, as seen with previous disasters, spaceflight is a risky endeavor, and a failure can force engineers to press pause on a program for a few years while evaluating and resolving the problem.

SpaceX isn’t the only American company on the verge of launching an astronaut taxi service. Boeing is also set to conduct similar safety tests of its Starliner spacecraft this spring, with a crewed test targeted for August. Both SpaceX and Boeing have billion dollar contracts with NASA for building such astronaut transportation.

“The more vehicles you’ve got, the better off you are,” Dr. Launius says. “I would like to think that in five years, or certainly within 10 years, we’ll have a range of vehicles from which to choose to fly astronauts into space. We’ve never had that in the past.”

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2. Is the music industry finally facing its #MeToo moment?

Is this time different? Sexual misconduct in the music industry has long been excused or covered up, even in the #MeToo era. But with iconic artists now facing a reckoning, this may be the first time men in the industry truly realize their actions have consequences. 

Peter

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In 2005, a songwriter found herself pursued by a rock star. After she told him no, he withheld the recording they’d made. She later discovered that was his M.O. with numerous female songwriters.

She has asked for anonymity and wishes it were easier for women in her position to tell their stories. “The thing that needs to change is this attitude, ‘She should have known better.’ The person who should have known better was him.’”

Change may finally be coming to the music industry. In recent weeks, R. Kelly, Ryan Adams, and the late Michael Jackson have finally faced a reckoning for alleged sexual abuse. Change-makers are pressing their advantage at a time when institutions are waning in power, forcing the industry to reckon with a tradition of sexual exploitation that’s as deeply ingrained as the grooves of a vinyl record.  

“We are seeing some long-standing institutions being challenged by new ways, by a new generation, by new technologies. In some cases by new institutions,” says NPR music critic Ann Powers.

As for the songwriter, she is about to release a new E.P. “I choose not to be a victim,” she says. “You know, flowers always grow from the dirt.”

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Is the music industry finally facing its #MeToo moment?

When he entered the guitar store, she knew who he was. It was July 2005; his music video was on TV all the time. Newly graduated from music school, the aspiring female songwriter had been in New York City two months. Suddenly a cute rock star was charming her.

“He would ask questions that really got to the heart of your hopes and dreams like, ‘Do you write songs? Are they good? How can I hear them?’ ” recalls the songwriter, who wishes to remain anonymous. That night he came to see her show. He promised to produce her album. She was living in her very own “A Star is Born.”

Within a week of what she viewed as a casual hookup, he asked her to be his girlfriend. But the $3,000 guitar he tried to give her gave her pause.

“Deep down I knew he would hurt me and it was too good to be true,” the songwriter recalls. She responded, “No.” That’s when, she says, he started playing psychological games. He wouldn’t give her the recording they’d made. She later discovered that was his M.O. with numerous female songwriters.

Stories of powerful players offering access in exchange for sex are rife in an industry where the #MeToo movement has so far had less visible impact than in film, TV, and media. That may be changing. In recent weeks, iconic artists R. Kelly, Ryan Adams, and the late Michael Jackson have finally faced a reckoning for alleged sexual abuse. Credit a rise in the power of female musicians and shifts in public opinion about sexual abuse. Change-makers are pressing their advantage at a time when old music-business institutions are waning in power, forcing the industry to reckon with a tradition of sexual exploitation that’s as deeply ingrained as the grooves of a vinyl record.  

“We are seeing some long-standing institutions being challenged by new ways, by a new generation, by new technologies. In some cases by new institutions,” says NPR music critic Ann Powers.

Of late, it’s been insurgent documentarians and investigative reporters outside the music industry who have exposed #MeToo abuses of both sexes.

The new HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” centering around two men who say Michael Jackson abused them as prepubescent boys, has sewn a shadow onto pop’s Peter Pan. The FBI is investigating a New York Times report that indie rocker Ryan Adams sexted a 16-year-old bass player. Mr. Adams’ texts to her appear to indicate that he suspected she was underage. Persistent reporting by Chicago music writer Jim DeRogatis, plus two recent TV documentaries, have clipped the wings of “I Believe I Can Fly” singer R. Kelly. The R&B titan faces 10 charges of sexually abusing girls, three of whom were reportedly 13- to 17-years-old.

“In the history of popular music – and let’s just start conservatively – Frank Sinatra through Chuck Berry, through Led Zeppelin, through Aerosmith, up to Ryan Adams last week, we have seen many, many men, horribly, inexcusably, tragically abuse women. But Kelly is singular. I know the names of 48 women whose lives he’s ruined. That’s a body count that is unparalleled,” says Mr. DeRogatis, whose book “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly” comes out in June.

Robert Kelly, known by his stage name R. Kelly, pleaded not guilty, Mr. Adams disputes the Times’ claims, and Mr. Jackson’s estate is suing HBO.

Ms. Powers says that one reason why this sort of sexual misconduct has historically been difficult to expose is that, unlike Hollywood, the music industry isn’t a centralized entity. Its male-dominated silos – including record labels, the concert-tour sectors, and media promotion – often protect abusers by enforcing omertà.

“In a society in which people are uncomfortable talking about sex, music was a realm where we could experience sexuality,” she says of an industry where ”groupies” were regarded as job perks and female singers and musicians were encouraged to play up their sexuality to advance their careers. “Because of that there’s been a kind of permissiveness around the music-makers’ sexual lives that we are now having to reckon with.”

But in the age of internet distribution, record labels and music trade publications have lost market share to streaming services and new media. Once-powerful figures are now vulnerable. John Amato, CEO of the Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group (which includes Spin, Stereogum, and Vibe), resigned last year following a Daily Beast report that he’d quashed articles about alleged serial sexual harasser Charlie Walk, the now-former president of Republic Records.

“This is the first time that the men in the industry are truly maybe thinking that their actions have consequences,” says influential music publicist Judy Miller Silverman, proprietor of Motormouth Media.

Even so, she observes that several executives fired for sexual misbehavior, including L.A. Reid and Mr. Walk, are now working elsewhere in the music biz. Ms. Miller Silverman refuses to work with men with bad reputations, or the companies that employ them. “I definitely think that the industry, as the world has changed, thinks it’s changed. But it hasn’t changed, the real core of it.”

A 2018 survey of 1,227 US musicians bolsters Ms. Miller Silverman’s claim. The Music Industry Research Association (MIRA) and the Princeton University Survey Research Center found that 67 percent of female respondents claimed to be victims of sexual harassment. Seventy-two percent of female musicians reported that they’ve been subject to sexual discrimination.

But the women – one-third of musicians are women – aren’t resigned to a defeatist attitude. As Dua Lipa, winner of Best New Artist at 2019’s woman-dominated Grammys put it during her acceptance speech, women have “stepped up” as of late. The likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Janelle Monáe, Kacey Musgraves, Solange, and Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches regularly work to raise awareness of sexual harassment and sexism.

“They’re saying what a lot of women in other industries are saying: It’s been a boy’s game.... They’re not going to take it anymore,” says Sheila Weller, author of “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon.” “It was a long line to get to that point. It started with a generation of singer-songwriters that I wrote about.”

Many of those women musicians realize that social media platforms can be more powerful than Marshall amps cranked to 11. After the Adams scandal, Laura Burhenn of indie pop band Mynabirds used Instagram to trumpet My Secret Handshake, a project she’s co-created to make the music industry safer for women. Amber Coffman, Phoebe Bridgers, Julia Holter, and Lydia Loveless have used their online platforms to name their respective alleged abusers in the music scene.

This time feels different

As the constant drip of #MeToo revelations from Hollywood, sports, churches, and Wall Street begin to feel like a flood, a widespread mood of zero tolerance has taken root. Wary of public wrath, jittery businesses now quickly disassociate themselves from accused persons. That’s why, when it comes to Mr. Kelly and Mr. Jackson, this time feels different. Sony/RCA dropped Mr. Kelly from its roster in January. Radio stations have yanked Mr. Jackson’s songs from their playlists. Britain’s National Football museum has removed its statue of Mr. Jackson, and “The Simpsons” has said it will no longer air an episode in which the pop icon guest-voiced. Universal/Caroline Distribution scrapped the release of three upcoming Adams albums.

Mark Redfern, editor of Under the Radar music magazine, supports a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct. After robust debate and a staff vote, the magazine excised coverage of the bands Ducktails and Hookworms following widespread reports of sexual misconduct. Mr. Redfern vetted the allegations first. He offers a cautionary reminder of how Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, was dogged by claims of raping a woman in 2014. The accuser then publicly admitted that her claims were “100 percent false.”

Under the Radar has taken other steps, Mr. Redfern says, out of a genuine love of the music of the female artists it supports. That includes using more work by women freelance writers. “There’s no chance of them writing from the male gaze,” he says.

In addition, “we’ve tried not to over-sexualize female artists in photo shoots,” he says. “We just announced our new issue and we have Mitski on our front cover, who is Asian-American, and on our back cover we have boygenius, which is three female artists and two of them are gay.”

Changes behind the scenes

Kurt Cobain’s remark that “women are the only future in rock and roll” often seems prophetic. But in order to create a safer work environment, women in the industry say, long-term reforms are still necessary.

“The most important changes have to do with things happening behind the scenes,” says Ms. Powers. “More woman tour managers. More women behind the soundboard. More women engineers in the recording studio. More woman producers in the recording studio. These are the changes that really need to happen to truly make the industry equitable.”

There are more women writers covering music now than before – a stark contrast from when Ms. Powers started her career. It’s often easier, she says, for a female artist to confide in a female writer about sexism or harassment. After all, she may well have experienced similar misconduct herself.

One female music journalist, who wishes to remain anonymous, recalls how an indie-rock artist tried hitting on her by sending her direct messages on social media. She won’t tolerate unprofessional behavior even if it means losing a paying gig. She recalls interviewing a lead singer who kept trying to look down her shirt. “It was gross,” she says. “I threw money down on the table to cover both our coffees and walked out.”

As for the songwriter whose demo was held for sexual ransom? She warned her friends to stay clear of the rock star. “How do you think whispering networks start?” she says.

The songwriter wishes it were easier for women in her position to tell their stories. “The thing that needs to change is this attitude, ‘She should have known better.’ The person who should have known better was him.’ ”

The songwriter is about to release a new E.P. “I choose not to be a victim,” she says. “You know, flowers always grow from the dirt.”

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3. Two years after fatal fire, a push to rethink child protection

A 2017 fire at a children's home was one of Guatemala's deadliest disasters in 20 years. Setting the stage, advocates say, were deep-seated ideas about young people in need – ideas they're determined to change.

Peter
Morena Perez Joachin/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Vianney Hernández holds a photograph of her daughter Ashley, who died in the 2017 fire at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción children's home. Forty-one girls died in a small room they had been locked in as punishment for an attempted escape.

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We often say societies should be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable. But who is considered vulnerable in the first place? Two years after a fire at a children’s home in Guatemala killed 41 teen girls, many advocates say that the victims were viewed more as criminals than as young people in need.

The girls were killed after they were locked in a room as punishment for trying to escape the home, where many allegedly had been abused. The tragedy sparked an outcry but little change to Guatemala’s child-protection system, which still relies heavily on institutionalizing children even as many countries move away from group homes.

Today, as victims’ families and advocates push for justice, some say that means reforming how their country cares for troubled teens and abused children as well as the many children whose parents place them in homes simply because of poverty. “Our work won’t be over until we can transform public policy around children” to make them a priority, says activist Mayra Jiménez.

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Two years after fatal fire, a push to rethink child protection

Vianney Claret Hernández says she tried everything within her family’s means to help her daughter Ashley thrive. She built a sand-filled punching bag where Ashley could express her anger safely and applied for scholarships for a private school where staff might have more luck keeping her engaged.

On nights when Ashley disappeared from home, Ms. Hernández would jump into action, calling her daughter’s friends or showing up at their front doors.

Finally, when a judge ordered Ashley into a state-run home for youth, Ms. Hernández says she felt it was the right move.

“I had exhausted all of my resources, and I truly believed the state could offer Ashley the psychological support and [educational] training that I couldn’t,” she says.

But on March 8, 2017, one month after entering the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, 14-year-old Ashley and 55 other teen girls were trapped when an overcrowded room caught fire. They’d been put there as punishment after trying to escape the home, where many allegedly were abused physically and sexually. Forty-one died from the blaze, including Ashley.

Morena Perez Joachin/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Vianey Hernández's 14-year-old daughter perished in a blaze at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción on March 8, 2017, while police and officials stood outside the locked doors. The tattoo of her daughter's face is a reminder that she needs to fight for justice, she says.

Institution officials and police officers reportedly stood outside the locked door as its turquoise blue turned to charred black, undeterred by the girls’ screams for help. A criminal trial launched last month, but hearings have been largely shielded from the public and media, local journalists say.

“I saw this as a solution, as a place of hope for Ashley,” her mother recounts, eyes brimming as she strokes the arm where she’s tattooed a remembrance to her daughter. She and her husband, a construction worker, are raising their three other children in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. “But before [her death] and after, it was worse than negligence.”

The grisly blaze spurred an international outcry. But two years after the tragedy, the country’s child-protection system is largely unchanged. The estimated 600 minors held at the “safe home” were dispersed to other institutions. Attempts to boost funding and amend child-protection laws have lagged.

But small, dedicated groups are pushing to change how Guatemala treats minors. It’s the very lack of attention to deeper problems with institutionalization – from abuse and corruption to the poverty that channels many children into the system – that keeps them motivated, advocates say. As much of the world turns away from large group homes toward other solutions, they are determined to help Guatemala keep pace.

Morena Perez Joachin/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A memorial for the 41 girls who perished at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción in 2017 sits in the central plaza of Guatemala City's historic center. Each cross bears the name and age of one of the young victims.

“This was a clear sign of how unimportant children and adolescents are for [Guatemalan] society, and even more so the political class,” says Carolina Escobar, director of La Alianza, which runs a residential program for victims of sexual abuse and trafficking. “We don’t have a real protection system.”

The danger in ‘safe homes’

The Virgen de la Asunción safe home, located on the outskirts of the capital in San José Pinula, is near the top of a hill and surrounded by dense forest. Razor wire swirls across the perimeter of the tall, cinder block walls enclosing the complex where girls and boys from infants to teens were meant to be cared for, either mandated by court order or sent by their own families. 

The international trend in recent decades has been toward the deinstitutionalization of child protection, relying on alternatives like in-home therapy or foster families. Nearby Nicaragua, for example, has closed scores of homes over the past decade. Guatemala, on the other hand, opened the doors to Virgen de la Asunción, a “macro” institution, in 2010.

“Big institutions like these were very famous in Europe in the 19th century. We are two centuries behind,” says Ms. Escobar, noting that Asunción was meant to house 400 minors but ended up with 600 and 800 at a time. The ideal size of an institution, according to UNICEF, is 24 children. “We aren’t paying attention to the rest of the world, just responding to a very conservative society where children have no voice.”

Advocates say children aren’t prioritized for a long list of reasons, from corruption to stereotypes that view children in need as future gang members who don’t deserve investment. A 2006 academic report found that “the concept of a child as an individual with rights is not commonly accepted” in Guatemala.

Children in large group homes are often at greater risk than those in family settings, says Carlos Carrera, the country representative for UNICEF Guatemala. He rattles off statistics: For every three months that an infant is institutionalized, for example, the child loses up to one month of development. Minors in institutions are six times more likely to be victims of violence. 

Morena Perez Joachin/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The main entrance of the Virgen de la Asunción safe home, located on the outskirts of the capital in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala.

There are roughly 5,600 minors institutionalized in more than 130 state-run and privately run homes in Guatemala. The vast majority are run by churches, adding challenges in terms of oversight and regulation.

But a broader concern for Mr. Carrera and others is how quickly the system moves children to institutions. About 94 percent of institutionalized children have family who theoretically might be able to take them in. And at least one-third of residents are sent to institutions because of their family’s poverty. Nearly 50 percent of all children in Guatemala suffer from malnutrition.

“The solution to poverty can’t be to separate kids from their family. It’s a double punishment,” Mr. Carrera says. “The institutions reflect the lack of a social protection system that supports families in poverty or other dynamics like domestic violence.”

From criminalization to protection

Most of the teens killed at Virgen de la Asunción weren’t there for crimes but for their own protection, says Judge Juan Orlando Calderón, who had sent scores of minors there and to other homes. Although he did get complaints about the home, he says they weren’t nearly as serious as the accusations that have come out since the tragedy, like reports of sexual and physical assault. 

Last year he issued an unprecedented sentence ordering the Office of the Attorney General to formalize a lifelong pension requirement for all the survivors of the fire that could be applied to future cases of state wards being mistreated.

Since then he and his family have received death threats. Many Guatemalans have blamed the tragedy on the victims themselves, portraying them as hard to control, or their families. Some social commentary has gone so far as to claim the deaths were a good thing – 41 fewer criminals for Guatemala to deal with down the line.

“The biggest achievement to come out of this tragedy is helping society see this as a protection process for victims, not the criminalization of children,” Judge Calderon says.

Morena Perez Joachin/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Juan Orlando Calderon has sent many young girls and boys to homes, including Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción. In a landmark case last April, he ordered the government to pay lifelong pensions to all survivors of the fire, a ruling that could apply to future cases of negligence against minors by the state.

In the Ministry of Social Welfare, Angie Villalobos, who oversees foster-family programming, saw the fire as the moment to take action on “responsible deinstitutionalization.”

“There were about 15-25 foster families across the entire country,” Ms. Villalobos says. “There wasn’t a lot of interest or credibility in the program.”

The disaster was an impetus to build up the program – educating judges on the benefits of placing children in family settings instead of institutions and trying to recruit interested families.

“In a home for children, there may be food and clothes, but there’s little personal attention,” she says. Guatemala currently has 90 foster families, and Villalobos is traveling to far-flung states to work with local governments to recruit more. Most are interested in taking in infants and small children, assuming that the older children are dangerous.

“Deinstitutionalization is a long process, but I feel like we’re on the right path,” she says.

Mr. Carrera from UNICEF says the organization is working with the government to bolster other alternatives as well, such as a pilot program to bring therapy and other services directly into families’ homes.

‘One day we will see justice’

When Ms. Hernández saw news about the fire on TV, her first thought was that surely Ashley had escaped. “That was just her nature; she was a rebel,” she says. But she was still panicked, begging neighbors for money to travel to the home. Once she arrived, it was chaos: No official information was shared with families, and many parents and journalists were lying on their stomachs trying to peek under the black metal gate outside the home. Families started going to nearby hospitals – and the morgue – based on hope and instinct.

One group of four women, now known as Colectivo 8 Tijax, was moved by what they saw as government apathy. They began tracking the names of girls who were hospitalized, either in Guatemala or abroad, or declared dead and sharing that information with desperate families.

Morena Perez Joachin/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Mayra Jiménez (r.) is one of four women working as part of the Colectivo 8 Tijax, a citizen-run group that formed in the hours after the 2017 fire. "Our work won't be over until we can transform public policy around children – create minimum trainings and make children more of a national priority," she says.

They were at the morgue for 22 days. “We put out the first official list of dead,” says Maria Peña, one of the group’s members. She has spent years working with street children, many of whom she says escaped abuse in homes like Asunción. “Even the morgue was asking us for information…. We got calls from government officials asking us how to tell families that their daughters were dead.”

Since then, the collective has assisted families with their legal battles and continued investigating the home and circumstances around the blaze.

“We’re fighting to individualize these cases, make sure the government can’t just wash their hands of this and move on,” says Stef Arreaga, another member. Their discoveries included that Ashley may have been molested in the lead-up to the fire and that she died in the home, not a hospital as Ms. Hernández had been told.

“Our work won’t be over until we can transform public policy around children” to make them a priority, says member Mayra Jiménez. 

Ms. Hernández says justice is what she’s seeking.

“Justice will help me believe this tragedy won’t repeat itself,” she says, adding that “Ashley is with me.”

“The saddest thing in life is to lose a child. The government took away 41 of them.”

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4. Sign of hope or worry? When the dollar store comes to town

The economics of retail chains may seem inexorable. But communities are finding it can pay to put some limits on the trend and to nurture local alternatives.

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Burnell Cotlon stands by fresh produce in his grocery store, Burnell’s Lower 9th Ward Market, in New Orleans Jan. 29. Mr. Cotlon started his small business here after losing his home in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. He had been the only business in this part of town, which was leveled by flooding after a levee broke. His new competition comes in the form of a Dollar General down the street.

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At a Dollar Store near the Lower 9th Ward, Tony Jordan proudly displays a $5 coupon. “It’s true they are popping up all over the place,” he says. “The result is that it has become my hometown store.”

A boom in dollar stores across the United States, with three opening every day, has provided both hope and despair in communities struggling for economic footholds. Like Walmart before them, dollar stores can wreak havoc on Main Street. Community grocery stores have closed in droves after their arrival. They rarely provide fresh produce, in some cases exacerbating already barren food deserts ironically situated in the nation’s breadbasket.

In Conway Springs, Kansas, a Dollar General opened across the street from Hired Man’s Grocery and Grill. The grocery is holding its own with its in-house butcher and community outreach that ranges from helping soldiers to paying for Little League uniforms.

“In the end ... it’s not my place to tell the consumer where they need to spend their money,” says Jenny Osner, who co-owns the store with her husband. “But it’s also true that to make the world go around, you’ve got to support each other. And that’s what we do here.”

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Sign of hope or worry? When the dollar store comes to town

On a “mission to save my neighborhood,” Burnell Cotlon, an Army veteran, built his Lower 9th Ward Market literally by hand, shingle by shingle.

Today, his counter wall features cameo shots with Mark Zuckerberg. The launderette out back was donated by Ellen DeGeneres. There are shiny apples and $4.50 pork chop plates. His grocery store is seen as an oasis.

But Mr. Cotlon’s gambit to help revive a stagnant Lower 9th Ward faces a new challenge: the Dollar General down the street.

A boom in dollar stores across the United States since the Great Recession – three open every day on average – has provided both hope and despair in communities struggling for economic footholds.

Like Walmart before them, corporate dollar stores can also wreak havoc on Main Street. Community grocery stores, for one, have closed in droves after their arrival. They rarely provide fresh produce, in some cases exacerbating already barren food deserts ironically situated in the nation’s breadbasket.

“We need stores, but we need the right kind of stores: small, independently owned, community minded ones,” says Mr. Cotlon. “The Dollar General isn’t it.”

Ten years into the dollar store boom, the worry that dollar stores are less a support to poor communities than a symptom or even a cause of their distress has begun to take hold in small but significant ways from sprawling New Orleans to tiny Mesquite, Texas.

A big part of it is understanding the dynamics – from taxes to incentives to consumer demands – driving the shift, and the dollar stores’ big bet on what Tulsa city councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper calls a “permanent underclass.”

The dollar store disruption, in part, shows that “capitalism is not always fair,” says David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University in Manhattan. “Dollar stores are a way to prevent economic leakage [of sales taxes to larger communities]. But the fear is that when the local grocery store ends up closing it sends a broader signal: that folks are less likely to move to those communities because it appears that maybe the community is not that robust.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Shoppers enter a Dollar General store in the New Orleans East area Jan. 29. The city is studying whether dollar stores are detrimental to neighborhoods. One complaint is that they rarely sell fresh produce.

That pattern of decline has become a strategic map for the two major chains, Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which together have nearly 30,000 stores across the U.S. There are now more dollar stores than McDonald’s restaurants. The densest growth has been in the American rust and farm belts.

It comes at the crossroads of two trends. The first is a broader stagnation of upward mobility that plays to the dollar stores’ target audience. Forty-two percent of sales go to consumers who make less than $35,000 a year and are on some kind of government assistance. Meanwhile, larger retail trends have seen a gradual retreat of big-box store merchants, including Walmart, resulting in substantial unmet customer demand.

At a dollar store near the Lower 9th Ward, Tony Jordan proudly displays a $5 coupon he can redeem against already inexpensive laundry detergent. “It’s true they are popping up all over the place,” he says. “The result is that it has become my hometown store.”

“They send you back out happy,” says shopper Arnold Crabtree, who appreciates the loud greeting he receives from clerks upon entering.

Pocketbook dynamics in small towns

With such reviews, city officials in struggling towns and neighborhoods have begged the mini-box stores to come. Mr. Procter says some officials have, if not rued, wondered about the wisdom of that decision.

That happened in Haven, Kansas, where the council gave Dollar General a tax break on its utility bills to bring it to town. The local Foodliner grocery lost 30 percent of its business and ultimately closed. The town council of Buhler, 20 miles away, invited the Foodliner’s owner to speak just days after it went out of business, the Guardian reported. Buhler’s council unanimously voted not to allow Dollar General to open in their town.

“I see Dollar General as I see Walmart: This is not their first rodeo,” says former Haven mayor Mike Alfers, who was part of the vote that approved the Dollar General deal. “They simply do things better, and that has an impact on local businesses.”

Sales taxes to the town have gone up. But Mr. Alfers has watched with dismay as the pocketbook dynamics play out.

“When the local grocery store was open and Dollar General opened up, you could see the exodus – a lot of people’s loyalty, if you will, flowing from the old store to the Dollar General simply because of the prices and selection,” says Mr. Alfers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Burnell's Lower 9th Ward Market also boasts a barber shop, a sweet shop, and a laundromat donated by Ellen DeGeneres. A just released dollar store study by the city of New Orleans recommends subsidizing smaller grocery stores like Lower 9th Ward Market to ensure low-income neighborhoods have access to affordable and healthy food.

“So yes, it has involved change, and it really comes down to who you talk to, as far as if that change is good or bad.”

But if there is acceptance in Haven, other towns are finding ways to adjust – and push back. There also may be limits to dollar store growth. Dollar Tree, which also owns Family Dollar, is about to shutter 512 stores.

That decision comes as a growing number of areas, including Mesquite, Texas, and Mendocino County, California, have passed ordinances limiting the density of like-minded box stores. Pennsylvania has seen initiatives to help local grocery stores survive and even open.

A just released dollar store study by the city of New Orleans recommends subsidizing smaller grocery stores like Mr. Cotlon’s Lower 9th Ward Market in order to make sure low-income neighborhoods have access to affordable and healthy food.

And after passing a “dispersal ordinance” by a 5-to-4 margin, the Tulsa City Council ordered the city’s economic development arm to use part of a federal block grant to build a new grocery store in an area targeted by dollar stores.

That move came after massive protests and a yearslong effort by Ms. Hall-Harper, the city councilor from north Tulsa, to improve health outcomes and reverse the racial underpinnings of zoning that seemed to downplay the needs of minorities ahead of profits.

“As we’ve seen in this country through history, zoning can make or break a community,” says Ms. Hall-Harper. “And if it is done in a racist way and a method where profits are always placed over the benefits and needs of people, then you’re going to have a permanent underclass – a community disenfranchised and demoralized by its own government.”

‘Homegrown’ and holding their own

Another model has emerged in Conway Springs, Kansas. 

The town of about 1,300 saw Joe’s Grocery close in 2007. Then a local welder and his wife opened Hired Man’s Grocery & Grill in 2009. Their slogan was “homegrown.”

Two years ago, Dollar General opened a store right across the street, despite protests. Today, the chain matches about 50 percent of Hired Man’s inventory with mostly lower prices.

But so far, the little independent with an in-house butcher shop is holding its own.

“The fact is we have to work longer and harder to keep up with the competition across the street,” says Jenny Osner, who co-owns Hired Man’s with her husband, Clint. “We are staying open longer on the weekends. We’re doing sales to a smaller grocery store 20 miles from us. We have tried to capitalize on what we’re good at, and our meat department is for sure what we’re good at.”

They also send boxes to local soldiers serving overseas, pay for Little League uniforms, and attend spaghetti dinners – neighborly touches that dollar stores often don’t provide.

“In the end, it’s the consumer’s dollar, and it’s not my place to tell the consumer where they need to spend their money,” says Ms. Osner. “But it’s also true that to make the world go around, you’ve got to support each other. And that’s what we do here.”

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5. Problem with elephants? Call the beekeeper.

Recovery of species can come with unexpected challenges. In Uganda, rebounding elephants are trampling crops. Local farmers have found a surprising solution that keeps the beasts at bay and turns a bit of profit.

Peter

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Santo Okello had a 6,000-pound problem. Like many of his neighbors living near Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, Mr. Okello had seen his gardens repeatedly trampled by elephants. It was a problem that demanded creative intervention.

After years of failed attempts to keep the pachyderms at bay with chili peppers and electric fences, Mr. Okello and others have settled on an intriguing solution borrowed from farmers in neighboring Kenya: bees.

Elephants, it turns out, are scared of bees. Really, really scared. They fear being stung in the trunk, eyes, and mouth so intensely that they run away even from the recorded sound of bees. So today around Mr. Okello’s farm 60 swarming hives of bees form a kind of living fence.

Beekeeping is still a tough sell for many Ugandan farmers, as hives can be expensive and the care and maintenance is time consuming. But for Mr. Okello and about 250 other northern Ugandan farmers, all that work to attract and keep bees is well worth it. “If they join your [hives],” he says, “then you have an army that protects you.”

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Problem with elephants? Call the beekeeper.

Not long ago, Santo Okello’s sesame garden was under siege.

The intruders were familiar to him: four elephants, lumbering toward his crops at dusk in search of a tasty snack.  

Until a few years ago, a visit from the elephants, who live in the nearby Murchison Falls National Park, would have meant certain death for Mr. Okello’s carefully tended stalks, his main source of income.

But this time, the pachyderms had barely reached the garden’s perimeter when they abruptly turned and fled, stomping their feet and swinging their trunks as they retreated into the scrubland.  

They had been scared off by Mr. Okello’s unusual security system. 

Bees. Sixty buzzing, swarming hives of them, placed strategically around the outside of his farm like a kind of living fence. 

“In the past, I would have sucked it up and [started over] from scratch” growing a new sesame crop, he says. But now, “bees protect my garden.” 

Elephants began raiding farms and invading villages in this part of northern Uganda in the early 2000s, as communities displaced by decades of fighting between the government and a guerilla group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army returned to areas they had abandoned years before. There, they encountered herds of elephants who had been freely roaming the region, and who felt little remorse at helping themselves to the carefully tended fruits and vegetables grown by their new human neighbors. 

It was a problem that demanded creative intervention. When elephants raided farms, they destroyed livelihoods, hobbling communities already impoverished by the war. But when communities attacked the elephants in response, they threatened the ecological balance in northern Uganda, and also the country’s single largest source of foreign dollars: tourism. Visitors flocked to parks like Murchison Falls to see the gentle giants, whose population was on the rise thanks to reductions in poaching in the area.  

“Over the years, the number of animals, which has been on the increase, has led into the fight for resources with the also increasing human population,” says Bashir Hangi, a spokesperson for the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

A surprising solution

Over the years, government and frustrated local communities have tested a wide variety of solutions, from repelling elephants with the pungent smell of chili peppers to simply building electric fences that keep people on one side, and elephants on the other. 

In Nwoya, where Mr. Okello tends his sesame garden, farmers had tried to scare the elephants away with chilis, as well as other low-tech methods like banging together metal pots and setting small fires near their gardens. 

But these strategies “weren’t effective enough,” says John Bosco Okullu, a local leader. “They were also tiresome because one had to monitor their garden all the time” in order to keep the elephants at bay.

In 2009, Mr. Okullu was part of a group of farmers and local leaders chosen by the International Fund for Animal Welfare to travel to Tsavo East National Park in Kenya to study how communities there were using bees to protect their farms from elephants. 

They came back armed with a surprising new fact. Elephants are scared of bees. Really, really scared. They fear being stung in the trunk, eyes, and mouth so intensely that they run away even from the recorded sound of bees.

To protect a garden, the team learned to hang hives between two trees or sturdy poles, and then string together the hives with wire. Every time an elephant touched the wire, it shook the hives, alerting the bees of their visitor. In a study conducted by researchers in Kenya, these “hive fences” stopped about 80 percent of marauding elephants. 

But when Mr. Okullu’s group introduced the model they had studied in Kenya to local farmers in Uganda, they met with some resistance. The pesticides used locally, for instance, are toxic to bees, meaning that farmers with hive fences have to find other ways to protect their crops from hungry insects.

Hives can also be expensive. Local bee hives, made from palm tree stems or tree bark, cost between $4 and $8 each. That puts them out of the reach of many farmers in the area, who often live on $1 or less per day. 

And then, of course, there is the matter of the bees themselves. Managing bee hives is time-consuming. Many farmers spend an hour or more a day on maintenance, since hives have to be kept clear of termites, ants, and spiders, and the grasses nearby kept short to keep snakes at bay. And the bees themselves can be aggressive, particularly during the afternoon when they are hard at work producing honey.

‘An army that protects you’

Mr. Okello heard about the hive fences on the radio in 2013, when he was near his wits end searching for a solution to his elephant problem. He visited the Koch Goma Apiculture Development Association, a local umbrella body for farmers, who run two-month trainings for farmers interested in cultivating bee hives. 

In total, about 250 farmers in northern Uganda have been trained by Koch Goma in using bees to stop elephant attacks. And for most, the bees have also become an additional source of income, from honey they harvest from their hives. 

But the method has its limits too. The number of both elephants and people is on the rise here. In the 1970s and ‘80s, when poaching was at its height, Uganda had only about 700 wild elephants. Today, it has about 5,000, including 1,330 in Murchison Falls, near Nwoya, according to a 2014 aerial survey. Meanwhile, Uganda has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, according to United Nations data.

That continues to bring more and more contact between people and elephants – and more and more frustration as well. 

“[We] never begged for food in the past or went to work on other people’s farms as is the case today,” said Rwot David Onen Acana II in 2016. Now people “can’t even afford to support their children in schools or provide family needs since farming as a source of income has been affected by elephants,” explained the paramount chief of the Acholi, one of northern Uganda’s largest ethnic groups. “We are aware that it is against the law to kill those elephants, but [at least] if we are victimized and prosecuted, we will have saved ourselves from hunger.”

The Wildlife Authority says such communities should consider digging trenches to give extra protection to their gardens, adding that the government is planning to erect more electric fences in areas prone to elephant raids.

Meanwhile, a bill that has been winding its way through Parliament since 2017 to compensate farmers for crop damage caused by wild animals passed earlier this month. It is now awaiting the signature of President Yoweri Museveni. 

But for now, people like Mr. Okello rely mostly on their bees. 

On a recent morning, he fed strands of chopped lemon grass into one of his hives – a scent known to attract bees. Nearby, a small swarm of bees buzzed past. Mr. Okello looked up, hopeful that they would stop.  

“If they join your [hives],” he says, “then you have an army that protects you.”

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The Monitor's View

To end an Ebola epidemic, listening helps

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Health workers in Congo have been battling an Ebola epidemic in which hundreds have died. Compared with a massive outbreak of the virus five years ago in western Africa, responders this time have better medical tools and a more coordinated approach. Yet many are struggling to adopt a key lesson from the previous crisis: Before doing anything, address the fears of vulnerable communities.

In parts of Congo, response now starts with volunteers going into villages and welcoming people to talk about their concerns, their knowledge of Ebola, and their preferences in dealing with it. These “social mobilizers” try to connect with religious and community leaders to understand cultural traditions and spread useful messages. It can be difficult because of decadeslong conflict in the east and the presence of some 100 armed groups.

But calls for more “social mobilization” need to be heeded. Fear of diseases like Ebola can be contained by building up trust and by listening to local people. Compassion can be a balm for anxiety. It can also open a door for cooperation to end an epidemic.

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To end an Ebola epidemic, listening helps

For eight months, health workers in Congo have been battling the second-worst Ebola epidemic in history. Nearly 600 people have died. Compared with a massive outbreak of the virus five years ago in western Africa, this time responders in the Central African country have much better medical tools. They are far more coordinated.

Yet many are struggling to adopt a key lesson from the previous crisis: Before doing anything, listen to and address the fears of vulnerable communities.

During the 2014-16 epidemic, acute panic as well as high suspicion of officials hindered the response. The crisis claimed more than 11,000 lives. Now in many parts of Congo, the response starts with volunteers going into villages and welcoming people to talk about their concerns, their knowledge of Ebola, and their preferences in dealing with it.

These “social mobilizers” also try to connect with religious and community leaders to understand cultural traditions and spread useful messages.

In the previous crisis, one nonprofit group in Sierra Leone called Focus 1000 was particularly effective by working with local preachers. Sermons were prepared that included both practical information and messages of love to quell the fears of congregations. The effort helped lessen the stigma associated with Ebola, allowing better access for health workers.

Adopting a similar approach in Congo has been difficult in part because of decadeslong conflict in the east and the presence of some 100 armed groups. In recent months, dozens of health centers have been attacked. But in addition, responders have focused mainly on medical solutions, bringing some criticism.

“Building community acceptance and securing trust has not been given the same weight as treatment, and we are continuing to see the consequences – suspicion abounds and case numbers rise,” says Jean-Philippe Marcoux, country director for the Mercy Corps charity in Congo. “The only way around it is to establish dialogue, which takes time, resources, and with the right people that [communities] can trust.”

Such calls for more “social mobilization” need to be heeded. Fear of diseases like Ebola can be contained by building up trust and by listening to local people. Compassion can be a balm for anxiety. It can also open a door for cooperation to end an epidemic.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

No more hanging in the balance

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It’s International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is #BalanceforBetter. Here’s a poem that speaks to the “heart-written … inviolable being” of all God’s children, both woman and man, that “is moving us forward, keeping the balance for all time.”

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No more hanging in the balance

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Inspired by a Bible account of a woman referred to as a sinner washing Jesus’ feet (see Luke 7:37-50).

Down so low, wordless
yearning pulls her to him.
Perhaps the notion “I must rise”
nudges softly even as
she bends her head
over his feet in a released
humility – washing his feet with
urgent tears, drying them
with her hair in a love
flowing out for its own sake,
as the din of criticism, opinions,
judges, and victims
mutes.

Maybe emerging is a steady
inner gleam that she is safe,
stunningly, unalterably,
washed clean by Christ –
God’s pure living love for all, an
outpouring of good that heals.
I imagine welling up deep within
her a grace, a consecration
so poised to give, a genuineness,
such a natural trustfulness that it could
only be God-given,
Truth-anchored, Spirit-impelled.

On her feet now, upright in
this spring-fresh dignity
for herself and all she sees,
the din is quenched,
self-pity lifts,
condemnation is muzzled.
This heart-written, Spirit-breathing
spiritual manhood and womanhood,
inseparable, the inviolable being
of each woman, each man –
blessed children of God –
is moving us forward,
keeping the balance
for all time.

“I will gain a balance on the side of good, my true being. This alone gives me the forces of God wherewith to overcome all error.”
Mary Baker Eddy, “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 104

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Viewfinder

A two-wheeled triumph

Fredrika Ek
Fredrika Ek sits overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the Western Sahara in October 2017. On March 8, 2015, she set out from Sundsvall, Sweden, “in search of epic natural experiences and the physical and mental challenge of a lifetime.” She spent 1,042 days covering 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles), and a look at her photos (click on the blue button below) makes plain that she met her expectation. Riding through 45 countries in nearly three years, she also discovered “life changing meetings and deeply humbling experiences with people along the way.”
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( March 11th, 2019 )

Come back on Monday. We’ll tell you about signs that political centrism is stirring again in some surprising places, including the U.S.

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