West Papua, Indonesia

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The carcasses of hundreds of crocodiles from a breeding farm, killed by angry local residents after a fatal crocodile attack on a man in the city of Sorong.

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The hidden scandal of US child marriage

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Sherry Johnson was 11 when her mother told her she was going to get married. The bridegroom was nine years older and a deacon in the strict apostolic church that her family attended. He was also the man who had raped her and made her pregnant. “They forced me to marry him to cover up the scandal,” Johnson says. “Instead of putting the handcuffs on him and sending him to prison, they put the handcuffs on me and imprisoned me in a marriage.”

Johnson is now 58, but child marriage is not a thing of the past in the US: almost 250,000 children were married there between 2000 and 2010, some of them as young as 10. “Almost all were girls married to adult men,” says Fraidy Reiss, the director of campaigning organisation Unchained at Last.

In most US states, the minimum age for marriage is 18. However, in every state exceptions to this rule are possible, the most common being when parents approve and a judge gives their consent. In 25 states, there is no minimum marriage age when such an exception is made. But now Johnson’s home state, Florida, is poised to pass a law that sets the minimum marriage age at 18 with very few exceptions – thanks largely to her campaigning.

In 2013, Johnson was working at a barbecue stand in Tallahassee when she told her story to a senator who was one of her regular customers. “She listened to me and decided to do something,” Johnson recalls. “She presented a bill to restrict child marriage in 2014, but it failed. That was because nobody understood the problem at the time.

“People thought: this can’t happen in Florida. The minimum marriage age is 18; what’s the problem? But they didn’t know about the loopholes. Between 2001 and 2015, 16,000 children were married in Florida alone. A 40-year-old man can legally marry a five-year-old girl here.”

Johnson, whose own child-marriage took place in 1971, didn’t give up. She contacted numerous Floridian politicians, told them her story and explained the problem. “It was part of my healing process to tell my story,” she says. Actually, she adds, “I don’t like to use the word story because it ain’t a story. It’s the truth – I lived it.”

Apart from Florida, there are five states in the process of passing laws to end child marriage. It has been a tough battle, says Reiss, whose organisation has been campaigning for laws to be changed all over the country for three years.

“When I began, I thought it would be easy. I thought we would just explain the problem and legislators would jump up and change the law immediately. After all, the US state department considers child marriage a human rights abuse. But everywhere there are politicians who think it’s a bad idea to change the law. You wouldn’t believe how many legislators have told me that if a girl gets pregnant, she’s got to get married. One female Democrat politician asked me: ‘Won’t you increase abortion rates if you end child marriage?’ That left me speechless.”

Last year, 17-year-old Girl Scout Cassandra Levesque campaigned to change the New Hampshire law that allows girls as young as 13 to get married if their parents approve. “My local representative introduced a bill that raised the minimum age to 18. But a couple of male representatives persuaded the others to kill the bill and to prevent it from being discussed again for some years,” she says. “One of them said that a 17-year-old Girl Scout couldn’t have a say in these matters.”

“So they think she’s old enough for marriage, but not old enough to talk about it, says Reiss. “I think that reasoning is terrifying.”

She goes on to outline the harmful effects of child marriage. “Girls who get married before 18 have a significantly higher risk of heart attacks, cancer, diabetes and strokes and a higher risk of psychiatric disorders. They are 50% more likely to drop out of high school and run a higher risk of living in poverty. They are also three times more likely to become victims of domestic violence. Really, child marriage helps no one. The only people who benefit are paedophiles.”

Reiss, who was born in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, and was herself coerced into marrying when she was 19, says it is “extremely ironic” that laws make exceptions when parents consent to a child marriage or when an underage girl is pregnant. “Because, in many cases, the pregnancy is the result of sexual abuse and the parents are forcing the girl to marry to prevent a scandal. So the law doesn’t protect the child at all. When an adult man has sex with an underage girl, this is considered statutory rape in many states. But when the perpetrator marries his victim, he can legally go on abusing her.”

Many child brides come from religious backgrounds and less privileged groups – but not all. Donna Pollard, 34, grew up in a white, middle-class, non-religious family in a town called London in Kentucky, and yet she was married when she was 16. The man was nearly 15 years older. “I met him when I was 14 and going through a difficult time. My father had recently deceased,” she recounts. “He was my mental health counsellor and he acted like I could trust him. He convinced me that we were in love and he said: ‘If we get married when you turn 16, you will have all this freedom and your mum won’t be able to control you any more.’ So I thought I was taking charge of my life by agreeing to this.”

Her mother had no problems with her daughter getting married at 16 and readily gave her permission. “She was glad to get rid of me.”

Pollard remembers feeling very uncomfortable during the marriage ceremony. “The clerk didn’t even look up at me from her computer. She only asked: ‘Which one’s the minor?’ She didn’t assess if I was safe or needed something. He was 30 years old at the time, but nobody questioned the fact that he was so much older. That void of emotion hit me like a freight train. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t feel empowered to speak up and say: ‘I don’t know that I really want to go through with this.’ Nor did I trust my own judgment. I was a troubled teenager.”

Once married, she left school and started working at a grocery store for a minimum wage, soon becoming the breadwinner because her husband stopped working. “He became physically abusive. He was controlling everything I did. In many ways, child marriage and human trafficking are interchangeable terms.”

Pollard left her husband when she was 19 after he tried to choke her in the presence of their baby daughter. “I realised she would grow up normalising violence if I didn’t leave. That’s what gave me the courage.” Looking back, she says that marrying young disrupted her personal development. “I was very good at school. I even received a substantial scholarship for writing achievement. I could have studied creative writing with a grant.”

Johnson says that “marriage put a definite end to my childhood. I was expelled from school and by the age of 17 I had six children. There was no way I could escape. You are not allowed to sign legal documents when you are under 18, so I couldn’t file for a divorce. For seven years, I was stuck with the man who damaged me and continued to do so.

“Child marriage delayed my life. I was never able to attain an education. I am still struggling, trying to survive. Working three jobs as a healthcare provider to make ends meet. And then there’s the pain, the trauma that you have to deal with.”

“We see the number of child marriages going down now, but it’s not going fast enough,” says Reiss. “It’s so difficult to help child brides escape. Our organisation risks being charged with kidnapping because they are under 18. This has already happened to us once. Also, there are very few shelters in the US that accept girls younger than 18. So when girls call us, we have to tell them the help we can provide is very limited. Most of the children who reach out to us for help have tried to kill themselves because they would rather be dead than forced into a marriage. That keeps me awake at night. Something has to change.”

On 31 January, Johnson sat in the public gallery while the Florida senate unanimously passed the bill that will end child marriage in the state (although the bill was subsequently amended to allow pregnant 16- and 17-year-old girls to marry). Several senators talked about her story and thanked her for pushing for the bill. Afterwards, she said that the senate vote helped to heal the pain. “I smile from within to know that children will not have to face what I have been through.”

Stone tools found in China

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The remains of crudely fashioned stone tools unearthed in China suggest human ancestors were in Asia 2.1m years ago, more than 200,000 years earlier than previously thought, scientists said.

If correctly dated, the find means that hominins – the group of humans and our extinct forefather species – left Africa earlier than archaeologists have been able to demonstrate thus far, a team reported in the scientific journal Nature.

“Our discovery means that it is necessary now to reconsider the timing of when early humans left Africa,” said study co-author Robin Dennell of Exeter University in England.

Hominins are believed to have emerged in Africa more than 6m years ago. They left the continent in several migration waves starting about 2m years ago.

The first migrants were likely members of the species Homo erectus (upright man) or Homo ergaster (working man) – extinct predecessors of our own group, Homo sapiens (wise man), which first emerged about 300,000 years ago.

The oldest known African fossil attributed to a member of the Homo family is a 2.8m-year-old jawbone from Ethiopia.

Previously, the oldest evidence for hominins in Asia came from Georgia in the form of fossilised skeleton bits and artefacts dated to between 1.77m and 1.85m years ago.

There have been other, unproven, claims of even older fossil discoveries, the study authors said.

The latest find of 96 stone tools, was extracted from 17 layers of sediment in the southern Chinese Loess plateau.

Dennell and a team used a field of science known as “palaeomagnetism” to date the sediment layers. These form when dust or mud settles before being capped by another new soil coat. Any artefact found within a layer would be the same age as the soil around it.

Dennell and a team measured the magnetic properties of minerals in the soil layers to determine when they were deposited.

This dated the tools, of a type known to have been manufactured by Homo species in Africa since at least 3.3m years ago.

The paper offers strong evidence for a hominin presence in Asia further back than we thought, Dennell said.

“There may be older evidence in places like India and Pakistan, but so far … the evidence is not strong enough to convince most of the research community,” he said. “With this type of claim, for an early human presence in a region, the evidence has to be absolutely watertight and bombproof.”

No single birthplace of mankind

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The origins of our species have long been traced to east Africa, where the world’s oldest undisputed Homo sapiens fossils were discovered. About 300,000 years ago, the story went, a group of primitive humans there underwent a series of genetic and cultural shifts that set them on a unique evolutionary path that resulted in everyone alive today.

However, a team of prominent scientists is now calling for a rewriting of this traditional narrative, based on a comprehensive survey of fossil, archaeological and genetic evidence. Instead, the international team argue, the distinctive features that make us human emerged mosaic-like across different populations spanning the entire African continent. Only after tens or hundreds of thousands of years of interbreeding and cultural exchange between these semi-isolated groups, did the fully fledged modern human come into being.

Dr Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist at Oxford University, who led the international research, said: “This single origin, single population view has stuck in people’s mind … but the way we’ve been thinking about it is too simplistic.”

This continental-wide view would help reconcile contradictory interpretations of early Homo sapiens fossils varying greatly in shape, scattered from South Africa (Florisbad) to Ethiopia (Omo Kibish) to Morocco (Jebel Irhoud).

The telltale characteristics of a modern human – globular brain case, a chin, a more delicate brow and a small face – seem to first appear in different places at different times. Previously, this has either been explained as evidence of a single, large population trekking around the continent en masse or by dismissing certain fossils as side-branches of the modern human lineage that just happened to have developed certain anatomical similarities.

The latest analysis suggests that this patchwork emergence of human traits can be explained by the existence of multiple populations that were periodically separated for millennia by rivers, deserts, forests and mountains before coming into contact again due to shifts in the climate. “These barriers created migration and contact opportunities for groups that may previously have been separated, and later fluctuation might have meant populations that mixed for a short while became isolated again,” said Scerri.

The trend towards more sophisticated stone tools, jewellery and cooking implements also supports the theory, according to the paper in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Scerri assembled a multidisciplinary group to examine the archaeological, fossil, genetic and climate data together, with the aim of eliminating biases and assumptions. Previously, she said, scientific objectivity had been clouded by fierce competition between research groups each wanting their own discoveries to be given a prominent place on a linear evolutionary ladder leading to the present day. Disputes between rival teams working in South Africa and east Africa had become entrenched, she said.

“Someone finds a skull somewhere and that’s the source of humanity. Someone finds some tools somewhere, that’s the source of humanity,” she said, describing the latest approach as: “‘Let’s be inclusive and construct a model based on all the data we have available.”

The analysis also paints a picture of humans as a far more diverse collection of species and sub-populations than exists today. Between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago, our own ancestors lived alongside a primitive human species called Homo naledi, found in southern Africa, a larger brained species called Homo heidelbergensis in central Africa and perhaps myriad other humans yet to be discovered.

Queensland girls allowed to wear shorts or pants

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Queensland schoolgirls will have the choice to wear shorts or pants at state schools from next year following an overhaul of uniform policy.

State education minister Grace Grace announced changes to the student dress code on Sunday following a review which found 40% of government schools in Queensland required girls to wear dresses.

“We know around 60% of state schools are already offering these uniform options for girls, but we found that some schools had not updated their student dress codes in many years,” Grace said.

“All Queensland girls should be able to engage in active play and classroom activities or ride their bikes to and from school without being restricted by what they’re wearing.

“At the beginning of the year, I heard loud and clear from students, parents and carers that it was time for a change to reflect community expectations.

“I asked the department to update the uniform policy to ensure we have 100% of state schools offering the full range of options, including pants and shorts for girls.”

The change to the state’s dress code rules follow similar changes in Western Australia and Victoria last year. In New South Wales individual schools are responsible for setting uniform policy.

Research on girls’ activity levels and school uniforms has shown they did less physical activity and play at school when wearing a dress or skirt.

A 2012 study by the University of Wollongong found girls deliberately sat out lunchtime games because they were worried about their skirts flying up.

The executive principal of Stretton state college Jan Maresca has already introduced changes to the school’s uniform policy to include greater choice for girls.

“Following consultation with our whole school community, we found that around half of our primary school girls did not want to wear a skirt to school,” Ms Maresca said.

“We listened to our girls and made changes so they can be comfortable in their uniforms.

“Come into our school now and you’ll see girls kicking a football, playing handball, lying under tree reading a book and hanging from monkey bars unrestricted.

“The changes to our dress code have been fully supported by our school community and the girls themselves were heavily involved in the process.”

Nearly million people providing care for family members

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The number of people caring for a family member has reached 7.6 million, a sharp increase of one million compared with a decade ago.

Data analysis by the Social Market Foundation, an independent thinktank, shows that millions are now giving up their time to for free to look after elderly relatives, a partner or a sick or disabled child – with the number spending 20 hours or more caring for a relative up by 4% between 2005 and 2015.

But charities have warned that carers are losing out in terms of work, finances and health. They are calling on the government to urgently invest in the care system rather than relying on good-hearted individuals to prop it up.

“The care system requires a big injection of funding … it would be dangerously complacent for policymakers to assume there is an infinite supply of wonderful people able and willing to provide informal care for their loved ones,” said Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.

The thinktank analysis, sponsored by Age UK, comes as ministers prepare to publish a green paper on social care. The government originally promised the green paper before last year’s general election, but then said it would be unveiled before MPs’ summer recess – although there were hopes it would appear much sooner.

The Social Market Foundation report also found that family carers provide 149m hours of care each week, equal to the work of 4 million full-time caregivers.

Other findings include the fact that more than half (59%) of those providing care for an elderly relative are women. Of those providing care to a sick or disabled child, 65% are women.

“More women with professional and managerial jobs are trying to combine work with family care. We know that carers are often driven to reduce their hours or leave work altogether, and without proper support for these carers, there is a risk that women are increasingly driven out of professional careers, reversing recent progress towards equality in the workforce,” said Kathryn Petrie, Social Market Foundation economist.

The report highlighted how caring can affect earning, with women aged 40-64 who are non-carers making a median £1,500 a month, £50 a month more than carers, who earn a median £1,450.

Caring has bigger impact on male earnings, the report finds, because they are more likely to be working full-time and earning more before taking up their caring duties than women.

The report makes number of recommendations for the social care green paper including the suggestion that employees should record the number of their staff who have caring responsibilities.

Big employers should also be required to publish policies for supporting workers who care, the report said. It noted that surveys suggest only 40% of large employers have policies setting out how managers should support carers.

The research was conducted using the British Household Panel Survey and the more recent Understanding Society study, with most of the analysis based upon data collected between 2015 and 2017.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We recognise the invaluable contribution that carers make … but this should not be at the expense of their own health and happiness … the forthcoming social care green paper will … look at long-term sustainable solutions for the social care system.”