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Mayor of Riace Domenico Lucano (2nd from right) on June 24

After Mayor Is Arrested, Italy’s “Refugee Town” Fights Back

Nemesis of Italy's anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Mayor Domenico Lucano of Riace was placed under house arrest for his pro-refugee policies.

RIACE — On October 14, 2016, Riace Mayor Domenico "Mimmo" Lucano took to the stage at the Rendano theater in the city of Cosenza. He was there to accept a prize from a local foundation, awarded for his policy of welcoming migrants and refugees to revitalize his small southern Italian town.

Thrilled by the size of the crowd that had gathered to hear him speak, Lucano thanked those in attendance for recognizing his work. "I don't know if I deserve it," he said. "Maybe, one of these days, they'll arrest me."

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Time for stronger female presence in STEM fields

Simply Into Science: How To Tear Down STEM's Gender Wall

One study says it will take at least 100 years to bridge the global gender gap. And 217 years to close the pay gap. But we can do something now.

"Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius' — George Sand

PARIS — Five hundred pounds sterling a year and a room of her own. According to Virginia Woolf, that's all a woman needed in order to write, and to realize her potential in a world dominated by men. In other words, a woman's intellectual freedom depends on her economic independence, and her creativity depends on her intellectual freedom. Privacy is the necessary condition for her individuality and an equilibrium between her personal life and her work. Simple, yes, but not easy.

It was 1928 when Woolf described this formula during one of her lectures at the women-only colleges of Cambridge. That was the same year that voting rights were granted to all British women, yet it took another 19 years for Cambridge to recognize the equality of the degrees it awarded to men and women. What Nelson Mandela later deemed the most powerful weapon for those seeking to change the world — access to education — was now irreversibly extended to women.

If we look at the numbers, education is the field where progress towards gender equality has been the most impressive. Young women entering the labor market today are more educated than their male counterparts, making up 57% of all college graduates in the developed nations of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Women perform better academically, study more, and finish their studies in greater numbers than men do. We could naturally deduce that this dynamic would be pervasive in life after college, but it isn't. After graduation begins a process that disperses the talents and skills of women, and it grows worse at every stage of life.

Here are some statistics: Only 59% of Italian women with college degrees find a job after graduation, compared to 65% of men. The gap widens with the passage of time, and women find it harder to pursue the same career opportunities available to men. Women earn less money than men who hold the same positions and possess the same qualifications. Women rarely become managers or CEOs: Only 27% of managers in Italy are women, compared to 29% in Germany and 32% in France.

The mysterious relationship between life and science lends itself to a seductive need for discovery.

There is a growing loss of talented women at every rung of the career ladder, and the path to gender equality is an uphill climb. The World Economic Forum estimates that it will take at least 100 years to bridge the global gender gap at the current pace of progress — and a whopping 217 years to close the pay gap.

Being a part of this half of the world and feeling the accumulated weight of social and historic conditions makes one more aware of the forces holding women back. Despite the slow rate of progress achieved so far, the growth of the critical mass of college-educated women represents a powerful impulse towards change.

A reminder of both the limits and possibilities came Tuesday, with the announcement that one of the three researchers chosen for the Nobel Prize in Physics was Canada's Donna Strickland, the first woman to win the prize in 55 years.

This dynamic could be given a further push if women had a stronger presence in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This would give rise to a profound and irreversible revolution, a pervasive and enduring change that would subvert the current equilibrium and allow women to definitively stake their claim in the places where we imagine and construct our collective future.

Two centuries ago, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the first science fiction novel the world had ever seen. Dr. Frankenstein challenged nature with his dangerous activities, eventually losing control of the horrible creature he created. Shelley was just 18 when she wrote that book, driven by her deep interest in all things scientific. Even with its inherent dangers, the mysterious relationship between life and science, between humanity and technology, lends itself to a seductive need for discovery.

So why are there so few women today who choose to study science and technology? It's certainly not due to an intrinsic lack of capacity. A study recently published in Nature magazine revealed there was no gender disparity in quantitative and mathematical ability in children aged between six months and 8 years. The differences begin to emerge later, primarily due to social and cultural factors.

While boys and girls generally achieve the same scores in science and math, it's the former that tend to dream of becoming scientists, engineers, or IT professionals. Women make up only 39% of STEM graduates in OECD countries, representing a minority of physics and engineering students. Even fewer women — just 7% of all STEM students — study information technology and communications.

There is hope outside Europe: In India, the number of women with IT degrees has risen to match that of their male counterparts. Indonesia is not far behind.

Women at work in a lab at Akanksha Hospital & Research Centre in Gujarat, India — Photo: Subhash Sharma

Of course, the career prospects for a woman with a STEM degree aren't encouraging, to say the least. There are a number of invisible barriers that are difficult to overcome: Only 17% of scientists earning over 80,000 euros ($92,600) a year are women. Women are listed as the primary authors in just over a fifth of scientific research articles. Only 20% of peer reviewers are women, and that number falls to 15% in editorial boards where the reviewers are paid.

Things seem better in the digital world, where the competence of women is valued and amplified. While women earn less than men with the same qualifications in almost every other sector of the economy, women in the male-dominated IT and digital professions actually earn more than their male colleagues.

This trajectory begins to diverge around age 15

Rational considerations, like asking what kind of life she wants in the future, play an important role in determining a woman's decision to study a particular subject. This trajectory begins to diverge between boys and girls around age 15. According to an OECD report, there are essentially two factors that influence this decision: the student's self-appraisal of their own abilities and chances of success, and their attitude towards science and scientific professions. A young person's self-confidence and perception of their own identity are shaped by the social context in which they live.

Stereotypes about women and their perceived inability to succeed in STEM fields have played an important role in discouraging young women to study these disciplines, leading to a loss of the very talent that industrialized countries need to build a sustainable economic future.

We should ask ourselves if this has created a vicious cycle, where girls are conditioned against technical and scientific degrees despite their academic excellence because they're told that engineering is dry, that physics is difficult, and that IT is boring.

Automation is transforming our society, and this will most probably influence the way we teach. There are ever fewer tasks that robots cannot perform, and the future of the labor market will depend on other abilities that cannot be automated. The future rests with people who can combine their technical proficiency with strong interpersonal skills, creativity, and interdisciplinary thought.

As some countries have already realized, the education of future generations will have to take this new world into account. These students will have to become "Renaissance" men and women who can transcend humanism and science.

The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz once asked, "why is there something rather than nothing?" He added that nothing is simpler and easier than something. It is our capacity to ask questions that makes us human: our unavoidable desire for knowledge, to grasp what escapes and transcends us in this vast and cold universe where we are little more than an instant in time. Pursuing studies in STEM is an opportunity for an extraordinary intellectual experience and the sensation of pushing our minds to go where we have never been. It's the wonder of discovery and the excitement of the impossible becoming real.

Science needs more women. Women will be empowered through science, and science will make it possible to pass the point of no return in the quest for gender equality. Occam's razor, a bedrock of scientific thought, is the principle that the simplest solution is also the right one. A future founded on the premise of greater equality and inclusion is definitely the right solution. It's also deceptively simple.

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Abandoned factory in Crotone, Italy

Women Need Not Apply: Why Italian Crisis Hits Female Unemployment First

Located in one of southern Italy's poorest regions, once thriving  Crotone has the worst youth unemployment rate for women in the entire country: 90%.

CROTONE - Vittoria Messina managed at one point to find two jobs. But not enough to provide any financial security. Not in Crotone, at any rate, where nine in ten young women are unemployed.

Messina had positions both at a call center and at a hotel, but ended up losing both. She now faces an uphill battle to find employment — even if she chooses to leave Crotone.

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Matera, Basilicata.

Can Tourism Save Southern Italy From A Demographic Crisis?

CASTELMEZZANO — Basilicata is facing a bona fide demographic crisis. The small region, located between the boot and heel of southern Italy, is home to roughly 570,000 people. But due to a low birthrate and high rates of unemployment and emigration, it loses approximately 3,000 inhabitants every year.

By 2065, according to a report by SVIMEZ, an economic think tank that focuses on southern Italy, Basilicata's population is projected to drop below 400,000. The situation is even starker at the local level. Over a fifth of the region's municipalities are home to fewer than 1,000 people and could become entirely empty within a couple of decades.

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The inside of the Kings Roman Casino in Tonpheung, Laos

At Thailand-Laos Border, A Shadow Economy Thrives

In northwestern Laos, Chinese businesses dominate the Ton Pheung district, a special economic zone that has become a hub for all kinds of trafficking.

TON PHEUNG — A silhouette of the casino's golden domes and gaudy crown appears in the distance, standing out like a sore thumb against the landscape of lush tropical hills in this northwestern corner of Laos. The Ton Pheung district is part of a special economic zone (SEZ) — deep in Southeast Asia's drug-producing Golden Triangle — and the enormous Kings Roman Casino is its beating heart.

Just across the Mekong river from Thailand, Ton Pheung is just a stone's throw from where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet. To the northeast is the border with China, and Chinese citizens have come to dominate and the surrounding province of Bokeo.

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In El Hamma, Tunisia

For A Tunisian City, The Mediterranean Offers Hope And Death

In the southern city of El Hamma, young Tunisians attempt to emigrate all the time for a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. One recent tragedy left dozens dead.

EL HAMMA — Departing in mass from this small southern city, 74 young, unemployed Tunisians left in search of a brighter future in Europe. On June 3, 44 of them died in the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Sitting on a plastic chair outside his house in El Hamma, Ben Farah Adouni confirms that his son Tarek died that day. "They should've at least organized a state funeral. But for the Tunisian government, our sons are worthless whether they're dead or alive."

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Anti Brexit protestors gather in Rome

In Italy, 'Muslim Village' Plans Run Counter To Populist Tide

A marginalized Muslim community wants to convert an old slaughterhouse into a multi-purpose housing and events space. But don't call it a mosque.

VEGGIA — The facility won't include a mosque. In fact, there's no plans to turn it into a place of worship at all. But that hasn't stopped opponents from protesting the project — planned by members of a local Muslim community in the small, northern Italian city of Sassuolo — with banners and severed pig heads.

What the community does want is to convert a former slaughterhouse, in the nearby hamlet of Veggia, into a kind of "village" — a multifunctional, Muslim-run center that would be open, nevertheless, to people of all faiths and backgrounds. Among other things, the 2,000-square-meter facility would include an auditorium, a theater, a gym, and several laboratories and classrooms for educational events.

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Ports of Oran, Algeria

Algeria Cocaine Bust Reveals New Global Hub In Narcotics Network

Authorities seized 701 kilograms of cocaine on a ship in the port of Oran. The record haul points to a growing network linking South America to Europe via Algeria.

ORAN — On May 29th, Algerian authorities discovered 701 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside a meat container on a merchant ship in the port of Oran. The bust was one of the largest operations in Algerian history, leading to a police investigation that has identified Kamel Chikhi, an influential Algiers real estate mogul, as the ringleader of a drug trafficking network that distributes cocaine from Brazil to Spain by way of the ports on Algeria"s long Mediterranean coastline.

According to Algiers-based daily El Watan, drug traffickers in Algeria have a long history of using their political connections to evade arrest and expand their operations. Several powerful criminals — including Ahmed Yousfi Saïd "the emigrant" and Ahmed Zendjabil, aka "the Pablo Escobar of Oran" — dominated the drug trade in the 1990s and 2000s, acting with impunity thanks to their notable ties to the country's political elites.

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An Afghan refugee near the Serbian-Croatian border in Sid, Serbia on February 11

A New Calais? Migrant 'Jungle' Forms On Serbia-Croatia Border

Migrants have begun to live in an informal camp 70 miles from Belgrade, hoping to start a new life westward in Europe.

ŠID — After the Serbian government shut down an official migrant center in this town on the Croatian border, an informal camp arose next to the train station. Locals were quick to start calling it "the Jungle," a reference to the sprawling makeshift camp in Calais, France that had long been a decrepit home to thousands of migrants seeking to cross the English Channel.

More than 100 people have been stuck here since the border was closed in the autumn of 2016, taking shelter in the railway tracks and an abandoned factory nearby. In the last few weeks, many have left on a new route to the European Union through Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Matteo Salvini walking into a day of government meetings

Who Said That? Words From New Italian Leaders Echo Dark Past

Rhetoric coming from anti-establishment Five Star Movement and League evoke the words of historic tyrants like King Louis XIV, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini.

ROME — Addressing his followers in Rome, Five Star leader and incoming labor minister Luigi Di Maio insisted last week that his party "is now the state." His words — delivered on June 2, Italy's Republic Day — recall the famous "I am the state" declaration by King Louis XIV of France that became a symbol of absolute monarchism. Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, supposedly much admired by Five Star members, are turning over in their graves.

Maybe, like the rest of us, Monsieur Rousseau would have become inured to these statements by now. Statements like infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli's desire to establish "an ethical state." The field of ethics is profoundly misunderstood, and these misunderstandings are often manipulated by dictatorships that declare the state to be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and evil.

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Prostitutes in the marketplace of La Merced, Mexico City, Mexico

Another Consequence Of Venezuela Crisis: A Sex Trafficking Boom

The economic collapse has created opportunities for Colombian gangs to exploit Venezuelan women and transport them abroad.

SAN JOSE — Their nightmare begins in Venezuela, where the economic crisis ravaging their country makes the young women and girls — some as young as 11 or 12 — particularly vulnerable. Colombian gangs and paramilitary groups take advantage to manipulate them, and then shuttle them across the border to the El Dorado international airport in Bogota, where they're boarded on planes to be trafficked as sex workers in a range of countries across Latin America.

This is the fate that has befallen tens of thousands of Venezuelans in recent years, according to an investigation carried out recently by the Mexican newspaper El Universal. A large number of the victims end up in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. In Mexico, traffickers pay between $700 and $950 to immigration officials at Mexico City's international airport to allow Venezuelan women into the country, the newspaper found.

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Near Palazzo Dogana in Foggia,  July 2017

In Southern Italy, A City's Perfect Storm Of Populism

The populist Five-Star Movement and the right-wing League won over half the vote in the struggling mid-sized city of Foggia by promising more jobs and less immigration.

FOGGIA — In front of the decaying ruins of the once-glorious Ariston theater, three people sleep on cardboard on the sidewalk. The street is lined with shuttered shopfronts and for-sale signs, and the air is filled with wasps and the stench of rotting meat. A drunk man is strewn on the sidewalk in front of what was once a clothing store, and the street's only coffee shop closed years ago.

The neighborhood surrounding the central train station in Foggia, a city of 153,000 in the Puglia region, is a forgotten land. It's five in the afternoon, scorching hot, and there are only three businesses still open: Fashion Bazar, Punjab Kebab, and a discount supermarket that advertises chicken thighs for 1.99 euros a kilo. Seeing it all first-hand helps explain how the League — a northern separatist movement turned national right-wing party — won 9% of the vote in a city where it had until recently been nonexistent, and why the populist Five Star party won by far the most votes with 44%.

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