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In partnership with The New York Times, The Fuller Project published the first in-depth examination of how domestic workers in the Middle East have turned to TikTok to share intimate details of their lives — and the consequences they could face for speaking out. Last August, a young Kenyan housekeeper, Brenda Dama, posted one such video from Saudi Arabia. As words like “freedom” and “respect” pop up on the screen, Dama, 26, swats them away one by one. A single day off? “Don’t got it.” A peaceful life without quarrels or insults? “Don’t got it.” One in a series posted by Ms. Dama, the video has amassed more than 900,000 views — her account gained nearly 5,000 followers in just two days after posting it.

Far from home and in unfamiliar settings, domestic workers in the Gulf — the vast majority of them women — have long used social media to keep in touch with friends and family. Our story documents how they have increasingly turned to TikTok after the platform’s popularity exploded last year, opening up about their lives and working conditions. Many of them say they are overworked, sexually harassed, discriminated against — and the pandemic has further diminished the minimal freedoms they once had.

To give our readers the context they needed to understand stories like Ms. Dama’s, The Fuller Project created an explainer video for social media, styled after TikTok’s platform. It allowed us to reach, inform and engage broad audiences beyond our normal remit — like the youth who are likely to be on TikTok themselves. The final product is The Fuller Project’s most-watched IGTV video to date.

Published in The New York Times online and in print, our story was widely shared among migrant rights and human rights groups, including The National Domestic Workers Alliance. It was covered by KTN, one of the largest news channels in Kenya, and reporter Louise Donovan discussed the implications of her reporting on NBC News Now and BBC’s Woman’s Hour — the second most popular daily podcast across BBC Radio, with 3.7 million weekly listeners. Several New York Times readers reached out to Brenda on TikTok after publication, engaging with her content and asking her to share more about her life as a foreign domestic worker.

The Fuller Project was among the first international newsrooms to capture scenes from the ground as India suffered the world’s most severe outbreak of COVID-19 this March. For weeks, our editors tracked the unfolding crisis in India as western journalists flew in to report for a few days — then left.

Our newsroom saw the urgent need for timely reporting by Indian journalists living through the surge themselves. Setting aside the long-form reporting that typically defines The Fuller Project’s work, we aimed instead to cover as much of one of the world’s largest and most densely populated countries as quickly as possible. We issued a call out on Twitter to reporters on the ground who could capture the sensory experience of the outbreak, receiving dozens of pitches from parts of the country beyond New Delhi and Mumbai, allowing us to cover areas most Western journalists could not gain access to in their brief reporting trips.

The resulting series exclusively features the work of journalists from India and India-administered Kashmir — most of them women. Their reporting centers the voices of India’s most marginalized: women and transgender people, particularly those also oppressed on the basis of religion, caste and class. In Kashmir, fisherwoman Fazi Begum navigated a new economic reality as her clients dwindled; in Manipur, where the Indian army has special powers and an outsized presence, a transgender woman named Lulu experienced heightened anxiety; in Tamil Nadu, construction worker Devi made frantic calls for jobs; in the Rajasthani desert, Taramani relayed her trials as a three-time survivor of COVID-19; in New Delhi, a nurse named Rakhi navigated professional trauma and personal loss.

The Fuller Project newsroom and its contributors worked around the clock to thread women’s narratives into a living archive, highlighting their humanity in their own words. “Gasping for Breath” revealed that content exclusive to our own site can draw a wide native audience — in April and May, the stories were the top read on the site— showing that these voices were clearly missing from the wider media landscape and that audiences all over the world were hungry for them. NBC Asian America took notice of our work, asking to partner as we gathered more stories from the ground. Together, we put out a call to the South Asian diaspora in the United States for tributes to the women they knew in their home countries battling COVID-19 on the front lines — or fighting to survive themselves.

Reporters Louise Donovan and Refiloe Makhaba Nkune spent eight months investigating sexual, verbal and physical harassment at Hippo Knitting, a Lesotho- based factory that supplies Kate Hudson’s Fabletics activewear brand. Interviews with more than 40 employees revealed a network of abuse stretching back years.

Producing garments for prominent U.S. brands has become the backbone of Lesotho’s economy in recent years. But sexual violence at the factories — and the government’s tepid response to the abuse — threatens the livelihoods of thousands of garment workers, ninety percent of whom are women. Thirteen of the workers we spoke to said their underwear and vulvas were often exposed during routine daily searches by supervisors. Another said a male supervisor tried to pressure her into a sexual relationship, and three allege sexual assault by male supervisors. Workers said they were forced to crawl on the floor as punishment and often humiliated and verbally abused by management. In one instance, a woman said she urinated on herself because she was prevented from accessing the bathroom.

The resulting story had impact before it was even published: after Donovan and Nkune reached out to Fabletics for comment, the brand vowed to do “everything in [their] power” to remedy the situation. Fabletics immediately suspended all operations with the factory, flew a “senior leader” to Lesotho within days to conduct an investigation and promised to keep providing workers’ full pay during this period. The owners of Hippo Knitting launched an independent audit and internal investigation, placing the factory’s HR manager on administrative leave — she has since been let go.

The investigation was published in print and online in partnership with TIME, shared widely on social media by workers’ rights groups and covered by global media outlets including The Daily Mail, InStyle, MSN, People, Yahoo and Fox. A version of the story also ran in print in the Lesotho Times, the country’s most widely read newspaper.

Since publication, police say they’re investigating at least three cases of sexual offense and public indecency at Hippo Knitting. “There are more allegations,” a police spokesperson told The Fuller Project, “though the victims are skeptical about reporting in fear of losing their jobs.” At least 12 more employees have stepped forward about abuses, according to unions on the ground in Lesotho — one union, IDUL, says it was our reporting that made these workers feel safe enough to speak up.

In response to our reporting, Hippo Knitting, Fabletics and IDUL have now announced a formal plan to combat gender-based violence at the factory. It includes career development and management opportunities for women, their representation in factory committees and trade union structures, a toll-free number workers can call for assistance and a memorandum of understanding signed with both the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Relations.

Hippo Knitting and Fabletics have also launched a corrective action plan for the factory that includes a new grievance procedure for reporting workplace violations, a new anti-intimidation and anti-retaliation policy, and a new process for non-invasive searches that includes dedicated privacy screening areas. Staff from the human rights organization Africa Rising will be on-site during all working hours at the factory when Hippo Knitting resumes production to oversee the corrective action plan.

Part two of our two-part series with The Telegraph & Kenya’s Daily Nation

During the coronavirus outbreak, Kenya saw another uptick in the number of aborted fetuses and abandoned babies, according to service providers in direct contact with women on the ground. Kabale and Donovan wrote a second, follow-up story digging into the spike. The reasons were varied: schools closures leaving some 13 million students idle for seven months, restrictions on movement hindering access to contraceptives and reproductive health information, as well as global medical supply chains still causing knock-on delays and shortages of contraceptives for some clinics in Kenya.

They told the story through the experience of Ashura Mciteka, a health volunteer who was dealing with aborted fetuses after they’d been abandoned in her local area. After a community landlord read the story, he offered Ashura an office space for one year free of charge. Using this space, she has been able to hold one-day trainings about the dangers of unsafe abortions with pregnant girls.

When COVID-19 first shuttered schools in Washington, DC, and around the country, Fuller Project Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Xanthe Scharff immediately penned an OpEd in TIME noting that the pandemic would quickly become a gender and equity issue, and focusing on the impact of the most vulnerable women workers. The piece forecasted that job losses would be disproportionately shouldered by women and that women with jobs in industries with poor workplace protections would be doubly impacted. With widespread and lengthy school closures looming, a majority of mothers would be forced to miss work, as they are ten times more likely than men to stay home with children. Single working parents, who are four times more likely to be women than men in the United States, would struggle to keep their jobs. The piece also underscored the heightened strain on those without a social support system and how the increase in economic hardships could make women more susceptible to domestic violence. This article drew important attention to the trends which have since defined the “Shecession.” 

After this OpEd, Dr. Scharff and Fuller Project contributor Sarah Ryley followed with rigorous, data-backed reporting based on exclusive statistics from 17 states that showed women were the majority of unemployment seekers. The analysis showed that federal data would not reveal this trend for another month – precious time while trillions of dollars of pandemic aid were being legislated. 

Dr. Scharff and Ryley provided individual and group briefings on the data to dozens of reporters the Wednesday evening before the Jobs Report release. As a result at least 12 news outlets, ranging from The New York Times to Iowa Watch, covered the story and cited the data. This widely published data underpinned a national conversation in April about the stark gender trends in unemployment three weeks ahead of a federal release of data that showed the same trend. Following the data requests, two states, New York and Oregon, began to release weekly unemployment statistics disaggregated by gender. Building on this investigation, Ryley analyzed the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May employment report, finding that women lost 11.7 million nonfarm payroll jobs compared to an estimated 9.6 million for men. Dr. Scharff and Susan Smith Richardson co-authored an OpEd in the Boston Globe calling for the U.S. government to address the shortcomings in federal data releases with regards to disaggregated information related to race and gender. Dr. Scharff has briefed over 80 policymakers, journalists and philanthropists on these findings to date.

Fuller Project reporter Jenna Krajeski profiled Dr. Lubab al-Quraishi, an Iraqi surgical pathologist and a refugee, who was helping the US in its COVID-19 response by administering tests to elderly residents in nursing homes in Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn. When the lab director at the pathology lab where she works asked for volunteers, she was the first to step up, despite the risk of infection. “We are from Baghdad, we know how to handle difficult situations,” she told Krajeski. 

Following our reporting, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy called Dr. Al-Quraishi directly to thank her for her service and pledged to help extend her temporary medical license. Advocacy groups cited the reporting as having raised awareness about licensure barriers. Al-Quraishi has been invited to speak on the issue, and she penned an open letter to then-incoming President Biden asking him to help refugee medical professionals practice in their fields of expertise.

For Marie Claire Magazine, Fuller Project contributor Colleen Hagerty reported on homeless and housing insecure moms struggling to find safe places to shelter their families during the coronavirus crisis.

Hagerty featured a homeless mother, Martha Escudero, who along with her two daughters was looking for shelter in Los Angeles while advocating for abandoned properties to be used to house families. 

Escudero is part of “Reclaiming Our Homes,” a group that demanded California Governor Gavin Newsom open up all vacant properties in the state for occupancy during the initial coronavirus outbreak. She called it “immoral” for so many houses to sit empty as thousands are on the streets during a public health crisis. “If the government’s not doing their job and finding solutions fast enough, then we need to take the steps and sometimes break their laws,” she said.

Following this reporting, activists successfully negotiated with the city to use vacant properties. Escudero and her two daughters moved into a blue bungalow in El Sereno, one of more than 100 vacant, state-owned properties in East Los Angeles.  Since she and other “Reclaimers” have cultivated a community garden, a community maintenance team and community storage space, according to Reclaiming Our Homes.

In Rikha Sharma Rani’s profile of Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the country, she lays out how the union leader began raising the alarm about PPE shortages as early as January 2020, and how Castillo’s focus on health and safety — which had been criticized by some who wanted her to be more active in national politics — helped her see the crisis coming before most, including those in the federal government.

It took three weeks for Castillo to finally agree to be profiled. When she and Sharma Rani finally connected, they spoke for five hours over three separate Zoom calls. Sharma Rani also spoke with dozens of others seeking insight into Castillo’s life and work, including her daughter, her union colleagues, labor experts, and several of her critics (among them, former presidential candidate Ralph Nader). The result was an intimate look at one of the most significant and under-the-radar figures of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The nursing workforce is overwhelmingly female and more than a third of nurses are women of color. Castillo, the daughter of a railroad worker whose parents hail from Mexico, is the first person of color to head the union. In September 2020, she became a Time Magazine Person of the Year (a union representative told The Fuller Project our piece helped influence that decision). In her tribute to Castillo, Dolores Huerta, the legendary union leader, linked directly to this story and seemed to draw from its core thesis: that Castillo was among the first to draw attention to our looming national crisis. 

The story was featured on The New York Times homepage as Castillo appeared before Congress to demand better PPE.

For Marie Claire Magazine, Fuller Project contributor Colleen Hagerty reported on homeless and housing insecure moms struggling to find safe places to shelter their families during the coronavirus crisis.

Hagerty featured a homeless mother, Martha Escudero, who along with her two daughters was looking for shelter in Los Angeles while advocating for abandoned properties to be used to house families. 

Escudero is part of “Reclaiming Our Homes,” a group that demanded California Governor Gavin Newsom open up all vacant properties in the state for occupancy during the initial coronavirus outbreak. She called it “immoral” for so many houses to sit empty as thousands are on the streets during a public health crisis. “If the government’s not doing their job and finding solutions fast enough, then we need to take the steps and sometimes break their laws,” she said.

Following this reporting, activists successfully negotiated with the city to use vacant properties. Escudero and her two daughters moved into a blue bungalow in El Sereno, one of more than 100 vacant, state-owned properties in East Los Angeles.  Since she and other “Reclaimers” have cultivated a community garden, a community maintenance team and community storage space, according to Reclaiming Our Homes.

Part one of our two-part series with The Telegraph & Kenya’s Daily Nation

The Fuller Project’s Louise Donovan and Nasibo Kabale, from Kenya’s Daily Nation, teamed up to investigate funding for contraception and family planning, and what it means for women in Kenya. Abortion is mostly illegal. For women and girls who struggle financially, contraception is expensive. In cases of unwanted pregnancies, or where they are unable to support a child, some women and girls either seek illegal, dangerous back-alley abortions without proper medical guidance, or give birth — often in secret — and dump the infant out of desperation. 

It’s not a story any reporter wants to find, but good journalism looks at how policy truly affects women. In just one small stretch of the Nairobi river, a volunteer clean-up team found nine babies. 

Both journalists spent months talking to young women, medical and health officials and government workers to understand the problem. More than half of girls between 15-19 who want contraception can’t get access to it. Meanwhile the U.S. dramatically reduced funding for maternal health and family planning in Kenya under President Trump’s administration, from $41 million in 2017 to $8.8 million just one year later causing devastation for Kenyan women and girls.  

After the first story published in 2019, Esther Passaris, a Nairobi politician, contacted the volunteer clean-up team featured in the story who were finding abandoned fetuses in the river. As a result, in early 2020, the team said they received $10,000 in funding through the National Government Affirmative Action Fund (NGAAF) which they used to continue to rejuvenate the area, including building pathways, gardens and a playground for children. According to Christoper Wairimu, the group’s secretary, this was directly related to the story. Passaris read it and wanted to help.

The story had over 130K unique readers, above average for the Telegraph pre-pandemic, and it was also nominated for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics. 

For The New York Times, Fuller Project Global Editor Sophia Jones profiled Ingrid Brown, one of 3.5 million truck drivers — 200,000 of whom are women — working to keep the U.S. well-stocked and well-fed during the pandemic. Brown, a 58-year-old outspoken trucking advocate, cancer survivor and grandmother of six, was among the essential workers who make up the backbone of a hugely important, yet troubled, industry. Nearly all of America’s produce, goods and equipment are transported by truck.

In the early months of the pandemic, Brown was driving largely without protective equipment. She couldn’t easily find masks or disinfectant supplies to wipe down her truck. While some large trucking companies provided supplies to their personnel, many truckers were left to protect themselves. On the road, meals and supplies were more difficult to come by. Many restaurants were closed. Truck stops were running out of certain goods, and truckers couldn’t easily pull into parking lots — like at a Target, or a Walmart — to buy essentials if there wasn’t a designated truck parking space. Even if they could, Brown says, coveted items — like Clorox wipes — were mostly out of stock.

The profile generated response from readers and manufacturing companies who wanted to help. When readers reached out, Jones connected them with the nonprofit Women in Trucking, which helped coordinate donations of masks and hand sanitizer across dozens of states. 

Our story led The New York Times homepage with reporting about the barriers faced by families who are not fluent in English. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many families relied on their children to translate for them in order to better understand the education system. The shift to online schooling has exacerbated challenges for immigrants and their families. 

The genesis for this piece was a conversation Fuller Project reporter Rikha Sharma Rani had with her editor, who told her about an Iraqi immigrant family — a friend of a friend — struggling to homeschool in the wake of COVID-19-related school shutdowns. The parents in the family didn’t speak English, so their college-aged daughter was helping to homeschool their elementary school-aged son while managing her own college course load.  

The anecdote sparked the question: What are parents and students who don’t speak English doing right now? For Sharma Rani, the question had personal resonance: At the time, she was struggling to homeschool her own two daughters and couldn’t imagine how much harder that job would be for parents who weren’t fluent in English.

With no teachers physically present to help guide students in many states, caregivers were being forced to take a more active role than ever before in their children’s education.  But parents who weren’t proficient in English couldn’t easily navigate Google Classroom, daily schedules, or homework instructions. For many, those challenges were compounded by lack of an adequate Wi-Fi connection or a computer. And because of language barriers, they couldn’t effectively communicate these challenges to teachers and school officials. 

Reporting the story meant identifying and interviewing people who weren’t fluent in English, using translators who could speak Spanish and Arabic. To ask follow-up questions — of which there were many, in order to get the necessary detail and color for the piece — Sharma Rani used Google Translate, giving her a real-time glimpse into the communications challenges faced by her sources, who relied heavily on the tool in order to support their children’s learning. 

The resulting piece, published in April 2020 in The New York Times, was one of the first looks at how immigrant and non-English speaking families were coping during the pandemic. It was featured as a “Lesson of the Day” in the Times’ learning network, and sparked online discussion among students who recognized their own situations in the reporting. It was included in several education-related newsletters, including Education Week and Washington Monthly’s “Best of the Week” education newsletter.  It was also republished in The Chicago Tribune and shared on Twitter by Congresswoman Barbara Lee. After publication, we received emails from educators and readers wanting to support non-English speaking families by serving as translators or by providing technical solutions, and we directed them to nonprofits and school districts working on the issue. At the time of publication, there were few (if any) pieces exploring the impact of the pandemic on immigrant communities. This story revealed the distinct hurdles they faced, and the ways in which school districts were addressing — or not addressing — these challenges.  This reporting also won a crisis coverage award from The American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Fuller Project contributing editor Rikha Sharma Rani partnered with Wisconsin Watch’s Parker Schorr to publish a series about limitations on reproductive healthcare in Catholic hospitals in Wisconsin and their impact on women, particularly Black women and women of color. The series, published by Wisconsin Watch and The Cap Times and picked up by The Washington Post, spotlighted Wisconsin’s heavy reliance on Catholic healthcare. Catholic hospitals are subject to regulations imposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that limit access to some reproductive procedures — abortion, contraceptive care, in vitro fertilization and tubal ligation, for example. Black people in low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by these limitations.

The Fuller Project and Wisconsin Watch jointly purchased data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association to identify which services were being provided by individual hospitals in Wisconsin. Analysis of the data confirmed that Catholic hospitals were by and large not providing long-lasting reversible contraception, for example, but that practices varied widely even among Catholic hospitals subject to the same rules. In some cases, Sharma Rani and Schorr found that Catholic hospitals were using workarounds to provide services that were otherwise restricted. One hospital, for instance, was providing tubal ligations at a nearby eye clinic.

The investigation also found that, in some parts of the state, the only nearby hospital was Catholic and that many women were unaware that their local hospital was Catholic or that access to certain reproductive procedures was effectively blocked. In certain situations, such as if a woman had pregnancy complications, this was putting women’s health at risk. The collaboration drew on Schorr’s  intimate knowledge of the health landscape in Wisconsin and Sharma Rani’s extensive reporting on reproductive health, resulting in a fair-minded, deeply reported look at the intersection between religion and women’s health (a representative of the Catholic Church told Sharma Rani that he believed the reporting was balanced).  

Wisconsin Watch said that the collaboration brought attention to the issue of lack of choice and access to secular reproductive care for women, especially women of color, in the state. The reporting won the Milwaukee Press Club Silver Award for Best Consumer Story.


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