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‘It ruined my life’: School closures in Kenya lead to rise in FGM

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Maikona, Marsabit County, Kenya – Thirteen-year-old Gumato* can finally walk again without feeling pain.

The hot desert wind blows through her curly hair as she strolls between the portable, dome-shaped huts, made of acacia roots and covered with grass mats, colourful textiles and camel hides. In the near distance, a caravan of more than 50 camels passes by.

Gumato is from the Gabra, a nomadic camel-herding tribe that lives in a semi-arid region in northeast Kenya. Until mid-March, she had put on her pink blouse and dark blue skirt every day to go to school. Nowadays, she only wears her long traditional dress.

“I loved school and dreamed of becoming a science teacher,” says Gumato.

Her dream seems to be further away than ever.

Three days after Kenya recorded its first COVID-19 infection in mid-March, the government decided to close all schools. A few weeks later, Gumato’s parents decided to have their daughter undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), which is prohibited in Kenya but still practised by some tribes.

School closures in Kenya/Jeroen Van Loon

Gumato underwent FGM after her school was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic [Jeroen Van Loon/Al Jazeera]

Since the enactment of laws against FGM in 2011, its prevalence in Kenya has dropped from 28 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 in 2008 to 21 percent in 2014.

But due to its great ethnic and cultural diversity, there are significant regional variations, with prevalence ranging from 0.8 percent in the west to more than 97 percent in the northeast (where the Gabra and Borana – which are Somali-Oromo ethnic groups – live) and 78 percent in the south, which is home to the Maasai people.

“We were happy that schools closed, because this gave us a better opportunity to circumcise our girls,” Gumato’s mother explains as she sits on the earth floor beside a small fire inside one of the huts. “School holidays normally are a bit short for the girls to fully recover.”

She wanted her daughter to undergo FGM, she says, because Gabra men only marry circumcised girls.

In early April, Gumato and two other girls were taken to a house in a village behind the hills without any roads or official administration. They were told to wash themselves with cold water – believed to be an anaesthetic within their community. Then, one by one, they were cut. 

Two women held them from behind, two women held their legs, one woman covered their eyes and another did the cutting.

“It was extremely painful but I kept quiet, as the women assured me that if I would scream or cry, I would be seen as a coward and nobody would be willing to marry [me],” Gumato recalls.

School closures in Kenya/Jeroen Van Loon

Gumato and her mother in front of their hut [Jeroen Van Loon/Al Jazeera]

After the procedure, the wound was not treated or cleaned. “We stayed with all the blood while our thighs were tied together for four days,” says Gumato. “We had to pee in a bucket and were forbidden to drink any water.”

After seven days, the girls were returned to their homes.

But Gumato’s wound became infected. She was scared it would never heal, she says. “For two months, I felt so much pain while I could hardly walk.” It still hurts to urinate, she explains.

Gumato worries about her future now.

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“The predominant belief in my community is that as soon as a girl is cut, she’s ready for marriage,” she explains. “My family is poor, we have only five sheep and seven goats and not a single camel.”

Her father did construction work in their village before the coronavirus crisis, but now construction has come to a standstill and the family struggles to find enough food.

“I’m afraid that I’m soon married off because there is no school so we just sit idle at home while when I’m married off, my father will receive three camels as dowry,” she says.

‘Schools were a safety net’

“Before this corona crisis, schools were functioning as a strong safety net,” explains Talaso Gababa, a facilitator with the medical organisation, Amref Health Africa.

“Teachers educated children about the risks of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). When a girl would be cut while school was open, schoolmates would communicate this to the teacher who would report the parents to the police. This prevented many parents from having their daughters circumcised.”

Gababa is 26 years old and, like Gumato, is from the Gabra tribe. She has advocated shortening school holidays, as those are the riskiest times for girls.

“Imagine if we would have known what kind of catastrophe we were heading [towards] with this on-going school closure,” she reflects.

School closures in Kenya/Jeroen Van Loon

Talaso, left, often runs mother/daughter forums where she educates them about the risks of FGM and early marriage [Jeroen Van Loon/Al Jazeera]

FGM is not the only danger facing girls. With schools closed, they are also more susceptible to forced early marriage and sexual assault.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently forecast that an additional 13 million girls globally could be forced into child marriage, and two million more than would otherwise have been expected could undergo FGM between now and 2030 as COVID-19 disrupts global efforts to end both practices.

Even before the pandemic hit, 33,000 girls around the world were being forced into early marriage every day, frequently to much older men, according to the UNFPA report, and an estimated 4.1 million were already at risk of FGM this year.

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Public awareness programmes against FGM have been disrupted in many countries, while rescue centres which help girls fleeing forced marriages and FGM have been closed partially or even totally due to the pandemic.

“I had to send home 24 out of our 52 girls,” says Priscilla Nangurai, the founder and director of the Grace Nanana Rescue Center in Kajiado.

As the centre also functions as a school, it had to comply with the nationwide school closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. “After negotiating with the government, I was allowed to let 28 girls stay as they are on very high risk to be forced into child marriage after undergoing FGM,” Nangurai explains.

“With the parents of the 24 other girls, we had already started a reconciliation programme, where the parents signed a contract promising not to have their girls circumcised or married off. Unfortunately, after sending them home, two girls have been threatened with circumcision already,” she says.

She calls this a “very scary” situation and is currently in contact with the local chiefs who promised to stop the parents having their daughters undergo FGM.

Nangurai says her centre is able to track the girls who have returned home via local community leaders and because they know their addresses. “But as this isn’t the reality at most Kenyan schools, I wonder how many girls nationwide will ever return to school when they reopen,” she says.

School closures in Kenya/Jeroen Van Loon

Mulki Mohamud Abdikadir is a teacher at Al-Gani Girls Secondary School in Kinna in Isiolo County in the northeast of Kenya. She says: ‘This school closure due to corona is affecting girls so much. So many girls in this region get pregnant through rape or temptation. I’m afraid that only half of the girls will return in my class’ [Jeroen Van Loon/Al Jazeera]

‘September is the wedding season’

“Parents and elders [in the Gabra region] nowadays are feeling the freedom to do whatever they want with young girls, as teachers have left because of school closures. The staff of many international organisations have been pulled out because of the risk of infection from COVID-19,” Gababa explains.

“Parents tell their children that corona is here to stay and that schools will never open again. Some girls have already been promised to a certain boy before they were even born and many parents see it as a waste of time to let these girls sit idle at home.”

“On top of that, families are facing huge economic hardship as transport of animals towards the capital is forbidden as part of the measures to fight the pandemic while the community’s main source of income is the sale of livestock. So parents start to marry off their daughters, as they will receive a dowry.”

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In several regions, including Samburu, Marsabit, Migori and Kajiado County, campaigners have already rescued dozens of girls from forced marriage since the school closure, according to local media.

But Gababa predicts the number of child marriages will rise in the coming month “as September is the wedding season”.

As in Kenya – where all primary and secondary schools are closed until further notice – schools are still closed across most of the African continent. The World Health Organization (WHO) says of 39 countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, only six have fully reopened schools.

According to the UNESCO Global Monitoring of School Closure, schools in 11 countries in Africa have been closed since March and remain fully closed with more than 121 million pupils out of school. A lack of access to radio, television, computers and the internet have left many students unable to engage in remote learning.

A recent report by Plan International and the African Child Policy Forum concludes: “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and added yet another layer of vulnerability to an already dire web of vulnerabilities of girls in the African continent.”

School closures in Kenya/Jeroen Van Loon

Seventeen-year-old Anna had just started her final year of boarding school when coronavirus came to Kenya. ‘In school we got sanitary towels and plenty of food. But since I got home, we struggled. My mother lost her job, there was no money, no food, no sanitary towels so I started looking for money,’ she says. ‘I met a 24-year-old boy in the streets who offered me some money for food and sanitary towels. Because he was so nice to me, we started to have sex and after one month I found out I was pregnant. The boy doesn’t want to support me and wanted me to do an (illegal) abortion. I feel terrible about my life and I’m afraid that I won’t be able to finish my school because my mother is a single mum so she needs to work and cannot support me with the baby’ [Jeroen Van Loon/Al Jazeera]

While there is no accurate data on the growing number of girls facing FGM, sexual assault or forced marriage, calls to helplines have surged in many countries. A national helpline supported by the department of gender affairs in Kenya reported a more than 10-fold increase in calls – with 1,108 calls in the month of June compared with just 86 in February. Many were reports of child rape.

Raped and pregnant at 15

“This pandemic has ruined my life,” says 15-year-old Sarah*. The teenager, who lives with her parents and two younger sisters in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, was in her first year of high school when schools closed.

“Life became tough,” she says.

Both of her parents are casual workers; her mum washed clothes for other families and her father was a mason, building houses. Due to the pandemic, there is no work and food has become scarce. “While before the pandemic I had lunch at school and another meal at home, I now often don’t eat for the whole day,” Sarah explains.

She started to spend time with girls who claimed to know how to get money for food, clothes and sanitary pads, which she used to receive for free at school. “When I told them that I was hungry, they left me with a boy who said he would help me. The boy offered to buy me chips but wanted sex in return.”

When she tried to escape, Sarah says the 16-year-old pushed her inside a room and raped her. “I tried to get the boy off me and shouted for help but nobody heard me.”

She later realised she was pregnant. “I felt so ashamed and hoped that God would just take me,” she says.

School closures in Kenya/Jeroen Van Loon

Sarah says the pandemic and resulting school closures have ruined her life [Jeroen Van Loon/Al Jazeera]

As soon as her mother found out about the pregnancy, she tracked down the boy. She says he confessed to the rape but, when she tried to report him to the police, he fled Nairobi with his family.

Sarah’s father was furious about the pregnancy. “He came home with a machete several times and threatened to slaughter me and my mum,” Sarah explains.

For several weeks, she slept in a nearby market stall with her mum and two sisters. “My dad blames me for wasting all his hard-earned cash that he spent on my school fees while my mum, according to him, has failed as a wife and mother.”

Sarah is convinced none of this would have happened if schools were not closed. “I still would have been in school, I wouldn’t have been strolling around in the streets and I would not even have been thinking about asking a boy for food as I would have got lunch in school and I wouldn’t have been hungry.”

School closures in Kenya/Jeroen Van Loon

A school in Isiolo. The Kenyan government faces a difficult dilemma in reopening schools as most public schools do not have running water [Jeroen Van Loon/Al Jazeera]

Reopening Schools

Recently, a group of more than 275 former world leaders, economists and educationalists expressed their concerns about the risk of creating a “COVID generation” – children who have lost out on schooling and whose opportunities are permanently damaged as a result of the pandemic. They are especially concerned about the fate of an estimated 30 million children globally who, according to UNESCO, may never return to school.

“For these, the world’s least advantaged children, education is often the only escape from poverty – a route that is in danger of closing. Many of these children are adolescent girls for whom being in school is the best defence against forced marriage and the best hope for a life of expanded opportunity,” they wrote.

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The WHO and UNICEF recently urged African governments to promote the safe reopening of schools. “Schools have paved the way to success for many Africans. They also provide a safe haven for many children in challenging circumstances to develop and thrive,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Regional Director for Africa. “We must not be blind-sided by our efforts to contain COVID-19 and end up with a lost generation.”

The Kenyan government faces a difficult dilemma, however. While handwashing is necessary to curb the spread of the virus, most public schools in the country either lack running water or have no water at all. Maintaining a 1.5-metre (five-foot) physical distance is also challenging, as many schools are overcrowded, often with more than 60 students in one classroom and pupils sharing books and desks. According to a WHO and UNICEF report, a quarter of schools in sub-Saharan Africa have basic hygiene services, while 44 percent have basic drinking water and 47 percent have basic sanitation services.

School closures in Kenya/Jeroen Van Loon

Halima Alinoor says school closures are ‘discouraging’ [Jeroen Van Loon/Al Jazeera]

Reopening boarding schools will be even more problematic, as students often sleep with eight or more in a cramped dorm.

“Nobody knows when we will be able to go back to school,” says 17-year-old Halima Alinoor, who slept alongside 20 other pupils in a dorm at the Said Fatimah girl’s boarding school in Garba Tulla, Isiolo County, which closed on March 16.

The teenager is from the Borana tribe where FGM and child marriage are still common.

Halima says she wants to become a journalist “to become the voice of people who cannot speak up”.

“This school closure is very discouraging,” she says while looking at some of the school books she brought home. “Recently I was studying under a tree when a man walked along and told me that I should stop wasting my time. ‘Just burn those books. There is no returning to school’, he told me.”

According to Halima, the school closure could take many communities, including hers, decades back in time. “Most people in my community still believe that girls are not supposed to go to school but are destined to stay at home to take care of the children. With this school closure, this idea is again getting stronger.”

* Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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