News You May Have Missed (17-23 January)

A student at the Hamar Jajab School in Mogadishu holds a peace-themed comic book for children produced by UNSOM during the commemoration of Somalia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 January 2015. UN Photo/Ilyas Ahmed
A student at the Hamar Jajab School in Mogadishu holds a peace-themed comic book for children produced by UNSOM during the commemoration of Somalia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 January 2015. UN Photo/Ilyas Ahmed

There was some good news about human rights around the world this week.  

SOMALIA has become the 195th state party to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). A ceremony was held to mark the ratification at a local school in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.  In agreeing to be bound by the treaty, the government of Somalia is obligating itself to take steps to improve the lives of its youngest citizens.   The CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in existence.  Once Somalia’s ratification is officially deposited with the UN, the United States and South Sudan will be the only countries in the world that have not yet ratified the CRC.  (The US has signed but not ratified the CRC and South Sudan – the world’s newest country, established in 2011 – has taken no action on the CRC yet.  If you are wondering why the US hasn’t ratified the CRC, you can read more here.)

In SAUDI ARABIA, the public flogging of blogger Raif Badawi has been postponed for a second consecutive week.  As I previously reported, Raif Badawi, founder of Free Saudi Liberals blog, was brought to a public square in Jeddahon on January 9 and flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators – the first of 20 weeks of punishment with 50 lashes.  Protests and vigils have been held in public places and outside Saudi embassies across the world, keeping up the momentum after a medical committee said last week that he should not undergo a second round of 50 lashes on health grounds.  There is widespread belief that the postponements are not based solely on medical assessments, but also reflect increasing pressure on the Saudi government from the international community.  

In GUATEMALA,  a former police chief has been sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role in the 1980 deadly raid on the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City. A group of indigenous rights activists had occupied the embassy to draw attention to government repression during Guatemala’s civil war. (According to United Nations estimates, almost a quarter of a million people, mostly indigenous and rural, were killed or forcibly disappeared during the 36-year-long conflict.) Thirty-seven people burned to death in a fire triggered by the police when they stormed the embassy; Vicente Menchu, the father of indigenous rights activist and Noble Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, was one of those killed in the fire.  Pedro Garcia Arredondo was found guilty this week of ordering officers to keep anyone from leaving the building as it burned. Indigenous rights activists and relatives of the victims, who have been waiting more than 3 decades for justice, celebrated a sentencing.

Indigenous activists and relatives of the victims welcomed the sentence. Photo (c) REUTERS
Indigenous activists and relatives of the victims welcomed the sentence. Photo (c) REUTERS

U.N. peacekeepers in the CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC have arrested Rodrigue Ngaibona, (known as Andilo), a senior leader of the anti-balaka militia, wanted for crimes including murder, rebellion, rape and looting.  In 2013,  the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian CAR.  Their brief rule spawned a backlash from the Christian and animist anti-balaka militia.  The U.N. has documented that the anti-balaka used ethnic cleansing in their attacks on the Muslim minority, and reported that “Andilo is currently the most enigmatic, feared and powerful military commander of the anti-balaka.”  Andilo could potentially be tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is investigating the violence in Central African Republic.

One piece of negative human rights news that has not received much mainstream media attention:  BAHRAIN sentenced Nabeel Rajab, one of the highest-profile democracy campaigners in the Arab world, to six months in jail on Tuesday over remarks critical of the government.  The founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Rajab took a leading role in Shi’ite-led demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011 that demanded reforms in the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab Kingdom.  

I noted a couple of items of good news on LGBT rights this week:

  1. In CHILE, the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.  The bill passed by a wide margin with 86-23 vote with two abstentions. The Chilean Senate last October advanced the measure, known by the Spanish acronym AVP that roughly translates into “life partner agreement” in English. –President Michelle Bachelet has said she will sign the civil unions bill into law.
  2. In the UNITED STATES, President Obama made history by using the terms “lesbian”, “transgender” and “bisexual” for the first time in a State of the Union address. President Obama was the second US president to use the word “gay” (somewhat generically) in the 2010 State of the Union address; President Clinton was the first.

Finally, I read an inspiring story this week about teens in BANGLADESH called “Golden Girls” who are volunteering their time to ensure that Bangladeshi women have access to maternal health care.  Bangladesh has been working to reduce maternal mortality by training government female health workers as highly skilled birth attendants, but only 27 percent of pregnant women have access to these birth attendants. To fill the gap, the Community Health Foundation, a nonprofit based in Dhaka, educates nearly 300 girls in grades 9 to 12 about pregnancy and childbirth and then links them to pregnant women in their community through the government birth attendants.  

The Golden Girl Project volunteers help increase awareness among pregnant women and facilitate access to skilled birth attendants, bringing down maternal mortality risks.  Their efforts are proving critical in a country where 7,000 women die of pregnancy-related causes every year. For example, when a woman in her village went into labor in the middle of the night her panicked family turned to 14-year-old Khatun, a grade 10 student who lived nearby and was able to arrange for the community’s skilled birth attendant to come in time, saving the lives of the mother and newborn. In addition to their training in reproductive and sexual health, the Golden Girls themselves also commit to completing high school and campaigning to end early marriage and delaying motherhood. Volunteers’ parents consent to the training and affirm their daughters will not be married before graduation. This contributes to reducing dropouts as well as early marriage. You can read more about the Golden Girls here

I’ll close with a powerful advertisement from AUSTRALIA called “The Invisible Discriminator” which reminds us that subtle or ‘casual’ racism can be just as harmful as more overt forms. #StopThinkRespect encourages everyone in Australia to check their behaviour.

Raising My Voice To #BringBackOurGirls

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My son in a local march to Bring Back Our Girls

On Mother’s Day, I spoke at a local march and rally to show support for the nearly 300 school girls abducted a month ago in Nigeria.

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Here’s what I said:

Bring Back Our Girls Twin Cities March

May 11, 2014

Thanks to organizers and to all of you for being here.

I’m here as a lawyer and Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis that works on human rights issues around the world.

But I’m also here as a mother.  My kids Simon and Eliza are here today as well to stand in honor of the nearly 300 girls abducted simply because they were pursuing their human right to education.  I think that’s pretty much the best Mother’s Day gift they could give me.

There are a lot of things that we don’t know about the situation in Nigeria.  We don’t know where the girls are or what is happening to them.  We don’t even know the exact number abducted and we only know a few of their names.  We can only imagine the agony their families are going through.

But the tragedy of the nearly 300 girls in Chibok shines a spotlight on the systemic human rights abuses against faced by women and girls worldwide.

And there are many things we do know about violations of the rights of girls and women:

  • We know that girls around the world lack equal access to basic education  (in the NE region of Nigeria where these girls lived, girl enrollment is the lowest in the country –  only 22%.  In part, they were targeted because they were seeking an education that would change their lives.
  • Educating girls, we know, is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development
  • We know that girls and women are not valued equally as boys and men in many parts of the world.  The Nigerian government’s lack of action both before and after certainly makes it seem that these girls were not deemed worthy of protection.
  • We know that when these girls are found and hopefully rescued, they will need support in the form of psychosocial and health care.  Women’s access to health care is woefully limited.
  • We know that 1 in 3 girls under age 18 are still being forced into marriage too early.  By some estimates, that’s about 14 million girls a year. Too many girls still endure harmful traditional cultural practices such as FGM.
  • We know that girls and women suffer the most in times of conflict.  What these girls have experienced is likely a war crime.  Trafficking remains a huge problem around the world and in our own community.
  • We know that 1 in 3 of the world’s women experience violence, including domestic violence (The Advocates for Human Rights works on domestic violence legal reform around the world);

And we know that these are all things that have to change.

We need to do more to push our governments to make this change a priority.  We can’t stop with just these 276 girls.

Now these are human rights abuses that may seem intractable.  It may seem like you are powerless to make a difference.  But you can:

  • Continue to educate yourself about girls and women’s rights.  Here in the Twin Cities, there are many opportunities.   Through The Advocates for Human Rights alone, you can attend the free St. Paul Public Library Women’s Rights Film series, learn more about the issues on www.StopVAW.org, or participate in our Human Rights Book Club.
  • Support the NGOs that work on issues you care about. No amount is too small – a little money really does go a long way in this area.
  • Write to our members of Congress and the President to encourage support for women’s rights as a critical part of our US foreign policy.
  • For those of you with young people in your lives, teach them about the world around them so that they will grow up to continue the fight to ensure that every child, wherever he or she lives in the world, has the chance to live in safety and dignity and to achieve their greatest human potential.

For those of you doubting whether sharing this story on social media really makes a difference, I’d like to share a message I got on my blog from a woman named Winnie in Nigeria:

we here in nigeria are so angry and feel very helpless, the government and opposition leaders have politicized this, while our daughters are still in captivity. the government officials do not want to listen to ‘ordinary’ people. and word  has it that the Nigerian press have been ordered to kill the story (as the have killed other stories in the past).  pls this is a passionate plea to the international community to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

Here in the Twin Cities and all around the world, we are working to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

And after our girls come home, I hope we can keep working together for a future where all girls around the world can go to school in safety and grow up to reach their full human potential.

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Image used with permission of RaSam Photography. Thank you!

 

See also:  Nightmare For Nigeria’s School Girls   originally published on The Advocates Post.

Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls

Girls in school in Nigeria Image: Naija247News
Girls in school in Nigeria
Image: Naija247News

 

On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.  Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.  At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,”  they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.

Forty-three girls managed to escape by running away or jumping out of the trucks. But as many as 234 school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. (Update 5/4/14: it is now believed that as many at 276 girls were abducted.) Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. And yesterday, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12).

While unconfirmed, these reports are a chilling reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict zones. 

The girls who were abducted were targeted simply because they were exercising their right to go to school, out of the ordinary for a girl in Nigeria. Access to basic education for girls has remained low, particularly in the northern region which has the  lowest girl child enrollment in Nigeria —in 2008 the net enrollment rate for girls into secondary school was only 22 percent.  The girls (who were both Christian and Muslim) at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok must each have been determined to get an education in spite of tremendous odds.  The fact that these girls were also risking violence to be in school illustrates how important the right to education was to each of them.

How could this happen? And why?
Boko Haram is a violent insurgent group that has killed thousands of people since 2009, purportedly in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. Although the Nigerian government has issued a state of emergency in three northern states, attacks on villages in northern Nigeria have displaced more than 470,000 people—mostly women and children, according to the UN High Commissioner for RefugeesSince early 2014, Boko Haram’s attacks have been increasingly violent, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools.  Boko Haramis responsible for at least 1500 deaths so far in 2014.

Boko Haram also has a history of taking hostages as “slaves.” In May 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Sheku released a video saying that Boko Haram had taken women and children, including teenage girls, as hostages as part of its latest campaign. These hostages would be treated as “slaves,” he said.  This has raised concern among the family members of those abducted that “Boko Haram is adhering to the ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their ‘masters’ can have sex.  Regardless of alleged rationale, enslavement, imprisonment, forced labor, rape and sexual slavery are all serious violations of international law.  They are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.

The group has repeatedly attacked schools in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”  in the Hausa language. Boko Haram has set schools on fire and detonated bombs at university campus churches. In early February, armed gunmen abducted 20 female students at Goverment Girls Science College in the village of Konduga. On February 24, 2014, members of Boko Haram attacked and killed more than 40 male students at Federal Government College in Buni Yadi village and abducted an unknown number of female students. After these attacks, many schools in northeastern Nigeria were closed. The school where the abductions took place was closed as well, but local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school to allow the girls to take their exams.  

The mass kidnapping  in April was unprecedented and shocking. Even more shocking – after more than two weeks, the Nigerian government has done very little to find and rescue the girls.

The lack of government response has provoked outrage in Nigeria. On Wednesday, several hundred participated in a “million-woman protest march” in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to demand that more resources be put toward finding and securing the kidnapped girls. The protesters in Nigeria are joined on Twitter with a growing movement under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #234Girls. There is also a Change.org petition to Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan asking him to do more to save the abducted girls and ensure that schools in Nigeria are safe.

One man, whose daughter was abducted along with his two nieces, said his wife has hardly slept since the attack. She lies awake at night “thinking about our daughter”.  As the mother of a young school girl myself, I feel deeply for her. The continuing tragedy of these young Nigerian school girls is every parent’s worst nightmare.

It’s time for world to wake up to the escalating violence in Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government’s lack of response.

Originally published on The Advocates Post.

 

Back to School

I haven’t been able to do much blogging this summer.  This photo may help explain why:

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Today is the first day of school for my kids.  We had a great summer, but – clearly –  it is time for them to go back to to school!  Hopefully it also means that I will have a little more time to myself to think and write and post to The Human Rights Warrior.

In the meantime, here is a repost on The Importance of Educating Girls that I originally wrote for World Moms Blog in 2012.  The first day of school always makes me so thankful that my children, especially my daughter, are able to access their right to education.

The Importance of Educating Girls

Fifth grade class in Chuchoquesera, Peru

When I visited the classroom pictured above in the Peruvian highlands back in 2004, I noticed that slightly more than half of the students were girls. I remarked on this fact to the human rights activist who was giving us the tour of this Quechua-speaking indigenous community.  He smiled sadly and said, “Yes, but this is fifth grade.  In sixth grade, children go to a lower secondary school that is farther away.  Most of the girls won’t go.  It takes too long to walk there and they are needed to help at home, so the parents won’t let them go.  Besides, most of them will be married soon.” Unfortunately, this is a situation that is repeated throughout the world

In the United States, where education is both compulsory and free, we often forget that the right to education is not meaningfully available in many parts of the world – especially for girls.  The UN estimates that there were more than 67 million primary school-age and 73 million lower secondary school-age children out of school worldwide in 2009.  In addition, an estimated 793 million adults lack basic literacy skills. The majority of them are women.

Since then, I have visited classrooms and asked questions about girls’ access to education in countries on several continents.  This is a photo I took at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

Kindergarten class, Buduburam Refugee Settlement, Ghana

Boys far outnumbered girls in this classroom, illustrating one of the problems for girls in accessing education.  When resources are scarce, parents will often choose to spend the money on school fees for their sons rather than their daughters.

Boys also outnumbered girls at this school that I visited outside of Yaounde, Cameroon.

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Attendance Board in primary grade class in a school outside of Yaounde, Cameroon

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to promote economic growth and development.

“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

Ensuring equal access to education for all girls by 2015 is part of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, making this issue a major focus of work by the United Nations (for more info, check out the UN Girls’ Education Initiative site), the World Bank and many international non-governmental organizations.   October 11 has been designated as the International Day of the Girl Child to draw attention to the topic.
 
 
Fourth grade student at Sankhu-Palubari Community School wearing Newari traditional dress
 
On a much smaller scale, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal is doing its part to encourage gender parity in education and  increase literacy rates.  The school works in partnership with The Advocates for Human Rights (the non-profit where I work) to prevent child labor and improve the lives and well-being of the neediest children in this community in the Kathmandu Valley. I travelled there in January for our annual monitoring visit.
 
Pre-K student at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, Nepal

This year, the school has successfully met goals for gender parity among students in both the primary and lower secondary grades. For the 2011-2012 school year, 147 of the 283 students in pre-school through eighth grade are girls. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, 15 of the 31 students in ninth and tenth grade are young women.
 
9th Grade students at SPCS
 
Most of the students’ families work in agriculture.  They are farmers with little or no money to spare on school fees, uniforms and supplies.   Many of them are from disadvantaged groups such as the Tamang and Newari.  Indigenous group with their own cultures and languages, the indigenous students must learn Nepali as well as English when they come to school.  Frequently, the adults in the family are illiterate.
 
How has the teaching staff managed this success at keeping girls in school?  Since the school’s founding in 1999, the teachers have conducted outreach to parents and worked hard to encourage female students to attend and stay in school in spite of societal pressure to get married or enter domestic work. It took more than 10 years, but their efforts have paid off.  While girls worldwide generally are less likely to access, remain in, or achieve in school, 52% of the students in K-8th grades at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School this year are girls. And a girl is at the top of the class in most of the grades at SPCS.
 
The impact of the school both on the individual students and on the community over the past 12 years has been profound.  When I was there in March of 2011, we interviewed approximately 60% of the parents of SPCS students.  It was clear to me that parents value the education that their children are receiving and, seeing the value, have ensured that the younger siblings are also enrolled in school rather than put to work.  Twelve years ago, there were many students in the area out of school but now most are attending school. I could also see the physical benefits that the students derived from attending school when they stood next to their parents.  Even the 5th grade girls towered over their parents, illustrating the simple cause-and-effect of adequate nutrition, wellness checkups, and not having to work in the fields from a very young age.
 
The Sankhu-Palubari Community School may be a small school in a remote valley, but it is a place where the human right to education is alive and well, providing a better future for these children.  In particular, the effect that these girls have on their community, their country and – hopefully, the world – will be thrilling to watch.
 
I’ll be heading back to Nepal to visit the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in just a few weeks. Stay tuned!
 
Yaounde, Cameroon
Pre-K classroom at a school near Yaounde, Cameroon
 

Assault In The Second Degree Grade

Me at age 7

I picked up my seven-year old daughter early from school one day not too long ago.  “How was your day?” I asked, as she buckled herself securely into her booster seat.  The key was in the ignition, and my brain had already sent the signal to my hand to turn it, when she replied,

“OK. Except that X touched me inappropriately this morning.”

We were running late for the appointment, but I did not start the car.  Instead, I turned around and looked at her.  She sat placidly in the backseat, the afternoon sun backlighting her golden curls like an angel’s aura. She gazed at me innocently with her big blue eyes. She didn’t look at all upset.

“Tell me what happened,” I said.

My voice sounded much calmer than I expected.  It certainly didn’t convey what I was feeling. When you are a parent,  and your most important job in life is to protect your kid, it is terribly disconcerting – not to mention heartrending – to hear her say something like this. I wanted to scream, “Who in the world would have the audacity to touch MY CHILD inappropriately?!?!”

Somehow, I stayed calm and delved for facts.  She answered each question fully and calmly. Here is a summary of what she told me and what I wrote in an email to her teacher later that night:

My daughter told me that X has been touching her a lot and making her feel uncomfortable.  She said on Friday that he was rubbing her upper thighs and touched her briefly in the bathing suit area.  She said that it is usually during circle time that this happens, so she tries not to sit near him.  I told her to tell you immediately the next time it happened, but I would appreciate it if you could keep an eye out for this behavior and help her avoid it.

I did not include this in the email, but she also told me that she always asked her friends to sit around her at circle time, a perimeter of girlfriend protection.

Up until last year, I think my reaction might have been different – more anger than the deep sadness that I was feeling. But after I wrote (and Time published) the How to Raise Boys Not To Be Total Jerks piece about my reaction when my son told a sexist joke, I heard from dozens of women about their experiences with inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse.  Women of all ages, ethnicities and occupations, shared their experiences from all over the world.  A couple of medical professionals even told me about patients who had touched them inappropriately during medical examinations.  The sad truth is that these are experiences that are all too common for girls and women throughout the world.  I realized, sitting there in the car with my key in the ignition, that this was only the beginning for my second grade daughter.

In those few seconds before normality returned and we drove on to the orthodontist, I saw an image of myself in the second grade.  An image, like I was watching from above, of myself at the age of 7, pinned down in the dust on the playground at Magnolia Woods Elementary School by a boy who easily weighed twice as much as me.  I had not thought of it in more than 30 years, but now I had a sudden, strong remembrance of the feeling of being panicked and trapped, as he sat heavily on my chest and held my wrists down on either side of my head.

I had thought that we were playing chase at recess; HE told me that we were playing kissing chase.  He demanded that I hold still so he could kiss me – he caught me, so it was his right.  A kiss was the price of my freedom.  I remember thrashing, kicking, rolling my head and arching my back, all to no avail.  A crowd of first and second graders gathered to watch. I think they were  cheering him on.

The school may have taken its name from magnolia trees, but I frankly don’t remember any.  There were crepe myrtle trees all along the walkway where we second graders lined up to enter our classrooms.  Small tree frogs congregated there; they seemed to have no purpose in life other than to sing happily and spit down on us.  A certain times in the year, the crepe myrtles’ strange, pink blossoms – which looked like something right out of Dr Seuss – covered the trees.  Pink petals blanketed the sidewalk where we second graders lined up.

As I struggled to break free from this boy, oh how I longed for the crepe myrtle trees and the safety of my classroom door!  I pictured myself running, as fast as I could, to that safe spot. Instead, I lay on my back, trapped, in the dust on the playground, trying not to see the boy’s face hovering inches above me. Looking instead for the freedom above me, in the bright blue of a Louisiana winter sky and a canopy of towering swamp oaks.

I have no complaints about the way my daughter’s school responded.  The teacher replied within a few hours and forwarded the information on to the school principal and social worker.  First thing on Monday morning, the social worker interviewed both students.  By Monday afternoon, they had put place a six point plan of strategies to ensure the safety of all of the second graders.  The school social worker laid it out for me:

1)      I will  speak to all of the 2nd grade classrooms about appropriate interactions.

2)      All students will be reminded to tell an adult as soon as something happens so we will be able to address it.

3)      Teachers will be vigilant and observant in the classrooms for appropriate student interactions.

4)      The playground staff will closely monitor for concerning behavior.

5)      Seating assignments will be made based on student needs.

6)      Students who cannot follow the rules will be seated next to the teacher.

The school social worker also said, “Please acknowledge your daughter for telling you, so you could inform us.”

When my daughter got home from school the next day, she reported that all six points of this plan had already been implemented.

“I’m proud of you for telling me. It was the right thing to do,” I said.

“I know,” she sighed.  “Everyone keeps telling me that! I’m getting kind of tired of hearing about it.”

But here’s the thing.  Statistics on sexual abuse in children are hard to come by because the majority of cases are never reported to authorities (estimates on reporting range from between only 12% (see Hanson, 1999) and 30% of cases (Finkelhor, 2008)). Based on reporting percentages, the real number of cases of sexual abuse could be anywhere from 260,000-650,000 kids a year.  To put it another way, as many as one in three girls and one in seven boys in the United States will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood.

I’m not suggesting that what my daughter (or I) experienced was sexual abuse.  But it was an assault – and definitely a wake up call to my daughter’s vulnerability to the potential of something much worse. I don’t know the little boy who I call X here. I’ve also been around kids enough to know that second graders get squirrelly.  Sometimes, especially in close quarters, they have trouble keeping their hands to themselves.  I’m not willing to make any assumptions about this kid or speculate that his behavior is a sign that he will grow up to be a sexual predator.  But research shows that 40 percent of child sex abuse is committed by other children or adolescents. In fact, as many as 50 percent of those who sexually abuse other children are under the age of 18. These are facts that I did not know before.

When the recess bell rang and that boy got off of me, I sprinted for my second grade classroom door.  I got there before any of the other kids and put my face against the glass window to cool my cheeks, which were burning with shame and embarrassment.  For the next week or so, I spent recess in different part of the playground, doing penny flips on the monkey bars.  When I finally went back to playing chase, I made sure that I ran as fast as I could so I would never get caught.  For the rest of my time at Magnolia Woods, I was careful to keep away from that boy.  But I never told a single person – not my friends, not my teacher, not my parents – about him holding me down and trying to kiss me.  Not even when I saw him do the same thing to other girls.

So I’m thankful that my daughter told me about what happened to her.  And I’m thankful that the school took quick and decisive action, reinforcing the message for all of the kids and staff that school is a place where everyone has a right to feel safe. I’m especially thankful that something worse did not happen to my daughter, but also that this experience has left her better prepared for the future.

Child sexual abuse happens in all racial, religious, ethnic and age groups, and at all socio-economic levels.   Talk to your daughters and your sons about appropriate v. inappropriate touching, as well as what to do if it happens to them – or if they see it happening to someone else.  If you’ve talked to them about it once, then do it again.  Kids need to hear it again as they move through their various developmental stages. If you feel uncomfortable, just remember that what you are doing is preparing your kids to protect themselves, something they will have to do for the rest of their lives.

Resources about identifying signs of and avoiding child sexual abuse can be found at Stop It Now.  If you know of other good resources, please feel free to add them in the comments. 

 

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL: Kanchi’s Story

Every morning when I come into work, I am greeted by the smiling face of a young girl. Her hair is pulled neatly back into two braids, glossy black against her pink hairbands.  Her eyes, dark and alert, shine at me – I swear I can see them twinkle.

She wears the blue uniform of her school, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in rural Nepal.  The Advocates for Human Rights supports the school to provide the right to education to the most disadvantaged kids in the area and to prevent them from becoming involved in child labor.  Photographs from the school hang on the walls of our office, reminders to us of the lives that we impact with our human rights work.

Even though I see her every day, until last month I had never met this cheerful young girl, a girl whose smile – even in a photo – comes from her core, seems to light her entire being. Until last month, I did not know that her name was Kanchi.  And I had never heard her incredible story.

*****

In 1999, Kanchi was six years old.  She lived with her family in a village in the Kathmandu Valley.  Her parents were poor farmers; they had only a little land and some cattle and they struggled to feed their family.  Kanchi was the youngest of six sisters.  She and her sisters (and also her  brother) had to help their parents in the fields and with household chores.  Kanchi’s job was also to take the cattle to the forest to graze.   Kanchi did not go to school.   There were many children in Nepal that did not go to school at that time, but girls, like Kanchi, were more likely than boys to work rather than go to school – particularly in rural areas like the Suntole district where she lived.

Kanchi was a very smart and determined little girl.  She wanted to go to school.   So when she heard that a new school was opening in the Sankhu-Palubari community – a school for kids who were not able to go to school because they couldn’t pay or were discriminated against – she was very excited.  She rushed off to tell her parents.  But her parents, who had never themselves been educated, were not as excited as Kanchi.  Why should they let her go to school?  Who would help feed the family? Why should they send her to school if she was only going to get married in a few years anyway?

Kanchi says that she cried for a month and begged her parents to let her go to school.  One day, teachers from the new school came to visit Kanchi’s parents to talk to them about the school. The teachers explained that it would help THEM if Kanchi could read and write.  They explained why it was important for all children to go to school, even girls.  They told them that all children – even the poorest, the lowest-caste, members of indigenous groups – had a right to education.

Kanchi’s older sisters, who had never had the opportunity to go to school, took her side. Instead getting an education, they had all married young and were working in the fields.  Kanchi’s sisters argued that Kanchi should go to school, take this opportunity for a life that would be different from theirs.  Finally, their parents agreed to let Kanchi go to school.

Kanchi started at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in 1999, one of 39  students in the first kindergarten class.  To get to school, Kanchi had to walk one and a half hours each way.  There were many other obstacles along the way, too.  At various times, her parents wanted her to stop school and help them with farming.  But she stayed in school and worked hard. She told her parents,  “I want to do something different from the others.”

Kanchi liked her teachers and felt supported by them.  She felt that the best thing about the school was the teaching environment.  She stayed in school and was one of only two girls in the first class to graduate from 8th grade.  She continued on to high school and completed 12th grade at  Siddhartha College of Banepa in 2012.  The first in her family to go to school, Kanchi is also the first girl from the Sankhu-Palubari Community School to graduate from 12th grade.

I met Kanchi for the first time in September.  Almost exactly 13 years after this brave little girl started kindergarten, she is a lovely young woman who is preparing for her university entrance exams.  She plans to study agriculture  starting in January.   Her parents are proud of her and they are happy now – she has chosen the family profession – but Kanchi is interested in learning more about organic farming so she can bring techniques back to her village.  “I want to live a healthy life and give a healthy life to others,” she says.

Sitting in the principal’s office at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, I asked her what the school meant to her.  Kanchi said, “I gained from this school my life.  If I hadn’t learned to read and write, I would be a housewife.”  When asked about her sisters, she told me that they had made sure to send their own children to school.

In her free time, Kanchi likes to sing and dance and make handicrafts to decorate her room.  She likes to play with her sisters’ children.  She has a smile that lights the whole world.  She told me her nickname, Himshila.  She smiled when she told me it means “mountain snow, strong rock”.  Strong rock.  That seems just about right.

*****

October 11, 2012 is the first International Day of the Girl Child.  The United Nations has designated this day to promote the rights of girls, highlight gender inequalities and the challenges girls face, and address discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the globe.  In many ways, the story of Kanchi and her sisters reflects the experience of girls in many countries throughout the world.  All over the world, girls are denied equal access to education, forced into child labor, married off at a young age, pressured to drop out of school because of their gender.

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls like Kanchi, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development.

“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

The International Day of the Girl is a day to recommit ourselves to ensuring that girls like Kanchi have the chance to live their lives to their fullest possible potential.  To redouble our efforts to promote the rights of girls wherever they live in the world.   This first International Day of the Girl is also a day to honor girls like Kanchi.  A day to take the story of her success in one tiny corner of Nepal and shout it out, an inspiration for girls all around the world.  Girls like Kanchi with the strength, the bravery, the determination to change the world, but who  just need the opportunity.

Originally published on The Advocates Post.

The Importance of Educating Girls

 

Fifth grade class in Chuchoquesera, Peru

When I visited the classroom pictured above in the Peruvian highlands back in 2004, I noticed that slightly more than half of the students were girls. I remarked on this fact to the human rights activist who was giving us the tour of this Quechua-speaking indigenous community.  He smiled sadly and said,

“Yes, but this is fifth grade.  In sixth grade, children go to a lower secondary school that is farther away.  Most of the girls won’t go.  It takes too long to walk there and they are needed to help at home, so the parents won’t let them go.  Besides, most of them will be married soon.”

Unfortunately, this is a situation of gross inequality for girls that is repeated in communities throughout the world.

In the United States, where education is both compulsory and free, we often forget that the right to education is not meaningfully available in many parts of the world – especially for girls.  The UN estimates that there were more than 67 million primary school-age and 73 million lower secondary school-age children out of school worldwide in 2009.  In addition, an estimated 793 million adults lack basic literacy skills. The majority of them are women.

Since then, I have visited classrooms and asked questions about girls’ access to education in countries on several continents.  This is a photo I took at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

Kindergarten class, Buduburam Refugee Settlement, Ghana

Boys far outnumbered girls in this classroom, illustrating another of the problems for girls in accessing education.  When resources are scarce, parents will often choose to spend the money on school fees for their sons rather than their daughters.

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to promote economic growth and development.

“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

Ensuring equal access to education for all girls by 2015 is part of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, making this issue a major focus of work by the United Nations (for more info, check out the UN Girls’ Education Initiative site), the World Bank and many international non-governmental organizations.   October 11  has been designated as the International Day of the Girl Child to draw attention to the topic.
Nepal
On a much smaller scale, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal is doing its part to encourage gender parity in education and  increase literacy rates.  The school works in partnership with The Advocates for Human Rights (the non-profit where I work) to prevent child labor and improve the lives and well-being of the neediest children in this community in the Kathmandu Valley. I travel there regularly to monitor progress at the school.
 cropped-spcs-program1.jpg
 For several years, the school has successfully met goals for gender parity among students in both the primary and lower secondary grades. For the 2011-2012 school year, 147 of the 283 students in pre-school through eighth grade are girls. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, 15 of the 31 students in ninth and tenth grade are young women.
Pre-K student at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, Nepal

Most of the students’ families work in agriculture.  They are farmers with little or no money to spare on school fees, uniforms and supplies.   Many of them are from disadvantaged groups such as the Tamang and Newari.  Indigenous group with their own cultures and languages, the indigenous students must learn Nepali as well as English when they come to school.  Frequently, the adults in the family are illiterate.
 

 9th Grade students at SPCS

How has the teaching staff managed this success at keeping girls in school?  Since the school’s founding in 1999, the teachers have conducted outreach to parents and worked hard to encourage female students to attend and stay in school in spite of societal pressure to get married or enter domestic work. It took more than 10 years, but their efforts have paid off.  While girls worldwide generally are less likely to access, remain in, or achieve in school, 52% of the students in K-8th grades at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School this year are girls. And a girl is at the top of the class in most of the grades at SPCS.

The impact of the school both on the individual students and on the community over the past 12 years has been profound.  When I was there in March of 2011, we interviewed approximately 60% of the parents of SPCS students.  It was clear to me that parents value the education that their children are receiving and, seeing the value, have ensured that the younger siblings are also enrolled in school rather than put to work.  Twelve years ago, there were many students in the area out of school but now most are attending school. I could also see the physical benefits that the students derived from attending school when they stood next to their parents.  Even the 5th grade girls towered over their parents, illustrating the simple cause-and-effect of adequate nutrition, wellness checkups, and not having to work in the fields from a very young age.

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School may be a small school in a remote valley, but it is a place where the human right to education is alive and well, providing a better future for these children.  In particular, the effect that these girls have on their community, their country and – hopefully, the world – will be thrilling to watch.

 

This post was originally written for World Moms Blog.
Photo credit for photo to Dulce Foster