News You May Have Missed (11-18 April, 2015)

Photo: MOhammad MOheimany  jamejamiage.irhttp://image.jamejamonline.ir/ImagePreviewSlider?nn=1869842704282503769&m=840228
Photo: MOhammad MOheimany jamejamiage.irhttp://image.jamejamonline.ir/ImagePreviewSlider?nn=1869842704282503769&m=840228

Although women in IRAN are still banned from riding a motorbike in public and are not able to get licenses, Behnaz Shafiei (the only Iranian female rider to have done professional road racing) was among the first group of women to obtain official permission to practice on off-road circuits. 

I was traveling for work during the month of March, so did not have time to do my weekly roundup of the human rights news items that I think deserve a little more attention. But I’m back now … so here we go with the news you may have missed this week!  

In the past 10 years, social campaigning by health workers and government regulations have forced the practice of female genital mutilation into the fringes in INDONESIA. But while the worst forms of female circumcision have largely fallen out of custom, the subtler practice still persists in potentially harmful ways.  Atas Habsjah, vice-chairwoman of the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI), acknowledges a transition from “scissor snipping” to “needle scratching,” but says it’s not enough. Most Indonesian girls, she says, still undergo some kind of circumcision. She argues that many clinics continue offering female circumcision because it’s “good business.” Female circumcision, like ear piercing, is charged as an optional extra to delivery. “They shouldn’t do anything at all. There is no medical indication, and it’s not in the Quran. We say don’t touch the genitals, it’s against human rights,” she says.

After determining that 10% of passengers experience unwanted sexual behavior on public transportation in London, UNITED KINGDOM but that only 1 in 10 reported it, Transport for London launched at new “Report it to stop it’” campaign.  The campaign aims to increase reporting of unwanted sexual harassment and assault on public transportation and gives specifics about how and what you need to report. 

Refugee family finds shelter in the Bili camp, just across the river from the Central African Republic.  UN Foundation/Corentin Fohlen
Refugee family finds shelter in the Bili camp, just across the river from the Central African Republic. UN Foundation/Corentin Fohlen

More than 20,000 new refugees from the CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC have arrived in northern CONGO since the end of 2014, bringing the total number here to almost 90,000. They live in spontaneous settlements near the banks of the Oubangui River, where malaria is endemic. Small medical teams have arrived to care for the refugees who left everything. They are also providing the mosquito nets they need to protect themselves.

The video Hilary Clinton used to launch her 2016 UNITED STATES presidential campaign will run in RUSSIA on TV Rain (Russia’s only remaining independent network) – but with an 18-and-over rating. A TV Rain spokesman told ABC News on Monday that the age warning was meant to avoid prosecution under the country’s ban on homosexual “propaganda” among minors.  One scene of the video shows two men holding hands and discussing their plans to get married this summer.

KENYA  has urged the UN refugee agency to remove the Dadaab camp housing more than half a million refugees from SOMALIA within three months, or it will do so itself. The request is part of a response to the recent killing of 148 people by Somali gunmen at a Kenyan university. Kenya says it is protecting national security, having in the past accused fighters of hiding out in Dadaab camp, the world’s largest refugee complex, which it now wants moved across the border to Somalia. In response, the UN refugee agency warned that forcibly repatriating the refugees (mostly Somali women and children, who have been living there for years or were born there, and have never been to Somalia) violates international law. 

Photo: Girl Up https://medium.com/@unfoundation/5-days-5-facts-educate-a-girl-change-the-world-2991193b319b
Photo: Girl Up https://medium.com/@unfoundation/5-days-5-facts-educate-a-girl-change-the-world-2991193b319b

The good news: According to the latest report on the Millennium Development Goals, “In 2012, all developing regions achieved, or were close to achieving, gender parity in primary education.”  The bad news: We still have further to go to make sure every girl can learn, especially as she advances into secondary school and beyond. Right now, more than 60 million girls are out of school. Poverty, discrimination, and conflict keep many girls from school. And in too many communities, girls are forced to marry young, drop out of school, and work in the home.

At the Paris Marathon last Sunday, Siabatou Sanneh of GAMBIA stood out from the other racers — in addition to her race number, she wore traditional Gambian garb and carried 45 pounds of water on her head. Sanneh, who had never left her home country before, participated in the marathon on behalf of Water for Africa to raise awareness of the difficulties African women face in accessing clean water. While she walked the race, she also wore a sign that read: “In Africa, women travel this distance everyday to get potable water. Help us shorten the distance.”

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Weekly Photo Challenge: A Parable of Renewal

I practiced asylum law for the first seven years of my career, representing refugees who were fleeing persecution and human rights abuses in their home countries and seeking safety in the U.S.  These are people who are not easy to forget and whose stories shouldn’t be forgotten.  Many of their stories – the details of their lives, their losses, their dreams – have stayed with me over the years.  The remarkable thing about the refugees I have known is not only their ability to survive incomprehensible losses, but also the strength and hope and determination they have to remake their lives in an entirely new country.  To learn new skills, speak new languages, adapt to new cultures.  To me, the refugee experience symbolizes this week’s Photo Challenge theme:  Renewal

 The picture above was taken in Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana, which I visited three times between 2007 and 2010. Buduburam was home for 20 years to more than 30,000 Liberians who fled the bloody conflict in their West African country.  Officially closed this year, Buduburam was a small, bustling Liberian city in the countryside outside of Accra.  Life was hard on the camp, where refugees even had to pay for water to drink and for access to the latrines. To improve their opportunities, many of the refugees at Buduburam enrolled in skills training courses; the photo shows some of classes offered by the New Liberian Women Organization (macrame being one of them, as you can also tell by the colorful plant hangers).  Even in a time of limbo, the refugees at Buduburam were striving for renewal. Those refugees who could afford it sent their children to school as education offers a chance for a new life.

I still hold many former asylum clients in my heart. I’d like to share the story of one refugee family I represented.  For me, it is a parable of renewal.

 James and Julia (not their real names) had been politically active in their native Kenya. Julia, in particular, had been very active in speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a young son, who I’ll call William, who had huge, solemn eyes.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog bit William on the head. You could still see the jagged scar on his scalp more than a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

 In police custody, Julia had been brutally beaten.  She was also repeatedly raped in custody, including with objects such as the muzzle of a rifle and a Coke bottle.  This testimony was critical to the success of their asylum case, so we had worked with Julia to prepare her to tell her full story, with as much accuracy as possible and as many details as she could remember.  “Just tell the truth about as much as you can remember of those weeks,” I urged. We all knew it would be painful.

 Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears. Asylum officers are specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview.  During my time practicing asylum law, I rarely saw an asylum officer actually cry during an asylum interview. 

 I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Not touching her, not looking at her, but supporting her as she spoke. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.  I had to look away. Even in my role as their attorney, a role which requires a special intimacy, I felt the need to give their family some small space of privacy as they recalled those terrible days.

 Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them. In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school. William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had another child, too – a daughter born here in America. She was wearing a pink tutu.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  They had experienced many challenges and frustrations with adapting to life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination and a bit of creativity, slowly but steadily they moved forward, finding healing for themselves and building a new life for their family.   It wasn’t easy, but James and Julia had managed to make something new out of nothing. 

Honoring The Defenders

I wrote this post for Bloggers Unite.

On Human Rights Day 2011, we pay tribute to all human rights defenders.  What is a human rights defender?  The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders describes them as people who act to address any human right (or rights) issue, anywhere in the world, on behalf of individuals or groups.  Human rights defenders can be individuals acting in their professional capacity or volunteering their time to work with an association or group.  If you add it all up, there are thousands – maybe millions – of human rights defenders in the world.  Each of us that takes action to promote and protect human rights is a defender.

As a human rights defender working in the United States, I have the freedom to work without fear of reprisal. For many defenders around the world, however, this is not the case.  Because of they act for human rights, human rights defenders are often targeted for human rights violations, including executions, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest, trial without due process, detention, death threats, harassment and discrimination.  They face restrictions on their freedom of movement, expression, association, and assembly. In addition to targeting human rights defenders themselves and the organizations through which they work, the human rights violations frequently target members of defenders’ families.   Women human rights defenders confront risks that are gender specific.

What happens to human rights defenders when the targeting gets to be too much? For more than seven years, I represented human rights defenders who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S.   Though I may not have seen them for years, I often think about my former clients.  On this Human Rights Day, I am thinking about James and Julia (not their real names). James and Julia were human rights defenders in their native Kenya, speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a little boy who I’ll call William.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog had bitten William on the head.  You could still see the wound a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.

In police custody, Julia had been brutally and repeatedly raped.  Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears.  It is one of the very  few times that have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview.  I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.

Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them.  In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school  William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had had another child, too – a daughter born here in America.

The ending is not always this happy for all human rights defenders.  That is why, this Human Rights Day, we all need to honor the work of human rights defenders and promote human rights both at home and in other countries.  One way to honor the work of the defenders is to be a defender yourself – take action.  The UN is asking you to Make a wish for human rights today!

To learn more about protecting human rights defenders:

http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx

http://www.protectionline.org/-Home-.html

http://www.fidh.org/-Human-Rights-Defenders,180-

Making Something Out of Nothing

If you knew me in my twenties, you probably remember me as a KOW (Knitting Obsessed Woman).  I didn’t learn how to knit until I was 19, but after that I was rarely without a pair of knitting needles in my hands.  My PR is knitting a pair of mittens in 5 hours the night before Valentine’s Day as a gift for my future (and current) husband. Because I learned to knit as an adult, I distinctly remember how difficult it is.  You feel awkward as you struggle to make the needles do what you need them to do. It’s difficult to make sense of the stitches and frustrating to decipher the patterns, which seem to be written in secret code.  If you make a mistake, you have to rip out your work and start over.  But what I absolutely love about knitting is the satisfaction that comes from taking what is basically a couple of sticks and a ball of string and, through sheer effort and determination, turning a bunch of knots into something that is beautiful and useful. You are making something out of nothing.

photo from brella
 http://www.flickr.com/photos/13750491@N06/3842647159

I haven’t done much knitting in the past decade.  There are several half-finished projects at the back of my closet,  hidden behind my boots so I can’t see them and feel guilty about them.   But last weekend my friend Amy showed me some mittens that she is making for her son.  They are My Neighbor Totoro mittens and they seriously could not be cuter.  I saw them and my fingers started itching – literally – to knit them.   You can find the pattern for Totoro Mittens on Ravelry.com or by clicking on this pdf. (Special thanks to brella for allowing me use both the image and the pattern in this blog!)


For the first seven years of my career, I represented people who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S.  Though I may not have seen them for years, I often think about my former clients.  On the day that Amy showed me the My Neighbor Totoro mittens, I happened to think of James and Julia (not their real names). James and Julia were politically active in their native Kenya, speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a little boy who I’ll call William.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog had bitten William on the head.  You could still see the wound a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

In police custody, Julia had been brutally and repeatedly raped.  Only a few times have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview.  Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears.  I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.


Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them.  In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school  William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had had another child, too – a daughter born here in America.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  I’m sure that they were frustrated at times with life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination, made a new life for themselves and their family.  In some ways, they had even followed a pattern – the American Dream.  It wasn’t easy, but James and Julia had done it.  They had made something out of nothing.