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.

PHOTO ESSAY: Cartooning for Peace

Cartoon by Kianoush

In May, I was in Geneva to participate in the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of Morocco and India.  I went for a run one day along Quai Wilson on Lake Geneva and discovered an exhibition of political cartoons. The exhibition was sponsored by Cartooning for Peace/Dessins pour la paix, an initiative conceived of by French political cartoonist Plantu and launched at the United Nations in 2006.  The goal of Cartooning for Peace is to promote better understanding and mutual respect between people of different faiths and cultures.  Cartooning for Peace also works to promote freedom of expression and to protect the rights of cartoonists.

Cartooning for Peace and the City of Geneva created the new International Prize for Editorial Cartoons to honor cartoonists for their talent, outstanding contribution and commitment to the values of tolerance, freedom and peace. On May 3, 2012  – the World Day of Press Freedom – the prize was awarded for the first time to four Iranian political cartoonists.

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani
Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

The exhibition Dessins Pour La Paix  2012 displayed the work of the award-winning Iranian artists Mana Neyestani, Kianoush,  Firoozeh Mozaffari and Hassan Karimzade.

In addition, the exhibition included dozens of political cartoons by cartoonists around the world on the themes of freedom of expression, the Arab spring and the rights of women.

The exhibition in Geneva ran from May 3 to June 3, 2012.  The full catalogue of the cartons featured in the exhibit is now available online.

Take a stroll with me along Quai Wilson and witness the power of the cartooning for peace!

ARAB SPRING 

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

ET LES FEMMES? (AND THE WOMEN?)

Photo credits to Amy Bergquist

Originally posted on 8/7/12 on

The Advocates for Human Rights’  blog

The Advocates Post.

Amina Filali and Violence Against Women in Morocco

Morocco demonstration

Demonstrations in Morocco after the suicide of Amina Filali

 Image source

Amina Filali was only 16 years old when she took her own life.  According to reports, Amina was raped last year at the age of 15 by an older man, but that crime alone was not what drove her to swallow rat poison. Instead of seeing her rapist punished for his crime, Amina was forced to marry him. A few months into an unconscionable marriage, her rapist/ husband was beating her, she told her mother. Her mother counseled her to try and bear it, according to the Moroccan daily al-Massa.  Amina must have seen no way out, no future worth living.

Why would a judge order – or even recommend – a young girl to marry her rapist? Under Article 475 of the Morocco Penal Code, a perpetrator of rape on a minor is allowed to escape punishment if he marries the victim.  While it may not be a provision of Moroccan law that is used frequently, it is a violation of human rights that has attracted international scrutiny both before and after Amina’s tragic death.  I saw this myself when I was in Geneva last November with a group of Moroccan human rights activists.  We were there to participate in the review of Morocco’s compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture.  Violence against women is considered torture under the Convention and the independent committee of experts charged with monitoring state compliance with the treaty had many pointed questions for the Moroccan delegation about Article 475 and other provisions related to the Moroccan government’s failure to protect women from violence.

There is no text that allows a rapist to escape prosecution or a “kidnapper” to escape punishment if he marries his victim, the Government assured the UN Committee Against Torture.  The penal code has a law on the rape of a minor, but the victim – if she has reached puberty – may CHOOSE to marry.  The marriage, if it takes place, continued the Moroccan Government delegation, would have to be based on the consent of the victim.

As Amina’s case shows, “consent” is neither adequate protection for a minor nor a remedy for the crime of rape.  Victims are not often in a position to offer informed consent as they may be pressured into marriage as an alternative in order to preserve family honor.  But in Amina’s case, Amina’s father has, according to some news reports, denied that the family ever consented to the court ruling ordering marriage to preserve family honor.

Amina’s story may be shocking to some of us, but it is a glimpse at the reality of the violence faced by women in Morocco every day.  While it is difficult to determine the exact prevalence of domestic violence throughout Morocco, statistics that are available demonstrate that domestic violence is a widespread problem. A 2011 national study on the prevalence of violence against women found that 62.8% of women in Morocco of ages 18-64 had been victims of some form of violence during the year preceding the study.

The Moroccan Penal Code provides insufficient protection against rape and sexual assault, which are often unreported and prosecutions not pursued. Spousal (also called marital or conjugal) rape is not specifically considered a crime in the Penal Code nor is it prosecuted in practice. Women are deemed to have consented to all sexual relations with their husband by the fact of marrying them. Women do not seek help when they are raped by their husbands because of the social stigma associated with rape, the difficulty in proving rape, and the futility in reporting an act that the Moroccan Government does not even recognize it as a crime. The issue of marital rape in Morocco is trivialized by the officials and executives, and is considered as being unimportant, and therefore, it is not defined nor is it acknowledged by the Moroccan law.

Rape cases in general are difficult to prove in Morocco, as actual physical injuries are required to prove non-consent. Under the Penal Code, rape is considered a crime against morality and not identified as a crime against persons.Women are deterred from reporting rape cases because of the lack of response from law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Even when a rape case is investigated, the perpetrator is not always punished.

Furthermore, sexual relations outside of marriage are illegal in Morocco, and penalties are increased if one or both people engaged in the affair are already married. Thus, there is a strong disincentive for a woman like Amina to report a rape as she risks being prosecuted for illicit sexual relations if she does not prevail in proving her rape case and she is not married to her rapist. Is it any wonder that Amina apparently kept her rape a secret even from her parents for two months?

Amina’s story is a tragedy.  But the media attention it has drawn is a cause for hope.  Amina’s story has raised awareness both inside and outside of the country about violence against women.  In addition to the media attention, there is a reinvigorated campaign to abolish the law.  There is a Facebook page and an online petition.  There have been demonstrations, with protests planned for this Saturday, March 17.

The silver lining to Amina’s story would be that the internal and external pressure  on the Moroccan government finally results in the passing of a Violence Against Women law in Morocco.  (A draft is currently stalled in InterMinisterial consultations and has not yet been introduced in Parliament.)

As the Moroccan human rights activists recommended to the UN Committee Against Torture last November:

The Moroccan Government should pass a specific violence against women law that contains both criminal and civil provisions.

• Care should be taken that that the new law does not contain provisions that would cause further harm to victims.
• The new law should expand the definition of violence against women and ensure various types of relationships
are covered by the law
• The new law should establish civil remedies, including comprehensive Civil Protection Order provisions for
women who are victims of violence

Morocco’s Penal Code should be amended to:

• explicitly criminalize conjugal rape;
• abolish criminal prosecutions for illicit sexual relations;
• eliminate laws that criminalize those who assist or harbor married women;
• abolish provisions that allow a perpetrator of rape to escape prosecution for marrying his victim; and
• eliminate discriminatory legal provisions that place heavy burdens of proof solely on the victim of violence.

Sources:

Moroccan girl commits suicide after being forced to marry her rapist, Al Arabiya News, March 14, 2012  http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/03/14/200577.html

 Morocco protest after raped Amina Filali kills herself, BBC News, March 15, 2012  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17379721

Morocco Penal Code, Article 475

U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, “2010 Human Rights Practices: Morocco”, (April 8, 2011), available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/nea/154468.htm (last visited October 10, 2011).

Moroccan Haut Commissaire au Plan, “Principaux résultats de l’Enquête Nationale sur la Prévalence de la Violence à l’Egard des Femmes (version française)”, (January 2011), available at  http://www.hcp.ma/Conference-debat-consacree-a-l-etude-de-la-violence-a-l-egard-de-femmes-au-Maroc_a66.html (last visited October 6, 2011); see also, UN Women, “Moroccan Government Release Extensive Gender-Based Violence Study”, (10 January 2011), available at  http://www.unwomen.org/2011/01/moroccan-government-releases-extensive-gender-based-violence-study/ (last visited October 6, 2011).

Written Communications to The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (26 September 2011).

MOROCCO: Challenges with addressing domestic violence in compliance with the  Convention Against Torture 47th  Session of the Committee Against Torture (31 October – 25 November, 2011), Joint Written Statment submitted by The Advocates for Human Rights and Global Rights, in collaboration with an alliance of Moroccan NGOs at http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/final_shadow_report_to_cat_re_morocco_response_to_dv_oct_14_2011_sent_to_geneva_2.pdf

Raising Boys Not To Be Total Jerks

At some level, I’ve known since before my oldest son was born that this moment would come.  But when it did, it took me utterly and completely off guard.  I was driving a car full of boys home from a soccer tournament last week when my 9-year-old son piped up from the back,

“Hey mom! I’ve got a funny joke.  I’ll ask you a question and you say, ‘Ketchup and rubber buns'”.  “I’ve heard this one,” chuckled my 12-year-old son.  Snickers all around from the soccer players.  

Apparently, I was the only one who didn’t know what was coming next.

“What did you have for breakfast?”  “Oatmeal and ketchup and rubber buns.”

“No! Mom!  Just say ketchup and rubber buns.”

“What did  you have for breakfast?” “Ketchup and rubber buns.”

“What did you have for lunch?”  “What did you have for dinner?”  Etc. etc.  And then we get to the punchline:

“What do you do when you see a hot chick? You catch up and rub her buns!”     Peals of laughter from the boys.

To my very great credit, I did not run the station wagon off the road and into the ditch.  I kept driving – silent, hands gripping the wheel, looking straight ahead.  It was a perfect autumn day.  The sky was brilliant blue and the afternoon sun was catching the full color of the orange and yellow leaves on the trees along the highway.   It was a beautiful, perfect day but inside I was angry. I was mortified. I was disappointed.  I was desperately struggling to think of what I should say.

Every once in a while, though, it is helpful to have gone to law school.  “I don’t think that joke is funny.  You know, if you actually ran after a woman and touched her in an offensive way like that, it would be called “assault and battery”. It is a crime.  You could be arrested.”

“You could be arrested for THAT?”  “Yes.  Plus, the woman could also sue you.”

Silence descends.

“Also, I’ve actually had that happen to me. How do you think it feels to have a stranger grab your butt?”

“WHAT? That actually happened to YOU?”

“Sure. More than once. Usually at parties.”

“That’s kind of  making me feel sick,” said the 12-year-old.

More silence.

From the 9-year-old:  “I remember you saying that you didn’t like running past construction sites because the construction workers whistled and yelled things at you.”

I didn’t remember telling them that, but it’s true.  When I was a teenager, I used to go way off my normal running routes just to avoid running past a construction site.  Good, they were listening.

“So what are you going to say the next time you hear someone tell a joke like that?”        “Stop, Mom! We get it, ok?”

Teachable moment: ended.  I decided just to leave it there  – for now.  These are intelligent boys, good kids who love and respect their mom and their sister, their grandmothers, their female friends and teachers.   But they, like other young Americans, are deeply impacted by the culture that they live in. Children are exposed to an estimated 16,000 images every day.  They are powerfully influenced by their peers (I know they didn’t hear THAT joke at home).   How can that not impact the way that they view girls and women?  And isn’t it only going to get worse as they move through middle and high school?

The Ketchup Joke was a call to action for me.  I need to do more to raise these boys to recognize the problem and, hopefully one day, to speak up when they hear someone tell a sexist joke.    Thankfully, there are a lot of resources out there – research, organizations, websites.   The Advocates for Human Rights has developed a Challenge the Media workshop and resource list.   And I know that other parents have successfully managed to raise their sons not to be total jerks, but to be men who respect and treat women as equals.

I’ll report back periodically on what I have found.  In the meantime, I would welcome hearing about what others have learned.    But first, I’ve got a date with my sons.  We are going to see Miss Representation.

We've still got a long way to go, but we've taken the first step.

My Suffragist Grandmother

Suffrage procession in Minneapolis on May 2, 1914
From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society
Source: thomaslowrysghost.tumblr.com


Election Day is coming up Tuesday and you can be damn sure that I am going to cast my vote.  

I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian and all the inspirational people that I’ve met over the years who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

My Grandma Lillian was raised by her grandmother, Thorina Melquist.  Thorina was an immigrant from Norway whose oldest daughter (my great-grandmother) died of typhoid fever just weeks after she gave birth to my grandmother. Thorina’s youngest child was only nine months older than my grandmother.  She weaned him in order to nurse my newborn grandmother, who had also contracted typhoid but somehow – miraculously – survived. (And, yes, “Thorina” is the female version of the name of the Norse god of thunder.)

In addition to farmwork and child-rearing, Thorina was a dedicated suffragist.  She believed strongly in equal voting rights for women and she often participated in demonstrations advocating for the right to vote for women. Women received full suffrage rights in Norway in 1913, so Norwegian immigrant women (along with their Finnish, Swedish and Danish counterparts) played a notable role in the suffrage movement at the local level in Minnesota and other states with large Scandinavian immigrant populations.  The photo at left shows women from several Scandinavian countries in traditional dress marching against inequality and for universal women’s suffrage on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.
My Grandma Lillian grew up as a suffragist.  She was still pretty young in 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by Minnesota.  Women’s suffrage became national law on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Constitutional amendment.In some ways, it is surprising to think that less than 100 years ago, women in America could not vote.  I was a toddler in Louisiana when that state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1970 – 50 years after initially rejecting it.   And Mississippi didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984!

Now the right to participate in government is one that we Americans take for granted – so much so that less than half of the population votes unless it is a Presidential election year.  In 2008, the voter turnout was 63%, a high water mark that is low in comparison with most countries.  In U.S. local elections, the voter turnout is even lower.  Many of the mayors of major U.S. cities are elected with single-digit turnout. That’s just shameful.

I love to vote.  In fact, I vote every chance that I can – legally at least. I always try to bring my kids with me when I vote, so they can see that having a voice in the democratic process is something both important and valuable.

But when I’m standing in the voting booth, I feel like there are others there in the voting booth with me.  They are some of the inspirational people that I’ve met over the years who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

Standing with me is the young Haitian asylum seeker who was beaten by police at a polling place in order to discourage him from voting for Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990.  He held his own, though, and stood there bleeding and bandaged for several hours before he finally had the opportunity to put his check next to Aristide’s rooster symbol on the ballot.  It was the first time he had ever voted – and it was a remarkable act of courage and endurance.  In telling me about it, he summed it up by saying,

“I voted!  It was a very good day.”

In the voting booth with me are also many of the amputees in Sierra Leone in 2004.  It was common practice during the conflict there for members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to hack off the hands or arms of people with machetes.  Some of them had been targeted during elections so that they couldn’t vote by leaving their fingerprint mark on the paper ballot.  I also heard that the RUF brutally amputated hands during one election because the government’s slogan was that,”The power is in the hands of the people.”

I visited Sierra Leone in 2004, after the conflict had ended and just prior to the first post-conflict elections.  As I traveled through the countryside, I saw people coming together for meetings to discuss the upcoming elections.  In spite of the horrors that they had endured, they were coming together in villages big and small, to exercise their right to participate in their government.  Here is a photo I took of a gathering in a village far out in the bush in the Kono district, an area that endured particularly brutal human rights abuses.  Yet now, as the country was slowly emerging from the conflict, the villagers were coming together to discuss the upcoming local election process.

My Suffragette Grandmother

Although my grandmother gained the right to vote, she was never able to go to college.   She was certainly smart enough, but her family couldn’t see the point in wasting good money on educating a girl.  Grandma Lillian never expressed bitterness about this to me. But one afternoon when I was in high school, I stopped by to say hello and to get her thoughts on my top college picks.  I remember sitting in my grandparents’ darkened living room.  A mantel clock ticked and the air conditioner hummed.  It now seems impossibly calm and quiet, so different from my current raucous and messy living room. My Grandma Lillian told me that the most important thing was to follow my dreams.

 “You can do whatever you want to with your life. Be what you want to be.  
But never forget those of us who weren’t able to follow our dreams.                
Follow your dreams for us.”

 

Upcountry girls in Sierra Leone.  Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park.
Upcountry girls in Sierra Leone. Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park.

So that’s why I never miss the chance to vote.  I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian.  And for everyone else who can’t follow their dreams.

Every election day is an opportunity.  An opportunity to have a say in the decisions, big and small, that impact the lives of you and everyone around you.  Don’t make excuses, don’t be discouraged.  This is a right that is too valuable to waste.  On Tuesday, please get out there and VOTE!  If you need help finding your polling place, go here:

 

The photo at the top is of the Scandinavian Women’s Suffrage Association marching in a parade in Minneapolis in 1914.

I keep it in my office in honor of my Grandma Lillian.