Imagine you suffered years of near daily physical, sexual, and psychological abuse from your husband in silence, knowing that every time you tried to escape, he found you and beat you worse for attempting to leave him.
Imagine he told you that you were his property and your role as his wife was to serve him for the rest of your life.
Imagine you go to the police, begging them to keep you safe. They refuse, saying that your husband has the right to discipline his wife how he chooses. Your husband finds out and beats you worse to punish you for going to the police.
Terrified, you flee with your children to the United States, determined to give them a better life. You have heard that, in the United States, people believe women should have the same rights as men. You hear that there are laws in the United States against domestic violence, and that the laws are followed.
After a dangerous journey, you finally reach the United States. You file for asylum, but while your case is pending the law protecting domestic violence survivors changes. Now you live in fear that you will be deported back to the nightmare you and your children fled.
This situation is the lived reality of many domestic violence survivors represented by The Advocates for Human Rights and our volunteer attorneys. In the summer of 2018, Attorney General Jeffrey B. Sessions issued a decision in Matter of A-B- that threw into question the well-established precedent recognizing a protected group for survivors of domestic violence whose home country governments did not protect them from their abusers.
Following the Matter of A-B- decision, many judges around the country have recognized that domestic violence survivors who cannot receive protection from their home country governments continue to qualify for protection. In too many cases, however, judges have used this decision to deny protection to women and children fleeing domestic and family violence.
Collectively, we risked nothing in attending tonight’s event—in coming together to advocate for others.
People around the world risk everything.
In July, Julianne and I attended a conference in Zagreb, the capital and largest city in Croatia. The conference was called by The Advocates for Human Rights. We were part of a team of 7 volunteers, trained by The Advocates, and assigned to collect the stories of 31 human rights defenders from 17 countries.
The first morning, we gathered in the hotel conference room at 8 a.m. Our first task was to find a coffee tin …
… to block cell phone signals.
Some participants worried their cell phones had been compromised, participants like Hanna from a Central European country. When her 8-year-old mobile phone was stolen during a lunch break, Hanna contacted her sister to let her know she was safe. She then activated her safety protocol to ensure that her phone was not compromised.
With the tin can secured, Julianne and I opened the conference with a talking circle. Our job was to quickly establish an environment of safety and trust—so people would share their stories.
As they did, a terrifying pattern emerged: the rise of populism and the radical right have fueled violence against women, the LGBT community and immigrants across the globe.
Participants shared harrowing stories of violence, of police ignoring hate crimes—of courts not enforcing laws that protect vulnerable communities.
What is as terrifying as the violence itself is this fact:
Violence. Discrimination. Human Rights Abuses. They are a tactic in a larger geopolitical effortto ensure that powerful global business interests have their candidates in elected positions of power.
Our new friends from Italy, Austria, Belarus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine cited examples of extremist candidates elected by inciting fear of immigrants, of losing their “native” cultures, of ceding to gender politics.
The right is well organized, disciplined and well-coordinated … around the globe.
The right is a force we need to match, and The Advocates for Human Rights is on the forefront of that battle. With more than 20 years of experience in working with women’s groups in Europe, providing advocacy, legal training, and research, The Advocates is a trusted partner. They have a proven track record of leveraging skilled volunteers and building local capacity for action.
Rose and her team had prepared us well.
The conference galvanized the participants. They vowed to support one another, to reclaim human rights tools for rapid response to defend against false information and media attacks. To train lawyers, work with police and prosecutors, to learn effective communications strategies, to share resources and continue to meet—no matter the risks.
Two weeks after I returned home, I was sitting in my car, waiting for my kids to finish practice, thinking about what to make for dinner, what work I needed to finish. I picked up my phone and scrolled through the headlines.
In my news feed, was my new friend, Svetlana, an LGBT advocate in Russia whom I had met at the conference in Croatia.
Svetlana was speaking about her colleague, Yelena Grigoryeva, a well-known LGBT activist in Russia. Yelena had been found stabbed to death—murdered—outside her St. Petersburg apartment.
Days earlier, Yelena had gone to the police to report that she was on a “Gay Kill List.”
Just this past week, Svetlana, was in the news again. She and her colleagues in the Russian LBGT community were imploring the police and the ministry of internal affairs to solve Yelena’s murder—to find the people behind the Gay Hit List, a list published by an anonymous online group called Saw, after the American cult horror film. Saw continues their assault, offering cash for murders—and telling LBGT activists that unless they murder their own colleagues, they themselves will be killed.
Julianne and I don’t want to lose another friend, which is why we teamed up today to ask for your help.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as well as the month in which Sheila Wellstone and her husband Sen. Paul Wellstone died in the crash of a small airplane in 2002.
For those who knew her, the two are forever linked, because Sheila was a leader in bringing awareness to the crushing impact of domestic violence.
A self-described ‘wrestling mom’, Sheila traveled the state with Paul during his 1990 senate campaign. As she sat in coffee shops and VFW halls, she heard women talking about the abuse they suffered in their own homes at the hands of the men they thought loved them. While economic dependency played a role, it was also a mix of fear and shame that shackled them to their abusers.
Recognizing these women and children needed laws and services to help them find safety and to break the cycle of violence, Sheila and Paul enlisted then Sen. Joe Biden to help them draft the bill that would become the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
Meanwhile, 1991 saw the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court and the testimony of Anita Hill about the sexual comments Thomas had allegedly made to her when they worked together in a previous job. The panel of male senators sniggered their way through her testimony like embarrassed schoolboys, and we know how that turned out. I still believe Anita Hill!
Shortly after that, the Star Tribune ran a series called “Free to Rape,” detailing the lenient sentencing practices in Minnesota in cases of rape and domestic assault.
In that series, a Hennepin County victims’ advocate said that she wished there was an organization like MADD to keep an eye on the courts. “Until that happens, nothing will change.”
That article was the catalyst for WATCH (Women At The Court House, later condensed to WATCH), which I helped found later that year. The mission was to make the courts more responsive and effective in handling cases of violence against women and children and to create a more informed and involved public.
The idea was simple: trained volunteers would monitor felony cases of sexual assault and domestic violence from arraignment through sentencing. They would note “objectively observable behaviors” of court personnel, such as timeliness, ability to he heard, attentiveness to the victim, apparent race of the victim and the defendant, amount of bail set, any upward or downward departures from the sentencing guidelines, as well as how much of the proceeding took place in the judges’ chambers.
Cases with unusual outcomes would be referred to staff for further research to develop a more complete understanding of the issues affecting the case. WATCH looked for systemic patterns of behavior, not for the occasional misstep.
And yes, volunteers would carry clipboards because judges requested a way for them to be easily identifiable to them, but not to a jury. Red clipboards were chosen because they were on sale the day we went shopping, not as an incendiary color to intimidate anyone (as one judge later charged)!
The report made recommendations on how the often-byzantine system could be more easily navigated by the public, especially victims and their families, as well as changes to certain policies that left victims exposed to more danger As Hennepin County District Court Judge Daniel Mabley wrote at the time, “The report demonstrates that sometimes the best ideas for change come from “outsiders” who are not biased by the assumptions and history that often blinds insiders to the need or potential for change.”
Over the years, WATCH expanded into observing and reporting on similar cases at the misdemeanor level, conducted a multi-year monitoring and research project in child protection court, advocated successfully for a designated domestic violence court, monitored family court in order for protection hearings, compared sentencing practices in misdemeanor domestic violence cases in the suburban courts to those in the downtown court, worked to pass legislation making strangling a felony offense, not a misdemeanor, and much more. Recently, WATCH expanded into Ramsey and Washington counties and issued two reports on the prosecution of sex trafficking in those jurisdictions.
But in the very early years, we were encouraged and guided by Sheila Wellstone. She moved behind the scenes to bring domestic violence out of the shadows. With others, including WATCH, she helped change the legal and cultural attitudes that viewed domestic violence as a family matter.
WATCH recently became a project of The Advocates for Human Rights, and I cannot imagine a more perfect partnership.
Our work is cut out for us. In 2017, 24 people in Minnesota died as a result of domestic violence, 19 of them women, the other five family members or friends of the victims.
All acts of violence are horrific, but violence in the home passes its toxic seeds on to the next generation, and the next after that. Children who grow up witnessing abuse have a difficult time breaking the cycle.
In October, we pause to remember those who have been silenced by an intimate partner, and to renew our commitment to end the pandemic of domestic violence. And I’d add, to honor the courageous work of Sheila Wellstone.
To volunteer with The Advocates’ WATCH Project, please click here.
By: Susan Lenfestey, founder of WATCH, the court monitoring and judicial policy non-profit based in Minneapolis, MN. Susan is the 2019 Gold WATCH Award Recipient.
During my time interning with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights, I conducted research on violence against women in Mexico. What I learned through my research represents one of the most troubling cases of human rights infringements, as the State condones impunity for perpetrators.
In 2007, the government of Mexico passed a promising law regarding femicide, physical and sexual violence, as well as “violence against the woman’s dignity, integrity or freedom.” While the aim of this law is to combat the violence women suffer, the perpetrators are often government officials or public defenders themselves. Accusations made against public authorities intertwine with the ongoing relationship between drug cartels and the government, as it is reported that the cartels control the police. There have been numerous accounts of women filing claims with officers only to be sexually harassed and/or threatened in return. This, in turn, allows for the continuation of corruption and absence of justice.
The research I conducted on violence against women in Mexico was for The Advocates’ report to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) for their review of Mexico’s compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Advocates’ report revealed how violence against women and impunity violates Arts. 1, 2, 4(1), 10, 12, 13, 14 and 16 of the Convention. By comparing Mexico’s State Party Report and the CAT’s List of Issues Prior to Reporting and Recommendations from the prior review, we were able to identify he gaps between the government’s stated commitments and its actual implementation of reform to protect women.
Along with two other interns, I then analyzed information (used with permission) about human rights abuses experienced by The Advocates’ asylum clients from Mexico. The experience of these clients illustrated the Mexican government’s failure to protect women from violence. These women reported not only experiencing violence, but also threats from the police, lack of action, and even accounts of stalking after reporting domestic violence.
One client, for example, fled to the United States out of fear of being killed by her former partner, a member of a Mexican drug cartel. The police told her that they were unable to do anything about her partner’s violent abuse and his threats to her family—the cartel “had the police,” is what she told The Advocates. The client fled to another Mexican state, but her former partner made threats on social media and left messages on her phone, saying that he would find her, kill her and chop her up. Additionally, another client was sexually harassed by a police captain when she filed a case regarding her kidnapped brother. He threatened her with further violence and following the incident, he and fellow officers frequently harassed and threatened her when patrolling her neighborhood.
In addition to sharing the firsthand experience of The Advocates’ clients with the UN Committee Against Torture, we also made recommendations for measures the Mexican government should adopt to protect women from violence. First, Mexico should establish oversight bodies and accountability processes to ensure the full implementation of the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence. In tandem to this, we recommend that the government of Mexico create training programs, in consultation with or led by NGOs serving victims, for their law enforcement and judiciary to be better informed on the dynamics of domestic and gender-based violence against women, including responses that follow best practice standards and international legal norms.
The slow progress toward equality and justice for women in Mexico reflects a number of discriminatory factors that allow inequality to prevail. For example, women are under-represented in governance positions in Mexico, although it is recognized that women in these positions are more inclined to “advocate for social issues that benefit all.” Greater female representation in decision-making roles may help foster efforts to promote gender equality or focus greater attention on violence against women issues, including femicide.
Widespread violence against women and anti-feminist sentiment are embedded in other aspects of life in Mexico, including the continuation of child marriage and barriers to female education. A study out of Mexico City revealed that 25,000 girls between 12 and 14 years of age were already married. Forced and early marriage has an impact on girls’ education, and 83% of married girls do not attend school. When girls do not complete their education, studies show that poverty increases in tandem to domestic and gender-based violence against women, unplanned or early pregnancy, and other female health issues.
When the government fails to hold offenders accountable, it sends a message that violence against women will be tolerated. Furthermore, impunity for violence against women not only perpetuates these violations, but encourages negative rhetoric concerning gender roles. The Advocates’ asylum clients’ experiences reveal that much of the violence against women involves sexual violence. Abuse, harassment, and threats against women often sexually objectify or reflect harmful misperceptions that women are a weaker sex.
Without accountability in her country, no woman is truly safe. The international community has called on Mexico to better protect women through the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, as well as other treaty body reviews. To date, however, Mexico’s stated commitments have not been implemented. Pledges made to the international community mean almost nothing to those individual survivors of violence, especially when these commitments are being made by those who have the power to rectify but merely perpetuate the situation. Many women have lost faith in the State’s ability and willingness to protect them, leading to the difficult choice to leave home and seek asylum in the United States. Until the government finds a way to create accountability and effectively combat on violence against women, Mexico will continue to be unsafe for women and girls.
I’ve learned a lot about violence against women while working with The Advocates, globally as well as domestically. Their website www.stopvaw.org offers information, tools and legal advocacy to inform the world about these injustices. Raising international awareness and advocating for international law is an exemplary tool for attempting to bring justice to women survivors of intimate partner violence when their governments cannot or will not protect them.
By Sydney Shelstad, rising University of Minnesota senior majoring in Political Science and Global Studies with a concentration in Human Rights and Social Justice. She was a spring 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.
The UN Human Rights Council provides opportunities for non-governmental organizations to pursue human rights advocacy at the UN level through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process for reviewing the human rights records of States. Before the start of a particular country’s review, non-governmental organizations can submit a “stakeholder report” to the Council about the overall human rights situation or focusing on a specific issue in the country, relying on desk research and firsthand information.
Reporting on domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina
As an International Justice intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I had the opportunity to work on the organization’s UPR stakeholder report about domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In my research, I focused on understanding victims’ experiences with key institutions that provide support for victims of domestic violence, such as centers for social work, courts, police, and safe houses. I found out that victims lack access to resources due to insufficient funding, poor multi-sectoral collaboration, and inadequate responses from some of the key actors mentioned above.
Based on this research, I assisted with compiling a report that The Advocates and our local partner Ženski Centar Trebinje submitted to the Human Right Council in March 2019 for the UPR of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which will take place in November 2019. Apart from shedding light on the issues that victims of domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina face, our report put forth recommendations for the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to improve its responses to domestic violence. You may find the report here.
A meaningful way to get involved with issues in my home country
Being from Bosnia and Herzegovina, I really appreciated the opportunity to get involved with this report. As much as I am grateful for my education in the United States, I wish that I could get physically involved with social movements and activism in my home country. While I was working on this report, my city held a protest because the Center for Social Work did not adequately respond to a domestic violence case perpetrated by a father against his daughters. Their mother issued a plea via Facebook, sharing how unsupported she felt by the institutions whose sole responsibility was to protect her daughters. Hearing her story made it even more important to engage with the issue of domestic violence.
Although I was not able to protest, I could at least voice her concerns in our report. By translating her story and bringing it to a space devoted to human rights, I made it possible for the relevant international actors to hear her story. To me, The Advocates’ work implies carrying messages from the local actors to international institutions, bridging the physical distance between the two, overcoming language barriers if there are any, and navigating the bureaucratic nature of international institutions.
While I cannot guarantee that delivering her message will have an impact on the case, nor that this report will eliminate domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina overnight, I recognize that advocacy at the UN, as a well-established mechanism, is a useful first step. It serves as a platform to raise awareness about issues and put pressure on government officials to implement the suggested solutions. Based on the recommendations from the 2014 UPR cycle Bosnia and Herzegovina established free legal aid clinics, but yet has to implement many more recommendations.
As part of the UPR process, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government delegation and UN member countries will engage in an interactive dialogue this November. Often, countries raise questions and suggest solutions based on stakeholder reports. I hope that they will voice the concerns that we included in the report and make a formal expectation for the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to implement our recommendations, as important steps toward the elimination of domestic violence.
By Ana Gvozdić, a rising junior at Macalester College studying Political Science and Environmental Studies. She was a spring 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.
Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum and trafficking cases and documenting their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes.
In February 2019, Board member Peggy Grieve shared the experiences of our asylum clients with and made recommendations to the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. Peggy delivered the following oral intervention during the Committee’s Half-day General Discussion on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration.
Dear Members of the Committee:
From The Advocates for Human Rights’ direct legal representation of Northern Triangle clients, we have determined:
(1) children, even when traveling in the company of migrating adults, are vulnerable to sex trafficking; and
(2) after arrival in the U.S., adults and children are at risk of labor trafficking.
Two examples. One client entered the U.S. as a 15-year-old girl with her father. A family friend coerced her into leaving home. They traveled to live several states away where this friend groomed her to be sex-trafficked.
A client entered the U.S. without inspection with her boyfriend. He brought her to live with his family. Before long, he demanded that she repay him $10,000 he had paid smugglers for entry. He sexually assaulted her. She was forced into a low-paid, illegal job to cover her “debt.”
“No one is going to believe you. You don’t have a voice. Here you are nobody,” she was told.
To help women and girls, victims of trafficking, survive, heal, and ultimately integrate into society and live a life free of further exploitation, a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach that provides survivors with immigration and other legal protections and adequate support services is critical. The criminal justice approach focused on punishing traffickers, by itself, is insufficient to address the human rights of sex and labor trafficked survivors.
On behalf of our clients, the Advocates for Human Rights thanks the Committee for this important initiative.
The Advocates for Human Rights encourages the Committee to consider the experience of our women and girl clients, as well as the recommendation for a victim-centered approach to identify and respond to meet the needs of trafficked women and girls in the context of global migration.