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A small group of people is changing the world for good

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“The world, if left to its own devices, is balanced evenly between good and bad. Each of us has the ability to tip it.” Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Especially today, with the horrific news of the Orlando mass shooting capturing people’s attention, a ray of optimism is needed. That beam of light was mighty and bright at our Human Rights Awards Dinner this month when we celebrated and honored people who are tipping the world in the right direction.

Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award

Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, addressing the Human Rights Awards Dinner audience.
Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, addressing the Human Rights Awards Dinner audience.

Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, received the esteemed Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award for his work investigating and exposing some of the world’s most egregious human rights violations. The Advocates’ connection to Mr. Heyns’ work as a special rapporteur began in the 1980s when The Advocates developed the groundbreaking Minnesota Protocol, the first set of international guidelines for investigating suspicious unlawful deaths. Effective investigation is key to establishing responsibility and holding perpetrators accountable, but no international standards existed at the time that required governments to initiate or carry out investigations of suspected unlawful deaths. Read some of Mr. Heyns’ remarks and about the Human Rights Awards Dinner.

The UN adopted the Minnesota Protocol in 1991 with the official title, UN Manual on the Effective Prevention of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. The manual, widely known as the Minnesota Protocol, has been used in myriad investigative contexts in almost every region of the world. Last year, Mr. Heyns asked The Advocates to help update the Minnesota Protocol with forensic, medical, and other advancements since the original publication. “The need for clear international standards that encompass the realities of human rights abuses in the twenty-first century has resulted in the current revision,” said Mr. Heyns.

In addition to his UN role, Heyns is professor of human rights law and director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Special Recognition Award

David Wippman, Dean, University of Minnesota Law School
David Wippman, Dean, University of Minnesota Law School

David Wippman, Dean of University of Minnesota Law School, was honored with The Advocates’ 2016 Special Recognition Award in recognition of his career-long human rights work and his stewardship in the creation of the University of Minnesota Law School’s pioneering Center for New Americans.

The only program of its kind in the United States, the Center was designed to expand urgently needed legal services for non-citizens, pursue litigation to improve our nation’s immigration laws, and educate non-citizens about their rights. The Center has already seen notable successes, including a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Center is made possible through a partnership between The Law School, The Advocates, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and the law firms of Faegre Baker Daniels, Robins Kaplan, and Dorsey & Whitney.

“We honor Dean Wippman for changing the world and Minnesota for good and leaving our community a better place,” said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director.

Volunteer Recognition Awards

Mary Ellen Alden
Mary Ellen Alden

Mary Ellen Alden
Since Mary Ellen Alden began volunteering with The Advocates in 2012, she has represented 15 asylum seekers, including women fleeing domestic violence in Honduras and Ethiopia; political activists from Togo, Syria, and Ethiopia; and Oromo activists from Ethiopia. Her passion for justice for her clients is unparalleled.

“We are proud to count Mary Ellen among our award recipients this year,” said Sarah Brenes, director of The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program. “She is priceless.”

 

Thomas Dickstein
Thomas Dickstein

Thomas Dickstein
For his bar mitzvah, Thomas Dickstein asked for donations to support The Advocates’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal. When he traveled to Nepal and connected with the school’s students, he returned home fired up. Over time, Thomas led a book and backpack drive for the school, developed a PowerPoint presentation and a video to convince others about the school’s need and success. “Thomas sets a great example for all of us,” said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director. “Imagine what a world we would have if everyone followed his lead.”

 

Front row, left to right: Max Schott, Gayle Shaub, Dean Eyler, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke Back row, left to right: Craig Miller, Meg Martin, Ashley Bailey, Brian Dillon, Monica Kelley, Joy Anderson, Nicole Strydom, Leah Leyendecker, Tammy Mayer, Sandy Bodeau, Karlie Hussey, Brianna Mooty, Matthew Webster, Elizabeth Dillon. Not pictured: Hallie Goodman, Amanda Sicoli, Scott Wick, Jodee Marble.
Front row, left to right: Max Schott, Gayle Shaub, Dean Eyler, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke Back row, left to right: Craig Miller, Meg Martin, Ashley Bailey, Brian Dillon, Monica Kelley, Joy Anderson, Nicole Strydom, Leah Leyendecker, Tammy Mayer, Sandy Bodeau, Karlie Hussey, Brianna Mooty, Matthew Webster, Elizabeth Dillon. Not pictured: Hallie Goodman, Amanda Sicoli, Scott Wick, Jodee Marble.

Gray Plant Mooty
Led by attorneys Max Schott and Dean Eyler, the pro bono team at Gray Plant Mooty has taken on complex cases involving female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and levirate marriage (a widow forced to marry her deceased husband’s brother). Many of the cases required additional fact-finding and expert documentation to understand the nuanced nature of the harm their clients suffered and the cultural context of the country in which it occurred.

Their litigation expertise allowed them to draw out critical facts from the clients and piece together the claims in ways the court could understand. “We’re thankful for the team’s commitment, and we’re proud to count them among our volunteer award recipients,” said Sarah Brenes, director of The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program. The team includes Joy Anderson, Ashley Bailey, Sandra Bodeau, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke, Brian Dillon, Elizabeth Dillon, Dean Eyler, Hallie Goodman, Karli Hussey, Monica Kelley, Leah Leyendecker, Megan Martin, Craig Miller, Brianna Mooty, Max Schott, Amanda Sicoli, Nicole Strydom, Matthew Webster, and Scott Wick; and paralegals Jodee Marble, Tammy Mayer, and Gayle Schaub.


Henok Gabisa & Stinson Leonard Street

When Henok Gabisa asked The Advocates to submit a complaint to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, The Advocates turned for help to  Theresa Hughes, of Stinson Leonard Street, who assembled a fantastic team, including Neal Griffin, Marc Goldstein, Marcia Sanford, and Andrew Scavotto.

Presented The Advocates' Volunteer Service Award at the event was Henok Gabisa, attorney & Oromo Studies Association president, & attorneys from Stinson Leonard Street. The team works with The Advocates to hold Ethiopia accountable for persecuting Oromos.
Presented The Advocates’ Volunteer Service Award at the event was Henok Gabisa, attorney & Oromo Studies Association president, & attorneys from Stinson Leonard Street. The team works with The Advocates to hold Ethiopia accountable for persecuting Oromos.

Mr. Gabisa had approached The Advocates because of Ethiopia’s persecution of Oromos, the largest ethnic group in that country. While for decades the Ethiopian government has persecuted them, the government in 2014 used lethal force to
respond to peaceful Oromo student protests. Protesters, some young teens, were arrested, detained without charge, and labeled terrorists.

Mr. Gabsia and Stinson team members in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. interviewed witnesses in the United States and abroad, prepared affidavits, tracked down first-hand information, prepared briefs, and ensured witnesses do not face retaliation. Their work to hold the Ethopian government accountable is changing the world for good.

Stinson Team
The Stinson Leonard Street team includes (L-R) Neal Griffin, Marc Goldstein, Andrew Scavotto, & Marcia Stanford

Thomson Reuters
A team of Thomson Reuters’ employees is being recognized for its research on Human Rights Council recommendations to assist with Universal Periodic Review lobbying. Members of the Thomson Reuters team include Mark Petty, Matthew Buell, Marianne Krljic, Ethan Wood, Blake Hatling, Bryan Bearss, Chelsea Reynolds, and Benjamin Petersburg.

Thomson Reuters Award Recipients
The Thomson Reuters’ team includes (L-R) Bryan Bearss, Matthew Buell, Ethan Wood, Marianne Krljic, Mark Petty, Chelsea Reynolds, Benjamin Petersburg, & Blake Hatling.

Lobbying the UN Human Rights council is tricky. Human rights defenders need to know which countries will be receptive to certain issues, but countries’ priorities can be opaque, ever-changing. The Advocates needed a special research team, so it turned to Thomson Reuters. With a worldwide reputation for making complex legal information understandable and accessible, it is no surprise that Thomson Reuters created an amazing volunteer team to streamline The Advocates’ UN lobbying. Three times a year, team members pore through thousands of UN statements to identify countries that may be receptive to lobbying on women’s rights, the death penalty, and LGBTI rights.

“With a few clicks of the Thomson Reuters’ spreadsheet, we identify the countries to target for lobbying,” said Jennifer Prestholdt, director of The Advocates’ International Justice Program. “Their lists are spot-on, and they are changing the world for good.”

Suzanne Turner
Turner Suzanne without backgroundAs coordinator of Dechert’s pro bono work, Suzanne Turner is central to finding eager volunteers to help The Advocates. She even recruited her school-aged daughter to blog about women’s human rights. She also traveled with The Advocates twice to the other side of the world to conduct fact-finding and to document how to strengthen Mongolia’s response to domestic violence.

“Suzie lives our mission,” said Rose Park, Director, The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program.

“All our SPCS family r safe…”

SPCS students enjoying recess.  March 2015. (Credit:  Jennifer Prestholdt)
Students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School enjoying recess in March, 2015. (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

“All our SPCS family r safe …”

This was the message I received from Anoop Poudel, headmaster at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS), on Monday night. We had been desperately trying to reach Anoop and others connected with SPCS since the 7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal on Saturday, April 25.  Our concern grew as the death toll mounted and the strong aftershocks continued in the Kathmandu Valley. What a relief to learn that the teachers and 340 students at the school, as well as their families, are safe!

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School in the rural Kathmandu Valley, March 2015. (Credit: David Kistle)
The Sankhu-Palubari Community School in the rural Kathmandu Valley, March 2015. (Credit: David Kistle)

In my role as The Advocates for Human Rights’ deputy director, I coordinate The Advocates’ Nepal School Project. I was in Nepal just a few weeks ago with a team of volunteers to conduct our annual monitoring visit. The Advocates has been partnering with the Sankhu-Palubari community since 1999 to provide education as an alternative to child labor for low-income children in the area who would otherwise be working in brick yards or in the fields.

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School provides free, high quality education to children in grades pre-K through 10. Many of the students walk a long way to get to school – some as long as two hours each way.

The students’ standardized test scores are among the highest in Nepal, a highly competitive honor. And the school was awarded Nepal’s prestigious National Education Service Felicitation Award in 2014. Graduates are now studying at universities, preparing to become doctors, social workers, teachers, and agronomists; many plan to return to their village to improve the community’s quality of life. Their contributions will be even more important now, in the aftermath of this devastating earthquake.

Some students walk - up to 2 hours each way - to Sankhu-Palubari Community School to access their right to education.  (Credit: Laura Sandall)
Some students walk – up to 2 hours each way – to Sankhu-Palubari Community School to access their right to education. (Credit: Laura Sandall)

The school is especially important for girls, who make up 52 percent of the student body. When SPCS began, girls often left school at an early age to marry or work. Now, they are staying and graduating because families have experienced the benefits of education. (You can read the inspiring story of SPCS’ first female graduate in Kanchi’s Story.)

First grade student at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)
First grade student at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

The new school year had just started at SPCS, but school was not in session when the earthquake hit. Students in Nepal attend school six days a week; Saturday is the only day when there is no school. Many people believe that, had it been a school day, the numbers of dead and injured in Kathmandu and throughout the Kathmandu Valley could have been much higher.

Even with that one tiny bright spot in a terrible national tragedy, UNICEF estimates that nearly one million children in Nepal were severely affected by the earthquake. Most of our students, who come from extremely poor agricultural families, are included in that number. Anoop sent me several more texts after the first, describing heavy damage in the area of the eastern Kathmandu Valley where the school is located. Media sources and other Nepali contacts also confirm extensive destruction in the Sankhu area. While we don’t have a lot of information yet, Anoop reported that he believes that more than 90 percent of the students and teachers have lost their homes in the earthquake. They are living outside in temporary shelters because of continuing aftershocks.  Word about the school building’s fate is yet to be received.  The first relief teams are reportedly scheduled to arrive in the area on Wednesday.

Primary students at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)
Primary students at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

Our hearts go out to everyone in our SPCS family, as well as to the millions of other Nepalis affected by the “Black Saturday” earthquake.  At The Advocates, we believe that support for basic human needs such as water, food, and medical assistance in Nepal is the most urgent need at this point in time. We encourage people to give to reputable international humanitarian assistance organizations involved in the earthquake relief effort (you can find more information in the links below). In the long term, Nepal will need sustainable rebuilding and development programs.

Because education is essential to reducing poverty and inequality, the best way that The Advocates can support the rebuilding of Nepal is to is to ensure that the education of the students at our school continues with the least amount of interruption possible. We remain focused on that goal.

To find people in Nepal:

Use the Restoring Family Links tool on the ICRC website to search for a family member or friend in the area hit by the earthquake.

Use Google Person Finder if you are looking for, or have information about, someone in the affected area.

Use Facebook Safety Check to connect with you friends in the area and mark them as safe if you know that they’re ok.

Articles about how to contribute to the earthquake relief effort in Nepal: 

How to Help The Relief Effort in Nepal

Nepal Earthquake: How To Donate

How To Help Nepal: 7 Vetted Charities Doing Relief Work Following the Earthquake

Don’t Rush to Nepal. Read This First. 

Photo of pre-K students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (Credit: David Parker)
Photo of pre-K students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (Credit: David Parker)

Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt interviewing a student.Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights.  

In March 2015, she made her sixth trip to the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal.

2014’s Lesson: Take Action. Lives Depend on It.

Painted hand for WordPressDecember has been a terrible month for human rights—from the U.S. Senate’s report confirming the use of torture, to the slaughter of Pakastani school children, to two grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Overall, 2014 has been an extremely troubling year. Some human rights abuses garnered a lot of attention; many did not, taking place under the radar of the media and public conversation. Let’s consider a few examples, and let them serve as a call to action.

  1. Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria one night in mid-April. This travesty garnered wide media attention and support from around the world, with celebrities carrying “Bring Back Our Girls” placards and rallies demanding the girls’ return. Unfortunately, 219 girls are reported to remain in captivity. Boko Haram continued its reign of terror, and is responsible for other atrocities throughout Somalia and Nigeria during 2014, including kidnappings, mass recruitment of child soldiers, and bombings of churches and public squares. Just this month news reports surfaced that Boko Haram kidnapped at least 185 women and children and killed 32 people in northeast Nigeria.
  2. Central American refugees―mostly children (and many by themselves)―are seeking asylum, after journeying across one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes to escape horrific violence in their home countries. The crisis was brought to light and much of the nation was shocked when, in June, images of children being held by US authorities surfaced, showing children crowded in makeshift prisons, and crammed into rooms and sleeping on concrete floors. Instead of treating them as refugees and in accordance with internationally-recognized human rights standards, the U.S. has treated these children as national security threats, warehousing them in razor-wired prisons, detaining them in horrendous conditions, and subjecting them to expedited proceedings to deport them at warp speed and back to the life-threatening dangers they fled.
  3. The terrorist organization ISIL has committed gruesome acts of violence that have alarmed the world community, including murdering political opposition members in mass, enslaving and brutalizing women and girls, and forcing young boys into its ranks. An August attack by ISIL in the Sinjar region caused thousands of Shiites and Yazidis to flee; in October, ISIL abducted 5,000-7,000 Yazidi women and children and sold them into slavery, reported the UN.
  4. Grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner highlighted racial profiling, police brutality, and failures of the justice system throughout the country, including a police officer shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death in Cleveland, Ohio.
  5. The Ethiopian government attacked a student protest in the nation’s Oromia region in April, killing as many as 47 students, as some reports indicate. The Ethiopian government has persecuted and targeted the Oromo people for years, subjecting Oromo to abduction, mass incarceration, and extreme levels of torture, including electric shock and repeated rapes.
  6. Nearly 200,000 people have been killed and millions more took flight because of violence in Syria―the world’s largest refugee crisis resulting from a civil war that has raged in the region following popular uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011. To date, UNHCR estimates that more than 2.5 million refugees have fled the disaster, surpassing the refugee crises in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Central America.
  7. Countries took huge steps backward for rights of LGBTI communities, enacting draconian laws which punish homosexuality with prison terms, torture, and death. Members of LGBTI communities in some countries are hunted down by vigilantes and are beaten or killed. In 2014, Uganda enacted one of the most notorious laws—its “Kill the Gays” law—punishing homosexuality with life in prison. The Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down law. Unfortunately, because the court ruled on procedural grounds rather than on the merits, the court’s decision does not bar parliament from adopting an identical law in the future. And homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as it was before the new law was signed.
  8. The U.S.’s use of drone strikes are a significant setback to international law, setting new precedents for use of force by nations around the world. As of November 2014, attempts to kill 41 people resulted in snuffing out the lives of an estimated 1,147 individuals, reports The Guardian. The U.S. has, to date, used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people— including civilians and children—in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, all countries against whom the U.S. has not declared war, the organization Reprieve reports.
  9. An Egyptian court sentenced 529 people to death in a mass trial in March. The next month, a court sentenced another 680 to death in a proceeding that lasted only a few minutes. These mass executions, issued by a military government than came to power in a July 2013 coup, represent some of the largest ordered executions in the last century. Activists who supported efforts to oust former President Hosni Mubarak continue to be rounded up and targeted by the military, aiming to crush political opposition and to roll back achievements made during the Arab Spring. And in November, an Egyptian court dismissed conspiracy to kill charges against Mubarak, and he was cleared of corruption charges; he will likely be freed in a few months.
  10. Women and girls have suffered immeasurably where they should be safest, in their homes. Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria, according to the World Bank. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime. One high profile domestic violence incident this year involved NFL player Ray Rice beating his then-fiance into unconsciousness and flattening her to the floor of an elevator. As a result of the attack, Rice was suspended for two games. When TMZ posted the video of the attack for the world to see, the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely and the Baltimore Ravens pressured his victim to apologize. Ultimately, the NFL reversed its decision to suspend Rice indefinitely in late November.
  11. Harmful cultural practices violate women. Many governments “address” human rights violations—even the most cringe-worthy, stomach-churning―against women and girls by punishing the victims. Or—as in the case of women from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala seeking refuge in other countries—governments turn their heads to the violence, empowering the perpetrators and further victimizing and subjugating the women. These abuses include acid attacks, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killings, bride burning, and gang rapes. Consider the death of Farzana Iqbal, 25, in May in Pakistan; her family stoned her to death outside a courthouse in Pakistan because she sought to marry without consent from her family a man she loved. Consider Hanna Lalango, 16, who died a month after she entered a public mini-bus in Ethiopia and was gang-raped by strangers for five days―a case similar to one in India two years ago, but one that did not garner the same level of attention and outrage. As an added note, Lalango’s father said he would not have made the case public if his daughter had lived because the shame would have shadowed her for the rest of her life.
  12. The U.S. Senate “torture report” released on December 9 graphically details the CIA’s use of abuse, including keeping a prisoner awake for 180 hours with his hands shackled over his head, threatening to sexually assault and cut the throat of a detainee’s mother, penetrating a detainee’s anus for “rectal feeding,” and tying a prisoner to a floor until he froze to death.
  13. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshwar, Pakistan and killed more than 130 students in a terrorist attack on December 16 to retaliate against the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who caught the world’s attention for being shot for going to school. Responding to the Peshwar slaughter, Malala stated, “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters—but we will never be defeated.”
  14. Forty-three students traveling to a protest in Mexico were rounded up and “disappeared” in September. The mayor of Iguala, Mexico in concert with local gangs ordered the capture and murder of these students, reports indicate. Federal police may also have complicity in the crime. The act has garnered widespread attention in Mexico, with people questioning the legitimacy of federal and state Mexican authorities, who for years has been corrupted by the influence of narco-traffickers and gangs.
  15. More than 2,000 Gazans were killed when Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza strip in July to stop rocket attacks that followed an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The disproportionate level of force used by the Israeli military resulted in large number of civilian deaths. Of the 2,192 Gazans killed, about 1523 civilians (including 519 children), 66 Israeli soldiers, five Israeli civilians (including a child), and one Thai civilian were killed, reports indicate. At the end of the conflict, 110,000 people were internally displaced and 108,000 were made homeless, according to Amnesty International.

What can we do in the face of these human rights violations and the countless others that go unnoticed? Pay attention. Look behind the headlines. Make our voices heard by public officials, leaders, and the world community. Volunteer for projects that address the issues most important to us. Support organizations such as The Advocates for Human Rights which take on the larger systemic issues that allow human rights abuses to continue. We are not helpless. In 2015, we can, by working together, move closer to our vision of a world in which all people live with dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and peace . . . because every person matters.

By: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Deepinder Mayell, Robin Phillips, Jennifer Prestholdt, and Susan Banovetz

Donate now. Because every person matters.

Take Notice: Nigeria Abductions Are Not an Anomaly

Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead
Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead

Like many other people, I am outraged by the April 14 abduction of hundreds of young girls from their school in northeastern Nigeria by the insurgent group Boko Haram. The group attacked again on May 6, kidnapping eight more girls–this time from their homes–to prevent them from attending school. While we do not know exactly where the girls were taken or how they are being treated, it is likely that many of them will be raped and sold into sexual slavery. Some of the girls are as young as 12, and as a mother I can only imagine the nightmare the girls and their parents must be living.

I join the calls to the Nigerian government, the Obama administration, and other world leaders demanding that they do what needs to be done to free the girls and bring those responsible to justice. But bringing the girls home is only the first step in answering the contorted message the kidnappings were designed to send: that women are property and girls should not be educated.

The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, who has spoken out against the kidnappings, reportedly asserted at a conference in March that the Boko Haram insurgency is an “anomaly” in the socio-religious environment of Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims live in harmony with each other and with people of other faiths. I do not dispute that position and sincerely hope that he is right. But while extremist organizations such as Boko Haram may be anomalous in Nigerian society, the assault on girls’ education globally is not.

We live in a world where, for some girls, simply learning to read is a courageous and life-threatening act of defiance.In March 2013, a principal in Karachi, Pakistan was killed when grenades were hurled into his school, which specialized in enrolling girls. A teacher in a different part of Pakistan was gunned down in front of the all-girls school where she had taught only a week earlier. In the spring and summer of 2013, over 400 girls in Afghanistan fell ill from suspected gas poisonings in at least half a dozen schools. The assassination attempt against Malala Yousafzai for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan is well-known.

The net enrollment rate in 2008 for girls in secondary school in Nigeria was just 22%. In northern Nigeria, where the kidnappings occurred, only 3% of girls finish secondary school and more than 50% are married by the age of 16.  The situation in Nigeria is sadly representative of a wider pattern. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, girls in Pakistan had a secondary school enrollment rate of 29%, as compared to 40% for boys. Rates are even lower in Chad, where only 5% of girls received a secondary education, as compared to 16% of boys. Nor is the problem endemic only to countries with a majority Muslim population. In Nepal, school enrollment rates for boys are 14 percentage points higher than for girls. These statistics reflect a cultural undercurrent that creates powerful disincentives for girls to educate themselves, ensuring that women remain powerless, objectified, and vulnerable to forced marriages and sexual slavery.

I do not mean to suggest that we have it all figured out here in the United States. Sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses are on the rise, femicides are seventh in line as causes of early death among females in the United States, and our most recent census report confirmed that—despite decades of working for equality—women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. But I know that I am lucky. I am a shareholder in a successful law firm that not only supports me, but has been lauded as one of the best in the nation for women attorneys. I have been successful, first and foremost, because I was born into a family that never questioned whether I would go to college; it was simply assumed.

But is it possible to change cultural norms in other countries? And even if we could, what place is it of ours? To answer the second question, we are no longer isolated on this planet. The diminution of women everywhere affects all of us, by preventing economic growth, destabilizing societies and even planting the seeds that allow terrorism to flourish. Education is a fundamental human right that belongs to everyone, boys and girls, everywhere. It is everyone’s responsibility to address harmful cultural practices that result in human rights violations. We can and should work towards universal education in all parts of the world.

NepalPics 292-c
Student of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School, near Kathmandu, Nepal

The notion that there is nothing we can really do is wrong. Since the fall of the Taliban, the enrollment of girls in primary school in Afghanistan has risen from virtually none to approximately 37%.

I know from personal experience that norms against educating girls can be changed. In 1999, the Advocates for Human Rights founded a school in a village in Nepal where education rates for children were extremely low. The school’s basic admission criteria were that the students must be low income, and the student body must be 50% girls. Parents of these children, when interviewed, expressed sincere doubts about the value of education for their children—especially the girls. Over time these views have changed dramatically. When I visited the school in 2011, the parents  no longer questioned why they should educate their children. Instead, they demanded that The Advocates expand the school to include more grades. Many of the girls who have graduated from our school are now studying at the University. It’s only a drop in the global bucket, but it’s a start.

By: Dulce Foster, attorney with Fredrikson and Byron, is a long-time volunteer and supporter of the Advocates for Human Rights. She has provided immeasurable leadership for the organization’s Nepal School Project and for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Project.

In her legal practice with Fredrikson and Byron, Foster defends, investigates, and advises clients in criminal and civil matters involving financial fraud, healthcare fraud, corruption, FCPA, trade secrets theft, illegal immigration, False Claims Act and other regulatory concerns.

Kanchi at her graduation from 8th grade
Kanchi at her graduation from 8th grade

What could be more fitting than to share a poem written by Kanchi on this day, the United Nation’s International Day for Eradication of Poverty. Kanchi was the first girl to graduate from the Sankhu-Palubari Community School, in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. Supported by The Advocates, the school educates some of the world’s most disadvantaged kids to prevent them from being sucked into child labor.

Kanchi was six years old in 1999, when the school opened its doors. Now a young woman, she plans to study agriculture in college, and hopes to bring organic farming techniques back to her village. “I want to live a healthy life, and give a healthy life to others,” she said.

Kanchi’s Poem

When I was born in small hut,
i’d be a heavy load,
i’d be a heavy load,

Anyhow i have to accept all the things
which were asked by father & mother
because i’m a daughter,
because i’m a daughter.

Father & Mother always used to say
that i don’t have any right to read & write
because 1 day i have to leave birth place &
i have to be someone’s wife,
i have to be someone’s wife.

They says that i cannot do anything in my life because
my life is like an egg which can
Creak at any time if it falls,
Which never be join back,
which never be join back.

They say that to do household work,
that’s my big property &
during the time of my marriage
when i get more dowry,
during the time of my marriage
when i get more dowry.

These heart pinches words
collided in my ear,
my heart nearly go to burst,
my heart nearly go to burst.

At that time my 1 heart says
that u have to leave this selfish world.
But another heart says that don’t get tired
to achieve goal u have to struggle more,
u have to struggle more.

Kanchi was one of 39  students in Sankhu-Palubari Community School’s first kindergarten class. To get to school, she had to walk 1-1/2 hours each way. There were 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.  ”I want to do something different from the others,” she told them. She stayed in school and was one of only two girls in the first class to graduate from eighth grade.  Kanchi continued on to high school, and completed twelfth grade at Siddhartha College of Banepa in 2012.

In many ways, the story of Kanchi reflects the experience of girls in many countries.  All over the world, girls are denied equal access to education, forced into child labor, married off at a young age, and pressured to drop out of school because of their gender.

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls like Kanchi. 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.

“If we are to realize the future we want for all, we must hear and heed the calls of the marginalized,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Together, we can build a sustainable world of prosperity and peace, justice and equity – a life of dignity for all.”

Read more about Kanchi in Jennifer Prestholdt’s October 10, 2012 blog post. Prestholdt is The Advocates’ deputy director and director of the organization’s International Justice Program.

By: Susan L. Banovetz, The Advocates’ communication director

GUEST POST: “I love this school and I love these kids.”

Laura Sandall with seventh and eighth grade students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School

By Laura Sandall 

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School was a very special place for Laura Sandall’s older sister Emily.   A young woman with tremendous spirit and energy, Emily raised money for the school when she herself was still in high school.  A few years later, she seized the opportunity to live in the Sankhu-Palubari community and volunteer at the school for several months.  Emily died, unexpectedly and far too young, in a hiking accident in November 2006.  The Sandall family decided shortly thereafter that they would honor Emily’s legacy by continuing to share her passion for education of the most disadvantaged children.  They created the Emily Sandall Foundation, because, as their foundation’s website says, “In the midst of tragedy comes opportunity”.  The  Emily Sandall Foundation has supported The Advocates’ school in Nepal for more than five years, along with many other educational projects that Emily would have loved.  Laura Sandall and her mother, Becky Sandall, were able to visit (and make their own unique contributions to) the Sankhu-Palubari Community School for the first time in September 2012  as volunteers on The Advocates’ team.  Here, in our first guest post on The Advocates Post, Laura shares her thoughts about the Sankhu-Palubari Community School.  ~ Jennifer Prestholdt

I wasn’t sure how I would feel pulling up to the Sankhu-Palubari Community School for the first time. Emily had loved the school dearly since she was in high school, raising money on her own to support the kids in Sankhu.  She would carry around a milk carton during high school and collect change and send it off to the school.  She even helped me do a presentation at my own middle school and we raised a hundred dollars.  She was so passionate about these kids’ education.

Sankhu is a very poor village located outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.  The Sankhu school began in 1999 when a group in Minnesota wanted to give these kids a chance at a great education  Luckily, my mom and I were able to visit the school with this group from Minnesota, The Advocates for Human Rights.  They are a group of very intelligent, very passionate people who have worked so hard to support this school and with the help of a local Nepali organization called Educate the Children, they have all been able to make this school very successful and to be able to give children an amazing education.

The kids that enroll in Sankhu are at a very low caste, their parents are mostly farmers and most of their parents cannot read or write.  The children, due to their families’ low income, would normally be doing labor if it weren’t for this school.  Many of them were child laborers before this school was started.  Now, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School enrolls over 300 students, ranging from nursery to 10th grade.  These kids who would have been working in a farm or making bricks now can read and write and have a chance to get a great education.

I knew all of this before visiting the school but I wasn’t prepared for the emotions of actually seeing it. I was able to meet the children in all of the different grades, meet their teachers, meet the headmaster of the school and see all of the classrooms.  I was able to interview over 15 students and ask them detailed questions about their families and about what this school means to them.  I was even able to lead a nutrition class for the 7th and 8th graders and teach them about the importance of eating well. I also lead a few classes on reading.

I felt closer to Emily the past week then I have in many years.  Seeing the kids and having them tell me firsthand how this school has changed their lives and how grateful they are to have our support meant the absolute world to me. These kids are special.  Some of them walk over 2 hours a day each way to come to class and many of them work before and after school to help their parents with their farms and with housework.  They are incredibly dedicated children in their studies and with their families.

Although the children in this school are the poorest of the poor in this village, they have done extremely well in school and 100% of the 10th grade students passed the SLC exam, which far exceeds most of the other schools in the surrounding area and Kathmandu.  They are all so happy to be getting an education.  And to hear one of the students tell me that if it wasn’t for the school, he would be making bricks and not be able to read or write is very moving and shows how important education is to these children.

I love this school and I love these kids.  And even after ten years since Emily lived in Nepal and volunteered at the school, her presence there is still very strong.  Many of the older kids remember Emily and told us she was their favorite teacher.  One of the teachers who still works there was one of Emily’s close friends and had the children in her class sing us Emily’s favorite Nepali song. And the headmaster of the school called Emily his best friend and reminisced about her dancing and singing and her passion for helping disadvantaged youth.  It’s amazing how she touched so many people and after all these years, she is still remembered so fondly and so loved by so many people at the school.

She continues to awe me in her love for life and her love for people and her love for helping others.  I am still so proud of what Em did in her short life and I also am so proud to be a part of the Sankhu school. The kids were so polite, so willing to learn, so excited about their education and their futures.  To know that if it wasn’t for this school, they would be child laborers and would have completely different futures.  To see the graduates of the 10th grade continuing on in their education, wanting to be doctors or teachers, and applying to universities.  Many of the students said that after graduating university, they would want to come back to their village and help the people in need.

I know Emily was there with us as we sang with the kids, asked them questions, and as I taught my own classes to the 7th and 8th graders.  I know that she would be so happy that we saw the school that was a catalyst for her passion of helping child laborers.  Even though she is gone, Em is still challenging me to see new places and to help others in need and for that I will always be grateful.

Volunteers Laura and Rebecca Sandall with students.
Volunteers Laura and Rebecca Sandall with students.

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL: Kanchi’s Story

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL: Kanchi’s Story

by Jennifer Prestholdt

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 – I swear I can see a twinkle in them.  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.

Kanchi at her graduation from 8th 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, and 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. To shout out her story as an inspiration to girls all over the world. Girls with the same strength, bravery, and determination as Kanchi, but who just need the opportunity.

How will you celebrate the International Day of the Girl?

Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

UPDATED:  Kanchi is a young woman of many talents.  After this post was originally published, she told me that she also likes to write poetry. She asked that we include the following poem that she wrote in this post.

When I was born in small hut,

i’d be a heavy load,

i’d be a heavy load,

 Anyhow i have to accept all the things

which were asked by father & mother

because i’m a daughter,

because i’m a daughter.

 Father& Mother always used to say

that i don’t have any right to read & write

because 1 day i have to leave birth place

& i have to be someone’s wife,

,i have to be someone’s wife.

 They says that i cannot do anything in my life because

my life is like an egg which can

Creak at anytime if it falls,

Which never be join back,

which never be join back.

 They say that to do household work,

that’s my big property &

during the time of my marriage

when i get more dowry,

during the time of my marriage

when i get more dowry.

 These heart pinches words

collided in my ear,

my heart nearly go to burst,

,my heart nearly go to burst.

 At that time my 1 heart says

that u have to leave this selfish world.

But another heart says that don’t get tired

to achieve goal u have to struggle more,

u have to struggle more.