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.
My name is Laura. I am 15 years old and I am from the Republic of Moldova. I am a sociable person and passionate about different things such as traveling, reading, psychology, photos and blogging, film and social justice. This is my first post for Advocates for Human Rights blog and I want to share some of my experience and thoughts about human rights and related issues specific to teenagers, such as cyberbullying, harassment and discrimination.
I have been volunteering for different organizations since I was 13. My first volunteer experience was for one of the largest youth-led networks in Moldova which works with and for young people between the ages of 13 and 24 to advance and promote sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of adolescents and youth. I was 14 years old when I finished the training and became one of the Y – peer trainers. The trainers have to organize several public discussions on sexual and reproductive health and rights for their peers in their lyceums.
I have to say that education about sexual and reproductive health and rights is almost absent in Moldova. Moldova is a traditional country, where the influence of the church is very large. We do not talk freely about sex, sexuality, reproductive health, menstruation, contraception, mutual consent, etc. These topics are still considered taboo, and even indecent and dirty, especially if this interest or questions are coming from teenagers. We cannot discuss these subjects with teachers and parents because we are concerned about their reactions, which are usually negative. As my mother says, the same was true 25 years ago and nothing has changed. I thought that teachers who cannot talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights would welcome an organization with relevant experience in the field, so I decided to organize four informative lessons in my school.
The experience of talking in public about things which girls should not say was great and challenging at the same time. Some boys tried to intimidate me, telling jokes, ignoring, giggling or interrupting me, while others tried to encourage me to continue. The worst thing was the pressure from my teacher who was present for the last lesson. She did not interfere while several boys were laughing and asked the boys to leave the class when I was talking about menstruation. Furthermore, she said that the subjects were inappropriate, and talking about contraception at this age is a sign of immorality and indicates that you have already had sex. When this insinuation is coming from an adult who has power and authority is even worse. It sounds like permission for pupils to stalk somebody. Honestly, I felt so bad that after finishing the lesson that, when nobody could see me, I cried. The next day the teacher was called by one angry parent of a boy who said that these topics should not be discussed in the school. Even now, after several years, I am wondering why the adults are so afraid of talking about normal things, even more so than their children. In actuality, we view these things as normal, and even joke that we could provide some new information to our parents.
Nothing has changed since then except the increasing number of rapes, sexual harassment and pregnant teenagers. Of course, when something like this is happening the girl is the one to be blamed and the one whose life is changing dramatically. I know some of the politicians in our country have started to talk about the importance of sexual and reproductive education, but they are still very reserved. I hope, however, that my generation will manage to push these challenging issues forward on the political agenda and get rid of the traditional influence.
By youth blogger Laura Vition. Laura is a high school student in Chisinau, Moldova.
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 theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change. According to UN Women, this theme challenges us to think about how we can “advance gender equality and the empowerment of women.” This objective reflects that envisioned by Sustainable Development Goal 5, which recognizes that although discrimination against women and girls is decreasing, gender inequality persists and continues to deny women and girls basic human rights and opportunities. As we look at laws and practices around the world today, there are still laws that actively discriminate against women. Many countries still retain lists of prohibited jobs for women – banning them from jobs such as a truck driver, factory worker, metal welder, deck hand or barring them from working above certain heights or during night hours. In countries where economic opportunities are scarce, removing these employment opportunities from women’s reach hinders their empowerment, advancement and economic independence. For example, Russia bans women from 456 types of jobs, Ukraine bans women from 458 jobs, and Kazakhstan bans women from 287 jobs. These countries are rich in natural resources and therefore employment opportunities in those fields, yet the lists of banned professions often include jobs found in the extractives industries.
At the request of the UN Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane, The Advocates has undertaken research to examine the benefits of female inclusion and ways to support women in traditionally male-dominated industries, specifically the extractive industries of oil, gas, and mining. The report, Promoting Gender Diversity and Inclusion in the Oil, Gas and Mining Extractive Industries, demonstrates the numerous benefits that women and diversity bring to industries, including a larger talent pool for recruitment, greater profitability, improved performance, better safety records, and overall economic empowerment to women and communities. For example, it is well-documented that female inclusion boosts company profits. Companies ranking in the top 25 percent for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have “financial returns” higher than the national industry medians. Companies with more women employees and gender-diverse teams have better teamwork, communication, and greater creativity in solving business and technical problems than homogenous work forces, and women are more likely to use teamwork and cooperative approaches that draw on the skills and resources of a broader network. The report also addresses challenges that women face – both legal and in the workplace setting – that hinder their full participation in the workforce. The report concludes with recommendations to both states and private companies on how to promote gender diversity and inclusion, with the priority recommendation to repeal laws that discriminate against women in the workplace and in private life.
In 1985, the Republic of Zambia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It was another 23 years before legislation was enacted in the form of the 2011 Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act. Its Preamble bold declared it “An Act to provide for the protection of victims of gender-based violence,” prompting a sharp rise in the numbers of reported cases as non-governmental organizations conducted nationwide campaigns to inform the public of the new legislation.
On paper, the law was a step in the right direction, fighting widespread violence against women and thereby challenging years of traditional gender roles by criminalizing a wide range of abuses based on sex, from economic to physical, and emotional, verbal and psychological abuse.
However, when the legislation was put to the test in the Courtroom, it failed to meet its own high standard. Cases of domestic violence, sexual violence, and gender-based violence against women continued to be tried using outdated laws such as the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Codes. Many of the victims of these shortfalls in the law are nameless and have no safety net when their cases fall through.
Take Jessie (not her real name) for example. A 25-year-old magistrate who graduated from a premier Law School in Lusaka, she was married to a military man whom she met while at law school. Their year-long marriage was stained by violent outbursts, physical violence, public humiliation and isolation from friends and family– all the things that the Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act was meant to protect her from.
Finally on December 3, 2015, Jessie’s military employee husband beat her unconscious. Jessie woke up in Kabwe General Hospital, blood drenched and deformed with two deep cuts to the head. She accepted support from her colleagues and family and especially from the justice system that she had worked so hard to be a part of.
Instead, she woke up to humiliating headlines in two public newspapers, “Army officer batters magistrate wife,” read one newspaper; four national radio stations carried the story without bothering to verifying any of the facts.
Physically, the wounds took four months to heal. Her employers, however, demanded that she report to work for two weeks after the incident.
Meanwhile, her husband was arrested and released when she dropped the case due to pressure from her mother, who was concerned by what friends and family would say. After all, Jessie was a successful magistrate; her parents were marriage councillors who had been married for more than twenty years, she had a daughter – her mother reminded her – who needed both parents, and there was the Zambian proverb that urges women to “stay strong” in the face of turbulent times. Shipikisha club, they call it.
So, she took the advice of her mother and dropped the case against her husband, hoping that his three days in custody would force him to reflect on his behavior and start a journey to change.
Although the Penal Code gives the state the right to prosecute cases on behalf of victims, even after they give statements stating that they wish to drop them, the Judiciary did not take kindly to Jessie’s actions. When she reported for work, she was greeted by hostile stares and a suspension letter from the Deputy Director charging her with conduct likely to bring the Judiciary into disrepute, a vague term that can be used to cover a wide range of incidents. There was no provision under any code allowing or sanctioning the suspension, and the offense she was charged with carried a punishment of a written warning. The experience left her feeling victimised. She was given seven days within which to exculpate herself, and after she did, she did not hear from her employers for nine months.
Her husband in the meantime, continued to work for the Zambian Army. He has not faced any sanctions from his employers or accountability for his behaviour by the public media, and his life continues as before.
Numerous letters later, Jessie was reinstated, with a thinly veiled threat that she must ensure that the incident never recurred if she wanted to keep her job. This seemed contrary to the official position of the Zambian Judiciary, which had taken a strong stance against gender-based violence against women in the media and was launching a fast-track court in Kabwe.
So, how does one pick up the pieces after being abused by all the people and institutions that are supposed to protect you? You do better. Jessie is a strong advocate for women’s rights in the workplace and uses the Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act in the Courtroom. With the help of friends and other victims, she overcame her initial misgivings about handling cases similar to her own, and she now sits on the bench in Monze Zambia.
Still, Jessie’s experience begs the question: is legislation enough to end violence against women?
By Mubanga Kalimamukwento, Hubert Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellow 2018/2019 – University of Minnesota, who is doing her professional affiliation with the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.