Building a Culture of Consent in High School

Photo is part of the "Fraternity House" series, by artist Violet Overn, a recent New York University graduate, is a sharp reminder that one in five women are sexuall assaulted in college.
This photo, part of the “Fraternity House” series by artist Violet Overn, serves as a sharp reminder that sexual assault is prevalent on college and high school campuses.

The start of the school year and the recent conviction and sentencing of Owen Labrie to two years’ probation for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old make it particularly important to get out messages about sexual assault on campuses. In Labrie’s case, the sentence is not justice. It does not hold him accountable. It does not send a message of zero tolerance for sexual assault; and it does not serve to keep our communities – and girls – safe. As students across the country head back to school, the words of Jenna Schulman, our youth blogger, are an important reminder.

Sexual assault is not just an issue for adults or students in college, it is also an issue for teens in high school. Studies show that one in five women and one in six men are assaulted during their lifetimes. Forty four percent of these victims are less than 18 years old.

This summer, I took part in a program at my high school, Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., to investigate the issue of sexual assault and consent at the high school level. The object of the program was for us to learn more about the issue and then create a program in our school and for the larger community to address it.

We spent the first two weeks of the project getting educated about the issue of sexual assault and consent. We met with stakeholders based in the DC- metropolitan area, including government officials, advocates, survivors of sexual assault and social service providers. Following these meetings, I struggled to understand how such a small program, like ours, might offer any meaningful help. Initially, I looked at these traumas as if the only solution was to create policies by going through state and federal government. However, my perspective changed. The HRC advocates talked to us about how creating a culture shift, one step at a time, at the grassroots level, could help prevent sexual assaults. A culture shift would include three major components. First, it is important to develop universal definitions of what it means to give affirmative consent and what it means to be sexually harassed or assaulted.  It is important to minimize ambiguity sensibly. Second, the conversation about consent needs to be expanded and geared toward younger children. This does not mean that we should be educating our six year olds about how to have sex. Rather,  it means that we should be educating six year olds about boundaries and what it means to say yes and no. Third, we need to be much more open to believing survivors. Sexual assault is one the crimes where a survivor is too often seen as guilty until proven innocent.

We spent the second two weeks of the program trying to move from policy to action – thinking about ways to affect a culture shift in the DC high school community. As a first step, we decided to host a summit addressing sexual assault and consent for all area high schools. The summit will take place on Saturday, November 19, at Georgetown Day School.  The goal of the summit is to begin a conversation within the high school community about how to address sexual assault and how to create a consent culture. The event will have breakout sessions led by advocates, policy makers, educators, and survivors.

I feel very fortunate that my school gave students, like me, the opportunity this summer to address the issue of sexual assault and consent at the high school level.  I appreciated that they let us “own” the issue, and think through it ourselves. The program has changed my perspective on how I perceive sexual assault – allowing me to understand even more how it affects teenagers in high school (and not just those in college).  It also provided me with a greater sense of urgency that change has to happen and that we cannot remain complacent about the issue.

I encourage other school districts and teens from around the country to begin conversations of their own, within their schools and with friends and family about the seriousness of sexual assault and the importance generating a culture shift. It really begins with you and we can together create positive change.

By youth blogger Jenna Schulman, a tenth grade student in Washington, D.C. 

U.S. Supreme Court Stands Up for Domestic Violence Victims

Woman at sunset 2
Twenty-six people―mostly children―were gunned down in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twelve people were shot to death in a Colorado movie theater. Fourteen people slain in San Bernardino. Fifty-three people were ambushed in Orlando. Then there were the woman and four family members in Texas, shot and killed by her husband at their daughter’s birthday party; the woman, three of her friends, and her attorney shot and killed by the woman’s ex-husband in Arizona; and the Short family―a mother and her three children―murdered by their father while they slept in their Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota home.

In addition to being mass shootings, these killings have another thing in common: many of the shooters had a history of domestic violence. And they are not the only ones. A 2015 study revealed that of the 133 mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, 57 percent had ties to domestic and/or family violence. In fact, in 21 of those cases, the shooter had a prior domestic violence charge.

A recent U.S. Supreme court decision recognized the dangerous connection between domestic violence perpetrators and gun violence and maintained prevention efforts previously put in place by Congress. On June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of limiting gun ownership and possession for domestic violence perpetrators. The Court’s strong stance came as a relief to victims of domestic violence and women’s advocates across the country because of its implications for the safety of victims. The Supreme Court effectively conveyed that it had no intention of drawing a line between reckless and intentional acts of violence, focusing not on the intent of the abuser, but on the abuser’s actual or attempted use of force.

More than a decade ago, in 1994, Congress enacted a law prohibiting individuals found guilty of a felony from owning or possessing guns. Nonetheless, most domestic violence perpetrators were slipping through the cracks because domestic violence crimes are often charged as, or pleaded down to, misdemeanors. To bridge the gap, Congress amended the law in 1996 to read that any person guilty of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is prohibited from owning or possessing a gun. (A MCDV requires that: (1) the person was convicted of a misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law; (2) the crime was committed against a domestic relation; and (3) the perpetrator used or attempted to use physical force, or threatened the use of a deadly weapon against the victim.)

However, domestic violence gun laws are not uniform throughout the states, which is where the recent Supreme Court case,  Voisine v. United States, comes into play.  In that case, two petitioners in Maine were charged with violating federal law by possessing guns following misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. The two men argued that they were exempt from these charges because Maine’s law criminalized “reckless” domestic violence which, according to the petitioners, did not qualify as “use of physical force.” Instead, the petitioners claimed “reckless” implied the conduct was accidental. They believed that a reckless act of violence―as opposed to a malicious act of violence―was not grounds to lose their right to bear arms. The Court disagreed, stating it does not matter whether a person acted intentionally or recklessly―so long as the person willfully exerted a force that the person knew was substantially likely to cause harm. As such, not only did the Supreme Court uphold the federal law, but it further clarified that the gun prohibition was intended to reach to domestic violence perpetrators across the country, despite variations in state statutory language.

Citing previous jurisprudence and congressional intent in its ruling, it is apparent that the Supreme Court felt strongly about the dangers of domestic violence perpetrators owning guns.

As seen in the examples referenced above, there is a strong link between mass shootings and domestic violence. Domestic violence abusers are statistically two to ten times more likely to commit violent crimes with guns than the average gun-owner.

In addition, domestic violence perpetrators’ access to guns increases the lethality in domestic violence situations. A recent Huffington Post study revealed that in January of this year alone, 112 people in the United States died as a result of domestic violence. Not surprisingly, guns were involved in more than half of the deaths. Domestic violence perpetrators are five times more likely to kill someone in a domestic violence incident when a gun is present. Although not perfect, laws criminalizing gun possession for domestic violence perpetrators have the ability to decrease the amount of gun-related domestic violence homicides by upwards of 25 percent.

But laws are not enough; we need to do more to limit access to guns. For example, this struggle plays out in Minnesota where, since 2013, it has banned domestic violence perpetrators from owning guns. Nonetheless, each year guns are still involved in more than half of domestic violence homicides in the state, and in 2015, 37 percent of these homicides were executed by men who were legally prohibited from possessing guns.

Despite where people stand when it comes to the Second Amendment, it is clear that individuals with a history of domestic violence are statistically more likely to commit acts of violence in the future and that guns substantially increase the lethality of domestic violence incidents. It is imperative that access to guns be limited for domestic violence perpetrators both on paper and in practice.

By: Rachel Pence, a summer intern with The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program and a student at the University of San Diego School of Law.

Conference on the Status of Women proved weary, but source of optimism

 

CSW event
When The Advocates for Human Rights asked whether we wanted to join them at the UN Commission on the Status of Women’s 60 session (CSW), we jumped at the opportunity. There, we spent three days of the two-week conference participating in seminars and listening to politicians and experts speak on topics relating to The Advocates’ work to eliminate exploitation, violence, and abuse of women and children.

At CSW, activists, politicians, academics, and representatives of NGOs from nearly 200 countries came together. They came to learn best practices, create partnerships with organizations such as The Advocates, and develop methodologies of government action and accountability to eliminate violence against women.

At two filled-to-capacity presentations, The Advocates’ experts detailed the partnerships they have in Moldova and Bulgaria, countries in which The Advocates uses laws, policies, and trainings to tackle domestic violence. “There is no need to recreate the wheel because much of the legislative work, social policy, training, and—most importantly—best practices have been researched, tested, and proven,” Rosalyn Park, director of The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program. “Our partnerships allow us to share best practices, tools, and experiences to advocate for safety and rights of women.”

Discussion topics were often distressing, covering topics such as sex and labor trafficking, prostitution, child pornography, physical violence against women and children, inequality in the workforce, and the need for more women in politics. Nonetheless, forum participants were energized.

We also made discoveries at CSW—much is being done, from African countries, to Canadian provinces, to Eastern European countries to improve the lives with government working in conjunction with NGOs and other nonprofits. We left the conference weary, but optimistic. We are assured that given time, women’s status in the world will improve. It was a time neither of us will ever forget.

By Cheryl Olseth (pictured left) and Rachel Hamlin (pictured right), volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights.

One step forward, two steps back characterizes the “protection” of women in Ethiopia

Mekdes Fisseha Libasie

Sixteen-year-old Hanna Lalango was kidnapped as she was returning home from school on October 1, 2014. Her kidnappers gang raped her for several days before throwing her out on a street where, later, she was found unconscious. Hanna’s parents sought the best medical care they could afford to save her life. Unfortunately, she passed away on November 1, 2014. The Federal High Court of Ethiopia sentenced each of the suspects 17 years to life imprisonment.

In another case, Bemnet Geremew, a 28-year old lawyer from Addis Ababa, was strangled and beaten to death by her husband on the night of June 27, 2015. The two had been married for only two months. A few days after committing the crime, the husband handed in himself to the police. The case is still in the courts.

These two are among many high profile cases of violence against women that have prompted a social media outcry and significant activism. Unfortunately, the majority of violence against women crimes are either unreported to the police or receive insufficient attention from police or courts.

Violence against women is widespread in Ethiopia. A World Health Organization study found that almost 71 percent of Ethiopian women reported being subjected to physical/sexual violence by their intimate partners.[1]

A decade ago, Ethiopia underwent extensive legal reform in an attempt to harmonize its laws with its constitution. Accordingly, the 2005 Criminal Code of Ethiopia defines and carries stringent punishment for acts of violence against women. Book Five, Title I, Chapter 2 of this code includes list of punishable acts of violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation and trafficking women. The revised federal and regional family laws have also brought provisions that better protect the rights of women in marriage.

Ethiopia has also ratified numerous international and regional conventions that proscribe acts and practices of violence against women, such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and is a signatory to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). The country has subscribed to a multitude of relevant international and regional consensus documents.

Despite these efforts in legal reform, acts of violence against women seem to be on the rise in Ethiopia. Proliferation of electronic or social media has helped expose some of these crimes that would otherwise be unreported. Every year thousands of young women are trafficked and subjected to labor and sexual exploitation. There is almost a total lack of state accountability when these crimes are committed. For instance, in September 2015 a 20-year-old university student was shot in cold blood and killed by an armed member of the federal police for simply failing to greet him as she walked by. No official apology was offered to her families and the public. The progress of the case is not yet announced.

The momentum of advocacy for legal reform and implementation that was being initiated and carried out by civil society organizations and the non-profit sector a decade ago has stagnated in recent years. Since the year 2010, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of non-governmental organizations working directly on women’s human rights. This phenomenon is primarily due to the civil society law that was issued in 2009 requiring all non-profit organizations to re-register as new organizations. Accordingly, charities and organizations are classified as under Ethiopian, Ethiopian-resident, and foreign. Ethiopian charities are those which source only up to 10 percent of their funds from foreign sources. In accordance to the proclamation, only these Ethiopian charities can engage in activities relating to “the advancement of human and democratic rights” and “the promotion of equality of …gender and religion.” Many organizations primarily funded by foreign sources failed to re-register foreseeing that they would not be able to bear financial burdens by using local sources. Those which have continued their human rights work are severely incapacitated as a result of financial constraints. It is extremely difficult to generate funds locally to fulfill the goals of these organizations. This law has also prevented the creation of potential human rights organizations that would work to protect women’s human rights. “One step ahead two steps back” can describe the momentum of women’s human rights in Ethiopia.

Regarding rights relating to violence against women, a state has duty to respect, protect, and fulfill. In this context, the Ethiopian state not only needs to respect and protect women’s rights, but it should also fulfill these rights. It also has an additional layer of obligation to create conducive atmosphere for local and international co-operation in the implementation of rights.

The causes of violence against women in Ethiopia emanate from deep-rooted discriminatory culture against women. It requires multi-sectoral efforts such as education, advocacy, and appropriate law enforcement. The state cannot do all these by itself. Therefore, it must amend restrictive laws, such as civil society law, to engage other actors to promote and protect women’s human rights. In lieu of that, the state tampers with the rights of women to be protected from acts and practices of violence.

[1] See WHO publication http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/ accessed on 11 November 2015

By: Attorney Mekdes Fisseha Libasie is an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Human Rights Program. She has taught and practiced law in Ethiopia. Mekdes obtained her law degree from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. She also has LL.M degree in Public International Law from University of Oslo, Norway. Currently, she is finalizing a research degree at the University of Surrey, UK.

Gender-based violence escalating because of conflict in Eastern Ukraine

16 Days

The Advocates for Human Rights delivered a statement on gender-based violence in Ukraine to the 30th Session of the Human Rights Council on September 29, 2015. Below is the statement’s transcript, as well as video of The Advocates’ staff attorney Theresa Dykoschak delivering the statement at the UN. #16Days #16DaysCampaign

“Mr./Madam President/Vice President,

“The Advocates for Human Rights is gravely concerned about reports of escalating gender-based violence resulting from the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

“As the UN Economic and Social Council has observed, “the militarization process, including the ready availability of small weapons, that occurs prior to and during conflicts, as well as the process of demobilization of often frustrated and aggressive soldiers after a conflict, may . . . result in increased violence against women and girls.” Such is the case in Ukraine today.

“First, we are concerned that internally displaced persons in Ukraine, most of whom are women, are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. In some cases, the armed separatist forces take women hostage and repeatedly rape them. In other cases, women are abducted or arrested and threatened with sexual violence. Our partner organization, the Ukraine-based Women’s Information Consultative Center, has documented cases of sexual violence in the occupied territories of Ukraine, along with extrajudicial executions and torture.

“The most recent report of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine confirms reports of sexual violence in the territories controlled by the armed groups. This most recent report also confirms that “[s]ervices for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are not available in the areas controlled by the armed groups and are insufficient in the Government-controlled areas.”

“Second, we have received reports of an alarming increase in domestic violence perpetrated by soldiers who have returned from the conflict. Calls to the nationwide Ukrainian hotline for victims of domestic and gender-based violence have spiked in 2015. The United Nations Population Fund confirms that even though gender-based violence is significantly under-reported in Ukraine, the country is seeing an increase in reports of domestic violence compared with 2014.

“The Advocates for Human Rights calls on UN member states to expand support and services for victims of gender-based violence in Ukraine. We further call on the Ukrainian Government and the armed groups operating in the country to condemn all acts of gender-based violence, to ensure that all perpetrators of gender-based violence are held accountable, and to ensure that all victims of gender-based violence have access to appropriate services and support.

“Thank you.”

 

 

“The Advocates for Human Rights, You Have The Floor…”

The location is Geneva, Switzerland, on the floor of the United Nations Human Rights Council in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the Palais des Nations. I have pushed the large button on the microphone unit in front of me. The red disc around my microphone has begun to glow, signifying a live mic. If I dared to look up, I would no doubt see myself on one of the two big screens at the front of the room – staring down, wide-eyed, at the printed page before me.  In front of me are delegates from all of the nearly 200 UN member states, seated in alphabetical order with the current Human Rights Council members seated in the inner half-circle at the front. The black on white-lettered placard at my seat reads “Orateur ONG” (French for “Non-Governmental Organization Speaker”). I have practiced delivering The Advocates for Human Rights’ oral statement; the familiar text on the printed page clutched in my hands steadies me.

I am delivering The Advocates’ oral statement on the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), adopted in 1993. The VDPA, one of the alphabet soup of conventions and declarations relevant in the field of international human rights, contains strong language regarding women’s rights and domestic violence, and The Advocates for Human Rights is using this debate at the Human Rights Council regarding ongoing implementation of the VDPA to point out that there is still much work to be done.

I greet the Council leadership, and begin:

“Domestic violence violates a woman’s right to life, liberty and security, equal protection, and freedom from torture and discrimination. Strong laws are essential for women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of life, and for governments to meet their human rights obligations, they must have effective legislation and practices that promote victim safety and offender accountability.”

This about sums it up for me, and seems a pretty succinct statement of what drew me to the Advocates in the first place: The idea that legal reform needs to lead societal change. In other words, real social change can only happen when the law is on the side of the victim, not the abuser.

We were in Geneva, ten volunteers led by The Advocates’ staff, to continue this important work, and hopefully move the needle, at least a little bit, on issues ranging from domestic violence in places as far flung as Honduras and Mongolia, to the death penalty and the rights of migrants in the United States. We were joined by partners from other international NGOs in this important task. Overall, The Advocates submitted ten stakeholder reports on human rights issues in eight different countries as part of this cycle of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and participated in other proceedings such the Human Rights Committee (a UN treaty-monitoring body) review of Croatia’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (You can read more about that review here.)  

I had two minutes for my statement. Members of the Human Rights Council (forty-seven countries sit on the Council at any given time) are allotted three minutes per topic; non-members and NGOs get two. In practice, I had been wrapping up with about three seconds to spare at what I considered an appropriate speaking pace. The consequences of going over time seemed to vary from being gaveled out of order, to having your mic cut, to receiving a tap on the shoulder from the gentleman in the earpiece standing behind you. I had no desire to find out which of these would be applied to me.

My internal mantra is “cool, calm and collected” as I speak about the issue of victims of domestic abuse being forced to prosecute their abusers on their own in private legal proceedings, and then the problem of “dual arrests,” where abuser and victim are arrested together. As I finish running through a list of actions member countries could take to combat these problems and thank the Council, I finally look up: The clock on the screen shows seven seconds remaining before resetting to zero. Although my voice has remained calm, I notice that I am still maintaining a death grip on the microphone button. I release it and my red microphone light fades to black.

I am honored to have been among the group of dedicated lawyers and human rights activists traveling with The Advocates to Geneva, and even more so to have had this opportunity to address a full session of the Human Rights Council. The Advocates has built itself as an organization that utilizes its volunteers to full capacity, but this experience has been life-changing for me, as well. Thanks to The Advocates and to my wonderful, engaging and talented traveling companions!

By Steven Clay, attorney and volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.  Mr. Clay traveled in March to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates and other volunteers.

Read the full text of The Advocates for Human Rights’ oral statement, delivered by Mr. Clay, below:

Please check against delivery

Speaker: Mr. Steven CLAY

Item 8 (General Debate)

March 23, 2015

 Mr. President/Madam Vice President:

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action stressed “the importance of working towards the elimination of violence against women in public and private life.” Domestic violence violates a woman’s right to life, liberty and security, equal protection, and freedom from torture and discrimination. Strong laws are essential for women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of life, and for governments to meet their human rights obligations, they must have effective legislation and practices that promote victim safety and offender accountability.

This means ensuring that domestic violence is criminalized and prosecuted by the government. Some governments, however, do not treat domestic violence as a public crime. Laws too often force the victim to privately prosecute the domestic violence she has suffered –meaning she must either hire a lawyer, or else prosecute and navigate the criminal justice system by herself. By treating domestic violence as a private crime, states fail to hold offenders accountable.

Another major problem is dual arrests, in which victims are arrested alongside their abusers. Dual arrests happen for several reasons. First, some laws classify psychological violence equal to physical violence. Authorities treat insults and name calling as domestic violence. They arrest both parties even if the victim only quarreled while the offender physically beat her. Second, authorities do not identify the primary aggressor or self-defense injuries; they will arrest a woman who has defended herself from violence. But we know that when a victim is arrested when she calls for help, she will never call the police for help again.

So, how can member states remedy these kinds of problems facing women?

First, The Advocates for Human Rights calls on member states to promote good legal reform. Good laws are the foundation of victim protection and offender accountability.

Second, ensure authorities receive trainings conducted in consultation with NGOs that best know victims’ needs.

Third, promote continual monitoring of how these laws are working in practice so legislation can be amended and responses customized to address these issues.

Finally, ensure adequate funding and support for victims, including shelters, hotlines, legal aid, and other services.

Taking measures such as these are critical steps to help fulfill implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. Thank you.