Discrimination Hurts. Period.

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I am constantly amazed at the accomplishments and bravery of kids my age. Many confront issues that I simply do not have to take on—often with respect to very basic things. I hope that if I was confronted with the same situations, I would be as brave.

Parkriti Kandel from Katmandu, Nepal is one such teenager. Throughout her life, she has been forced to live and struggle with the  “menstrual taboos” in her culture. At a listening party for 15-year-old girls hosted by NPR, I heard Prakriti’s story and her efforts to mitigate the menstrual taboos in her country and, in spite of it, her struggles to achieve her dreams.

In rural Nepal, women and girls experiencing their menstrual period are referred to as “untouchables.” Each month in rural Nepal, women and girls often consider their menstrual cycles as a time when something “horrible happens” to them. They are ostracized from society on a monthly basis, and are often forced to sleep in sheds despite the practice being outlawed in 2005 by Nepal’s Supreme Court

“When I’m having my period, I can’t touch my grandmother, and I can’t eat while she’s eating,” Prakriti told NPR. “I can’t touch the table while she’s eating. I can’t touch my father; I can’t touch my mother.” Prakriti was even blamed for her father’s illness because she had touched him while she had her period. “Because of this belief [the belief that women are infectious on their periods], because of this ritual, women are not equal to men,” she said. Her goal in life “is to be the prime minister of Nepal and change things” regarding menstrual taboos.

There is a certain shame that I feel when I hear girls talk about their periods. I have had a difficult time talking about it, too. Why do I feel this shame? It is a normal bodily function. Why do negative stigmas surround it? As Prakriti noted, “discrimination always hurts.” For example, blaming a woman for being moody is a discriminatory menstrual taboo wrongly suggesting  women cannot consistently operate as rationally as men. And at the Olympics in Rio, when the Chinese female swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, mentioned to a reporter that she was experiencing her period, she made international headlines for breaking a Chinese menstrual taboo.

The negative connotations associated with a woman’s period must end. I hope by drawing more attention to this issue, I will help others feel comfortable talking about their periods and the taboos we experience. Yuanhui broke the silence, and it is time we do, too.

Period.

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

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#IHaveTheRightTo

Chessy Prout stands tall and strong.
Chessy Prout stands tall and strong.

The start of the school year and the recent conviction and sentencing of Owen Labrie to two years’ probation for sexually assaulting 15-year-old Chessy Prout make it particularly important to get out messages about sexual assault on high school and college 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.

“I have the right to my body. I have the right to say no.”  Thanks to Chessy Prout, I have learned the power these words hold.

Her story is well known. She’s a victim of sexual assault at St. Paul’s School, a private boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. The perpetrator, Owen Labrie, was  convicted on charges of misdemeanor sexual assault and felony use of a computer. But until recently, the public did not know the victim’s name or her face. This changed when Chessy spoke publicly for the first time on the Today show about her ordeal. “I want everyone to know that I am not afraid or ashamed anymore, and I never should have been,” she said, her family flanking her. “It’s been two years now since the whole ordeal, and I feel ready to stand up and own what happened to me and make sure other people, other girls and boys, don’t need to be ashamed, either.”

Chessy is now 17 years old. She was 15 at the time of the assault: my age!

Chessy was incredibly brave to come forward. Although she was anonymous to the public, she testified at trial and experienced the victim-blaming so many victims of sexual assault have to face. Now as she speaks publicly, she demonstrates that same bravery. It cannot be easy for her.

Her message is an important one, and I am so thankful to her for continuing the conversation so publicly about preventing sexual assault in high school. “I want other people to feel empowered and just strong enough to be able to say, ‘I have the right to my body.  I have the right to say no,’” she said. She took the our generation’s important communication tool, Twitter, to launch the #IHaveTheRightTo campaign with the hope that  more people will be public with their stories.  (Click here to watch a video about the campaign.)

When you are robbed of a possession, society does not (usually) condemn you, the victim, by proclaiming “you asked for it.” But that is just what Chessy has had to endure. Spend 10 minutes on the internet and you will find numerous, cruel messages accusing her of being a “slut” (and worse!). Why are victims of personal property crimes treated better than victims who sustain crimes to their bodies? It is time to take a stand. We all have the right to say “no.” Chessy understands this and is working to ensure that other kids, like me, do, too. For that I am incredibly grateful.

Thank you, Chessy Trout.

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

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.

Women Suffer in Myanmar’s 60-Year Civil War

Ja Aung Lu
Ja Aung Lu

This week marks one year of mourning by the Kachin minority in Myanmar for two Kachin volunteer teachers with the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC). On January 19, 2015, the bodies of Maran Lu Ra (20) and Tangbau Nan Tsin (21) were found dead at their house in the church compound located in Kongkha Village in Myanmar’s Northern Shan State. The young women had been brutally beaten, tortured, and raped. Since their deaths, no legal process, investigation, justice, remedies, protection, or rehabilitation processes have taken place for the victims, family members, and community.

The murders of Maran Lu Ra and Tangbu Nan Tsin are two among thousands of known and unknown cases―most, if not all, a result of the serious fighting that has waged in Northern Shan State since 2010 between the Kachin Independent Army and Myanmar Army.[i]

Located in Southeast Asia, Myanmar (also known as Burma) is populated by eight major ethnic groups: Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Karen, Chin, Mon, Burma, Rakhine (Arakan), and Shan. Myanmar owns the “distinction” of being the only country in the world that has had an ongoing civil war for more than 60 years. The war is between the country’s army and ethnic freedom fighter groups.[i] The civil war has strengthened the military’s power, and it has allowed military dictators to rule the country. Thus, the brutal policies and lack of rule of law in Myanmar have jeopardized the peace and security of its citizens.

The army is known for using rape as a weapon of war against its ethnic people. Women suffer egregious human rights abuses. They are murdered, raped, sexually assaulted, forced into marriage, forced into labor, detained arbitrarily, and are victims of forced disappearances.[ii] Therefore, Myanmar has some of the most significant human rights violations in the world.

In 2010, there was a historic transition from a military dictator regime to a democratic government, also known as quasi-civilian government. The newly formed government is making some progress toward democratic reform in the central level and with international platforms. But, grave human rights violations have intensified in the northern part of Myanmar, particularly in Kachin and Northern Shan State, as well as in Rakhine State. The civil war has not stopped in ethnic areas. Apparently, the fighting resumed between the Kachin Independent Army and the Myanmar army in mid-2011 as a result of the failure of the last ceasefire agreement between them reached 17 years ago.

Myanmar became a member of the United Nations in 1948 and a signatory member state of six United Nations treaties and human rights instruments, namely Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1997, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in 2012; and endorsed Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2014.[i] Furthermore, there are national mechanisms, including Myanmar National Committee for Women Affair in 1996, Myanmar Women’s Affair Federation in 2003, Myanmar National Human Rights Commission in 2010, and National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women – Action Plan for 2013-2021 in 2013.

However, there is no systematic reform initiative from the government to hold accountable the perpetrators who have had impunity for half a century regardless of Myanmar being a signatory member state of the United Nations and establishing human rights bodies.[ii]

Regarding the murders of Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Nan Tsin, hundreds of local and international human rights organizations have called for investigations and justice, including the U.S. embassy in Yangon, Myanmar.[iii] Hundreds of media agencies cover this news, and interfaith groups and local communities demonstrated solidarity to condemn the misconduct of Myanmar Army.[iv] The leader of the Kachin Baptist Convention submitted three letters requesting cooperation in the investigation, but there was barely a reply. The Kachin Baptist Convention established a 15-member investigation commission on February 7, 2015.[v] Despite this, there is still no cooperation from the government, including the country’s president, army, local law enforcement agencies, and government-backed women’s organizations and human rights bodies. As a result, sexual violence is widespread and the perpetrators “enjoy” absolute impunity from prosecution.[vi]

Therefore, 100 women and human rights organizations and civil society organizations and nine individuals, on January 19, 2016, issued the following demands:

  1. Sanction an official mandate and power of investigation to Kachin Baptist Convention for the purpose of revealing the truth of the fate of the two teachers;
  2. Request and invite the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to conduct an investigation in order to find out the truth;
  3. Have the incoming NLD government promptly execute the two aforementioned points.

By: Ja Aung Lu, a Humphrey Law Fellow from Myanmar and has a professional affiliation with The Advocates for Human Rights throughout 2016. Ms. Lu is the Program Manager of Equality Myanmar. Her responsibilities in this role include program development, team and financial management, staff recruitment, facilitation of trainings and events, data collection, and policymaking. For her work on the successful Stop Myitsone Dam Campaign, Ms. Lu received the Kachin Hero of the Year award in 2007. She obtained her Bachelor of Laws from Myitkyina University. As a Humphrey Fellow, Ms. Lu hopes to update her knowledge of human rights and laws, develop network-building skills, and enhance her understanding of NGO best practices, to help contribute toward the development of a democratic society in Myanmar.

Footnotes:

[i] Ending sexual violence in conflict through the establishment of Women and Girl Centres in Myanmar. (2014, July 4). In UNFPA Myanmar . Retrieved from http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/myanmar/2014/07/04/10056/ending_sexual_violence_in_conflict_through_the_establishment_of_women_and_girl_centres_in_myanmar/

[ii] PRESIDENT THEIN SEIN MUST BE CHALLENGED FOR FAILURE TO SEEK JUSTICE IN KAWNG HKA RAPE-MURDER CASE. (2015, October 12). In Kachin Women’s Association Thailand . Retrieved from http://www.kachinwomen.com/kachinwomen/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=138:president-thein-sein-must-be-challenged-for-failure-to-seek-justice-in-kawng-hka-rape-murder-case&catid=48&Itemi

[iii] US calls for Myanmar to probe killings of 2 ethnic Kachin women. (2015, January 21). In Fox News. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/01/21/us-calls-for-myanmar-to-probe-killings-2-ethnic-kachin-women.html

[iv] Funerals for two Kachin women found dead in Myanmar. (2015, January 23). In BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30945695

[v] No evidence over Kachin teacher murders. (n.d.). In Eleven . Retrieved from http://www.elevenmyanmar.com/local/no-evidence-over-kachin-teacher-murders

[vi] Burma Bows its Head in Shame on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. (2015, December 2). In Burma Partnership. Retrieved from http://www.burmapartnership.org/2015/12/burma-bows-its-head-in-shame-on-the-international-day-for-the-elimination-of-violence-against-women/

[i] Saw Ba U Gyi – Voice of Revolution. Paul Keenan 7–8 available at http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docskaren/Karen%20Heritage%20Web/pdf/Voice%20of%20the%20Revolution_1_Saw%20Ba%20U%20Gyi.pdf

[ii] Country Summary – Burma. (2015, January). In Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/related_material/burma_7.pdf

[i] Weng, L., & Nom, N. S. (2015, January 21). Probe Ongoing, Autopsy Results Pending in Murder of Kachin Teachers. In The Irrawaddy . Retrieved from http://www.irrawaddy.com/burma/probe-ongoing-autopsy-results-pending-murder-kachin-teachers.html

 

 

Meet Sarah Brenes: She’s a Zealous Advocate

Sarah Brenes for Website

Her clients’ courage and perseverance serve as a touchstone for Sarah Brenes (right) in her work to secure safety for people escaping violence and persecution. Brenes was recently appointed director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program, filling the big shoes left by Deepinder Mayell when he left The Advocates to accept a position with the University of Minnesota Law School’s Center for New Americans.

What do you look forward to the most about being the director of the Refugee & Immigrant Program?
I look forward to continuing to work with our amazing team of staff, interns, and volunteers that support The Advocates’ work. We continue to explore opportunities to support asylum seekers nationwide, and I look forward to fusing more connections with partners across the country and within our midwest region.

What do you want to see accomplished?
With the help of dedicated volunteer attorneys and interpreters, we will continue our work of providing free legal services to low-income asylum seekers.

The Advocates has more than 30 years of experience serving asylum seekers. There are hundreds of former clients who have gone on to contribute to our communities and woven themselves into the rich fabric of our nation. I hope to call on them to provide insights and perspectives of their experiences to help inform our work and to share their thoughts with current clients just beginning the process.

I want to continue to expand our training and support opportunities, particularly for attorneys working as part of our service area in greater Minnesota, North Dakota,  and South Dakota. I would also like to deepen our connection with national partners as we continue to explore our ability to support asylum seekers nationwide.

What is the most rewarding part about working with refugees on their asylum cases?
I am humbled by the courage and perseverance of our clients. In order to make their way to the United States, most have to part with family, risk their lives, and travel with the hope that remains despite suffering abuse and torture. Seeing a client after a case is granted is akin to meeting a totally new person — a weight has been lifted and a new chapter is beginning for them.

What is your background with immigration law?
I am honored to have worked with non-profits, educational institutions, and private attorneys during my career in immigration law. I started, right out of college, as a summer paralegal with the Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, staffing a small office servicing migrant farm workers. I then went to work as a paralegal for Richard Breitman, a private immigration attorney who taught me what it means to be a zealous advocate.

I completed a masters program in human rights and peace education at the National University in Costa Rica. Frustrated by the barriers 9/11 brought to immigration law, I studied global migration and human rights issues. Then, I went to law school and clerked with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and Centro Legal, serving low-income clients. I also had the opportunity to participate in a number of projects at The Advocates for Human Rights.

I joined the University of St. Thomas Immigration Practice Group of the Legal Services Clinic, working alongside Professor Virgil Wiebe, who has the unique ability to help students see the importance of even the smallest detail in a case while, at the same time, appreciate how one client’s case fits in the broader fabric of our nation’s immigrant history.

When my fellowship ended, I joined The Advocates as a staff attorney. Together, we provide momentum to the human rights movement. I am constantly inspired by the volunteers who keep the movement propelling forward—one case, one issue at a time.

Tell us about your family.
My husband, Elvis, and I live in Minneapolis with our three children, Diego (9), Cecilia (6), and Santiago (18 months). Our children’s innocence, curiosity, and early exploration of rights and justice constantly keep me aware of the importance of our work and provide me with new perspectives. My family keeps me balanced  and supports me in efforts to secure protection for our clients and their own families.