Members of The Advocates’ staff recently returned from Bulgaria, where we finished training 16 lawyers at the first session of our Legal Training Academy on Women’s Human Rights (LTA). Through this two-year project, we are building the capacity of lawyers to use international and regional human rights mechanisms to defend women’s human rights after all domestic remedies have failed. Being able to effectively access these options is crucial. For lawyers in some countries, which may not have adequate public prosecution laws concerning domestic violence or even basic protections for victims, the option of being able to leverage another remedy is powerful. Once a lawyer has exhausted the options available to them in their country, it is not the end of the road for the victim/survivor. Instead, they can still pursue effective, top-down recourse through the UN, European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe. This two-year training academy teaches these lawyers how to most effectively bring these cases.
The lawyers hail from nine countries in the Former Soviet Union—Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, to name a few. Often, these human rights defenders are operating under laws that oppress or hinder civil society. For example, some of these countries impose onerous NGO registration requirements, while others use “foreign agent” laws to brand NGOs as spies and subject to heavy surveillance and conditions. Yet, each of these lawyers brought energy, commitment, enthusiasm, as well as drive to learn and connect with each other.
In this first of three training sessions, we spent the first day hearing from the participants about the issues they face in their country. They described issues such as the severe lack of shelters, legal aid, and resources for women victims and survivors, the abuse of women in prison, and the use of village elders to decide cases of violence against women rather than formal court systems.
For example, one participant described the harmful practice and effects of polygamy in her country: “How do you register second and third wives? As a second or third wife, if my husband comes and beats me, and I’m not married, I cannot get a restraining order.”
Throughout the week, we discussed various forms of violence against women, including sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and trafficking. We also addressed human rights for LGBTI and persons living with HIV.
In the next two sessions, taking place in spring and fall of 2018, we will build the skills of these lawyers to leverage the UN and European mechanisms. Importantly, we are building not only a cadre of trained women’s human rights defenders, but a network of peers who will continue to share best practices and strategies, support each other’s efforts transnationally, and celebrate successes. Already, we have begun to see the impact after our first training. At the conclusion of the session, one participant said,
“With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best. Thank you all very much.”
Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in Guatemala have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. Using information from interviews with these clients, The Advocates documented violence against women in Guatemala and submitted a stakeholder report to the United Nations Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s third-cycle Universal Periodic Review, which took place on November 8, 2017.
Violence against women remains a serious problem in Guatemala, especially as the country continues to struggle to implement protective measures and programs. In the first ten months of 2015, the public ministry reported receiving 11,449 reports of sexual or physical aggression against women. In the first seven months of 2015, there were 29,128 complaints of domestic violence against women and 501 violent deaths of women.
Due to lack of protection and high rates of impunity, many women choose to leave the country rather than face potential reprisals and stigma. Domestic violence is also a significant push factor for unaccompanied child migrants.
The Advocates is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum cases and using their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes in their home country of Guatemala.
There are several steps involved in bringing these individual stories to an international stage.
First, The Advocates drafted a report documenting violence against women in Guatemala, based on research on country conditions and client interviews. The Advocates submitted this stakeholder report to the Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s Universal Periodic Review. After the report was complete, I drafted a two-page summary that outlined the key information and suggested recommendations. I then reviewed countries that made recommendations to Guatemala during its second UPR in 2012, and selected 27 countries to lobby based on their past support for eliminating gender-based violence. I emailed these countries, thanking them for their interest in women’s issues and updating them on the status of past recommendations they made to Guatemala. I sent them the full report on Guatemala as well as the summary document.
The purpose of lobbying other countries is twofold— to alert the country to the dire situation in Guatemala and to provide suggested recommendations based on our report. The country under review must acknowledge the recommendations, which can serve as a rebuke for missteps as well as a blueprint for areas to improve.
For example, Guatemala received and accepted recommendations during its second-cycle UPR in 2012 to strengthen the 2008 Law Against Femicide. In order to implement these recommendations, the government established several agencies and institutions to give effect to the law, and created lower level courts. Yet weak implementation of these tools meant there was little reduction in levels of violence against women. In addition, there is no law against sexual harassment, despite its ubiquity. The partial implementation of these 2012 recommendations speaks to the importance of creating targeted recommendations, the success of which can be measured on a defined timeline.
After the UN published the recommendations made during the November 8th UPR, I reviewed them to determine the success of our lobbying efforts. Of the 27 countries we contacted, seven of them made recommendations, five of which Guatemala accepted. Interestingly, the number of VAW-specific recommendations made to Guatemala remained fairly constant from 2012 (30 recommendations) to 2017 (31), but the makeup of the countries making the recommendations changed. In 2017, 77% of the VAW recommendations were made by countries that did not make a VAW recommendation in 2012. This shift suggests that a wider group of countries is taking note of the situation in Guatemala and willing to use their platform at the UN to advocate for women. It also suggests we should expand our lobbying efforts to target additional countries.
I was pleased to see the following recommendation from Spain, a country we targeted with our lobbying:
“Allocate sufficient resources to specialized courts and tribunals with jurisdiction over femicide and other forms of violence against women as well as move towards the full implementation of the Law against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence against Women.”
This recommendation indicates that Spain acknowledges steps Guatemala has taken (specialized tribunals, partial implementation of the Law against Femicide) and points out a key gap in the implementation of these efforts: lack of government resources.
It’s incredibly powerful to see this recommendation and other calls to action that grew out of The Advocates’ client testimonies.
Guatemala accepted 28 of the 31 VAW-specific recommendations and will have five years before its next review to work on implementing them. I hope, the country will continue to build on past work and use the recommendations made during this review to effect meaningful change.
By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.
This post is the second in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy. The series highlights The Advocates work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Narges Mohammadi, vice chair of Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC) in Iran and currently imprisoned in Iran’s Evin Prison, started a hunger strike on June 27, 2016. The date coincides with the 21st day of the month of Ramadan.
Ms Mohammadi has written an emotional letter explaining her decision, the DHRC website reported.
In the letter, she says that she has “no demand other than the possibility of calling [her] children” and that, contrary to her desire and physical capability, she has no way other than a hunger strike to remind the world that she is a mother who misses her children.
Ms. Mohammadi was arrested at her home by intelligence ministry officials on May 5, 2015. Shortly after her arrest, while Ms. Mohammadi was in jail, her children joined their father who had been forced, under the pressure of security and judicial officials, to immigrate to France.
In the past year, Ms Mohammadi has only once been able to speak to her children on the phone. That was in early April 2016.
Writing open letters to high judicial officials, Ms. Mohammadi has repeatedly protested against the behavior of jail guards and the security officials in prison.
What follows is the full text of the emotional letter of Narges Mohammadi, written on June 27, 2016.
It is now the month of Tir [June-July in Persian Calendar] and it was in the same month, a year ago in a hot summer, that my two little children, aged 8, left Iran for France to live with their father. It had become impossible to live without a mother and a father. I have repeatedly thought about our last meeting. Every time, my family would be left behind the large gates of Evin and only my dearest Kiana and Ali could enter the prison. From the gates to our meeting room in the security office, it was a long walk and the children were accompanied by a guard, holding each other’s hands. On the way, they’d see prisoners, in hand-cuffs and leg cuffs, wearing dark blue, striped prison uniforms and they were scared. When they got to me, while they were still tightly holding on to each other’s hands, they breathed heavily and spoke of what they had see.n Once Ali told Kiana: “Kiana, good that we ran away. The thieves would have gotten us”.
I was always worried about their coming and going until the last meeting came. They said: “Mommy Narges! Don’t you worry. We go to Daddy Taqi and we’ll come back again”. From the door of the security office to the middle of the courtyard, they turned back several times to look at me. They were holding hands. We said goodbye and the door was closed and my dearest Ali and Kiana left. Not only when I was bidding them goodbye with my eyes, but even now, after one year has past, I can’t believe they left. It was 1:30 pm. I don’t know how I gathered myself to go back to my cell. I passed the hallway and got into the courtyard. I stood on the hot asphalts to pray. I wanted to speak to Himself. Only to he, Himself. I don’t know what I said and what I heard and how much I cried. I don’t even know what to call my state: Prayer, Wailing or Losing Life. I don’t know how much I crouched on my painful knees but I stood up straight again. I don’t know how many times my forehead touched the dear soil of the Evin prison and how much of the tears coming from my eyes and the blood being shed from my heart did I gave away. But I stood up. I don’t know how many times did I hold my hands to the sky and asked Him for patience. My feet were burning so bad that I finally had to go back to my cell. I thought that in three months, when schools re-open, my dear ones would come. But September came and my children didn’t. I requested permission to speak on the phone with them; to at least hear their voice. But it wasn’t granted. In the Women’s section in Evin, unlike all the other prisons in the country, there is no phone for families to call. This is forbidden. We have a visitation time once a week and from week to week, we go without news, waiting for the next meeting. Mothers meet with their children once a week and in person. On Wednesdays, Maryam Akbarifard, Sedighe Moradi, Zahra Zahtabchi, Azita Rafiazade and Fateme Mosana are called to meet their children. I sit on the edge of my bed and ask the mothers to kiss the beautiful face of their sons and daughters. Mothers go to the meeting and I meet with my dearest Kiana and Ali in my own daydreams. I smell their small hands and kiss their beautiful faces.
For a year now, my only contact with my two small children has been limited to me asking about them from my sister and brother. I always hear the same sentence back: “Don’t you worry. They are doing fine.” I have forgotten their voices. I don’t keep their photos by my bed anymore. I can’t look at them. My sister said: “Every time I want to come see you, Ali tells me to ask ‘Mommy Narges’ if she dreams of me?” My only way to connect with my children is in our dreams. How strange it is that they also see their mothers in their nightly, childish, sweet dreams and this is how they connect with me.
It is a year since my children are gone and despite all the open and confidential letters that I and my family have written, my request for phone connection with my children has not been granted. Only once, on the occasion of the New Year, on 3 April 2016, on the written order of the Tehran prosecutor I spoke to my dear Kiana and Ali “for ten minutes, under security conditions and only with the children”. The last words of my children was: “Mommy Narges! I hope they let you call us again”.
In 2012, when I was arrested to go through my six years in prison, my interrogator in the cell 209 said: “Oh, remember you boasting about defending human rights? I’ll send you to the general section so you know who humans are.” And now I know because they had repeatedly asked me stop my activities so that they’d let me stay by my children. They thought by imposing separation and cutting all contact, even phone contact, they’d teach me what being a mother is.
In the last year, I’ve had a strange experience in prison. Being in prison and even getting a 16 sentence for my last case has not only not made me regret but has strengthened my will and belief in supporting human rights, more than ever. But nothing has reduced the suffering and pain caused by my dear ones and my beloved children being away. If during all this time, I have had a smile of happiness, being happy with my activities and work, my heart has always been filled with a bitter chaos caused by the desire to see them. Part of my existence is filled with satisfaction, happiness, seriousness and effort; and another part, full of pain, sadness and desire. As if my heart goes on its own way and my brain its own separate way. Once more, I am with Moses’s mother. It was the mother who received the revelation and put his child in a basket, on the Nile — it was the belief and faith of mother that did it. But just the day after, the separation of the child was heavy on the mother’s heart. So much so that she feared she’d speak of secrets of heart that she shouldn’t. She sang her song of wailing and went on her own way and God intervened… In this land, the power of my faith and my belief in the cause is challenged by human desire, love and kindness. My whole existence comes under pressure. And what pain is this. How hard to be in love with the dear ones, going toward your cause and thinking of humanity. I have always said that in a land where it is hard enough to be a woman, a mother or a human rights activist, to be all three is an unforgivable, human-breaking crime. And now, “I” in my land and homeland, am accused of being a human rights activist, feminist and an opponent of capital punishment (as the charges read in the court said). I am condemned and in prison. Oh, the beauty of the fate: I have to also be a woman and a mother.
They regarded my defense of human rights as a crime but, worse, they denied me being a woman and a mother. Until I die, I will protest. I will not forget. My children were three years old when they stormed my house and took my dear Kiana, who had recently gone under surgery, away from my bosom. As she was crying, her feverous body was thrown in jail. They were five years old and their father was away, when they came for me. The kids wouldn’t let me go. They had lied to them, promising that I’d join them that very night. They took me from them and imprisoned me and on 5 May when my children were in school and went home in the afternoon, hoping their mother would open the door, they were met with a closed door. They had to then follow their father and leave this land. I ask these men of religion and government, didn’t they do enough to me and my children? Should they also now harass my small, innocent children like this? I spoke clearly, as clear as the tears on my cheeks. I wrote simply, as simple as the love of a mother. I swore that “my heart is beating for my children”. I said: “The small heart of my children misses me”. Alas! No one heard me and no one responded. I was patient and waited for a year — hoping that a conscience in this Land of the Asleep will feel some pain. It was for nothing. My motherly love was once more denied. Going against my desire and physical capability, I have no way left other than a hunger strike — to cry that I am a mother and that I miss my children. Maybe someone would feel compassion. Maybe someone would feel shame in their conscience. Maybe there is an end to this hostility and tyranny. I have no demand other than being able to call my children. Is this demand too large, unreasonable, immoral, illegal and a threat to security? Tell me and convince me. If a mother that a government has found guilty should be deprived from hearing the sound of her children, say so! If not, let this mother hear the voice of her children. The punishment of us, women and mothers, is imprisonment not not being able to hear the voice of our loved ones. Believe that we are humans.
Narges Mohammadi is Deputy Director of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC) in Iran. She was elected as President of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Peace in Iran, a broad coalition against war and for the promotion of human rights. She has campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran, and was awarded the Per Anger Prize by the Swedish government for her human rights work in 2011.
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.