In Memoriam: Sharon Rice Vaughn

Sharon Rice Vaughan Photo: Lisa Miller, U of M
Sharon Rice Vaughan
Photo: Lisa Miller, U of M

Dear Friends,

What a great privilege to have known Sharon Rice Vaughan. She was an amazing teacher, and one of the greatest examples of a servant leader I have ever met. Sharon was the first expert to consult with us at The Advocates for Human Rights when, more than 20 years ago, we started our Women’s Program. I remember listening to her story and thinking how amazing it would be for her to share that story with women around the world.

Sharon was part of our delegation to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995. I witnessed how easily she connected with women from every corner of the globe and how her story touched them in profound ways. The following year she traveled with us to Tirana, Albania, and shared her story again with women from nine countries in the Balkans. Sharon mesmerized the entire room with her story of how the seeds of the first shelter were planted by welcoming battered women into her own home in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and how she and other amazing women built the first shelter. She inspired these women who were in the earliest stages of organizing after the fall of communism; through her example, she showed them that with passion, commitment, and creativity, they too could start a movement.

I am grateful for the ways Sharon changed my life, and I am inspired by the ways she changed the world.

Sincerely,

Robin Phillips, Executive Director
The Advocates for Human Rights

Sharon Rice Vaughan was a national pioneer in providing safe havens to abused women. Her life ended this week, as a result of a car accident in Cuba. Learn more about Ms. Rice Vaughn.

“I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings”

The quilt created by Gail Irish, and inspired by resilience and strength of others.
Created by Gail Irish, the quilt’s inspiration was the resilience and strength of others.

Each year, the quilt club I belong to sets a theme for the quilts we create for our annual exhibit at Glad Creations, Inc., a Minneapolis quilt shop. “Stripes” was the subject for our Winter 2014 projects.

At about that time, Cece McDonald, a transgender African-American woman who used deadly force to protect herself during a brutal transphobic and racist assault in Minneapolis, was released from prison after serving 19 months of a 41-month sentence. When she took a plea to avoid potential murder convictions and possibly 80 years in prison, she was freed. Through her story, I learned about the disproportionate numbers of transgender people of color in prison, not to mention the prison population’s disproportionate numbers in general of people of color.

Then, when the world lost Maya Angelou, I was reminded once again how her poem “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings” uses the image of a caged bird as a metaphor to tell the story of Angelou’s struggle to escape oppression of racism and sexism.

In my volunteer work at The Advocates for Human Rights, I meet refugees seeking asylum in the United States because they fear persecution and death if they return to their home countries. Many of them spent time in prisons under deplorable conditions in their countries of origin.

In my work teaching English to adult immigrants and refugees, students have told me stories about unlawful detention, torture, isolation, long separation from loved ones, and many other hardships.

What stands out for me through all of this is the resilience and strength that allow these individuals to fight for survival and dignity.

With my students, the refugees with whom I work, McDonald, and Angelou as inspirations, I imagined bars on windows for the quilt theme of “stripes.” I chose a traditional pattern called Attic Windows, and used a striped fabric for the windows. While all of the windows have bars, the sun is shining brightly.

Some of us are in cages of our own making. Others are in cages that result from the many inequities in our society. My hope is for greater compassion and a greater understanding of the issues and realities that put people behind bars, and more humane treatment of those who remain there.

By: Gail Irish, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights

The Answer to Preventing Atrocities: Human Rights Education

Zeod Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

If you ever wonder what you can do about human rights violations taking place in your community or around the world, I challenge you – on this World Day of Social Justice – to read the powerful message of Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoken recently at Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“…I wake up every morning and, along with brilliant staff – some of the world’s best human rights lawyers and activists – I scan the news and am revolted by what I read. I am sure you all feel the same. Everyday, we are outraged by one piece of news after another! In fact, we must fast be reaching a state of permanent disgust.

“…[Y]ears of tyranny, inequalities, fear and bad governance are what contribute to the expansion of extremist ideas and violence. Few of these crises have erupted without warning. They have built up over years – and sometimes decades – of human rights grievances: deficient or corrupt governance and judicial institutions; discrimination and exclusion; drastic inequalities; exploitation and the denial of economic and social rights; and repression of civil society and public freedoms. Specific kinds of human rights violations, including sexual violence, speech that incites violence, and patterns of discrimination against minorities, can provide early warning of the escalation of crisis into atrocity.

“With so much movement across our screens and newspapers, we believe we are now somehow cart-wheeling into a future more uncertain and unpredictable than ever before. We are also bombarded by so many individual pieces of news, and commentary, our thoughts become equally scattered and devoid of any clear understanding of what it all means…

“And so it would be easy for us to give way to a sense of complete hopelessness. But we cannot succumb to that way of thinking. Surely we now know, from bitter experience, that human rights are the only meaningful rampart against barbarity.

“…Since we cannot afford sinking into a state of paralysing shock, our task becomes the need to strengthen our ethics, our clarity and openness of thought, and our moral courage.

“To do this I can only suggest that we must turn to a new and deeper form of education. Education that goes beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to include skills and values that can equip people to act with responsibility and care. (Emphasis added.)

“…Before every child on this planet turns 9, I believe he or she should acquire a foundational understanding of human rights, and that these concepts should grow in depth and scope as he or she develops. The underlying values of the curriculum would be virtually identical in every school, deriving from the Universal – and universally accepted – Declaration of Human Rights. In this way, from Catholic parochial schools to the most secular public institutions, and indeed Islamic madrassahs, children could learn – even in kindergarten – and experience the fundamental human rights values of equality, justice and respect.

“My children, and yours, and children everywhere, need to learn what bigotry and chauvinism are, and the terrible wrongs they can produce. They need to learn that blind obedience can be exploited by authority figures for wicked ends. They should also learn that they are not exceptional because of where they were born, how they look, what passport they carry, or the social class, caste or creed of their parents; they should learn that no-one is intrinsically superior to her or his fellow human beings.

“Every child should be able to grasp that the wonderful diversity of individuals and cultures is a source of tremendous enrichment. They should learn to recognise their own biases, and correct them. Children can learn to redirect their own aggressive impulses and use non-violent means to resolve disputes. They can learn to be inspired by the courage of the pacifiers and by those who assist, not those who destroy. They can be guided by human rights education to make informed choices in life, to approach situations with critical and independent thought, and to empathise with other points of view.

“Children are fully able to grasp the implications of human rights. And they are able, too, to understand the power that human rights principles bestow on them. Every child can help to shape her or his universe: this is the lesson of that physically tiny and yet symbolically immensely powerful young woman, Malala, who has enriched the moral heritage of humanity.

“We do not have to accept the world as it is; indeed, we must not. We do not have to give in to the dark allure of hatred and violence: indeed, it is vital that we find the energy to resist it. These lessons are surely as fundamental to life on Earth as advanced calculus.”[1]

Parents, teachers, administrators, students, curriculum specialists, policymakers, and anyone reading this who appreciates the power of education as a means of preventing human rights violations, you can make a difference. The root causes of abuses ranging from discrimination to interpersonal violence to mass atrocities can and must be addressed through human rights education.

Here is what you can do:

  • Learn more about human rights education by going to org/uploads/hre_edition.pdf.
  • Contact your community school and ask how they are giving students at every grade level the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights. Offer free curricular resources available at org/for_educators.
  • Read the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training and share it with your local school, through social media, and in conversation.
  • Become part of a national movement by joining Human Rights Educators USA by going to net. (If outside in the U.S., look for a similar group in your area.)

What we teach our children today has radical implications for the future of our communities and world. Human rights education is the obligation of governments and the moral imperative of individuals. We either equip children with the knowledge, skills, and values to uphold human rights – or we don’t. And we live with the repercussions either way.

By: Sarah Herder, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of Education.

[1] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Feb. 5, 2015. “Can Atrocities Be Prevented? Living in the Shadow of the Holocaust, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15548&LangID=E#sthash.QRxCwKej.dpuf.

More slaves today than at any other time in history

Flower in barbed wire fence

There are more slaves today than at any point in history. They labor in fields and factories, under brutal “owners” who threaten violence if they try to escape. They work on construction sites or in homes for families, virtually imprisoned. They are forced to work on the streets as child beggars, fight in wars as child soldiers, and toil on farms, in traveling sales crews, and in restaurants and hotels. Some are forced to work in brothels and strip clubs, or for escort and massage services. They are often held far from their homes, with no money, no connections, and no way to ask for help. They fear the consequences if they fail to earn their daily quota.[1]

Slavery is illegal in every country in the modern world. Nonetheless, there are about 35.8 million victims worldwide,[3] with 70 percent of them female and nearly one-third children.[2]

The problem is so severe it warranted a presidential proclamation, declaring January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Today this modern-day form of slavery, also known as human trafficking, is one of the largest and fastest growing criminal industries in the world.[4] Human trafficking refers to the sale of adults and children into both commercial sexual servitude and forced or bonded labor, and involves the recruiting, harboring, receipt, or transportation of persons for some exploitative purpose.[5]

Human trafficking happens every where, in every part of the world. The United States formally abolished slavery 150 years ago with the passing of the 13th. Regardless, cases involving sexual exploitation and bonded or forced labor are prevalent, with estimates as high as 50,000 people being enslaved.[6] Cases of human trafficking have been reported in all fifty states. The United States is also a source and transit country for human trafficking, and is considered one of the top destination points for victims of child trafficking and exploitation,[7] and U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are trafficked within the country. Cases of human trafficking have been reported in all 50 states.

The Advocates for Human Rights plays a major role in fighting sex trafficking. The Advocates worked to draft and help pass Minnesota’s 2013 Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act. The law, in effect in Minnesota beginning August 1, 2014, drastically changes the way in which Minnesota views prostitution and responds to sexually exploited youth. Using delinquency proceedings to punish prostituted children has ended in Minnesota, and a new victim-centered response to meet with needs is being established.

The Advocates also worked to draft and help pass the law’s precursor, the 2011 Safe Harbor Act. Not satisfied that the 2011 law had left out 16- and 17-year-olds, The Advocates zeroed in on expanding the law’s protections to all children under 18, and drafted the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force‘s 2013 legislative agenda, leading to the 2013 law expanding protections.

The Advocates also participated in creating a victim-centered response — referred to as the “No Wrong Door Model” — and published a report on the process, entitled Safe Harbor: Fulfilling Minnesota’s Promise to Protect Sexually Exploited Youth.

The Advocates is now focused on developing educational resources for community, social service providers, and teachers. It is pinpointing best practices for identifying victims and preventing this abuse, as well as cataloging referrals and resources available under the law. In addition, The Advocates is providing public education on trafficking, and is working throughout Minnesota in collaboration with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, the Minnesota entity charged with training law enforcement agencies and prosecutors on the law’s new approach to trafficking.

Setting the stage for Minnesota’s paradigm shift was The Advocates 2008 report, Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment for the State of Minnesota, which included recommendations for responding to sex trafficking. Paramount was the human rights principle that people who are trafficked should be identified as victims, not criminals. The report emphasized that trafficking victims require specialized services, not detention and prosecution.

“Our ultimate goal is to bring the sale of people to an end; it must cease to be normal, acceptable, or profitable,” said Beatriz Menanteau, a staff attorney with The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program.

By: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Emily Farell and Susan L. Banovetz


[1] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, 2009, http://www.womenfound.org/people-not-property-zero-tolerance-for-trafficking/

[2] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2014 Global Trafficking in Persons Report, http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/GLOTIP14_ExSum_english.pdf.

[3] Walk Free Foundation, 2014 Global Slavery Index, http://www.globalslaveryindex.org/.

[4] UNHCR. Conference puts focus on human trafficking, fastest growing criminal industry. Oct. 11, 2010. http://www.unhcr.org/4cb315c96.html.

[5] The Advocates for Human Rights, “Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment for the State of Minnesota,” http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/report_final.10.13.08.pdf.

[6] Clawson, Heather J., Nicole Dutch, Amy Solomon, and Lisa Goldblatt Grace, “Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature,” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009. http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/humantrafficking/litrev/.

[7] UNICEF USA, Child Trafficking, http://www.unicefusa.org/mission/protect/trafficking.

“As a white person, we have to listen”

Mackelmore

Grammy-winning rapper Macklemore’s levelheaded comments about race in an interview on New York City’s Hot 97 caught my attention. Consider this snippet:

“If there’s anything positive that has come out of their [Eric Garner and Michael Brown] deaths—if there’s anything positive—I believe it has brought attention to injustices that have been plaguing America since the jump. Racial profiling. Corrupt judicial system. Police brutality. These are things that now have attention. Now people are talking about these things. Which is great. People are mobilizing. I’ve been inspired by the mobilization.

“For me, as a white dude—as a white rapper—I’m like, how do I participate in this conversation? How do I participate? How do I get involved on a level where I’m not co-opting the movement or I’m not making it about me, but also realizing the platform I have and the reach that I have, and doing it in an authentic and genuine way. Racism is uncomfortable to talk about. White people, we can just turn off the TV when we’re sick of talking about racism. We can be like, ‘Oops, I’m done.’ It does not work that way for everybody, but that’s what we can do. White ‘liberal’ people want to be nice. We don’t want to mess up. We don’t want to be racists. We want to be like, ‘We’re post-racial and we have a black president and we don’t need to talk about white privilege. It’s all good, right?’ It’s not the case. I was talking to somebody the other day, and they said to me, ‘Silence is an action.’ It is my privilege that I can be silent about this issue. And I’m tired of being silent about it. I’ve been silent for a long time about it. Because I didn’t want to mess up. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to offend anybody.

“But it is so imperative right now that we have this race conversation in America. If we’re going to progress. If we’re going to move past this. If we’re going to work together—truly work together—we have to get past that awkward stage of the race conversation, step up and just have it. I don’t where that starts, other than just speaking about it. You just have to start talking about it.

“As a white person, we have to listen. We need to listen, direct the attention to people of color on the ground mobilizing, listen to those people, and take some direction on how we can actually make this conversation happen.”


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

Donate now . . . because every person matters.

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

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

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

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

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

Donate now. Because every person matters.

“He could take her away from us”

Woman cryingI watched someone close to me become a victim of the horrific cycle of domestic violence. Her name is Kavita.

“My fiancé took out his anger on me,” she said. “I was told I was worthless and stupid. Sometimes, it was very subtle—he would withhold his affection from me, or he would completely ignore me like I was not even there. The worst was when he would slam me against a wall, hit me, or hold me down until I was unconscious. It was horrible to listen to him laughing as he tortured me.

“He was controlling. There were rules for everything. I was not allowed to do my homework on the couch because it was brand new and he worried that I would get ink on it. Whenever he was gone, I would sneak and do my homework on the couch. (Perhaps I was trying to get some power back.) One day, I dropped my pen on it and left a small mark. I looked at the clock; it was 1 p.m., and I knew he wouldn’t be home until 6 p.m. or later. I quickly got out soap and water, and I was able to get the stain out. I was so relieved.

“Not five minutes later, I heard a key in the front door. He was home—early. I panicked, and I sat on the spot so he wouldn’t see it. He walked into the door, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘What the hell did you do?’ How did he know? I got up and tried to laugh it off, telling him that it was an accident, and that I had succeeded at getting the stain out and was just waiting for the sofa to dry. He acted like it was okay, and I was happy. Five minutes later, he grabbed the back of my ponytail and pulled me to the ground.

“We began our relationship in Minnesota, while we both were in school. Soon after, he left for Washington, D.C. and medical school with the U.S. Navy. After many conversations, he persuaded me to leave college and my family and friends and move to D.C. to be with him. I was used to living in the Midwest, and D.C. was a whole new life for me. I became isolated. I now think that this was part of his plan.

“Money wasn’t an issue for my fiancé; the Navy paid him well while he was in school and he had other resources. But, soon after moving to D.C., I learned that in a different and harmful way, money was indeed an issue for him—he used it to leverage power and control. He controlled all of our finances, and he controlled what I purchased. I was only allowed to buy expensive clothes. Even though we had the money, he made me work full-time at a cake shop and part-time at a high-end clothing store in order to get a discount to subsidize the extravagant purchases. I never saw the money I earned because he made me give it to him. One day at the grocery store, he held up the line and told me that I had to pay for the groceries, or we would starve the next two weeks. I was so embarrassed and humiliated. I charged the groceries on my credit card. Eventually, I maxed out my credit card because he would make me pay for everything.

“Even though I’m extremely close to my parents, it took me a long time to confide in them—they were miles away in Minnesota—that something was wrong. Even though they sensed something was wrong, I was frightened to say anything. When I finally did, my mom would get mad at me for not leaving my fiancé. My dad told my mom that if they didn’t support the relationship, they may lose me forever. ‘She’s planning a wedding with him, and she’s already in D.C. He could take her away from us,’ my dad cautioned my mom.

“I needed to hear that I was loved, even though I had left everything to be with my fiancé. My dad reminded me how much he loved me, and told me that what I had with my fiancé was not a loving relationship. My dad told me that I deserved respect, and that when a man hits a woman that is not respect or love. The level of support my dad gave me helped me leave my fiancé.

“I know now that there were many aspects of abuse in that relationship. It was all about power and control. And my response was a common one. ‘I love him, and there are times he is very loving toward me,’ I would tell myself and my parents. I hoped—I believed—he would change. ‘Why would he really want to hurt me, someone he loves?’ I would ask myself. I downplayed his behavior and the abuse, telling myself that it was not that bad and that it could be much worse. I thought I deserved it every time I was hit. I believed I was dependent—financially and otherwise—on him. And I was afraid to leave. I feared what would happen to me or my family if I tried to leave. I know now that when leaving the abuser, it is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship.

“I know now that my parents, especially my dad, were wise and did the right thing. They didn’t blame me, and they were there for me. I can only imagine how frantic and sick they must have been, living so far away from me and worrying about me, wondering if they would get a call about me being in a hospital—or worse. They helped me develop a plan to leave, and they helped me put it into action. They didn’t keep what was happening to me private. They spoke up. When I was ready, they told close family and friends, creating a circle of support for me.

“I know now that one in four women and one in seven men aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. I know that this is an epidemic that affects every single person.

“I know that many people don’t have the network of support I had. That’s why it’s important for communities to respond to help victims realize they can survive on their own. The best thing you can do for your community is help educate them that they should not tolerate attitudes that contribute to a mindset that someone should be entitled to exercise power and control over another person. Come together to create a network that victims can turn to when they are leaving the abusive relationship. Just like a neighborhood watch, these folks can help a victim leave the relationship. Go to your local shelter and local police to discuss options on helping the victim report the incidents of abuse. Remember, strength is in numbers.

“Each of us needs to speak up and take action because, now or in the future, it could be someone close to you—your daughter, your son, your sister, your brother, your best friend, or even you.

“I watched someone close to me become a victim, and that person was me.”

By: Lindsay Kavita Dreyer, a staff member with the Advocates for Human Rights.