Essy of Kenya on #Quorum: Global LGBT Voices

Originally published by Quorum, a project of The Daily Beast.

On Human Rights Day in December 2014, activists from around the world gathered at The Daily Beast’s “#Quorum: Global LGBT Voices” to share their struggles and achievements in working for LGBT rights worldwide. Essy, a Kenyan activist who works for AJWS grantee Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved (PEMA Kenya), shared her story about her work fighting for the rights of LGBT people in Kenya. Watch her speak with AJWS President Ruth Messinger from behind a screen, to help protect her privacy and her ability to continue her work for LGBT human rights.

Posted in Human Rights | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Passover

On Passover, Jews are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus and to see ourselves as having lived through that story, so that we may better learn how to live our lives today. The stories we tell our children shape what they believe to be possible—which is why at Passover, we must tell the stories of the women who played a crucial role in the Exodus narrative.

The Book of Exodus, much like the Book of Genesis, opens in pervasive darkness. Genesis describes the earth as “unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep.”1 In Exodus, darkness attends the accession of a new Pharaoh who feared the Israelites and so enslaved them. God alone lights the way out of the darkness in Genesis. But in Exodus, God has many partners, first among them, five brave women.

There is Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Shifra and Puah, the famous midwives. Each defies Pharaoh’s decree to kill the Israelite baby boys. And there is Miriam, Moses’ sister, about whom the following midrash is taught:

[When Miriam’s only brother was Aaron] she prophesied… “my mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel.” When [Moses] was born the whole house… filled with light[.] [Miriam’s] father arose and kissed her on the head, saying, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.” But when they threw [Moses] into the river her father tapped her on the head saying, “Daughter, where is your prophecy?” So it is written, “And [Miriam] stood afar off to know what would be[come of] the latter part of her prophecy.”2

Finally, there is Pharaoh’s daughter Batya, who defies her own father and plucks baby Moses out of the Nile. The Midrash reminds us that Batya knew exactly what she doing:

When Pharaoh’s daughter’s handmaidens saw that she intended to rescue Moses, they attempted to dissuade her, and persuade her to heed her father. They said to her: “Our mistress, it is the way of the world that when a king issues a decree, it is not heeded by the entire world, but his children and the members of his household do observe it, and you wish to transgress your father’s decree?”3

But transgress she did.

These women had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day.

Retelling the heroic stories of Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Batya reminds our daughters that with vision and the courage to act, they can carry forward the tradition those intrepid women launched.

While there is much light in today’s world, there remains in our universe disheartening darkness, inhumanity spawned by ignorance and hate. We see horrific examples in the Middle East, parts of Africa, and Ukraine. The Passover story recalls to all of us—women and men—that with vision and action we can join hands with others of like mind, kindling lights along paths leading out of the terrifying darkness.

1 Genesis 1:2
2 Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14a
3 Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12b

RBGBlogRuth Bader Ginsburg is a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Appointed by President William Jefferson Clinton in 1993, she is known as a strong voice for gender equality, the rights of workers, and separation between church and state.

 

 

 

RabbiHolzblattBlogRabbi Lauren Holtzblatt is a rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.. She is co-creator of two nationally recognized community engagement projects—MakomDC and the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington.

 

 

 

This essay is part of American Jewish World Service’s Chag v’Chesed (“Celebration and Compassion”) series. Written by prominent leaders, Chag v’Chesed draws on teachings from the holidays to inform our thinking about Judaism and social justice. AJWS is committed to a pluralistic view of Judaism and honors a broad spectrum of interpretation of our texts and traditions. The statements made and views expressed in this commentary are solely the responsibility of the author. To subscribe to Chag v’Chesed, please visit http://www.ajws.org/cvc.

Download a PDF of this post.

View all of AJWS’s Passover Resources at http://ajws.org/passover2015.

Posted in Dvar Tzedek | 5 Comments

Meet the 2015 AJWS NYC Half Marathon Team!

On Sunday, March 15th, AJWS’s first-ever NYC Half Marathon Team will race through Manhattan on a run for global justice! Through tireless training and dedication, our team has raised more than $7,000 for AJWS’s work in the developing world. We hope you’ll cheer on Team AJWS as they take on the city and race to the finish line to build a more just and equitable world! Donate to Team AJWS here.

AmyGoldsteinAmy Goldstein
Amy is an educator in the New York City Public School system.  She currently teaches Social Studies in grades 9-12 at the NYC iSchool in Lower Manhattan.  Amy loves teaching both United States and Global History, and her students have held exhibits at the New York Historical Society, taken trips to meet policymakers in Washington, and gone to national and international Model United Nations conferences.  Amy has also worked as a school coordinator with the NYC Department of Education Mentoring Program, matching public school students with mentors in the business community.  With her husband and three children, Amy loves spending time exploring New York City, visiting family in Pennsylvania, and taking vacations inside and outside the USA.  She also loves running, reading, and sharing photos on Instagram (@citimouse).  She did her first Manhattan Half Marathon a long time ago on a hot August day in Central Park, so she is looking forward to the cooler temperature for the NYCHalf this March!

 

ElizaQuanbeckEliza Quanbeck
A recent transplant to New York, Eliza originally hails from Virginia but lives on the Upper West Side and loves traveling, cooking, and running! When she’s not running through Central Park, she is dreaming up adventures at Absolute Travel. She is looking forward to the NYC Half Marathon with equal parts fear and excitement, but so proud to be running for AJWS!

 

 

 

PaulRosenfieldPaul Rosenfield
Paul is looking forward to joining the AJWS team to run his first half-marathon!  He is excited to support AJWS’s outstanding work that he gets to hear about first-hand from his wife Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield, Director of Experiential Education.  Besides running, he enjoys long bike rides, competing in triathlons, and skiing with his children Maayan and Yonah.  He is a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai St Luke’s, where he is Director of the Outpatient Clinic and Associate Director of the Psychiatric Residency Training Program.

 

 

SamanthaAndAndrewSamantha Shabman and Andrew Trief
Samantha hails from Scarsdale, New York. She is currently a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. Prior to rabbinical school, Samantha attended the George Washington University. In her free time she likes to run (obviously), and even better, take long walks! Sam also enjoys spinning, meeting new people, cooking veggie dishes, swimming and sunshine! She is always up for new and exciting experiences and hopes that this is one of many, many more half marathons she will run in her lifetime!

Andrew hails from northern New Jersey, although he spent the majority of his adult years traveling abroad and living in Israel. He is currently a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in New York City pursuing his love for Judaism, the Jewish people, Hebrew, and Israel. In his free time, Andrews spend a lot of time running, traveling, and figuring out how to connect his many passions together. He is very excited to be running as part of the AJWS team in the NYC half marathon!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Making History for LGBT People Around the World

RobertBankRandyBerry

AJWS’s Executive Vice President Robert Bank welcomed Randy Berry as the U.S.’s first Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People at the State Department on February 27th.

The headlines from almost every corner of the globe in the past few weeks have been endlessly depressing. February may be New York’s coldest month since 1934. And yet, I’m feeling rather elated because something spectacular just happened.

On Friday, February 27th, AJWS President Ruth Messinger and I traveled to Washington, D.C. to represent AJWS at Secretary of State John Kerry’s Welcome Reception to commemorate the announcement of the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People, Randy Berry.

Thousands of AJWS supporters, activists and donors from around the country worked tirelessly to advocate for the appointment of this Special Envoy. And, together, we did it! We made history.

It is difficult to convey the excitement and emotion of Friday’s welcome reception for Randy Berry. Ruth and I were both deeply moved. Having spent so much of our careers fighting for the human rights of LGBT people and people living with HIV/AIDS, this day was truly momentous.

And as a Jewish gay South African who came to the United States fleeing apartheid, I have longed for a day when my newly adopted country would not only recognize my human rights as a gay person, but would recognize the need for foreign policy leadership against the brutal discrimination and subjugation of LGBT people in over a third of the countries in the world. And that day has come!

Read More »

Posted in Human Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Powers of Ten: Reflections from an AJWS Global Justice Fellow

David Lieberman is a member of AJWS’s Los Angeles Global Justice Fellowship cohort. The Global Justice Fellowship is a year-long program designed to inspire, educate and train key opinion leaders in the American Jewish community to become activist leaders in support of global justice. David wrote this reflection at the end of his trip with the Global Justice Fellows to India, where they learned from grassroots activists working to overcome poverty and injustice in their own communities.

LAGJFIndiaSAATHI

The AJWS LA Global Justice Fellows visited AJWS grantee SAATHI in India, which provides access to healthcare, education and employment services for India’s marginalized communities.

 

There is a short educational film called Powers of Ten, which starts with an overhead view of a couple having a picnic in a park. One square meter is outlined in the center of the screen. In the upper right hand corner is an indicator reading one square meter.

The camera zooms out and ten square meters are outlined. The indicator reads 10 square meters. The camera continues to zoom out by powers of 10 until our galaxy is speck in a sky full of galaxies and the indicator reflects the area in powers of 10.

The camera reverses and zooms in to the original one square meter, then zooms in further to powers of -10 focusing on the hand of the male picnicker, and continues to zoom internally down to the cellular level, the atomic level and the nuclear level.

I think that’s exactly what we’re doing when we work with AJWS.  Every effort we put forth is multiplied by powers of 10 through AJWS’s support of more than 500 social change organizations around the world, striving to overcome poverty and oppression in their own communities.

Powers of 10.

And each organization has its own networks. We met some of them on this trip. And each organization in their network multiplies their efforts  through their community organizers, and  each community organizer’s efforts are multiplied throughout their communities.

Powers of 10.

And I look around at our group. Each of our individual efforts are again multiplied as we work together.

Powers of 10.

When we work to transform social conditions, we bring about a change in ourselves. I noticed it in myself this week. For one example, when we checked into our hotel in Kolkata, India, I wondered how many people on the street were displaced by the building of our hotel.  I wondered this after seeing what I’ve seen on this trip, after our meeting with AJWS grantee Kislay, which works to promote the rights of urban poor communities in slum areas of New Delhi. I learned the following morning that although the hotel was renovated recently, the structure has been there for 150 years, so nobody on the street today was displaced by the building of the hotel.  But my thinking to ask the question was a change in me; the awareness was a change in me.

Kislay1

The AJWS LA Global Justice Fellows visited AJWS grantee Kislay, which works to promote the rights of urban poor communities in slum areas of New Delhi, India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we marked the end of Shabbat, a Global Justice Fellow mentioned that the blessing over the wine is about transformation; grapes into grape juice, grape juice into wine, and the human effort it takes to do so.

So, I ask each of the Global Justice Fellows to think about our trip—what you’ve done, what you’ve seen—and let’s use that to continue driving forward to transform social conditions for those who face poverty and injustice around the world. And when we work outwardly to transform social conditions, we transform ourselves internally by powers of 10.

Lieberman, DavidDavid Lieberman, an AJWS-LA Global Justice Fellow, works in the corporate security field for a global biomedical company.

The AJWS Global Justice Fellowship is a selective, year-long program designed to inspire, educate and train key opinion leaders in the American Jewish community to become activist leaders in support of global justice. Learn more about the Global Justice Fellowship

Posted in Letters from the Field | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What I learned from Indian women’s rights leader Manisha Gupte

Child Marriage isn’t just a women’s issue—it’s a human rights issue.

Manisha Gupte, Ph.D. is the co-founder of AJWS grantee Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM), a rural women's organization in Maharashtra, India, that is working to address child marriage and other human rights challenges facing women and girls. For the past 40 years, Manisha has been a leader in the women's health and rights movements in India and on the international stage.

Manisha Gupte, Ph.D. is the co-founder of AJWS grantee Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM), a rural women’s organization in Maharashtra, India, that is working to address child marriage and other human rights challenges facing women and girls. For the past 40 years, Manisha has been a leader in the women’s health and rights movements in India and on the international stage.

I walked into AJWS’s DC Action Team meeting in December to find a conference room with a delightful array of cheeses, crackers and fruit. There were pitchers of water on the table, hot coffee and tea. The chairs were nice and everything seemed comfortable, but I was about to get really uncomfortable.

Whenever I attend an AJWS event, I always feel productively challenged. That evening I was challenged by Dr. Manisha Gupte. Dr. Gupte is co-founder of Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM), an organization supported by AJWS that works to help young men and women in western India learn about their rights and how to advocate for greater choices about their own futures. Rights and freedoms that we take for granted in the United States are not always respected and understood in Indian society.

Dr. Gupte shared stories about the lives of young men and women from the Dalit (“untouchable” caste) in western India. For a variety of reasons and pressures—including gender inequality, poverty and limited sexual health education, to name a few—many of them find themselves in early marriages. Getting married before the age of 18 often limits the opportunities for these children, especially for girls. The issue remains complex. Perhaps the most impressive part about MASUM is that, through its partnership with AJWS, the organization strengthens youth-led advocacy and empowers children to ask for and create change from within their own communities.

As Manisha spoke, I looked around the room with about a dozen women and realized that I was the only man. It was surprising that no other men had made the choice to be there that night. What did that say about the issue at hand? Was it strictly a women’s issue? I tended to think not, and frankly, from the talk that I had just heard, it seemed like men had a lot to learn and gain from their engagement in this conversation.

We were asked to reflect on what we had just heard and how it might impact what action we might take next. I recognized that there was a lot that I needed to learn, and because of what I had heard, I was willing to learn more in order to make a difference. Dr. Gupte had left us with a final thought that really stuck in my mind. “I don’t think women need protection; women’s rights need protection,” she said. Protecting human rights is the bottom line, and is something that people of all genders can—and should—support. All of us, regardless of gender, have a stake in ensuring equal protection for all people’s dignity and human rights.

Andy Kirschner is a member of AJWS’s DC Action Team. AJWS Action Teams mobilize advocates for global justice throughout the United States, helping to create lasting policy change that benefit many of the most marginalized people in the developing world. To get involved, email webelieve@ajws.org.

AJWS’s We Believe campaign is mobilizing American Jewish and other supporters of human rights to demand that the U.S. Congress fully fund efforts designed to end child marriage in the developing world. Learn more and get involved with our We Believe campaign.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Global Justice Fellow’s Pre-Travel Reflection

This week, my AJWS Los Angeles Global Justice Fellowship cohort and I are preparing to depart for India to meet with local human rights activists working to overcome poverty and injustice in their own communities. I have been reminded these past few days (especially in the countdown to our departure from LAX) that I am experiencing a familiar feeling. It is so easy to get fixated on the packing list, the details of travel insurance, Malarone™ prescriptions and visa applications. Do I have the right clothes…my trusty travel pillow? …and where did my universal travel plug go?

And when I was traveling for work to the developing world it was even worse: do I have the in-country contact phone numbers, the materials for our field office, the conference freebees and photo consent cards, and all the necessary files and PowerPoints backed up on my computer in case rolling blackouts restrict my internet access?

Read More »

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Photo essay: Haiti’s earthquake victims wonder where the reconstruction money went

Originally published in PBS Newshour.

Five years since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake shook their nation, 80,000 Haitians remain in tent camps, a visible reminder of the slow humanitarian effort to rebuild the poor country and move its affected residents to permanent housing. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

Five years since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake shook their nation, 80,000 Haitians remain in tent camps, a visible reminder of the slow humanitarian effort to rebuild the poor country and move its affected residents to permanent housing. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Jan. 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake reduced the impoverished island country of Haiti to rubble, leaving 220,000 dead, another 300,000 injured, and more than a million homeless. Many of those who survived also lost limbs to falling walls and debris from buildings that weren’t constructed to withstand seismic waves.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the tectonic plates hadn’t produced a large-scale earthquake of comparable strength in the Caribbean area for 150 years.

The tragedy triggered an international response that raised $13.5 billion in donations from governments and individuals, with the U.S. leading the relief operation. President Barack Obama spoke directly to Haitians — “You will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten” — but every year since, critics have asked the same question: Where did the money go?

Five years later, the “build back better” reconstruction promise remains limp, critics argue, while tens of thousands of people are still in temporary housing. While the number of Haitians living in these tent camps have decreased since the earthquake, 123 camps housing more than 85,000 people remain open, Amnesty International said.

“On paper, with that much money in a territory the size of Haiti, we should have witnessed miracles; there should have been results,” Haiti-based photographer Gael Turine told Time magazine.

An overshot of Jalousie, a shantytown that was the target of a government project that relocated people that took shelter in the tent camps provided after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. As part of the $1.4 million effort to beautify the slum, the Haitian government painted the facades of these dwellings. AJWS, among other critics, said the move was a cosmetic change that provided Petitionville, Port-au-Prince’s wealthiest neighborhood, a colorful view that belied the poor conditions the slum’s inhabitants faced. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A woman hangs her laundry to dry in front of her makeshift home made out of tin and tarps. Five years after the devastating Haiti earthquake, many of the tent camps and shantytowns that once sheltered some 1.5 million people now hold about 80,000 as the government tries to move them into permanent homes. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, for the first time in a century, Haiti suffered a cholera outbreak that emerged 10 months after the earthquake. As of August 2014, the disease had claimed 8,592 lives and sickened more than 700,000, the United Nations Children’s Fund said.

A four-person panel appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon released a report in May 2011 that investigated if U.N. peacekeepers had inadvertently caused the outbreak when an overflowing septic tank in one of their camps spewed into the Artibonite River, a main water source for many Haitians. The report did no find the U.N. at fault. Haitian plaintiffs, in response, filed a class-action lawsuit in the hopes of holding the U.N. accountable for the outbreak.

Frustration in Haiti has boiled over into public outcry against government corruption. Two days before the fifth anniversary of the country’s earthquake, anti-government demonstrators gathered in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, to protest the long-delayed elections and called for the departure of President Michel Martelly.

 

A woman walks past the fence that covers the view of what was the Presidential Palace before it was destroyed when magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A woman walks past the fence that covers the view of what was the Presidential Palace before it was destroyed when magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

461344402-1024x682 (5)

Children sit on the wall next to the National Cathedral that was destroyed five years ago by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. Five years later a church has been built next to the ruins and the city of Port-au-Prince struggles to recover even as the government is locked in a stalemate over parliamentary elections that have been delayed for several years. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although reconstruction efforts have removed much of the rubble — the National Palace, once the symbol of slow recovery, was demolished in 2012 — the most visible reminder of the earthquake has been the country’s displacement camps, where poor conditions are compounded by chronic poverty and political upheaval. With an unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent, the majority of Haitians live under the national poverty line, the Associated Press reported.

Photographer Ed Kashi, working for American Jewish World Service, captured earthquake survivors still living in Haiti’s tent camps. Kashi photographed Camp Immaculée, which will soon close, leaving its residents with an uncertain future.

 

Tens of thousands of earthquake survivors remain in tent camps like Camp Immaculée, located in Port-au-Prince. AJWS said the camp’s residents face imminent eviction, and most have nowhere to go next. Centered is Jackson Doliscar, who, at the time, represented FRAKKA (Force for Reflection and Action on Housing), an organization that acted as advocates on behalf of earthquake survivors, providing legal aid and calling for a more sustainable plan to resettle displaced persons. Doliscar is flanked by camp committee members who, at every one of these camps, help promote the rights of the people living in these camps, AJWS said. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

Tens of thousands of earthquake survivors remain in tent camps like Camp Immaculée, located in Port-au-Prince. AJWS said the camp’s residents face imminent eviction, and most have nowhere to go next. Centered is Jackson Doliscar, who, at the time, represented FRAKKA (Force for Reflection and Action on Housing), an organization that acted as advocates on behalf of earthquake survivors, providing legal aid and calling for a more sustainable plan to resettle displaced persons. Doliscar is flanked by camp committee members who, at every one of these camps, help promote the rights of the people living in these camps, AJWS said. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children play a game of dominoes as they hang out together near their makeshift homes. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Children play a game of dominoes as they hang out together near their makeshift homes. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends stand together near homes made out of tin and tarps that they built over the land where their homes once stood. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Friends stand together near homes made out of tin and tarps that they built over the land where their homes once stood. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women face an increased risk of sexual violence in tent camps, AJWS said, among other human rights violations. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

Women face an increased risk of sexual violence in tent camps, AJWS said, among other human rights violations. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A family looks out from behind the tarp that serves as the front door to their home. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A family looks out from behind the tarp that serves as the front door to their home. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jackson Doliscar of FRAKKA, left, speaks with camp residents. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

Jackson Doliscar of FRAKKA, left, speaks with camp residents. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of these children were born at Camp Immaculée, and live adrift in this temporary tent camp — and its poor conditions — for the past five years. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

Most of these children were born at Camp Immaculée, and live adrift in this temporary tent camp — and its poor conditions — for the past five years. Photo by Ed Kashi/American Jewish World Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A young lady looks out from behind a cloth that serves as the front door to the home made out of tin and tarps. Her family built the shelter over the land where their home once stood before the 2010 earthquake. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A young lady looks out from behind a cloth that serves as the front door to the home made out of tin and tarps. Her family built the shelter over the land where their home once stood before the 2010 earthquake. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

It’s been five years since Haiti’s earthquake. And the ‘redevelopment’ hasn’t been about helping Haitians.

Originally published in The Washington Post.

Anti-government protesters in Port-au-Prince last month called for President Michel Martelly’s resignation. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Anti-government protesters in Port-au-Prince last month called for President Michel Martelly’s resignation. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Five years ago this month, a terrible earthquake struck my country. I was in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, when suddenly the earth shook and buildings around me and across the city collapsed—taking with them hundreds of thousands of lives and the hopes of my nation. The world stood with us that day and in the weeks and months that followed. Donations poured in; the United States and many other governments pledged to help us rebuild Haiti. But five years into the reconstruction, as a Haitian, I must ask: For whom are we rebuilding our country?

Haitians are not benefiting as fully as they should from this global aid. Despite billions of dollars earmarked for Haiti, nearly 100,000 people still live under plastic tarps in displacement camps. Poverty has worsened all around the capital: more beggars on the streets, an increase in teen pregnancy, and more people turning to sex work. A cholera epidemic has wrought further devastation, killing thousands; the CDC and others have suggested the strong possibility that cholera was brought to Haiti by United Nations peacekeepers, the very force tasked with stabilizing the country. In truth, a great deal of the “redevelopment” has gone to help the rich and powerful, not the impoverished and displaced people who need it the most.

The Haitian government is using its scarce resources to invest furiously in tourism, the mining of gold and other natural resources, massive industrial construction projects and the exportation of our agricultural products. There are reasonable arguments for each of these strategies—after all, stimulating Haiti’s economy could increase the quality of life for people at all economic levels. But it takes little digging into recent investments to find stories of criminal abuses of power that have provoked outrage from Haitian citizens, whose land is being taken to make room for these projects without their consent.

Haiti’s building boom often appears to serve the purposes of Haiti’s elite and of outsiders, who stand to benefit from the land, resources and untapped potential of our country. Take, for example, Île-à-Vache, a tiny, pristine island off Haiti’s southern coast that remains unknown to most of the world. The island holds Haiti’s sole remaining untouched forest, a green oasis in a country where all but 1.5 percent of the land has been stripped bare by logging. Île-à-Vache is home to tens of thousands of villagers who have lived there sustainably and peacefully for generations.

All that changed in 2013, when the government declared the island a public utility and launched plans to build an international airport, 1,500 hotel rooms, a golf course and night clubs—a plan completely out of scale in a place formerly without cars, technology or government infrastructure.

The government promotes the project as a shining example of land, community and development existing in harmony, with equitable distribution of benefits for all. But villagers tell a very different story. The government forged ahead without assessing how the project will affect the land and its people. The islanders have not been compensated for their land and will likely be forced to migrate to the cities in search of jobs. And contractors have brazenly razed a virgin old-growth forest, dredged the untouched Madame Bernard Bay and cut down fruit trees that families depended on for their livelihoods.

When the community protested peacefully, requested information about the plans and asked to be included in decision-making about the project, the government sent heavily armed law enforcement teams to the island to suppress dissent. Local police officer and community leader Jean Mathelnus Lamy was arrested after organizing peaceful protests.

Elsewhere in Haiti, citizens are concerned that officials will not be able to properly regulate the burgeoning mining industry, which has the potentialto displace farmers from their land and negatively affect the environment; already, mining contracts have been awarded to foreign companies without public or parliamentary scrutiny. Meanwhile, the government is building industrial parks, including one for a South Korean clothing manufacturer on a tract of fertile farmland, instead of housing for earthquake survivors, even as the displacement camps that house them are closing. With no long-term plan to house them elsewhere, many of these displaced people may find themselves homeless again soon.

Fortunately, there are Haitian activists seeking to redress these wrongs. As a consultant to American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I work with 29 Haitian grassroots organizations that are using AJWS’s support to advocate for accountability in how relief funds are spent. These groups are working to rebuild Haiti for the benefit of all of its people, including those living in poverty and other groups that have been traditionally excluded, including rural communities, women and LGBT people.

One such organization, Collective for Île-à-Vache (Konbit Peyizan Île-à-Vache, or KOPI), is behind the peaceful protest movement on the island. It is demanding that construction stop and that the government consult the community and conduct an environmental assessment (which is required by Haitian law) before the project resumes. If the government continues to threaten this community and the land, KOPI plans to bring the case to international courts.

The world’s attitude toward Haiti and my own government’s attitude toward its people must radically shift. The U.S. government has taken steps in the right direction with last summer’s passage of the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act, which insists that the State Department be more transparent and accountable in the use of reconstruction funds. If Haiti fails to ensure that development benefits its people—something the government might be likelier to do with international oversight that the act promises to provide—then the earthquake will have meant not only a natural disaster, but also a radical redistribution of assets from the poor and vulnerable to the rich and powerful.

 

NixonBoumbaNixon Boumba, born in Haiti, works as an in-country consultant there to American Jewish World Service, an international aid and human rights organization.

Posted in Human Rights | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Human Rights in 2014: Our End-of-Year Top 10

As 2014 comes to an end, we’re reflecting on a year with both progress and setbacks for human rights around the globe. Read our round-up of our top 10 human rights events in 2014.

1. Ebola devastates West Africa

Staff and volunteers from AJWS grantee Grassroots Agency for Social Services (GRASS) in Liberia

Staff and volunteers from AJWS grantee Grassroots Agency for Social Services (GRASS) in Liberia

As undoubtedly the largest public health crisis in 2014, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has taken thousands of lives and left thousands of orphaned children. In Liberia, the outbreak has threatened to erase the progress made in building a just and equitable society after the country’s devastating civil war. The stigma associated with the disease has made it more difficult to end the outbreak, which is disproportionately affecting the poor, women and oppressed minorities. More women contract the disease since they are the primary caretakers of the sick. LGBT people are also being blamed for spreading the disease. Since this summer, AJWS donors contributed more than $1 million to help our grantees in Liberia respond to the outbreak and also work to address the broader structural issues that contributed to the rapid rise of the epidemic.

2. AJWS grantee Tlachinollan leads fight for justice for Mexico’s missing students

Photo credit: Tlachinollan

Photo credit: Tlachinollan

After the forced disappearance of 43 students from the rural university of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero, Mexico in September, our grantee Tlachinollan quickly organized to support the families of the missing students and demand justice. AJWS has supported Tlachinollan’s work protecting the human rights of Mexico’s indigenous people for years, and we are proud that the organization is now taking the lead in one of Mexico’s most high-profile human rights cases. Earlier in 2014, Tlachinollan’s legal advocacy resulted in the conviction of two soldiers who raped and tortured indigenous leaders in 2002. This case was groundbreaking because it was first time Mexican soldiers were tried in a non-military court for a case of rape.

Abel Barrera, Tlachinollan’s founder and director, describes Tlachinollan’s efforts as they continue to stand by the families of the missing students until justice is served:

“Our team has been together with the families who are demanding justice for the disappeared. This is what makes the government fearful. This is where and what the defense of human rights is. It is with the people. It is face to face.”

3. Violence against women gains international media attention

AJWS #BringBackOurGirls social media post, May 2014

AJWS #BringBackOurGirls social media post, May 2014

Around the world, 1 in 3 women is still beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. But in 2014, more people around the world spoke out to say ‘NO’ to violence against women and girls. The #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign went viral across the world following the abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from Nigeria. Other viral Twitter campaigns calling for an end to violence against women included the #YesAllMen, #ItsOnUs, and #HeForShe campaigns. AJWS and our supporters participated in these viral social media campaigns to call attention to the epidemic of violence facing women and girls. Our supporters rallied around our #BringBackOurGirls social media post, and the post reached 3.5 million people.

 

 

 

4. Uganda’s inhumane Anti-Homosexuality Act overturned

Nicholas Opiyo, AJWS grantee who helped overturn Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act

Nicholas Opiyo, AJWS grantee who helped overturn Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

In February 2014, Uganda’s President signed the country’s inhumane Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law. The law contained harsh provisions, including life imprisonment for same-sexual behavior, and violated the basic human rights of Uganda’s LGBT people. AJWS supported a coalition of organizations in Uganda to challenge the constitutionality of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, and in July they won the case, striking down the bill. Read more about Nicholas Opiyo, an AJWS grantee and one of Uganda’s top human rights lawyers, and his role in overturning the bill in BuzzFeed.

 

 

5. Alejandra Ancheita claims the 2014 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders

Photo credit: Amnesty International

Photo credit: Amnesty International

In October, Alejandra Anchrita won the Martin Ennals Award, considered the Nobel Prize of human rights, given to human rights defenders who show deep commitment to their cause despite huge personal risk. As founder and director of AJWS grantee PRODESC, Alejandra was awarded for her deep commitment to protect the land and labor rights of migrants, workers and indigenous communities in Mexico. Read more from Amnesty International. 

 

6. AJWS Grantee Receives the 2014 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award

taiwan

Photo credit: Taiwan Foundation for Democracy

On December 10—International Human Rights Day—our Sri Lankan grantee Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) received the prestigious 2014 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. CHRD was awarded for their work tackling human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including cases of land grabbing, unlawful arrest, detentions, disappearances and sexual violence. CHRD also works to protect the human rights of minority communities in Sri Lanka.

 

 

7. Major progress on U.S. funds for Haiti

Ian Schwab, AJWS's associate director of advocacy (far left), speaks at a Haiti Advocacy Working Group event.

Ian Schwab, AJWS’s associate director of advocacy (far left), speaks at a Haiti Advocacy Working Group event.

In July 2014, Congress passed a new bill to reform how the U.S. tracks the progress of its development projects in Haiti—a great step in the right direction for the country’s long-term recovery after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Our President Ruth Messinger commented on the bill’s significance:

“As an organization that makes grants in Haiti, we believe this legislation embodies a new commitment to transparency, accountability and good governance. The bill will help establish clear and transparent goals for future U.S. involvement in Haiti and will ensure that U.S. dollars are spent in responsible ways that create long-term, positive change in Haiti.” See more in the article from the Miami Herald and from our blog post.

 

 

8. Progress for the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA)

passivawaAt the end of 2013 as part of our We Believe campaign, we launched a petition calling on Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), a law that would ensure that the U.S. government puts the full weight of its foreign aid and international diplomacy behind global efforts to end violence against women and girls. More than 12,700 people have signed our petition this year, and more members of Congress are now co-sponsors of IVAWA than ever before, including Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce. Let’s make 2015 the year that we pass IVAWA and end the violence and abuse experienced by hundreds of millions of women and girls worldwide. If you haven’t done so yet, sign the petition calling on Congress to pass IVAWA.

 

9. Congress introduces International Human Rights Defense Act

In September, AJWS and a coalition of advocacy and human rights organizations met with officials at The White House to ask President Barack Obama to appoint a Special Envoy for Global LGBT Rights and address violence and discrimination against LGBT people worldwide.

In September, AJWS and a coalition of advocacy and human rights organizations met with officials at The White House to ask President Barack Obama to appoint a Special Envoy for Global LGBT Rights and address violence and discrimination against LGBT people worldwide.

Global LGBT rights took a step forward in June when Senator Ed Markey introduced the International Human Rights Defense Act into the Senate, a law that would direct the State Department to make protecting the rights of LGBT people worldwide a foreign policy priority. Part of the bill proposes that the President appoint a Special Envoy for Global LGBT Rights. However, the bill has yet to pass—and in 77 countries, homosexuality is still illegal—punishable by imprisonment and, in some cases, by death. Sign our petition urging President Obama to appoint a Special Envoy for Global LGBT Rights.

 

10.  UN adopts historic resolution on Child Marriage

Manisha Gupte, founder of AJWS grantee MASUM, an organization that empowers women in India

Manisha Gupte, founder of AJWS grantee MASUM, an organization that empowers women in India

In November, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on child marriage (also known as early or forced marriage). The resolution is historic as it marks the first time that UN member states agreed upon substantive recommendations that states and international organizations must take to address the harmful practice. Read this article in Cosmopolitan featuring an interview with our grantee Manisha Gupte, who is empowering girls to determine their own futures in India.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment