Elizabeth Daube

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Meena Seshu Discusses India, Sex Work and Human Rights

Meena Seshu

Meena Seshu

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) recently hosted Meena Seshu for a visit to our headquarters in New York City. Meena is the secretary general of SANGRAM, an AJWS grantee in India that educates and empowers sex workers to overcome their most challenging health and human rights issues.

While she was here, Meena stopped by The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, New York City’s public radio station. She talked with guest host and actress Martha Plimpton, star of the Fox television show “Raising Hope,” about SANGRAM’s efforts to help Indian sex workers curb violence and keep themselves safe from HIV.

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A Reflection for Tisha b’Av

Translated as “the ninth day of the month of Av,” Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the two great Temples that once stood in Jerusalem, and over time it has come to mourn many of the tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people. Tisha B’Av embodies our collective history and struggles, and it is one of the most challenging days on the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning.

On the eve of Tisha B’Av, we read the book of Eicha (Lamentations). It begins, “how lonely sits the city once full of people,” bearing witness to the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Jerusalem.  But remembering alone is not enough. Jewish tradition tells us to observe Tisha B’Av by removing the amenities that provide us comfort and make up our daily lives and instructs us to fast, sit on the floor (a traditional sign of mourning), and to refrain from bathing, beautifying or applying cosmetics. These practices express collective mourning and remind us, once again, of what was and still is greater than ourselves.
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AJWS Shows Its Pride in NYC

AJWS staff and friends marching in the 2013 NYC Pride parade.

Staff and friends of American Jewish World Service marching in the 2013 NYC Pride March.

Staff and supporters of American Jewish World Service hit the streets of New York City last week, joining the NYC Pride March and serving as the Jewish voice for LGBTI rights worldwide.

My colleagues and I were so excited to show our pride, celebrate the latest victory in the struggle for marriage equality in the U.S. (the Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8) and make it clear that our work will not be done until the human rights of people of all sexual orientations are respected worldwide.

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President Obama’s Push for Peace in Senegal

President Obama was in Senegal last week, the first stop on his three-country visit to Africa. The trip kicks off Obama’s efforts to deepen the United States’ engagement in Africa focusing on trade and investment, democratic institution-building and economic opportunities for young people. The president is traveling with a team of economic advisors and representatives from the private sector and will be speaking with members of civil society and judicial leaders.

Why Senegal Was Chosen

The US ambassador to Senegal affirmed that Senegal was selected because of its political stability and democratic record. Indeed, the Senegalese people are the pride of West Africa because last year they peacefully elected as president an opposition member in a highly contested presidential race. The country plays an important diplomatic role in francophone Africa. It is a large contributor of troops to international peacekeeping missions and a strong US ally in fighting transnational security threats including terrorism, drug trafficking and maritime piracy.

We were thrilled to see Senegal host President Obama and it was a moment to celebrate his homecoming to the land of Teranga (hospitality). Read More »

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Historic Vote on Food Aid in Congress This Week

The fight for food aid reform is about to come down to an historic vote. With our partners at the leading development and humanitarian organizations in the country, we just released a joint statement of our support for updating the U.S. food aid system, making it more flexible and effective.

Building on the ideas for reform we have been promoting for years, last month President Obama called for improvements to our outdated and inefficient international food aid system.  This week the House will vote on a bi-partisan amendment, sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) to provide greater flexibility and help more people with our international food assistance without spending any additional U.S. taxpayer dollars.

As committed AJWS activist  Jonathan Zasloff recently noted the reforms have  widespread support, from organizations spanning the ideological divide from the Heritage Foundation to the Center for American Progress. It’s not surprising, as the reforms are really just common sense updates to outdated laws.

[The current, outdated law requires that] the vast majority of our aid be provided in the form of U.S.-sourced commodities, but] the U.S. needs greater flexibility to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies and longer-term food insecurity. In emergency situations in particular, the delivery of U.S. commodities can be extremely difficult – due to insecurity, as has been the case in Syria, or due to a host of other obstacles. Purchasing food locally or regionally, or providing cash transfers/food vouchers that work through local market systems, is often the best option for getting food aid to people who need it. Independent research has shown this approach can reach people considerably faster than shipping commodities from the U.S. These are well-tested and proven approaches that come with strong safeguards to ensure assistance is delivered quickly and not diverted from those in need.

Email your representative in Congress now and tell him or her that food aid reform matters to you!

When 870 million people around the world suffering from hunger every day, making every food aid dollar count is not only a responsible use of taxpayer money — it is a moral imperative. We thank all of our partners and supporters who have brought us so close to making these critically important reforms into a reality.

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Promoting Human Rights in Nicaragua

Wilmer Gutiérrez Gómez (right), a leader of AJWS grantee Coordinadora Chorotega, works to defend the land rights of indigenous communities. Photograph by Stefanie Rubin

Wilmer Gutiérrez Gómez (right), a leader of AJWS grantee Coordinadora Chorotega, works to defend the land rights of indigenous communities. Photograph by Stefanie Rubin

American Jewish World Service has worked in Nicaragua for 14 years, focusing on two of the most pressing challenges facing some of the most disadvantaged groups in the country:

  • The struggle for land, food, water and resources needed for the survival of indigenous people
  • Human rights violations against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

This week, a group of AJWS supporters will travel to Nicaragua to engage with nine of our grantee organizations. They’ll meet with staff members who are mobilizing their communities to make long-lasting change.

Our grantees take on critical rights issues in Nicaragua—like Coordinadora Chorotega, which trains local leaders to take legal action against the government’s sale of indigenous land. There’s also Grupo Safo, which recently opened the first health clinic in Nicaragua specifically for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women.

Want to learn more? Check out Promoting Human Rights in Nicaragua, a new review of AJWS’s work in the country.

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Alarming Statistics About Attitudes Toward LGBTI People

A Ugandan activist holds up a popular tabloid 'Red Pepper,' one of several newspapers inciting prejudice and violence against LGBTI people in Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal and LGBTI people are routinely denied their rights. Photo: Evan Abramson

A Ugandan activist holds up a popular tabloid ‘Red Pepper,’ one of several newspapers inciting prejudice and violence against LGBTI people in Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal and LGBTI people are routinely denied their rights. Photo: Evan Abramson

A new report released last week by the Pew Research Center reveals alarming data about attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities around the world. Here are a few statistics that shine a spotlight on the countries in which AJWS works:

  • In El Salvador, 35 percent of survey respondents believe the LGBTI community should be accepted, whereas 62 percent do not;
  • In Kenya, 8 percent of survey respondents believe the LGBTI community should be accepted, whereas 90 percent do not;
  • In Uganda, 4 percent of survey respondents believe the LGBTI community should be accepted, whereas 96 percent do not.

These attitudes are symptomatic of the oppression LGBTI people face on a regular basis—the loss of their jobs, unequal access to healthcare and limited opportunities for education. LGBTI people are ostracized, rejected, threatened and assaulted just for living their lives.

It gets worse.

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Justice Overruled? The Overturned Genocide Conviction for Guatemalan Dictator Ríos Montt

On Friday, May 10th, Guatemalans breathed a sigh of relief. Judge Yasmin Barrios read the verdict against Efraín Ríos Montt for the whole world to witness, and in solidarity, defenders of human rights from every corner of the globe sighed right along with them. In a landmark case, Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide against the Ixil Mayan indigenous people during the US-backed Guatemala civil war that lasted for 36 years.

A new era of justice in Latin America?

It was the first time that any former dictator from the region had been convicted on Latin American soil. It set a precedent, and evoked hope for the future of justice and accountability for the many crimes committed against indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean. Read More »

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From Genocide to Justice: Upholding Human Rights in Guatemala

The news from Guatemala on Friday evening, May 10 stunned the world—a Guatemalan court sentenced former general José Efraín Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for genocide. While we are deeply gratified by this historic verdict, we know that much work remains to be done to ensure justice in Guatemala.

Supporters of human rights across the globe had been watching for months as the Guatemalan courts pursued this landmark case. As the trial unfolded, it exposed the genocide of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people and attempted to hold former military leaders accountable for the atrocities committed during the country’s bloody and decades-long civil war. Read More »

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Chag v’Chesed: Holiday Dvar Tzedek, Shavuot 5773

Chag v'ChesedEver since it was given over three thousand years ago on Shavuot, the Torah has offered Jews a vision of how the world should work. I was thinking about this vision this past December when I was asked to represent HIAS (the 120-year-old Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) at a United Nations conference in Geneva dealing with the status of refugees. The UN invited faith-based organizations to reflect on, among other things, how lessons learned from their religious traditions could offer guidance to the treatment of refugees today. In preparing my opening statement for the conference, I reflected on a subject I had never previously thought about in any systematic manner but that is clearly a pressing issue in the world, as the UNHCR estimates that there are currently 15.1 million refugees worldwide.

What does the Torah tell us about refugees and how they should be treated?

A great deal, I soon learned. Let me cite four examples. Read More »

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