Tag Archives: Girls

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.

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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.

 

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Kenyan women speak out against sexual violence

Grace Mbugua, founder and director of Women’s Empowerment Link (WEL)

Grace Mbugua, founder and director of Women’s Empowerment Link (WEL)

KENYA—Grace Mbugua was riding in a matatu van when the attendant started to harass her. First, he started flirting with her. When Grace made it clear that she was not interested, he tried touching her anyway.

“When I came out [of the matatu],” she said, “I actually felt abused … How often [must this experience occur] for those who have to commute every day?” Read More »

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The End of the Road

Despite global praise for Burma’s democratic reforms, the country hasn’t resolved its decades-long legacy of ethnic persecution. Burma’s refugees fear what will happen to them next. To learn more, American Jewish World Service’s Elizabeth Daube interviewed refugees living along the Thailand-Burma border.

Karen refugees on the Thailand-Burma border

Karen refugees on the Thailand-Burma border

Naw Htee Ku doesn’t want to talk about the past. She’s sitting on a concrete floor not far from the amplified music and clapping of Mae Ra Moe refugee camp’s public square, where a crowd has gathered to celebrate the birthday of Thailand’s king.

He’s not their king, of course. But it’s a Thai tradition that the Karen refugees—pronounced Kah-REN—have grown accustomed to in the camps. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of Karen and other ethnic minorities have fled from Burma* and into Thailand, for reasons Naw Htee Ku prefers not to dwell on.

“Even if we discuss it, we can no longer do anything about it,” she says, slowly chewing on a betel nut. “Things that happened to me in the past will remain in the past. If we talk about these things, we will just feel upset.”

What Naw Htee Ku wants to talk about is happening now. The Karen refugees fear a forced return to Burma—and with it, more of the oppression that pushed them into Thailand in the first place.

As we walk back to the festivities in the square, green mountains enclose us on all sides. I know there’s a way out of this place: a tedious drive past the clusters of thin bamboo houses, past the Thai border guards, climbing up and up a winding road. But it’s nowhere in sight.

Read More »

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Grassroots Girls Initiative: Empowering girls in West Bengal

This guest post from the Grassroots Girls Initiative tells the story of Mohammad Bazar Backward Class Development Society (MBBCDS) and their efforts to end child marriage and empower marginalized women and girls.  MBBCDS is an nonprofit organization that AJWS supports in West Bengal, India.  

The Situation for Girls

West Bengal is one of the poorest states in India and its tribal villages are labeled “economically backward.” Female literacy is extremely low; more than half of adolescent girls are either pulled out or drop out of the education system by high school. Girls in tribal villages are extremely vulnerable to early marriage, early pregnancy and domestic violence.

Read More »

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Passover 5773: Too Many Women Are Still Slaves

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Originally published in The Huffington Post.

Every Passover, we gather with family and friends around the Seder table to read the inspiring foundational story of our people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. We tell and retell this story every year, and millennia later it informs who we are. There are many ways in which Judaism speaks so strongly to the themes of service and justice, but to me, there is none stronger than our own experience: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. Distilled in this line, the sentiment is clear. Our tradition and history compel us to give back to our society, make the world a better place, and ensure freedom for all.

This intimate connection between Judaism and social justice is why throughout American history the Jewish community—our community—has been a vocal advocate for the values of freedom and equality that make the United States the great country that it is. As a Jewish woman and a member of the U.S. Congress, I strive to bring that connection to bear on my work every day. We are all obligated to make those connections in our own way.

Read More »

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Why Is This Day Unlike Other Days?

Celebrate the women and girls creating change worldwide!

Celebrate the women and girls creating change worldwide!

Today is International Women’s Day—an important date on AJWS’s calendar! It doesn’t get a lot of fanfare here in the U.S. but it means a whole lot for women and girls around the world who are struggling against injustice.

In the communities AJWS supports, International Women’s Day is a day to honor brave women who are demanding equal rights and working to end poverty and oppression. It’s a day to celebrate determined girls who grow up to be leaders, against all odds. International Women’s Day is about empowering every young girl and every woman—no matter where she is born—to believe that she can make a difference.

To help AJWS spread this message, view our photo gallery on Facebook of extraordinary women and girls worldwide who are working to make the world a better place—and then share it with your friends! Read More »

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With Hillary gone, will State Department still prioritize women?

Originally published by Salon.

It’s no secret that when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously declared in 1995 that “women’s rights are human rights,” she cemented her status as a champion for women and girls around the world. And as secretary of state, Clinton made gender equality and women’s empowerment a pillar of American diplomacy. The question now is whether the departure of the leading advocate for women will signal the end of the State Department’s focus on these key issues.

Among her achievements in this area, Clinton launched the Equal Futures Partnership to increase women’s leadership in politics, and made the case that rights for women and girls are key ingredients for democracy, peace and economic growth in every country. Critically, she led the United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security as well as the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, an initiative of USAID and the State Department. If that wasn’t enough, she also shaped the Secretarial Policy Directive on Gender, which has been instrumental in working to end child marriage. Read More »

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Commemorating the UN’s International Day of the Girl

A community outreach team run by AJWS grantee, Fortress of Hope, teaches about gender-based violence. Photo: Evan Abramson

Last week on October 11th, the United Nations commemorated the very first International Day of the Girl. My colleagues and I were still reeling from the tragic shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani activist who was unjustly targeted for going to school and speaking up for her right to get an education. But we were grateful for the outpouring of support for the UN’s decision to dedicate a day to advancing the status of girls worldwide.

AJWS is committed to promoting girls’ rights, preventing gender-based violence and improving access to education and healthcare for girls in the developing world.

A few sobering facts:

  • Two-thirds of the world’s children who receive less than four years of education are girls. Girls represent nearly 60% of the children not in school.
  • Child marriage is a threat to the fundamental human rights of girls, and to the health of communities.
  • Ten million girls every year become child brides.
  • One in seven girls in the developing world marries before she turns 15. These young girls are forced into motherhood before their bodies are ready, and too many die giving birth as a result.
  • Every year, some 14 million adolescent girls give birth. They are two to five times as likely to die owing to pregnancy-related complications than women in their twenties, and their babies are less likely to survive. Read More »
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Into the Field: Stories from Cambodia

Leah Kaplan Robins in Cambodia.

As AJWS’s senior writer and editor, my job is to put AJWS’s complex work—helping marginalized people in the developing world realize their human rights—into words. I tell stories about activists around the globe, trying to bring their lives and challenges alive for AJWS supporters who’ve never met them—or who may have never seen this kind of poverty and injustice themselves.

What may surprise you is that, until just recently, I hadn’t seen it either. For the past four years at AJWS, I have portrayed communities and human rights struggles by hearing stories from colleagues, interviewing our grantees when they visited New York, and pouring over photos from our staff, volunteers and grantees to glean images and feelings that I could convey on the page.

But two weeks ago, AJWS sent me into the field with two of my colleagues—to Cambodia. For the first time, I stood face-to-face with the people whose struggles we’re funding—in their own communities. While this one trip can’t encapsulate the diverse range of places AJWS works, it provided moments of deep connection that I can now share with you, and that will inspire my work for a long time to come. Read More »

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