Tag Archives: Social Justice

A time to say thank you: a message from our EVP Robert Bank

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 Persons at the State Department on February 27th.

I’m writing to all of our AJWS supporters to say thank you because you’ve made something happen that is spectacular. Spectacular? When the headlines from almost every corner of the globe in the past few weeks have been endlessly depressing and February may be New York’s coldest since 1934?

Yet, on Friday February 27th at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, AJWS President Ruth Messinger and I were honored to represent all of you 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 Persons, Randy Berry.

You did it! Together with advocates all over the country and all over the world, AJWS activists have made history.

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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

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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

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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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Chanukah 5775: Rededicating Ourselves to Helping Others, By Congressman Eliot Engel

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Chanukah 5775: Rededicating Ourselves to Helping Others
By Congressman Eliot Engel

Chanukah is one of the Jewish people’s most beloved holidays. We light the menorah, sing songs and eat delicious food. It’s a celebration of life and Jewish survival. And, like most holidays that commemorate a struggle against oppression, it is also a time of collective and personal reflection. When I reflect on the story of Chanukah there are two intertwined themes that mean the most to me: shining light in dark places and dedication.

Referred to as the “festival of lights,” Chanukah recounts the tale of the Maccabees freeing themselves from Greek oppression and the miracle that followed the liberation of the desecrated Holy Temple. The Temple was host to an eternal flame, but following its desecration, only enough oil remained to produce light for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days and nights. Of the many things that this has come to symbolize, one is that the miracle of light banished the darkness that had befallen the Temple, the Maccabees and the Jewish people.

The word Chanukah translates to “dedication,” which is commonly connected to the rededication of the desecrated Temple. But one could also interpret the holiday’s name as referring to the Jews being a people dedicated to freedom and the struggle against injustice.

Chanukah should serve as a reminder that we, as a people, must be dedicated to shining light in places where there is none and helping people overcome the obstacles in front of them. As a Jew and as Ranking Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives, I have been dedicated to, among other things, the pursuit of better global health. I believe that we are all responsible for shining light on public health issues, especially in the developing world.

The current Ebola outbreak is a clear reminder of the significant danger of health-related emergencies and the need to re-prioritize good public health and health care access. To date, this outbreak has cost almost 5,500 people their lives, and that number is expected to dramatically increase before this epidemic is fully contained. Beyond the loss of life, we see ripple effects spreading across the affected areas. The World Bank Group released a report on October 7th that found the annual GDP growth in Guinea may contract from 4.5 to 2.4 percent, in Liberia from 5.9 percent to 2.5 percent, and in Sierra Leone from 11.3 percent to 8 percent—as a direct result of the Ebola epidemic. Even with work underway to rapidly scale up efforts to contain the disease, the total loss in GDP for the West Africa sub-region could be as high as $2.2 billion in 2014 and $1.6 billion in 2015 under the best case scenario, which is far from assured. Ebola isn’t just killing the people it infects; it’s creating an unexpected global financial burden that will hurt all of us.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 24.7 million people living with HIV, which represents more than two thirds of all people who are infected. In 2013, there were an estimated 1.5 million new infections in the region, and an estimated 1.1 million adults and children died of AIDS. These are more than startling statistics; they are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. And prior to U.S. intervention, HIV/AIDS threatened to eliminate an entire generation in Africa. Like Ebola, HIV/AIDS has threatened to destroy economies and destabilize nations.

No one has done more than the United States to battle these problems. The U.S. has already contributed more than $600 million to the Ebola response efforts. Furthermore, President Obama has requested $6.18 billion in supplemental funding from Congress to fight the disease. We’ve put medical professionals on the ground, working around the clock to contain and halt the spread of the outbreak. On the HIV/AIDS front, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program remains the largest commitment by any nation to combat a single disease internationally. Over 6.7 million people are receiving life-sustaining antiretroviral treatment; more than 12.8 million pregnant women received HIV testing and counseling last year; and as a result of treatment, the one-millionth baby was born HIV-free last year. PEPFAR has also provided care and support to nearly 17 million people. But, these developments should not belie the fact that it is not enough. Not even close.

We also need to remember that governments alone can’t solve these problems. The international community includes NGOs, multilateral organizations, faith communities, the private sector and concerned and dedicated individuals.

American Jewish World Service is a shining example of how regular people can make an enormous difference. The organization has already raised more than one million dollars for the Ebola response. It is working with its partners on the ground in Africa to distribute essential sanitation materials and to inform areas with high illiteracy rates of the most recent developments. It has also been working on HIV/AIDS education programs in Africa for years. Their efforts have proven to be invaluable and their leadership courageous.

Jewish identity is closely associated with assisting the sick and the poor. It is not only a good deed but a duty, a mitzvah. On this Chanukah, re-dedicate yourself to helping those less fortunate. Get active, get informed, and be there for those who need our help. During the holiday, as the Chanukah menorah shines light on darkness, think of how you can become involved with organizations that understand our responsibilities to shine light on issues that need more attention. The health of our world depends on it.

 

EliotEngelCongressman Engel is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Engel has been a leader in global health, promoting an improved reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Assistance (PEPFAR). Within the PEPFAR bill Rep. Engel successfully included his bill, the Stop Tuberculosis Now Act. This measure provides increased U.S. support for international TB control activities and promotes research to develop new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. Congressman Engel is also the author of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, and has written important laws relating to Albania and Kosova, Cyprus, and Irish affairs, among others. He is the co-author of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which addresses the child slave labor in the cocoa fields of Africa, and is the leader in the House of Representatives on U.S. policy toward Latin American and the Caribbean. A lifelong resident of the Bronx, Congressman Engel is married to Pat Engel. They have three children.

 

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Remembering Leonard “Leibel” Fein: An AJWS Fellow Traveler on the Path to Justice

Jewish leaders, rabbis and educators reflect on their AJWS journey with Leibel

One full day after receiving the news of Leonard “Leibel” Fein’s death, I am reflecting on the loss of this dear friend: a truly brilliant and moral man, and a profound Jewish voice for social justice in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many of us literally traveled the world with Leibel, just as we also joined him on a journey toward a fuller understanding of how to create a more just and equitable world and of our role as Jews in bringing it about. Given this journey, it feels natural to be sharing memories of Leibel in a “virtual shiva” today with so many friends and colleagues at AJWS and in other corners of the Jewish social justice universe.

AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegation with Leibel Fein in El Salvador, 2004

AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegation with Leibel Fein in El Salvador, 2004

We were truly blessed that Leibel was the scholar-in-residence for AJWS’s first Rabbinical Students’ Delegation, a program that sent emerging Jewish rabbis and cantors on service-learning trips and inspired them to return to the U.S. to become vocal advocates for alleviating poverty and routing out injustice around the world. It was in January 2004 that Leibel joined 26 rabbinical students on a trip to El Salvador, and the students sought his guidance in merging their passion for Jewish text and tradition with their desire to become activists for human rights. Fein wrote emotionally about the trip in the Forward shortly after his return.

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An AIDS-Free Future Requires More Than Medicine

Originally published in The Health Care Blog.

In 1985, during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City, I was elected to the New York City Council. Time and again, I felt heartbroken as my friends and constituents lost their lives to a deadly disease without a cure. Too frequently, they suffered the effects of ignorance, fear and hate.

Now, nearly 30 years later, advances in biomedical treatment have been stunning in their power to achieve an AIDS-free future. But the truth is that prejudice and fear are as persistent as HIV. Medicine alone cannot deliver the future we seek. Even as we celebrate the scientific discoveries and treatments that dramatically reduce HIV transmission and death, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that a biomedical solution can overcome the devastating effects of bigotry. If, as the United Nations agency UNAIDS urges, we wish to get to zero—zero discrimination, zero new infections, and zero deaths—we must take an integrated approach that combines biomedical treatment and an enduring commitment to human rights.

Without a doubt, medicine is working. As of September 30, 2013, the United States’ program, PEPFAR, is currently supporting life-saving antiretroviral treatment for 6.7 million men, women, and children worldwide. This exceeds President Obama’s 2011 World AIDS Day goal of 6 million people on treatment—a four-fold increase (from 1.7 million in 2008) since he took office. But, unfortunately, the World Health Organization predicts that 50 million people will need treatment for HIV by 2030. This means we face a tremendous uphill climb and must somehow identify between $22 and $24 billion—a truly ambitious financial target.

As a frequent traveler to Africa and Asia, I meet with courageous activists supported by American Jewish World Service who are pioneering innovative approaches to stemming HIV in their communities. Over time, I’ve learned from them that eradicating the AIDS pandemic requires two additional strategies to complement treatment:

First, we must strengthen community-organizing efforts to keep HIV funding a priority not only for high-income and middle-income countries, but especially for low-income countries that often have the highest rates of infection.

Second, we must address the violations of human rights—particularly in the developing world—that exacerbate HIV transmission and severely diminish the quality of life for people who are infected or at risk.

If people are afraid to be tested or receive treatment for HIV, if they experience discrimination from healthcare providers, or if they simply don’t have access to health services, prevention efforts can’t succeed. The World Health Organization, the UN Development Program and UNAIDS have argued that increased stigma and fear of criminalization prevents people from accessing treatment and obtaining information they need to engage in safer sex practices. This has been true in the case of Botswana, a country that made commendable efforts to maximize access to HIV treatment. In the early 2000s, Botswana rolled out an ambitious plan to test and treat all Botswanans for HIV. But the number of people without access to treatment remained high. This was the result of a number of issues, including stigma. Former President Mogae said, “I’m very frustrated. Because of the stigma attached to this sexually transmitted virus, and because some religious people have said this is a curse or that those who have HIV are sinners, many are afraid to get tested.”

More recently in Uganda, efforts to slow the spread of HIV and AIDS have been obstructed by the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Law—a piece of legislation that Ugandan President Museveni signed in February 2014 to further criminalize Uganda’s LGBT community. Even before the bill was signed into law, LGBT people in Uganda faced enormous hurdles in accessing health care. Many service providers discriminated against sexual minorities, refused to treat them, or simply lacked basic information on how to provide care. Today, state-sanctioned hate against LGBT Ugandans is making it harder to stem HIV transmission and is contributing to a national public health crisis.

Bottom line: The medical treatment of HIV must not exist in a vacuum. It must be integrated with broader global health strategies and policy. Most importantly, we must ensure that our efforts to expand treatment and prevention work in tandem with our efforts to advance human rights worldwide—especially for people whose access to health services and information is severely limited. The people who need HIV and AIDS treatment most are those who are marginalized and are often difficult to reach.

When I think back to the 1980s in New York City, a time of incalculable loss and suffering, I am grateful for the medical innovations that have prolonged the lives of millions of HIV-positive people today. Yet if we wish to usher in an AIDS-free future, we need more than medicine. We must fight for the human rights of every infected person and every person at risk around the globe. Only when bigotry is vanquished will we reach a day when AIDS is a distant memory.

Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.

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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.

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Celebrating LGBT Pride Month

What a month! Throughout the country, AJWS was buzzing with LGBT Pride to shine a spotlight on our work to fight for the human rights of LGBT communities in the developing world. One of our grantees, a leading LGBT rights activist from Kenya, traveled to the U.S. to speak about the struggles that LGBT communities face in Kenya and throughout Africa. We also organized screenings of Call Me Kuchu, an award-winning documentary about the efforts of Ugandan LGBT activists to stop the passage of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which was tragically signed into law in February, followed by a discussion with our Kenyan grantee.

Hundreds of activists and leaders marched with AJWS in exciting and colorful LGBT Pride Parades in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago to demonstrate support for AJWS as the Jewish voice for LGBT rights worldwide. Here are a few visual highlights:

Photo Credit: Jeff Zorabedian

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Posted in Human Rights, Jewish Justice, LGBTI Rights | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Global Pride: Celebrating LGBT Activists Around the World

Originally published in Out Magazine.

Lesbian couple Pen Nol, left, and Chhon Nhoeng, live together on their farm in rural Cambodia. They are members of Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), a Phnom Phen-based LGBT advocacy organization supported by AJWS.

 

Nheap Pen, center left, and Yarn Mok, center right, live with their grandchildren in rural Cambodia. The couple has participated in LGBT advocacy trainings at RoCK. The couple first met in the 1980s, and they have slowly gained the acceptance of other people in their village—a rare phenomenon in Cambodia. “It’s kind of unique,” Mok said. “We do not have this so many other places.” Pen added: “We are genuinely in love. We care for each other. We help each other in times of trouble.”

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

A man who works with and AJWS-supported LGBT rights organization in Uganda shields his face with a local tabloid article. The piece incited public hatred and revealed the names and faces of LGBT advocates; many of them fear violence from homophobic extremists.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

Srun Srorn has worked with RoCK and other LGBT rights groups in Cambodia.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

Members of Transgender Equality Uganda (TEU) dance in drag at one of the few bars in Uganda that has accepted LGBT people. Many TEU members work as sex workers due to limited job opportunities; in particular, transgender women who sell sex in Uganda often face violence and abuse from their clients.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera is the founder of Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a human rights organization devoted to equality for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. She is open about her lesbian identity, and she’s facing increased threats in her country because of intense hostility toward LGBT people.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

FARUG member “Sara” used a grant from AJWS to start a business selling shoes at a shopping center in downtown Kampala. Many FARUG members have lost jobs after employers discovered they were homosexual, bisexual or transgender.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

Dayanara Nicole Diaz Gonzalez is a transwoman whose life has completely turned around because of her involvement with Asociacion Nicaraguense de Transgeneras (Association for Transgender Nicaraguans, or ANIT). As a teenager, Dayanara suffered discrimination in school and alienation from her family because of her gender expression. She dropped out of school and became a sex worker in Managua to support herself. She developed a drug addiction and ended up in prison, where was raped repeatedly. After her release from prison, she learned she was HIV-positive, and then discovered ANIT’s transgender rights advocacy and started attending their meetings; now she is finishing school, living at home again, and working as the ANIT’s health outreach coordinator.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the remote town of Waspam in Nicaragua, LGBT activist Abimael Padilla, 22, suffered discrimination for many years at school. After receiving training and support from Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual Costeña (Coastal Movement of Sexual Diversity, or MODISEC), he was able to improve the situation by engaging with fellow students, teachers and his own family.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

Activists from Minority Women in Action, an LGBT rights organization in Kenya.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

Activists from the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), which works to advance LGBT rights.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

An activist from GALCK.

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Photography by Evan Abramson for American Jewish World Service.

 

 

 

 

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