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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

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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Amplifying global LGBT voices at #Quorum

This Human Rights Day, I gathered with activists from around the world at “#Quorum: Global LGBT Voices.” By the end of the day—through the power of social media—we reached more than 25 million people with their stories.

These inspiring speakers reminded me why AJWS and our partners are making this issue a priority: because all people deserve basic human rights, and we can’t be silent when societies treat LGBT people as less thanhuman. As our Kenyan grantee, Essy, said today, “We’re not looking for ‘gay rights.’ We’re looking for human rights for gay people.”

Essyquote

Image Credit: The Daily Beast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speakers came from near (New York City) and far (Egypt, India and Nigeria, to name just a few). The Daily Beast brought them together for this unique event, which aimed to amplify global LGBT voices and bring them to new audiences. Why? Mike Dyer of the Daily Beast put it best this morning: “As a media company, we strongly believe that this is the great civil rights challenge of our time.”

Essy_Quorum2

At Quorum, AJWS President Ruth Messinger interviewed Essy, an LGBT activist in Kenya supported by AJWS.

AJWS was thrilled to contribute to this event alongside many other supporters of global LGBT rights, and I was proud to see our grantees take the stage to share their stories.  Essy, in particular, reminded me of the risks that many of these advocates take every day, working in societies that often lash out violently against people who are openly LGBT. Essy shared her story from behind a screen, to help protect her privacy and her ability to continue her work in Mombasa, Kenya. She’s forged incredible partnerships with both Muslim and Christian religious leaders there, working with them to overcome widespread ignorance and hatred against LGBT people.

As I watched Essy speak in shadowy silhouette, I reflected on the many rights and privileges I take for granted—as an openly gay man and as a human being. I feel grateful to be in a position where I can speak up and advocate for others. And after everything I heard today, I’m inspired to do whatever I can to support human rights. I keep thinking of what Essy said today: “We were not born to do everything, but we were all born to do something.”

What will you do?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Use #Quorum to join the conversation about global LGBT rights. Find #Quorum stories and learn more here: http://quorum.thedailybeast.com
  2. Support AJWS’s efforts to advocate for U.S. policies and laws that will advance LGBT rights around the world. Sign our latest petition calling on President Obama to appoint a Special Envoy on Global LGBT Rights.

RobertBankRobert Bank is the executive vice president
of American Jewish World Service.

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A Message from Cynthia Nixon

CynthiaNixon

 

I’m Cynthia Nixon. As an actor, I’ve played the roles of many different women—from Juliet to Miranda Hobbes to Eleanor Roosevelt. I love bringing the stories and struggles of women to life, on the stage and on the screen. It’s a tremendous pleasure and privilege.

Yet, there are millions of women all over the globe whose stories are never told on the world stage. These women suffer many forms of discrimination. They are victimized by sexual violence. And when they raise their voices in protest, too often they are answered with brutality.

That’s why I’m joining with American Jewish World Service to urge Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA)—a critical piece of legislation that will protect the rights and dignity of millions of women and girls around the world.

Consider this:

  • More than 70 percent of women will experience physical violence during their lives;
  • In some countries, lesbians are raped to “be cured”;
  • And, in the coming decade, more than 100 million girls will be married against their will before they are 18 years old—some as young as nine.

This is not the world I want for my children. Or for anyone’s little girls.

If passed, IVAWA will decrease violence against women and bring perpetrators of abuse to justice. It will allow women and girls everywhere to do things we so often take for granted… go to school, earn an income to support themselves and their families, collect food or water without fear of rape or harassment.

Tell Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act today.

As a woman and a mother, I cannot remain silent while these atrocities continue. I’m counting on you to help me build a safer, better future for our mothers, daughters and sisters everywhere.

With gratitude for your partnership,

Cynthia Nixon

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How Are AJWS Grantees Affected by Climate Change?

This week, on the heels of the historic People’s Climate March, world leaders will convene for the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit in New York City to take action against the dangerous consequences of climate change. While the world’s developed countries have been the largest producers of carbon dioxide emissions, the world’s poorest countries are unjustly paying the highest price. Communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are experiencing droughts, sea-level rises, stronger storms, warmer temperatures, unpredictable rains, the depletion of habitable land, and severe weather patterns that are leaving people hungry, disrupting their livelihoods and forcing them to abandon their homes. At the Climate Summit, world leaders must create a vision that will incorporate a human rights framework to protect the world’s poorest communities.

Here’s how some of our grantees and their communities have been affected by climate change and how they’re working to build a healthier planet:

Read More »

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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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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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Our Journey to Capitol Hill

Summit Capitol StepsMore than 150 AJWS supporters gathered in Washington, D.C. this week for the 2014 AJWS Policy Summit. Yesterday, after 48 hours of inspirational programming and skills building, we headed out to Capitol Hill to urge our legislators to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which was introduced in the Senate on May 8th.

Together we visited 100 Congressional offices all in one day—and secured new allies in our fight to end violence against women and girls worldwide!

As a result of these visits, many Representatives learned about the bill for the first time—and others committed to support it as co-sponsors. We crisscrossed the Hill from the House to the Senate and back, and felt the momentum for We Believe building.

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Nigeria: AJWS Allies Respond to Girls’ Abduction

Protesters around the world have drawn unprecedented international attention to the plight of more than 250 girls in northern Nigeria. Most of the girls, who were kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram on April 15, remain missing.

American Jewish World Service and other human rights groups—in Nigeria and many other countries—spread the word about this horrific situation over the last week or so, using the popular hashtag #bringbackourgirls. In response to this outcry, governments ranging from China to the U.S. have offered to help Nigeria’s government track down the missing girls.

 

Much of the media coverage of this story has emphasized the roles of American celebrities and activists, while overlooking Boko Haram’s ongoing attacks in Nigeria during this time, including a bombing this week that killed hundreds of people in the northeastern town of Gamboru Ngala. Read More »

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