Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Afro-Colombian Women Continue to Face Unspeakable Violence during Armed Conflict

About 30,000 protesters turned out in the predominantly Afro-descendant city of Buenaventura in March to protest the ongoing violence perpetrated by armed groups. Photo Credit: Palenque el Congal via PCN.

CALI, COLOMBIASince 2013, Charo Mina Rojas has helped register 42 cases of sexual violence and internal displacement perpetrated against Afro-Colombian women in two cities alone. As of today, however, Ms. Mina Rojas has not received word from the Colombian authorities as to whether the cases are even being investigated.

With investigations stalled or never undertaken, the perpetrators of sexual violencewho are in many cases members of paramilitary groupsare free to continue persecuting their victims, often threatening to kill them if the go to the authorities. In the predominantly black city of Tumaco, many survivors of sexual violence have refused to talk about their experiences for fear that they will be killed for doing so.

Many of these women are vocal community activists whom paramilitary groups consider guerrillas and therefore their enemies. To protect them, Ms. Mina Rojas and the Global Rights’ partner organization she represents, the Kuagro Ri Changaina Ri PCN, spirit the women out of their homes and into safe houses in other cities. One woman, a community activist from Buenaventura, had to be relocated 80 miles from her home to stay with relatives in Cali. Despite the woman being relocated, paramilitaries hunted her down and shot her in the leg one day while she was walking in the street. The Kuagro, which is a women’s collective that is part of a 100-member Afro-Colombian coalition called Black Communities Processes, had registered the case with the authorities in Buenaventura and Cali, but it never received adequate attention.

Although it is clear Afro-Colombian women have suffered more than any other group since the outbreak of the Colombian conflict in 1964, the Colombian government is not doing enough to address the ongoing and culturally-specific issues these women face, Ms. Mina Rojas said. A major stumbling block is the fact that the Colombian government does not collect racially-specific data when documenting cases of sexual violence and displacement. As a result, the government does not know how and by what degree the armed conflict has affected the Afro-Colombian community. This failure to effectively identify and deal with Afro-specific issues is a violation of the Colombian constitution, which in 1991 recognized Afro-Colombians as a unique collective entitled to special rights.

Ms. Mina Rojas said that outside political pressure must be applied to the Colombian government for any substantial change to take place. To that end, Global Rights, the Kuagro and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) organized a five-day visit by IACHR president, Tracy Robinson, to speak directly with dozens of Afro-Colombian women activists from Buenaventura, Tumaco, Cali and the Caribbean and North Cauca regions. 

The visit, which lasted from Sept. 24 to Oct. 3 and also included meetings with LGBTI activists, provided the IACHR, in particular its Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women, a unique opportunity to gather information for its upcoming regional report on the rights of women in the region that has a particular focus on Afro-descendants. It also gave the IACHR and its president a chance to see whether progress had been made in addressing the situation of Afro-Colombian women following official recommendations the IACHR made to Colombia in March 2013 in light of testimonies given to the Commission during a thematic hearing in Washington requested by Global Rights and Kuagro. 
Charo Mina Rojas

“The Rapporteur was greatly alarmed by information received confirming the pernicious effect of the armed conflict on the integrity, lives, and territories of Afro-descendant women,” The IACHR said in an official statement released Oct. 10. “The Rapporteur reminds the State [i.e. Colombia] of its obligation to take into account the multiple forms of discrimination consistently faced by afro-descendant women on the basis of their sex, race and condition of poverty, and to facilitate their participation in the development of legislation and interventions relevant to their human rights.”

The meetings Global Rights and the Kuagro arranged also had a strong impact on the leaders of the Afro-descendant women’s groups, many of whom feel ignored by the Colombian government and the international community.

“It was actually very important for them because they have very little opportunity to mobilize all the way to Washington to present their cases and their situation in front of the president of the Inter-American Commision for Human Rights,” Ms. Mina Rojas said. “For them to have the opportunity to meet with her was crucial…it made them feel like they were being listened to.”

As of 2013, there were 4.7 million internally-displaced persons in Colombia due to the ongoing armed conflict, according to the most recent government figures. Afro-Colombians make up about 26 percent of Colombia’s population and represent at least 30 percent of the total number of internally-displaced persons, according to a report published by Global Rights and AFRODES in 2010. Half of the Afro-Colombians who have been displaced are women.

Afro-Colombians are particularly vulernable to displacement because they live in predominantly black communities situated in resource-rich and militarily-strategic areas that armed groups have forcefully seized during the conflict. Afro-Colombians are also more impacted by violence and displacement because they are typically poorer than the rest of the country and thus cannot easily relocate to safer parts of the country.

In addition to internal displacement, Afro-Colombian women—and Colombian women in general—continue to suffer from gender-based violence due to the ongoing conflict. A March 2014 report on conflict-related sexual violence released by the United Nations Security Council noted the severity of the issue in Colombia. The report also notes that women and girls of Afro-Colombian descent have been “disproportiantely affected.”

“The sexual exploitation of women and girls in areas under the influence of illegal armed groups… remains a grave concern,” the report says. “In this context, incidents indicate that sexual violence is perpetrated as a strategy to assert territorial control, to intimidate women leaders and human rights defenders and to intimidate the civilian population as a method of social control. Some survivors report having been displaced and raped repeatedly. Survivors reporting incidents of sexual violence to the authorities and service providers also reported receiving subsequent threats against them and their families, some of which resulted in forced displacement. The continuing presence of survivors and perpetrators in the same community represents an ongoing security risk, creates acute psychological trauma owing to prolonged intimidation and hinders reporting and access to justice and services.”

Another major issue is the impunity with which perpetrators of sexual violence operate. According to a report released in November 2013, only one in five cases of sexual violence are reported and of the cases reported, only two percent end in sentencing for the perpetrator.

Ms. Mina Rojas, however, is confident that if the IACHR continues to apply political pressure on the Colombian government, the government will be compelled to engage with the Afro-Colombian leaders to adequately address the myriad issues facing Afro-Colombian women. Ms. Mina Rojas is also hopeful that because of how impacted Ms. Robinson was by her visit with Afro-Colombian women activists, the IACHR will grant a thematic hearing in March 2015 to publically discuss the issue in Washington with Colombian officials and civil society.

The visit of the IACHR to Colombia also garnered media attention. It was covered in Colombia’s largest news publication, El Tiempo, and in El Pais, the leading paper in the Pacific Region, where most Afro-Colombians live.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Global Rights to Release New Report on Protecting Resource-rich communities in Nigeria

A 14-year-old girl works in a stone quarry in Ebonyi State, Nigeria. Exposed to dust and the accompanying health risks, she earns less than $5 per day in lieu of attending school.

ABUJA, NIGERIAGlobal Rights will host a briefing next Monday in Abuja, Nigeria, with civil society, government officials and corporations to reveal the findings of several field visits to resource-rich communities across Nigeria made in the past year. During the briefing, Global Rights will make public a new report entitled Protecting Host Community Rights within the Institutional, Legal and Regulatory Framework for Solid Mineral Mining

Four years ago when the lead poisoning health emergency first broke out in Zamfara State, Nigeria, Global Rights conducted a needs assessment on the protection of mining communities in the country. Since that initial assessment, we have gone evaluated other states in Nigeria. Our recently concluded appraisal of these mining host communities sought to identify the human rights and governance issues facing the mining industry in Nigeria.  

We are hopeful that this briefing inform the public and strengthen our campaign for effective resource governance and accountability in the solid mineral sector which respects the rights of host communities.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Recognizing Brave Afghan Women on International Day of the Girl

According to an Afghan population survey in 2010, one in five women ages 20-49 were first married at 15.

In 2009, Global Rights established our first legal aid center in Kabul to provide underserviced populations—particularly women—with free legal counsel for family law-related issues.

Since then, we have added three more centers in the provinces of Nangarhar, Herat, and Balkh, providing legal aid to nearly 7,000 Afghans—more than 70 percent of whom have been women.
Many of the women who seek legal advice come to our centers desperate to escape abusive marriages. Too many of these women were forced into arranged marriages at the age of 15, stripping them of the chance to pursue an education and a career. The 2010 Afghanistan Mortality Survey recorded that almost one out of every five women aged 20-49 were first married at age 15.

Global Rights partners with Afghan organizations that run the legal aid centers. On this International Day of the Girl, we wanted to share a couple stories of brave, Afghan women who since adolescence have been trapped in abusive marriages but summoned the courage to find a way out.

Sonita, 19, Herat

Sonita was just 11 years old when her father married her off against her will to a man in a remote village. After Sonita moved in with her husband, her in-laws mistreated her and her husband didn’t want for excuses to beat her. Her new family prevented her from continuing her education and even from seeing her parents. Speaking about how she felt at the time of her marriage, Sonita, now 19, said: “It was not my wish to get married. I wanted to be an educated girl with a bright future. Nobody paid attention to my wishes. Although I was totally against this marriage, I was just 11 and not old enough to raise my voice.”

Sonita kept quiet about her lamentable fate so as not to create hostility between her family and her husband’s family. After three years, however, her father learned how much she was suffering and decided to take her home to her family. She had been living with her family for five years when she heard about Global Rights’ legal aid center in Herat from a neighbor who had participated in a legal awareness program. Still married to her abusive husband, Sonita wanted a divorce so she could move forward with her life. A defense lawyer at the legal aid center explained to Sonita about the process involved to separate from her husband. Afterwards, the lawyer presented her case to the courts, and she was granted divorce from her husband. Sonita has begun a new life and has returned to pursue her education.

Monesa, Mazar-e-Sharif

At 13, Monesa became the property of a man when her father lost her in a bet. The man who won the bet married Monesa and proceeded to beat and taunt her, always reminding her that she was simply a commodity that he had won. She and her abusive husband had a child, whom the husband also beat.

Monesa found out about Global Rights’ legal aid center in Balkh province from her neighbor. A defense lawyer there gave her detailed information about the procedure involved in divorcing her husband and prepared her petition for the primary court in the Sholgara district. In addition, the lawyer prepared a defense statement and responded to official letters of the court. The case was eventually resolved in Monesa’s favor, and she was granted a divorce because of the harm her husband was causing her.

Monesa, Mazar-e-Sharif Monesa returned to live with her father, with whom the defense lawyer reviewed the contents of the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law. Her father vowed never to force her daughter to marry someone without her consent.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Meditation a Key Component to Personal Safety for LGBTI Activists in Sierra Leone

A Sierra Leonean LGBTI activist draws a "tree of well-being" to reflect on his personal support network at a personal security training session July 26-27.

FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONEWhen the concept of personal safety is discussed among human rights practitioners, few look to meditation or yoga for answers. In Sierra Leone, however, LGBTI activists are willing to adopt any strategy that could ensure their safety in an increasingly hostile environment.

LGBTI activists in Sierra Leone routinely face death threats, verbal and physical attacks, and public condemnation, according to a recent survey that Global Rights conducted. The threat of physical violence—and even death—is a forceful deterrent to LGBTI activists. Furthermore, when LGBTI activists are physically or verbally attacked, they opt not to report it for fear of being publicly exposed as a homosexual. Global Rights understands that if LGBTI activists do not feel safe to advocate for their rights, there will be no advocacy.

That’s why on June 26 and 27, Global Rights hosted a training session on personal safety for 16 LGBTI activists. The training focused on an “integrated” concept of security, which emphasizes psychological stability as well as physical safety. Day 1 began in the morning with yoga exercises; at 2 p.m., there was “energetic breathing.” The LGBTI activists who participated in the training are part of the Coalition for Equality and Gender, a coalition Global Rights helped found in 2012 that comprises seven local rights organizations—three of which work only on LGBTI rights—that banded together to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

During the training session, participants were encouraged to reflect upon their support networks in order to cultivate a sense of self-confidence. They were asked to sketch their own “tree of well-being,” which consists of five parts, starting with the “roots,” or what grounds and stabilizes them, and the “fruits,” or successes of which they are proud. They also explored ways of alleviating stress by outlining strategies to cope with the low self-esteem, grief and self-deprecation that stem from their alienation from society and families. From a more traditional personal security approach, participants were asked to recognize observable patterns in threats and attacks from homophobic groups—in addition to their own patterns, public profiles and frequented locales—to mitigate the risks of facing an attack. The training was co-facilitated by Hope Chigudu, a respected gender activist and consultant from West Africa.

Since 2012, Global Rights has been working with LGBTI- and human rights partners in Sierra Leone, where an anti-sodomy law contributes to an oppressive stigmatization of LGBTI persons. Many LGBTI persons are forced from their homes by their families, resulting in homelessness and poverty. LGBTI persons also avoid seeking medical attention for fear that doctors will link their illness to homosexuality, which will in turn cause their alienation from society and their families. Other components to Global Rights’ project in Sierra Leone include: grassroots advocacy training for LGBTI activists; engagement with youth groups; sensitization of local media to the issues facing the LGBTI community; and training police to properly address violence and threats against LGBTI individuals.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Zamfara State Bands Together to Hold Nigerian Government Accountable

A woman from Zamfara State speaks at the July 17 meeting with Nigerian government officials about how mining has adversely affected women and children

“In the past, we did not know. We made costly mistakes. But now, Global Rights has opened our eyes to knowledge. We know better. We will do better.”
-His Royal Highness Eze Martin Oyibe, traditional ruler of the Ameka Community

ZAMFARA STATE, NIGERIAOn July 17, more than 100 community members from Zamfara State filled a local town hall to engage directly with the Nigerian government to make sure it adequately redresses the devastating effects from a lead poisoning outbreak in 2010 that resulted from unregulated gold mining.

When news of the lead poisoning epidemic first surfaced in 2010, the Nigerian government was slow and ineffectual in its response to the immediate health issueswhich have claimed the lives of more than 700 children according to a recent report by Doctors Without Borders. The outbreak also exposed the underlying governance issues that permitted the outbreak to occur in the first place.

At the time, individuals and community groups in Zamfara State were not well-organized or knowledgeable about their rights. Most individuals were not aware of the dangers linked to artisanal gold mining, therefore many of them continued to extract the gold from the lead-laden ore with hand tools, thus exposing themselves and their families to lead poisoning. Civil society groups did not know for what the government was actually responsible regarding the lead poisoning crisis or how they could mobilize and demand that the government fulfill its responsibilities to its citizens.

Hosting the town hall gathering on July 17, we witnessed the tremendous strides civil society in Zamfara State has made in the past few years, thanks in large part to our having worked tirelessly with the community since 2010 to teach local groups about their rights under Nigerian and international law and then how to claim their rights through grassroots and political advocacy.

Since 2010, Global Rights has worked with communities in Zamfara State to facilitate several training sessions on human rights and natural resource management, community-organizing initiatives, and town hall meetings to promote dialogue among communities and government officials. As evidenced by the July 17 town hall gathering and as a result of our partnership, people in Zamfara State have become more vocal, united and knowledgeable about their rights. In addition, there has been a substantial increase in women’s participation in discussions on solid mineral governance. When we first began working in Zamfara, a largely conservative and patriarchal state, women were not present in the daily meetings and advocacy efforts. However, inside the town hall on July 17 women were fully engaged, raising their voices and calling for the protection of their rights and the restoration of justice to their community.

In response to the demands from civil society, the Nigerian government has taken steps to redress the severe consequences wrought upon local communities. The government has earmarked a remediation fund for affected families and transferred the funds to the Ministries of Health, Environment and Mines and Steel Development. Most importantly, the government has signaled a commitment to protect the rights of citizens who live in mining communities so that another Zamfara State disaster does happen again. The government has also allocated funds to clean up the top soil in affected communities that has been contaminated with lead.

In the past couple months, Global Rights has organized town hall meetings in Niger and Ebonyi States to expand our work with mining-affected communities in Nigeria and apply the lessons we learned in Zamfara State to other vulnerable communities. We are working to connect the affected Nigerian communities so that they can share their experiences, knowledge and strategies for defending the rights of their constituents. Our goal is to improve citizenship participation and government oversight in human rights issues linked to mining. We achieve this by empowering civil society to directly engage with the Nigerian government and to hold their government accountable to its citizens. Global Rights will continue working with mining-affected communities in Nigeria to help them identify and demand their rights and to ensure their active participation in decision-making processes that affect their constituents.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Missed Opportunity at U.S.-Africa Summit

Hundreds of Ethiopians protest Ethiopia's human rights record during the U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, with one man holding a sign that reads "Human Rights before Investment."

WASHINGTONAt the U.S.-Africa Business Forum on Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced $33 billion in new private and government investment in sub-Saharan Africa, including new projects within Africa’s energy, aviation and construction sectors.

Such robust U.S. investment in Africa holds immense potential to catalyze major economic development on the continent. Any investment in Africa, however, must be buttressed by effective measures designed to promote the welfare and human rights of everyday Africans. If history is to be our guide, the absence of such measures will have devastating consequences for everyday Africans, including poverty, social instability, corruption, and mass displacement.

That’s why a group of 52 African civil society organizations penned an open letter July 25 to President Obama and the more than 50 African heads of state who were invited to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. In the letter, the organizations asked to participate and have their business-related, human rights concerns included within the agenda at Tuesday's Business Forum. Although the African civil society organizations—and their priorities—were ultimately excluded from the Forum, their collective appeal garnered the attention of media outlets and influential leaders in the business and human rights field, including John Ruggie, Harvard professor and former U.N. Special Representative for Business and Human Rights who spearheaded the drafting of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The 52 African groups are part of the African Coalition for Corporate Accountability, which Global Rights helped found in November 2013 and which now comprises 73 organizations from 27 African countries that work daily to mitigate the harmful impacts of business activities. The impetus for the coalition came from the member organizations' firm belief that African civil society has the potential—and the right—to participate in decision-making processes that determine how government and corporations carry out investment projects in their communities. ACCA was praised by Mr. Ruggie, who said that it has “the potential both to amplify the voice of the vulnerable and to become a partner in defining solutions to business and human rights challenges.”

As part of our work with ACCA, Global Rights will host a regional meeting for 40 ACCA members from September 18-20 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which will focus on transitioning the fledgling coalition into a self-sufficient, fully operational African coalition—the first of its kind on the continent. The meeting will follow the three-day African Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights, which will be hosted by the African Union and a number of U.N. development agencies.

We look forward to keeping you informed about ACCA, and we invite you to support this critical work.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rights Groups in Africa Urge US to Include Civil Society in US-Africa Summit

WASHINGTON—In the run-up to the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, 52 African civil society organizations have sent an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and the 50 invited African heads of state asking to participate and have local business and human rights priorities included in a forum that focuses on U.S. trade and foreign investment in Africa.

Far from improving the lives of everyday Africans, foreign investment on the continent for decades has resulted in human rights violations that have led to chronic poverty, corruption, the proliferation of extremist groups, and social instability. Therefore, it is imperative that the priorities of African civil society organizations and their constituencies be included in any dialogue or decision-making process about foreign investment that will significantly impact local communities.

“We express deep concern that the organizers of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit have missed a tremendous opportunity to engage with African civil society organizations who work daily to mitigate the adverse impacts of business activity across Africa,” said Teklemariam Berhane, a researcher and activist with Human Rights Council-Ethiopia. “We believe that dialogue among all stakeholders, including government, civil society and business representatives, is vital to ensuring that foreign investment promotes the welfare and human rights of vulnerable communities.”

In the letter, civil society leaders from across the continent under the umbrella of the African Coalition for Corporate Accountability (ACCA) have asked to participate and have their business and human rights concerns addressed in the Summit, especially in its Business Forum. These concerns include: the protection of collective and individual rights (particularly the right to free, prior and informed consent), the protection of labor rights, strengthening access to remedy, and ensuring states fulfill their duty to protect their citizens’ human rights. The ACCA members also call on their leaders to develop and implement national action plans on protecting human rights in and related to business activity.

African Coalition for Corporate Accountability
ACCA members include 71 civil society organizations from 27 African countries.

As of today, African civil society organizations have not been invited to participate in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit—to which U.S. President Barack Obama invited 50 African leaders—or the U.S.-Africa Business Forum. While the U.S. Department of State has organized a meeting specifically for African civil society groups, groups working on issues of corporate accountability were largely left out. The meeting also does not offer participating civil society groups the much-needed opportunity to engage directly with African leaders or U.S. business executives.

The African Coalition on Corporate Accountability is a coalition of 71 organizations from 27 African countries supporting communities and individuals whose human rights are adversely impacted daily by the activities of corporations, both multi-national and domestic. It was launched in 2013 with the support of Global Rights. ACCA has been roundly lauded for its ability to unite African civil society and create a strong and informed voice for corporate accountability in the region. John D. Ruggie, Harvard professor and formerly the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, said that ACCA "has the potential to both amplify the voice of the vulnerable and to become a partner in defining solutions to business and human rights challenges."