Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Women's Rights on the Radio

This May, Global Rights began a unique radio program in Afghanistan that focuses exclusively on legal issues related to the family and women’s rights.

The program, called Zan wa Huqooq Khanewada (Women and Family Law), will feature 12 broadcasts, each focusing on different topics such as divorce, child custody and domestic violence. The radio show will be broadcast on one of Afghanistan’s most popular stations, Radio Azadi, which reaches more than 90 percent of the country. The host of the show is Ruhullah Habib, a former judge and lawyer who works in Global Rights’ legal aid bureau in Kabul. Mr. Habib is also an alumnus of our Young Lawyers in Training Program.

Right: Lawyer and alumnus of Global Rights' human rights university courses speaks to callers about legal issues related to women's rights and the family. Left: the host of Radio Azadi.

The second show, which aired May 12, focused on the legal age of marriage, which in Afghanistan is 16 for girls and 18 for boys—although 57 percent of women are married off before they turn 16, according to a 2008 report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), which is now UN Women. In addition, between 60 and 80 percent of women who marry are forced into marriage, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law, which was enacted by a presidential decree in Afghanistan in 2009, made forced child marriages illegal. The decree however, is not often enforced.

Men and women call into the radio show before it airs to record their questions about the current topic. During the May 12 broadcast, one listener asked whether a man who forces an underage girl to marry will be sentenced to jail. Mr. Ruhullah said that, indeed, the EVAW decree explicitly states that it’s illegal for anyone to force a girl younger than 16 to marry. Another listener asked whether a person from the Sunni branch of Islam can marry someone who is Shia. Mr. Ruhullah confirmed that yes, a Shia and Sunni can marry one another.

Global Rights operates four legal aid bureaus in the populous Afghan provinces of Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar and Herat. Since we began the legal aid program in 2009, we’ve reached about 5,000 Afghans—many of whom are women who have been severely abused by their husbands and are desperate to leave their spouses. The new radio show allows us to reach many more women—and men—who want to know what Afghan civil law and Islamic law say about women’s rights in family-related issues. Unfortunately, not every woman can make it to our legal aid bureaus, so the radio show gives them a unique opportunity to get answers to their questions and find ways to bring positive change to their lives by using the law.

The last radio broadcast will take place on July 21. Over the next many broadcasts, we are hopeful that the head of the family court in Kabul, Judge Rahima Rezai, who is a widow and mother of four, will join Mr. Ruhullah to add a different perspective and voice to the conversation.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bringing Back Our Girls: How Nigeria is Failing its People


ABUJA, NIGERIA—Amid the clamor for the immediate return of the missing Nigerian schoolgirls, the Nigerian government has responded like an unconcerned bystander pointing fingers and insinuating political mischief by opponents instead of swinging into action to secure the release of the girls.

Such behavior underscores the lackadaisical attitude of our government towards its citizens, the misplaced priority of politics over people, and the ineptitude of government in protecting its citizens.

During the past three years in northern Nigeria, the terrorist activities of Boko Haram have heralded an era of systematic and widespread killings, bombings and sporadic attacks. Despite the fact that security spending has taken up the largest chunk of our national budget over the past three years, Boko Haram continues unchallenged to terrorize scores of innocent civilians, particularly those living in the northern half of the country.

The April 14 kidnapping of the more than 200 schoolgirls in the Chibok community in Borno State was a cruel reminder of the status quo. In fact, families whom we've been meeting at demonstrations in recent weeks told us that Boko Haram has been abducting girls in Chibok and neighboring communities for the past few years. As if to compensate the families for stealing their little girls, Boko Haram members typically toss the families the equivalent of $7 to finalize the transaction.

Local citizens feel—rightly so—that their government is failing to protect them. Therefore, families in Borno State have taken matters into their own hands by pooling together money to incentivize members of the government-run Joint Task Force (JTF) to fulfill their mandate of stamping out terrorism in the country. Some citizens have even set up their own makeshift security forces. Despite their families’ efforts, the girls were defenseless when Boko Haram decided to take them. The extra money thrown at the JTF didn't help, as the government security force was nowhere to be found during the four-hour-long abduction on April 14.

A Nigerian mother of one of the more than 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, crying among more than 1,000 supporters who participated in a demonstration on April 30.

In addition to failing to ensure the safety of its citizens, the Nigerian government also failed to provide any information for almost three weeks about the girls’ whereabouts and what it was doing to secure their release. To that point, the government waited 19 days until it set up an official fact-finding mission. Feeling abandoned by the government, parents decided to trek into the forest themselves to confront Boko Haram and rescue their girls. Ultimately, they had to terminate their mission when it became apparent that their mission would end it near certain death.

The failure of government to adequately protect its citizens and the reality of citizens taking up responsibility for ensuring their own safety is a telltale sign that the existence of a Nigerian government that provides security for its people is fast becoming a mirage. Furthermore, it is quite disheartening that for over three weeks after the abduction, the government didn't give exact information regarding the missing girls. In some circles, the figure was put at 276; others say the total number of missing is 234. Overall, citizens don’t believe that the government has been forthright with the exact state of affairs in the Chibok abduction. If the government officials were honoring their duty to us Nigerians, they would provide us accurate and substantial information about rescue efforts.

On a final note, the intervention of the United States and other countries is not an opportunity for our government to abdicate its primary role in the return and rescue of our girls. We are confident that America has the resources and means to assist our government in the rescue of our girls, but this by no means absolves the Nigerian government of its primary responsibility— which is making sure that our girls are brought back to us alive.

Beyond bringing our girls back, the Nigerian government should take steps to receive and reintegrate the girls into society in a way that guarantees their survival and personal development. To this end, the government should set up trauma counseling services for the girls upon their return. As an immediate measure, there should be ongoing trauma counseling for parents and relatives of the missing girls, as well as for some of the girls who are reported to have escaped. In addition, while the rescue mission is in progress, the government should provide to the public every bit of information on the specific steps and actions that the government is taking. The need for an informed and active civil society cannot be overemphasized.

This tragedy is no more about the return and rescue of our missing girls than it is about finally dealing with the security issues in our country and the broader problem of government failure. While we urgently need our girls back alive, we demand an immediate and long-lasting solution that will resolve our security issues and issues of poor governance. This is a defining moment for us as a country. We must end this war on terror and we must end it now.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Jailed for Being Gay in Cameroon


Today, the international human rights community reminds the world of the discrimination, violence and bigotry that a particular group is forced to endure because others don’t approve of the way its members dress, how they behave, or whom they love.

Today marks the 10th annual International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, and as the Director of Global Rights’ lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) programs, I want to share with you a few updates from my recent trip to Cameroon about the challenges the LGBT community there continues to face.

Me and the head of one of our partner organizations
in Cameroon
It’s no secret that many parts of Africa are dangerous for self-identifying—or perceived—gay individuals. In fact, 38 of the 54 African countries have laws against homosexuality, and in four of the 38 countries, homosexuality is an offense punishable by death. (The new draconian, anti-gay legislation recently passed in Nigeria and Uganda only serves to reinforce how dire the situation in Africa is for gay individuals.)

In Cameroon, one of the 38 countries with an anti-gay law, the persecution of LGBT persons takes place mainly through incarceration. More people are prosecuted for same-sex conduct in Cameroon than anywhere else in the world, with dozens having been imprisoned since 2006. As part of the legal proceedings, many men are forced to undergo painful anal examinations that prosecutors believe provide legally sufficient evidence of homosexual activity. Other prisoners are raped and tortured. Those who are not tortured still spend months in detention before they even see a judge, and once they do see a judge, they are usually convicted based on extremely specious and circumstantial evidence. 

I returned from Cameroon a couple weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to meet with leaders of our local partner organizations with whom we are working on a two-year project to strengthen legal protection for LGBT persons. As part of the project, we train LGBT and mainstream rights organizations to better document human rights abuses perpetrated against LGBT persons and to more effectively advocate for LGBT equality at the national level of government. We and our partners also provide free legal aid to Cameroonians accused of violating the anti-homosexuality law. We work with the few local lawyers who have the courage to defend the rights of this heavily stigmatized community—and who put their lives and careers at risk in the process.

During my visit, one such lawyer named Michel gave me encouraging news about our involvement in the case of two young women who were arrested in November 2013 for allegedly engaging in homosexual sex. The judge assigned to the case happened to be on vacation at the time of the arrest, so the women were forced to sit in detention until March 21. That’s 111 days these women spent in jail before they first appeared before a judge.

So where’s the encouraging news? According to Cameroonian law, “whoever has sexual relations with a person of the same sex shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to five years.” These women were released the day I left Cameroon, having been convicted and sentenced to the six months they had already served in pre-trial detention. It’s still a grave miscarriage of justice that these two women were held in detention for 111 days before their trial and that they were eventually convicted without sufficient evidence—not to mention the fact this discriminatory law even exists. Had our partner lawyers not intervened, however, these women wouldn't have had legal representation and thus would have been at greater risk of being sentenced to the full five years that the law allows.

Securing equality for LGBT persons in Africa will be a long and challenging process. (Lest we forget, sodomy was illegal in 14 U.S. states until 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that laws against sodomy violate the right to privacy protected under the Fourth Amendment.) Despite the challenges, we must continue to fight for LGBT rights in Africa—and everywhere in the world—so that LGBT persons enjoy respect and equal protection under the law.

For more information about Global Rights’ LGBT rights program, which also includes projects in Sierra Leone and countries in the Americas such as Brazil and Colombia, please visit our Web site.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Working to Level the Playing Field for Mining-affected Communities

For governments and mining companies interested in respecting the human rights of resource-rich communities, there are piles of research, handbooks, guides, and toolkits from industry associations, the International Finance Corporation and an army of consultants. Yet for local communities, who are already at a serious disadvantage, such guidance is scant—much less the human and financial resources needed to understand and act on the information before rights violations occur.

That’s why Lien De Brouckere, director of the Global Rights' Natural Resources and Human Rights program, and two partner organizations launched an initiative to develop an intercultural and comprehensive toolkit written for and by mining-affected communities. This toolkit will help level the playing field by giving mining-affected communities across the world access to information and tools to better understand and protect their rights, participate in the decision-making processes that will affect their futures, and share in the benefits of the project.  Lien and her colleagues at Futuro Sostenible (Lima, Peru) and Sustainable Development Strategies Group (Denver, Colorado) have laid the groundwork for this initiative over the past two years by collecting existing guides and toolkits written for resource-rich communities around the world. This library is now available online.

Lien traveled to Afghanistan in November 2013 to train leaders from local resource-rich communities on the social and human rights impacts of large-scale mining.

To further this initiative, a few weeks ago Lien participated in the fifth annual Global Exploration, Mining and Minerals (GEMM) Dialogue, which was hosted by the Responsible Minerals Sector Initiative at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.  There, Lien and her partners from Peru and Colorado hosted a working session about how to fund community capacity-building and empowerment with participants who included representatives from government, intergovernmental organizations, mining companies, non-governmental organizations and academia. About 100 people from Canada, the Americas, and Africa attended the GEMM Dialogue; roughly a quarter of the participants joined Lien and her partners for the discussion, which focused on key priorities and challenges linked to community capacity-building, including participants’ experiences with how to fund that work, whether through the support of governments, companies, other organizations, or mixed funds.

Two important points emerged from the working session. First, representatives from mining companies expressed how beneficial it can be for them to have an informed and unified community with which they can engage. The mining company representatives found that with a community governance structure in place, the company is more certain of who the appropriate community representatives are to engage with, which reduces opportunities for conflict when the company engages with groups who may not legitimately represent the community.  They also observed that when community members understand their rights and have an established community decision-making process, the company’s engagement with local communities is more efficient and productive. An organized and informed community makes it easier for the company and communities to reach equitable agreements, especially around local employment.  In all, they found that the stronger and more capable the community, the more durable the community’s relationship was with the company.

The second point was the need to begin educating and empowering communities before the mining project starts, and the role that government (especially local or regional) needs to play in this education process.  Communities greatly benefit from knowing their rights, strengthening and articulating their decision-making processes and governance, and learning about the mining process before mining companies and federal government officials arrive on their lands.  This way, they are better prepared and empowered to make decisions and work out agreements that will ensure that their rights are protected, their decisions respected, and that if the project proceeds, they share in the benefits—whether in the form of jobs, business opportunities, financial compensation, or improved access to clean water and electricity.

Lien and her partners look forward to continuing to grow the library of community toolkits.  With more funding, Lien and her partners will start facilitating community-to-community exchanges among communities in Peru, Canada and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which will help foster learning and guided analysis of what community strategies have worked well in what context, and what challenges have been most difficult to overcome.  This work will benefit the participating communities, and ultimately result in a toolkit developed by and for mining-affected communities, supporting their knowledge and decision-making regarding mining activity that affects their lands, livelihoods, and self-determination.