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.