The Sex Trafficking Industry Right In Alabama

by Dianna Bai

a picture of hands in chains
Source: Public Domain

You may have heard of the tragic situation straddling the I-20 corridor, the stretch of highway that runs between Birmingham and Atlanta.

Known as the “sex trafficking super highway,” the I-20 corridor is a hotbed for human trafficking.

The intimate settings of this illegal trade? Familiar places in our backyard: the hotels on Oxmoor Road, Woodlawn, Bessemer, and establishments all over the city of Birmingham.

Yet sex trafficking is not just confined to the I-20 corridor, as many media reports would suggest. It’s spread throughout the state of Alabama, in large cities and rural areas alike, appearing in myriad variations. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are over 6000 victims of human trafficking each day in Alabama, which includes labor and sex trafficking.

As a $32 billion industry, human trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world after the illicit drug trade—and it’s the fastest-growing. It’s the modern-day slave trade flourishing under the radar.

In the idyllic foothills of Alabama, we are touched by dark and complex operations with global reverberations.

Who are the victims of sex trafficking in Alabama?

Sex traffickers prey on the vulnerable, such as people who come from poverty or broken families.

According to The WellHouse, a non-profit organization that shelters young women in Alabama who have been victims of sex trafficking, there is a common “model” of a victim human traffickers prey on.

She is often a 12-14-year-old girl who has already been a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. An emotionally vulnerable young woman, she is lured in by the promises of comfort, love, and acceptance that an older man offers her.

He will later become her captor.

One example provided by Carolyn Potter, the executive director of The WellHouse, offers us a glimpse into the world of the girls who become victims of traffickers:

“There was a victim who had been abused by her stepfather—and her mother blamed her. Her captor started luring her in and buying her Hello Kitty items. She loved this. Nobody who was supposed to protect her protected her.”

Sex traffickers often prey on girls who have been abused by the people who love them. The accumulated trauma and experiences of abuse that these girls have been subjected to in their young lives gives rise to a sense of apathy and hopelessness.

So when their captors, who had been lavishing them with gifts and attention, start asking them to sell their bodies, their reaction is often, “Why not? This has been happening to me all my life.”

To numb the pain of repeated abuse, they may turn to drugs provided by the captors and become addicted. Traffickers then have a way to keep them from leaving.

A few might escape this life by her own efforts, but more often than not they escape through rescue operations carried out by law enforcement. In January of this year, the Well House participated in a sting operation led by the FBI during the Atlanta Super Bowl that rescued 18 girls and led to 169 arrests.

Once rescued, one of the most important steps to helping victims is simply the process of gaining their trust, as most victims who have been trapped in this life suffer from complex trauma. “Their level of PTSD is equal to someone who’s been in war,” Potter said.

What does the sex trafficking industry look like in Alabama?

As a criminal activity, sex trafficking in Alabama can take on many forms.  

“Alabama is a microcosm of human trafficking around the world,” said Christian Lim, a professor of social work at the University of Alabama who is heading up a federally funded project on the subject. “There is just about every type of human trafficking in Alabama.”

On one end of the spectrum, there are individual pimps conducting a small-time business. They might even be family members who are pimping out their children for rent or drug money—and these cases often go unreported because of the family connection. On the other end, there are the massage parlors that are the fronts for international criminal networks, laundering money and trafficking women from places as far as China and Korea. These massage parlors routinely bring in $500,000-$800,000 a year, operating late into the night and advertising online at dozens of websites selling sex.

Sex trafficking has also risen in recent years among street gangs in Alabama with ties to Georgia, Florida, and even the West Coast, according to Teresa Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Street gangs such as the Bloods, Simon City Royals, Latin Kings, and Surenos are known to be engaging in sex trafficking to make a profit alongside the illegal drug trade. Recruiting mostly young victims, traffickers use “bottom girls” – prostitutes who are trusted by the pimps – to identify and recruit new girls, as well as a bevy of popular social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, KIK, Meet Me, Badoo, and Seeking Arrangement. Gangs like the Surenos, which have a powerful reach back to El Salvador, can even coerce the women by threatening their families back home.

In many cases, other criminal activities such as drug dealing, money laundering, and murder also surround sex trafficking operations.

What’s being done about sex trafficking in Alabama?

One reason Alabama attracts traffickers of all stripes is because it is easier to get away with the crime than other states like Georgia that have a tactical task force dedicated to combating sex trafficking, according to Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Also playing to the trafficker’s advantage is the fact that Alabama is mostly a rural state with greater distances between police stations and fewer resources for law enforcement, said Lim, the professor of social work at the University of Alabama. He also said there’s needs to be more awareness raised about this issue as many misconceptions exist about sex trafficking due to the popular media’s portrayal of sex trafficking in movies like “Taken.”

The Department of Homeland Security is investigating an array of cases in Alabama and prosecuting cases at both the state and federal level. “We have made human trafficking arrests at every socioeconomic level in Birmingham, from Mountain Brook to $35-a-night hotel rooms,” said Doug Gilmer, the agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s Birmingham office. “Trafficking victims also run the spectrum, with girls ranging from age 12 to the 50s.”

DHS has also provided training to 1500 Alabama law enforcement officers to combat sex trafficking in the state and offers education to any community group that’s interested. These trainings focus on how to how to recognize the signs of sex trafficking, how to respond to a call, and how to support the victims.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies such as the Tuscaloosa Police have jumpstarted special initiatives to combat sex trafficking in Alabama. The Tuscaloosa Police worked with Illinois’ Cooke County police three years ago in a “National Day of Johns” sting, specifically targeting the “demand” side of the industry. Officers placed fictitious ads for sex services on various sites, which led to the arrest of 135 Johns over 16 days.

But it’s a cat-and-mouse game as traffickers find new ways to advertise sex services, moving from online ads to alternatives like secret Facebook groups. Undercover agents are seeking out these secret online groups to find traffickers and victims as traffickers learn from past mistakes and become savvier at using the digital tools at their disposal. A popular website hosted in the United States, backpage.com, was shut down by the FBI several years ago, yet has created new challenges for law enforcement as dozens of newer and smaller sites have now popped up hosted by foreign servers that are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Alabama’s state legislature is also moving on this issue. They have recently passed three resolutions that would require training for truckers and healthcare workers to spot the signs of human trafficking and make it easier for the trucker to identify victims. Two other bills moving through the legislature are intended to fine and “shame” johns for soliciting sex services.

“There should be no politics when it comes to protecting our children,” State Representative Merika Coleman told AL.com.

Right in Our Backyard

It is revealing and disheartening to see the extent of the modern-day slave trade right here in our backyard in Alabama. Without the right consciousness, it may be invisible to the average person. You may see a scantily dressed young woman walking through a gas station, a Sonic, or a Walmart. She is always accompanied by someone. She looks depressed or hopeless… You may have just run into a victim of human trafficking.

Vulnerable women (and men) and children are being exploited over and over again for the profit of more powerful and unscrupulous individuals and criminal organizations. The traffickers could be anyone, but what they have in common is a disturbing disregard for human life and human dignity. In Alabama, there are many dedicated agencies fighting for the human rights of these victims, including The WellHouse, Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, Alabama Fusion Center, and the Department of Homeland Security.

For DHS agent Doug Gilmer, there is a sense of urgency to his mission because it is a crime that’s “unspeakable.”

“When you get into the nitty-gritty of sex trafficking at the street level and you are interacting with the victims, seeing what they go through, seeing what the traffickers do…. It’s horrible,” Gilmer said. “Seeing a 14-year-old girl with eight different STDs and the 35-year-old man who purchases this girl for sex?”

“It shocks the conscience.”

Important Links

The WellHouse – A 24-hour shelter offering immediate assistance to trafficked women who are rescued from anywhere in the United States.

EnditAlabama.org – A project of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, which brings together public and private agencies to address the issue in Alabama.

Alabama Fusion Center – An information-sharing organization within the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency designed to combine or “fuse” information between federal, state and local government, private sector entities, and the intelligence community

Department of Homeland Security “Blue Campaign” – A national public awareness campaign, designed to educate the public, law enforcement and other industry partners to recognize the indicators of human trafficking, and how to appropriately respond to possible cases

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

Teenage Pregnancy in Developing Countries

by Grace Ndanu

5 December. 2013. El Fasher: Students of the Midwifery School in El Fasher, North Darfur, march to commemorate the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, organized by UNAMID Gender Unit. The event intends to raise awareness in communities about gender violence and its implications for communities, women and girls’ lives and livelihood. Photo by Hamid Abdulsalam, UNAMID

Early pregnancy is a common thing all over the world, but it occurs most often in poorer and marginalized communities. Many girls face considerable pressure to marry early and become mothers while they are still young. Teenage pregnancy increases when girls are denied the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. Therefore it becomes a risk factor for poor maternal and child health and socio-economic outcomes. Approximately 90% of births in girls aged 15-19 in developing countries occur within early marriage where there is often an imbalance of power, where the father decides everything that happens to his daughter, leaving the subordinated mother speechless on matters concerning her daughter. Other reasons behind the teenage pregnancies are lack of information about sexual and reproductive health rights, inadequate access to services tailored to young people, sexual violence, early and forced marriage which can be both a cause and a consequence, and lastly lack of education or dropping out of school.

Teenage pregnancy highly contributes to maternal and child mortality. Complications relating to pregnancy and child birth are the leading cause of death for girls in the age bracket of 15-19 globally. Pregnant girls and adolescents also face other health risks and complications due to their immature bodies. Babies born to younger mothers are also at greater risk for poor birth outcomes such as low birth weight.

For many teenage girls, pregnancy and childbirth are neither planned nor wanted, which also happens to girls who get pregnant as a result of incest. In countries where abortion is prohibited or highly restricted adolescents – sometimes with the help of their parents – typically resort to unsafe abortions, putting their health and lives at risk. This happens frequently in developing countries. The girls who don’t want to have an abortion may face negative social and economic effects, including stigma or rejection as well as threats of violence from the parents and at times the peers. Girls who become pregnant before the age of 18 are also more likely to experience violence within a marriage or partnership. In the case where the pregnancy is kept to term and the chid is born born, some of the teenage mothers start thinking out of the box after the child is born. Some may want to go back to school and others may think that they are too old for school and instead they may want to work on short courses like catering, beading and beauty.

Globally each country has been trying to reduce teenage pregnancy rates among its members through empowerment. This is done through campaigns that involve a multitude of stakeholders, including the government, development partners, social influencers, religious leaders, media practitioners and civil society organizations. The empowerment is based on raising girls’ awareness of their sexual and reproductive health and rights protecting them from abuse and taking them to school. This also includes making sure they can access the health services which are mostly free of charge. The girls also get support on decisions they make about their future and their bodies. In addition there are organized seminars where they are taught about leadership and speaking out their minds, which helps them to bring back their confidence and self-esteem which was probably lost during the pregnancy. At times there are girls who get to have a fresh start of confidence and boldness that they didn’t have before, an indication of green pastures (which means they have moved on successfully).

Who’s Afraid of BDS?

A photo of the Wailing Wall and al-Asqa mosque in Jerusalem.
The wailing wall and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Source: Tina Kempin Reuter

On 15 August 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a travel ban on two US Congresswomen, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar.  His decision was a surprising reversal from a mere month ago, when both PM Netanyahu and Israeli’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, confirmed that Reps. Tlaib and Omar would be allowed into Israel “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”  While the final catalyst for this reversal is credited to the machinations of US President Donald Trump, the primary cause for the travel ban, according to PM Netanyahu, is Reps. Tlaib’s and Omar’s support for the transnational Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a concerted effort to compel the State of Israel to revolutionize how it works with Palestinians within and around Israel’s borders.  This post aims to unpack the historical and cultural context of the BDS Movement, analyze the fault lines within the BDS Movement, and suggest ways for BDS to mend these divides while sharpening its effectiveness in advocating for the human rights of Palestinians.

Originating the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) Movement

From 31 August to 7 September 2001, the United Nations held the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR, also called the Durban Conference, as it was held in Durban, South Africa), billed as “providing an opportunity for the world to engage, for the first time in the post-apartheid era, in a broad agenda to combat racism and related issues.”  Within this anti-racist, anti-apartheid ethos, world leaders sought to locate and eradicate large-scale structures bolstering racist ideology and marginalizing populations based off racial and ethnic identity.  Almost all states at the WCAR were in total agreement that Zionism, the political movement to establish and protect a wholly-Jewish nation, was indeed racist.  Many actors arguing against the ideology of Zionism claimed that, although the Jewish people have the right to create their own state, ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people (Palestinians) rendered the current form of Zionism a racist ideology.  It was at the Durban Conference that BDS finds its intellectual roots, as many Middle East / North African states (specifically, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Republic, and Yemen) agreed to utterly isolate Israel (economically, intellectually, culturally, politically) until Israel revolutionized its relationship with indigenous Palestinians.  Of course, calls for isolationism, itself a remnant of how the world treated South African during its apartheid practices, were eclipsed by the 9/11 attacks against the US a mere four days after the Durban Conference ended.  It was also at the Durban Conference that the “Red-Green” alliance was formed between radical leftist and Islamist groups, collectively impugning Israel’s treatment of indigenous Palestinians.

The intellectual seeds of BDS were planted, and two years later, the world would see the harvest.  On 8 December 2003, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion regarding the Israeli-built wall surrounding East Jerusalem, seeking to ascertain if the wall constituted a breach of international law (specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949).  The ICJ (relying on oral and written testimony from over 50 UN Member States, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union – amongst others) declared the wall bisecting Jerusalem and the continuation of Israeli settlements (displacing indigenous Palestinians) indeed violated international humanitarian law.  The ICJ concluded their opinion, stating Israel should (a) cease construction on the wall and dismantle structures within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, (b) respect the right of the Palestinian people’s right to Self Determination (read this article for more information), and (c) pay reparations for costs incurred to the Palestinian people; furthermore, the ICJ contended that all State Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention should ensure Israel complies with this advisory opinion.  While the advisory opinion alone was relatively toothless on the international stage (as, again, the US and Israel refused to comply with these stipulations), the ICJ’s decision kickstarted the eventual BDS movement two years later.

On 9 July 2005, over 150 Palestinian Civil Society Organizations (representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Arab citizens of Israel) signed an open letter to global civil society actors declaring their intent to boycott Israeli products, divesting business activities from working with Israel, and sanctioning groups continuing to aid the Israeli State.  The letter argues, in light of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the ICJ’s recommendation, settlements extending into East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (see this article for a map of Palestine land loss since 1946) triggered the need for a transnational, nonviolent movement aimed at compelling the State of Israel to abide by the ICJ’s recommendation.  The letter, echoing the anti-apartheid boycott movement of the 1960s – 1990s, contends that all persons of conscience (including Israeli citizens and members of the Jewish faith worldwide) have a moral obligation to pressure those in power (e.g., business leaders, political decision-makers, and other persons of high influence) to forcefully condemn Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinian populations.  The three fundamental demands of the BDS movement of the State of Israel are as follows:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Per the BDS official website, the Movement boasts several consequences of its ongoing efforts, including:

  • A 46% drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014
  • Israeli weapon manfacturers complaining of an export crisis due to “less desire for Israeli=made products”.
  • Refusals from major artists (such as Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Faithless, Lauryn Hill, Brian, Eno, and Elvis Costello).
  • A formal recognition from the State of Israel that the BDS Movement presents a strategic threat to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Since its publication, the BDS movement has largely gained the most traction on college campuses (long understood to be a bastion of political activism).  Simultaneously, the BDS Movement has been associated with radical anti-Zionism, bordering on anti-Semitism.  This association has been the fodder of many political and civil society leaders and has crippled the efficacy of Palestinian Rights activists.

 

Peace activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti
Peace activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti. Source: Yazeed Kamaldien, Creative Commons

 

Critiques of BDS

Critiques of the BDS Movement fall into three broad categories: (1) issues surrounding its founder and leader, Omar Barghouti; (2) BDS’s opposition to the internationally-accepted Two-State Solution; and (3) accusations of antisemitic rhetoric and subsequent promotion of violence.

Founder of the BDS Movement and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, Omar Barghouti, quotes Richard Falk (former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation on of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied) early in his text, stating:

The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty… If ever the ethos of “a responsibility to protect”, recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of “humanitarian intervention” is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering. (p. 36)

Falk levels a thoughtful critique of both Israel’s and the international community’s abdication of protecting the human rights of Palestinian individuals.  These critiques, shared by many in the global community, fall on deaf ears, for Barghouti has, in many respects, poisoned the well from which BDS-activists guzzle.  Barghouti has been viably accused of tax evasion (to the tune of 700 000 USD), vociferously argued against a potential two-state solution, lambasted Palestinian academic and cultural leaders from debating with their Israeli counterparts, and has been accused of espousing views suggesting the ‘human rights of Palestinians are more equal than the human rights of Israelis’.

Beyond the problematization of BDS’s Founder, other cultural and political forces call into question the endgame of the BDS Movement.  Former US Ambassador to Israel (2011 – 2017), Daniel B. Shapiro, recently argued in The Atlantic the BDS Movement “advocates the end of Israel, rather than the establishment of two states, and assigns as responsibility for the conflict, in all its historical complexity, to Israel alone”.  Other critics, such as the Anti-Defamation League (an international Jewish NGO) has formally classified the BDS Movement as antisemitic.  Australian politicians have noted pro-BDS protests feature acts of violence; British academics voted against Israeli boycotts, noting these boycotts constrict peaceful dialogue between Israeli intellectual leaders and the rest of the world; and American politicians note that BDS can empower antisemitism and undermine the lives and livelihoods of young Israeli scientists. Furthermore, symbolic of many global academics’ ambivalence towards the BDS Movement, philosopher Judith Butler suggests a third path: collaborating with intellectual and cultural Israelis without accepting funding from the Israeli State.  This move, Butler suggests, sidesteps the thorny issue of discrimination on the basis of nationality (e.g., refusing to work with Israeli academics simply wholly due to their Israeli citizenship) while still eschewing affiliation with the Israeli government.

Considering the complexity of the BDS Movement, with its goal of unshackling indigenous Palestinians and its questionable methods and leadership, I now pose the question: what lessons can transformational solidarity movements teach BDS, allowing it to deftly address its many criticisms and simultaneously bolster its efficacy to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians? 

 

A man holds a rainbow Pride protest sign with phrases including “End Israeli occupation”, “Queers for a free Palestine”, and “Fight against: racism, Islamophobia, homo/transphobia, antisemitism, apartheid”
“Queers for Palestine” by Magdalena, Creative Commons

Embracing Complexity within Transformational Solidarity Movements

Dr. Anne Garland Mahler, in her text From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity, alludes to an ideal form of solidarity movements; this form is defined by qualities such as transnationalism (e.g., a widening of solidarity membership to include sympathizers of many, seemingly incongruous nationalisms – such as Palestinian and Israeli), transracial (e.g., not only including diversity ethnicities, such as Jewish and Arab, but an antiracist alignment of said ethnicities), anti-neoliberal (e.g., rejecting the ‘built-in’ nature of inequalities along dimensions related to socioeconomic status, level of education, political access, and health), and horizontalist (e.g., eschewing rigid hierarchies of authority within an organization).  While her original analysis centers around the Tricontinental Solidarity Movement, a Cuban-borne political movement attempting to interlock methods and goals of liberation found within Asian, African, and Latin American peoples, leaders of the BDS Movement would do well to heed her call.

The BDS Movement, at base, aims to transform the lives of Palestinians – the endgame is to reduce violence, promote negative and positive peace, and provide the conditions within life that allow an individual and a people the resources and structures required to build harmony, enjoy prosperity, promote health, and protect equity.  Transformational movements fixate not only on the immediate tragedies of war and conflict, but they additionally fixate on the long-term situations giving rise to sustainable peace.  Mahler correctly locates a critical juncture within this equation – transformational movements must ally themselves with other, perhaps seemingly disparate, movements also aspiring for liberation.  This relational space of ally-ship is precisely where the BDS Movement should aim to stride.  These allies (and partners in transformational struggles) may include prominent Arab-Jewish transracial and Israeli-Palestinian transnational organizations.  These potential allies also include Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam (facilitating intentional encounters between Israeli and Palestinian groups), the Children of Abraham (emphasizing the spiritual and religious dimensions required of Israeli-Palestinian peace processes), the Alliance of Middle East Peace (a political lobbying coalition proposing legislation promoting peace in the MENA region), and Peace Oil (an for-profit company promoting economic interdependency between Arabs and Israelis).  Alliances between BDS and these organizations may increase accountability for ‘bad actors’ within the BDS Movement, demonstrate cooperation between Arab and Israelis (rather than domination or antagonism), and sidestep the maligned efforts of ‘spoilers’ within peacebuilding processes.

From a peace and human rights perspective, the BDS Movement should aspire to be one of solidarity – meaning its membership, supporters, and leaders coalesce their methods of transformation within three domains: (1) electoral democracy, (2) opposition, and (3) dialogue.  Specifically, global sympathizers of the BDS Movement should consider continuously voting for candidates and measures ultimately empowering peacebuilding between Israel and Palestine, utilizing nonviolent methods of protesting anti-peace individuals and organizations (boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are obvious examples here – what is missing is a clear focus on the definitive spoilers of peace) and finally, engaging in good-faith, long-term dialogue within their own ranks and between the BDS Movement and other allies and potential adversaries.

Disability and Isolation in Our Modern World

by Marie Miguel 

a picture of a young boy sitting alone on a park bench
Source: Public Domain

There are many types of disabilities. There is no one way to be disabled. One thing is for sure, living with a disability can be challenging. The navigation of places that are not disability-friendly remains overlooked. Having a physical disability means there is a need to make sure areas and spaces are accessible, and if you have an invisible disability, like severe anxiety, there is a need to ensure that you are mentally and physically prepared against possible triggering. However, there are no guarantees.

Misunderstanding and disabilities

Having a disability isn’t easy in this world. You want others to understand you, but it’s exhausting to try to keep re-explaining your experience. Some days you want to live a regular life, and not think about how you are different from others. If you are living with a mental illness, you are often misunderstood. People do not understand what it is like to live with severe anxiety, mania, crippling depression, or PTSD. Having to fight a constant battle with your mind is extremely difficult to explain to someone who does not know or care what it is like. For example, the thought of leaving the house is terrifying for someone with agoraphobia or similar phobias, while many others have no thoughts about it.

The world is not accessible as it should be; in fact, it is quite the opposite. It is difficult to mask or pretend to be “normal.” According to NAMI, one in five people have a mental illness. Mental illnesses are considered disabilities. If your mental illness is severe enough to impact your functioning, you might isolate and fear to be around others because you’re stigmatized. It is not healthy for the human experience, as social isolation may cause loneliness, depression, physical health complications, and may lead to taking one’s life.

As a society, what can we do?

We must work to understand those living with mental illness as well as other disabilities. There is a lack of understanding of differences when it comes to our society. We expect people to be cookie cutters and the standard of “normal” does not accurately reflect our world in terms of the human experience. The human condition is that we are all unique. The ADA limited in its protections against discrimination due to the stigma surrounding the identification of disability. The “yes, I have a disability” box on applications is supposed to allow for accommodations. Yet, the fear of stigma often paralyzes many people from checking it; checking the box places you in a proverbial box. The impact of being “boxed” because of a disability can have a severe impact on a person’s state of mind and overall wellbeing. Additionally, the failure to comprehend and/or empathize with persons with disabilities can come off as judgemental and further exasperate the issues.

Preventing social isolation

It is tempting to want to isolate when you cannot seem to find a sense of community or belonging, but we, as a society, can prevent this from happening. Studies show that isolation is as harmful to our health as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. It is important to remember that an answer is available. One of the things that we can do in addition to raising awareness for disabilities and the experiences of people living with disabilities is to pursue mental health treatment. If you have a disability, no matter what it is, talking about how society impacts you is empowering. Whether you work with a counselor in your local area or try online therapy, you deserve to be heard. Speak out and up, advocate for yourself and others with disabilities, and take care of your mental health because you deserve it.

 

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

Considering the ERA

by Pam Zuber

a photo of Alice Paul sewing the Suffrage flag
Alice Paul and the Suffrage flag. Source: Public domain

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Twenty-four words that may mean so much. The above words are the text of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Long discussed, the U.S. Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972 but it has stalled since then. Not enough states have ratified this proposal to make it an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a basis of comparison, on the international level, the United Nations (UN) sponsors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The UN body adopted this convention five years after it was written. Do these differing timelines indicate different perspectives on women’s rights?

What’s the history of the ERA?

The ERA’s journey has indeed been long. Suffragist and feminist Alice Paul, who was instrumental in adding the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave American women the vote, proposed a version of the ERA as early as 1923:

“Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

Feminists proposed this amendment to the U.S. Congress several times, although it did not pass. In 1943, Paul and her supporters revised the language of this proposal and pitched it to the U.S. Congress several times. Spurred by gains in the civil rights movement and the work of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other second-wave feminists, the proposal began to garner more support. Such support was from U.S. first ladies, presidents, various politicians, and other prominent people as well as much of the American public. The proposal also generated equally prominent criticism that contributed to its undoing. Conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly decried the ERA as unfeminine and threatening to the social order.

After passing the U.S. Congress, thirty-eight states needed to ratify the proposal by 1979 to make it a constitutional amendment. Legislators extended the deadline to 1982, but it didn’t help since only thirty-five states ratified the ERA by that date. Nevada and Illinois ratified the amendment in the 2000s, but Congress would have to pass legislation that extends the deadline to recognize the latest two ratifications. If this deadline is approved and if one more U.S. state approves the deadline, thirty-eight states will have ratified the amendment, although some states have rescinded their previous approval of the ERA. These rescissions make a complicated matter even more complicated.

Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter ERA
Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter ERA. Source: Public Domain

What could the ERA do?

If the ERA becomes an amendment on the U.S. Constitution, it could mean so much. On a very basic level, the amendment would be a formal, written statement of rights. While the U.S. Declaration of Independence states that all people are created equal and the Constitution makes it illegal to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” various authorities have not followed these directives. They capitalized on the vague nature of the language in those documents to create circumventing loopholes or ignored the language entirely.

By addressing the rights of women directly, the ERA is more specific. The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts could judge individual cases based on this amendment. Legislative bodies could make laws using this amendment as a guide. The ERA could create precedents to follow or to dispute, precedents that would not be subject to the whims of the political considerations of presidential administrations or legislative bodies such as the U.S. Congress or U.S. Senate. Adding the ERA to the Constitution codifies rights for women, especially for women who work in government. It could help define their rights and assist them if they have grievances. It could help them secure better pay to close the wage gap, promote fairer conditions in the workplace, and help women find equality and attain opportunity in general. As a precedent, the ERA could serve as a model for other federal, state, and local laws to grant and protect women’s rights.

What’s the history of the CEDAW and what does it do?

Women’s rights are also a primary interest of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). According to its text, governments that adhere to this convention must “commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including

  • to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
  • to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
  • to ensure the elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.”

Compared to the long, arduous journey of the ERA, the passage of the CEDAW was considerably quicker and less complicated. Working groups of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) created the text for the CEDAW in 1976. The General Assembly adopted it by a vote of 130 to zero in 1979. After the ratification of twenty member states, it became a convention in 1981. According to the UN, this passage occurred “faster than any previous human rights convention.” One notable country that hasn’t ratified the CEDAW is the United States. U.S. critics of the commission say that such international agreements threaten the sovereignty of the United States. Given the stalled progress of other pro-women initiatives such as the ERA in the country, this failure is disheartening but perhaps not that surprising.

Why isn’t the ERA the law?

While international organizations and governments CEDAW were able to draft, approve, and agree to the conditions of CEDAW (although they haven’t always abided by such conditions), the passage of the ERA continues to stall and generate debate. Why? Some people say that women don’t need the ERA. According to this perspective, U.S. women already have the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and other laws, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, to protect their civil rights. Others vehemently disagreed that the Fourteenth Amendment covers women’s rights, notably late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Current laws are inadequate to provide equal rights, say some scholars. Legal scholar and professor Catharine A. MacKinnon observed, “If we’re sexually assaulted if it isn’t within the scope of Title VII as it understands an employment relationship or Title IX in education, we don’t have any equality rights.” The ERA may help provide such rights. Given the current political climate, it is not surprising that the ERA has not passed. In fact, it seems amazing that Nevada and Illinois have ratified the ERA at all. Ideological impasses have prevented other types of political action in recent years. For instance, in 2016, members of the Republican Party refused to host hearings on whether Merrick Garland was suited to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court because Garland was a nominee of President Barack Obama, a member of the Democratic Party. Since the results of 2018 elections meant that the Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate remained in the hands of Republicans, will political deadlocks continue and possibly become even worse? Some people fear that the ERA would expand abortion and create other conditions less favorable to conservative values, so they may be loath to ratify the ERA on a state level or vote in favor of laws that extend the deadline for the ERA on a federal level. They should consider ratifying the ERA and extending its deadline. Measures such as the ERA provide legal protection.

With this legal protection, women would have the security of knowing that they have legal recourse to address any conflicts that arise. Even better, this protection may prevent conflicts from occurring in the first place. No document is perfect. But adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides rights, opportunities for growth and advancement, and peace of mind. Not bad for a mere twenty-four words.

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.

 

On Early and Forced Marriage

by Grace Ndanu

a wedding dress on a mannequin
Where stylish manikins pose mute and chic. Source: sagesolar, Creative Commons

Most people dream of choosing their life partner. Their marriage would be one of independent and happy life. This is not the reality for many young girls who become child brides.  Early and/or forced marriage is most practiced in Sab-Saharan Africa; it is also common in the Maasai community. The Maasai, despite their poverty, have proudly maintained their traditional lifestyle and cultural identity without giving to the pressures of the modern world. The community is under a patriarchal leadership which denies young girls an opportunity to go to school. Education is withheld from girls because it is believed that educating a girl child is not a wise investment because the girl will marry into another family. Therefore, the father of the girl will opt to educate a boy.

Maasai girls are circumcised between 11 and 13. In time, she will marry a man chosen by her father in exchange for cattle and money. A Maasai woman will never be allowed to marry again. As a young girl, she will have her personal autonomy denied. If her husband is an old man who dies when she is still in her teens, she will become the property of one of her husbands’ brothers. She will be one of the multiple wives and will have many children, regardless of her health or ability to provide for them. She will rise early every day to complete her tasks including milking the cows, walking miles to water holes to wash clothes and get water, and gathering heavy loads of firewood to carry back home. If she is lucky, she will have a donkey to share her burden. She will live a life of few comforts, dependent on a husband and a family she did not choose. In between her burdensome chores of the day, the Maasai girl is also a beader – such intangible high skills built into her cultural knowledge and practices. Most of her struggles are shaped by circumstances and the challenges of her time including deep-seated patriarchal attitude.

There are several reasons for forced marriage among the Maasai. First, a desire to ‘eliminate’ the familial poverty. For impoverished families giving a daughter in marriage is a way to reduce expenses particularly if a son’s education and expenses are prioritized. Second, early pregnancies drive toward early marriage as it is seen as a safeguard against immoral behavior. Parents in the Maasai community marry off pregnant girls to protect their family status and name and to receive both dowry and ‘penalty’ payment from the man responsible for the pregnancy. Third, many early marriages occur out of desperation as a young girl seeks ‘refuge’ from neglect or orphanhood. Some girls are taken advantaged by older men who give them false promises of a better life. Girls face a lot of problems and challenges if/when she does not meet the expectations, thus creating a journey towards poverty and gender-based violence begins.

The struggle to end the practice of early marriage in Kenya, particularly among the Maasai, has slowly progressed. There are NGOs that have come seeking to eradicate early child marriages. They work together with the government to help the young girls get out of the retrogressive cultural practices by empowering the girls and enlightening the parents on matters about the education of their girls. The NGOs try to educate the girl child on her rights.

By understanding her personal rights, the goal is self-confidence and independence, and a willingness to advocate and fight for herself and for others. She will be able to choose whom to marry and when to marry. She will have fewer children. They will be healthier and better educated than the previous generation. She will not circumcise her daughters. She will have economic security. Education will enable the girl to help and support her parents, and she will never forget where she came from. Education is the key to success; it is the key to freedom.

 

Monstrous Misrepresentation: Disabilities in the Horror Genre

Empty seats in a movie theater.
Movie Theater. Source: Matthew Berggren, Creative Commons

Far too often popular media, particularly horror movies, paint people with disabilities as monsters.  Scary movies are notorious for taking completely real health conditions and distorting them into what appears inevitably dangerous.  In some cases, they create villainous characters with physical appearances that are seen as abnormal based on real conditions that have physically visible symptoms, like acromegaly.  In others, they create characters based on real mental health conditions, like dissociative identity disorder, and depict them as if they have the powers and the thirst for evil of a comic book super-villain.  These dangerously inaccurate depictions of disabilities dehumanize entire groups of people in one fell swoop, often without any clear recognition from the creators of the damage they have done.  

Acromegaly in Gerald’s Game 

In Stephen King’s novel and film Gerald’s Game, Raymond Andrew Joubert is a grave robber, necrophiliac, and serial killer.  He is also a character with acromegaly, a disorder that occurs when too much growth hormone is produced due to benign tumors (adenomas) on the pituitary gland.  Acromegaly is associated with many serious health problems, such as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and, if not treated, even death.  The most visible and easily recognized symptoms of the condition are unusual growth of hands and feet, a protruding brow bone and lower jaw, an enlarged nose, and teeth that have spaced out.  The condition does not make a person any more dangerous than any other.  It seems that King only chose to create this character with this condition because of the physical appearance that is associated with it.  This is a problem, because it perpetuates the common, preexisting belief that people who look different from what is deemed “normal” are dangerous and should be feared.   

With the right lighting and camera angles, anyone could look terrifying.  There is no reason to use people with real health conditions in a way that only makes life and society’s understanding of them more difficult. 

Dissociative Identity Disorder 

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is one of many mental health conditions that has experienced significant harm due to failed representation in the media.  It is far too common to find that fictional media depictions of DID lack any presentation of the true facts of the disorder.  The Entropy System is a DID system who posts educational videos about DID on YouTube.  Their series on DID in the Media does a thorough job at analyzing the quality of different examples of representation of DID in films.  They use four main criteria in assessing each work.   

First, does it “communicate proper diagnosis and treatment”?  Many attempted depictions of DID fail to even name the disorder accurately and call it “Multiple Personality Disorder”, its name prior to 1994.  These works also often suggest that all systems (the collective term for one’s alters/identities) with DID are working towards the same goal with their treatment: to integrate all the identities into one.  Some systems are not interested in integrating.  The Entropy System points out in many of their videos that an important part of treatment, regardless of the system’s level of interest in integration, is establishing strong communication between the different alters. 

Second, does the work address the cause of DID?  The disorder is a result of repetitive, severe trauma that occurs during childhood. According to the theory of Structural Dissociation, no person is born with a fully integrated personality.  This means that, when we are children, we are made up of multiple individual personalities or “ego-states,” which integrate and become a single personality between the ages of six and nine.  Each of these ego-states is responsible for performing a different role.  DID occurs when trauma prevents these ego-states from integrating.  The ego-states develop into individual identities known as alters. 

Third, are the alters shown as part of a unit, or as extra bits for a central/main identity?  It is important to recognize that no single alter is more real or significant that any of the others.  They are all parts of the same whole. 

Fourth, is the character relatable?  Are all the alters well-rounded and realistic? 

DID in the Media 

One of the most common and most serious misconceptions that the horror genre frequently perpetuates about DID is the idea that there is such a thing as a “bad alter.”  Within a DID system, each alter has a role that it performs to help protect the person with DID.  One alter is responsible for day-to-day living, while another might be responsible for holding on to certain trauma memories that would make day to day living extremely difficult.  One alter, called a persecutor, may mimic abusers or other people who have caused trauma to the system in an attempt to keep the system from re-experiencing the abuse.  When horror movies depict a person with DID as being dangerous to others, they typically do so with a severe misrepresentation of what persecutor-alters are and what they do.  The vast-majority of the time, if persecutors cause harm, it is towards the person with DID themselves and not other people.  DissociaDID, another system that posts education videos about DID on YouTube, has a video that is helpful in understanding alter roles, persecutors, and how they function within a DID system. 

Films like Split and Glass are extremely harmful to the DID community, because they glamorize the idea of a “bad alter” and depict people with DID as being villains or monsters, which is far from the truth.  These two movies involve a character with DID named Kevin Wendell Crumb, who has a bad alter named “The Beast” that has super-human abilities and wants to get rid of the “impure” people of the world.  In Split, the other alters in the system kidnap girls and watch over them until The Beast comes out.  To say that DID is depicted in an unrealistic way is quite an understatement. 

For many people in the general population, their only exposure to disorders such as DID is through the media.  When so much of the representation is riddled with harmful, fear-inducing inaccuracies, people who see that representation start to view people with those disorders in real life as being inherently dangerous or violent.  This is why quality and accurate representation is so important. 

The symbol for handicap parking in yellow paint on black pavement.
handicapped zone parking spot symbol on asphalt New Zealand. Source: Mr. Thinktank, Creative Commons

The Connection to Human Rights 

As we continue to push for more representation in popular media for marginalized communities, we must also make sure that that representation is accurate and not harmful to those communities.  When horror movies use people with disabilities in their attempts to scare their audience, they create/reinforce a belief that people with these disabilities in the real world are dangerous and scary.  This is a human rights issue, because prejudice, discrimination, and violence are fueled by fear.  Fear impacts who parents will let their children play with, and how children treat their classmates. This can interfere with one’s access to their right to an education, which is established in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Fear affects how we interact with people we pass by on the street and people’s willingness to help find ways to improve people’s life experiences.  This can impede one’s access to their right to be an active part of their community (Article 27) and their right to seek employment and have favorable working conditions (Article 23). 

Non-disabled people need to use the privilege they have to advocate for those without it, and a person is less likely to want to advocate for someone who they are afraid of.  In order to have the basic human rights of all people fulfilled, we need to all be able to look at each other as members of humanity, and fear, especially unjustified fear, inhibits that. 

Conclusion 

I’m not going to lie or try to pretend that I have never let these kinds of portrayals of people with disabilities change the way I look at them.  Thankfully, I know better now, but there are still moments where I catch myself briefly slipping back into old ways of thinking.  It is important that we as consumers of media recognize the harm that these failed representations of an already marginalized group have caused and that we do our best to avoid supporting them monetarily.  We need to increase awareness of this harm, in hopes that, one day, the horror genre will no longer be made up of so many destructive stereotypes.   

Rather than the same stereotypically use of people with disabilities as the antagonists in film, why not increase their representations as protagonists?  Imagine, a horror movie where the protagonist is a person with DID, whose alters all work together to survive while also dealing with the memory loss that often comes with the switching of identities.  The film A Quiet Place is a brilliant example of positive and constructive disability representation.  One of the main characters is a young deaf girl, and her disability ends up saving her family.  In a world where making noise is a deadly act, their knowledge of sign language allowed them to communicate without risking their lives.  This is in complete opposition of the stereotypical idea that people with disabilities are burdensome for their loved one.  The makers of the film clearly did their research and were able to help spark important conversations about disability representation. 

The Experiences of Journalists in an Era of Crisis (Part II)

by Andy Carr

newspapers. Source: Renzo Borgatti, Creative Commons

From a human rights perspective, one key factor behind recent trends in American media might best be framed in terms of labor rights. Beneath the turmoil and headlines, a collective organizing and unionization effort at leading magazines and papers has emerged in recent years, including at Vox, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and others. Especially in media, focus has turned to the rising tide of labor unions – organizations which are formed by workers in the same sector (e.g., among journalists and related professions) to bargain collectively. Collective bargaining allows unionized workers to negotiate with a stronger hand; the more workers are included, the more their non-participation or, in extremis, walkouts, and strikes will affect their employer(s). Bargaining leads to a union contract which binds all employees and their employer (if approved by a pre-set threshold required) to baseline pay rates and other working conditions. In modern contexts, union contract conditions include working hours, overtime policies, paid leave and holidays, sick pay and health insurance, promotion qualifications and timelines, as well as equity and inclusion-oriented provisions, such as minority recruitment programs and diverse hiring initiatives. 

Journalist organizing movements follow in the footsteps of Depression-era unionizing efforts significantly set off by a call to action in the New York World-Telegram written by Heywood Broun, a famed columnist of the 1930s. The American Newspaper Guild subsequently exploded, and just “10 months after Broun’s first column, the Guild had 7,000 members, with 125 delegates from 70 papers” onboard. At the same time, as Steven Greenhouse explained in the Columbia Journalism Review last year, “many publishers [of the time] aggressively resisted unionization.” Famously, the Associated Press “fired a reporter, Morris Watson, for his pro-union activity,” leading to a lawsuit which reached the Supreme Court, Associated Press v. NLRB (1937). In that case, the Supreme Court “rejected the publishers’ arguments that their freedom of the press was being violated by federal laws” protecting unionization and collective bargaining, affirming the reach of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA). 

The NLRA remains a significant part of America’s federal law on employment and labor rights, and since its inception it has sought two broad aims: first, “to restore the equality of bargaining power” among workers and employers and, second, to “resolve the problem of depressed wages,” a ubiquitous concern in 1930s America (see Southern California Edison Co. v. Public Utilities Commission, 140 Cal. App. 4th 1085, 1100 (2006)). More than 80 years after its founding, however, the underlying goals of the NLRA remain widely unfulfilled, with nationwide union membership dropping year-over-year since at least 1983, and America’s journalists, in particular, have faced daunting challenges. To put it bluntly, journalists’ ongoing efforts to organize have met an organized, systemic response. 

Last May, Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms, held “a conference in its Manhattan office focused on labor and employment law in the news media industry,” an “invitation-only affair, bringing together Jones Day attorneys and media executives, in-house lawyers, and senior human resources personnel—in other words, anyone who might find themselves on the other side of a bargaining table from journalists trying to unionize.” Among the attendees were individuals from “The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Univision, and Atlantic Media, among others,” and one of the “moderators leading the conference was Patricia Dunn, a longtime [Jones Day partner based in Washington, D.C.], and a former in-house counsel for the Post.” As CJR again summarized, Jones Day, 

“with Dunn often at the helm, has in recent years become a go-to for media executives facing union drives. At a time when uncertain market forces have driven more and more newsrooms to organize, Jones Day has become notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone. Jones Day’s portfolio of media outlets includes, among many others, Slate, whose union members voted [in December 2018] to authorize a strike amid pushback from management on their demands.”

These outlets hardly cover the range of past and ongoing union-busting efforts: New York magazine, Vox, the Boston Globe all have been accused of assertive anti-union tactics in the past few years. (Among these cases, however, Vox’s unionizing efforts recently succeeded in the dramatic form: on Friday, June 7, Vox Media staffers secured an industry-defining union contract after a 29-hour marathon negotiation. The contract set minimum salaries at $56,000, included generous leave policies for parents regardless of gender and included initiatives designed to improve diversity in management, among other provisions.) 

a room of journalists with laptops and cameras
Journalists. Source: UNClimateChange, Creative Commons

Even where writers and editors have had organizing success, their gains have proved temporary. As The New Yorker reported in November 2017, just one “week before [their] sites were shuttered, the staffs of DNAinfo and Gothamist had unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East,” one of two leading industry unions in America along with NewsGuild. DNAinfo and Gothamist comprised a network of locally oriented outlets in major cities, owned by billionaire Joe Ricketts, the founder of trillion-dollar “brokerage giant” TD Ameritrade and “a major right-wing donor who … has given millions of dollars to anti-labor politicians” across the United States. Former employees, speaking to The New Yorker, reported “that, in both coded and explicit ways, management had warned [staff] repeatedly in the months before they unionized that doing so would mean that the sites would cease to exist” – a seemingly clear instance of “threatening [unionizing] employees with closure,” in violation of federal law. 

Subverting workers’ collective organizing or their free association more broadly both constitute problematic strategies under international law, as well. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for instance, has spoken unequivocally on the fundamental right of workers to coordinate collective action, including rights to “freedom of association” and “the right to collective bargaining,” per the following excerpts:

ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (June 1998), Perambulatory Dedication:

“Whereas, in seeking to maintain the link between social progress and economic growth, the guarantee of fundamental principles and rights at work is of particular significance in that it enables the persons concerned, to claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity, their fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate, and to achieve fully their human potential…”

ILO Fundamental Principles, operative clause (2) (emphasis added):

“Declares that all Members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, have an obligation arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions, namely: 
(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; 
(c) the effective abolition of child labour; and
(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation…”

The UN Human Rights Council in 2008 also weighed in on corporations’ responsibilities vis-à-vis human rights, to include fundamental principles of labor rights. Although currently non-binding, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights framework describes “business enterprises as specialized organs of society performing specialized functions,” but which also are “required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights” (emphasis added). The Guiding Principles emerged in response to concerns about the nexus of human rights and transnational businesses specifically, yet are framed in generalized terms. Thus, the ongoing anti-organizing efforts of managers and owners in American media may constitute violations of not just domestic labor laws, but also an emerging corpus of international legal standards that might become binding rules in coming years. 

The foregoing issues merely scratch the surface. Strong-arm labor tactics often combine with the toxicity of online media culture generally and the lawsuit-begging misconduct of particular outlets. For example, a 2018 New York article on the culture at Vice Media cites a “senior manager [who] once joked that the company’s hiring strategy had a ’22 Rule’: ‘Hire 22-year-olds, pay them $22,000, and work them 22 hours a day.’” Vice, then, might provide a serviceable avatar for American media problems – a culture of toxicity, outright abuse, and constant uncertainty about reporters’ job security combined with increasingly “widely lauded” output, such as Vice’s work with HBO and a documentary which “offered one of the first looks inside the Islamic State,” from 2014. Vice, notably, has been embroiled in back-and-forth union negotiations since January 2018, prompting over “75 current and former writers for HBO” to sign a petition requesting Vice Media “sign a strong union contract.” 

With the enduring stalemate over unionizing efforts at BuzzFeed News and another round of layoffs in recent weeks—including the total elimination of Ebony’s online team, allegedly without pay for work already done, earlier in June—a complex push and pull continues. Media organizing successes and setbacks like that above highlight the urgency of needed protections.