The Shift from “Autism Awareness Month” to “Autism Acceptance Month”

The Autism Society of America, the United States’ oldest leading grassroots autism organization, is celebrating Autism Acceptance Month (AAM) in April 2021. This month was previously known as Autism Awareness Month, but this year, the Autism Society is taking to social media to assist it in changing the title to Autism Acceptance Month.

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Autism is a developmental disorder that affects 1 in 59 Americans as of 2020. (Source: Yahoo Images)

In 1970, the organization launched an ongoing national effort to promote autism awareness and to assure that all autistic people are able to achieve the highest quality of life possible. The first annual National Autistic Children’s week commenced in 1972, which evolved into AAM. This year’s campaign is titled “Celebrate Differences,” and it is “designed to build a better awareness of the signs, symptoms, and realities of autism.” The 2021 focus is to “provide information and resources for communities to be more aware of autism, promote acceptance, and be more inclusive in everyday life.” With the prevalence of autism in the United States rising from being 1 in 125 children (2010) to 1 in 59 children (2020), the need for AAM is greater than ever.

So why the shift from Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month? Christopher Banks, President and CEO of the Autism Society of America, puts it like this: “While we will always work to spread awareness, words matter as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life. As many individuals and families affected by autism know, acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.” The shift in terminology fosters acceptance to ignite change through improved support and opportunities in education, employment, accessible housing, affordable health care, and comprehensive long-term services. Acceptance is so integral that the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has been referring to April as Autism Acceptance Month since 2011, expressing that accepting autism as a natural condition is “necessary for real dialogue to occur.” The Autism Society of America is also advocating the federal government to officially designate April as “Autism Acceptance Month” since there has never been a formal designation for AAM.

The United Nations has, however, designated April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day that is commemorated internationally. This year, the UN plans on hosting a virtual panel discussion titled “Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World” on April 8, 2021. The panel will consist of individuals on the autism spectrum who have personally experienced challenges in the employment market, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The UN designated April 2nd as World Autism Day. (Source: Yahoo Images).

 

Acceptance is something the global population has been and continues to struggle with, but engaging in conversation and learning about one another’s perspectives, we can individually become accepting. And if the global population decides to embrace such a philosophy, our world can be filled with more love and acceptance and less hatred and stigmatism. Let us all aim to be aware and accepting of the global autism community as well as others. It starts with you and educating yourself.

Justice for ISIS Child Suspects

What is happening in Iraq
An infographic displays the treatment of children by the authorities. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Human Rights Watch collected evidence in between January and June 2020 that closely reviewed the trial cases of 75 alleged child offenders who were recruited by the Islamic State (ISIS). The cases had led to the misconstrued holding of the children, but upon review, the Human Rights Watch ordered the release of the children, using reasons like a lack of evidence and preventing double jeopardy, as well as provisions of Iraq’s amnesty law. The 2016 Iraq Amnesty Law offers amnesty to persons who can show that they joined ISIS or another terrorist group against their will and did not commit a serious offense prior to joining the group.For years, Iraqi and Kurdistan judicial authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged ISIS affiliation. Several of the charges have been based on the dubious accusations and forced confessions of these children, regardless of the extent of their involvement with ISIS, if any. Such behavior from authorities has led to an international norm that children recruited by armed groups should be treated as victims, first and foremost, not as criminals.

In January 2020, a committee formed under the Nineveh Federal Court of Appeal and Bar Association, consisting of a judge, a general prosecutor, and a social worker. This committee adjudicated the cases of suspects who were children at the time of their alleged alliance with ISIS. The approach taken by this committee was one of compassion and complied very well with acknowledging the human rights of these child suspects. In June 2020, Iraqi judicial authorities dissolved the committee, saying it had reviewed all the pending cases, but another committee in Nineveh, Iraq, continued adjudicating such cases. In August 2020, an anonymous source close to the Nineveh Bar Association told the Human Rights Watch that the committee had reviewed 300 case files before being disbanded in June. They convicted 202 people, dropped charges against and released 31, and pardoned and released 44 under Iraq’s 2016 Amnesty Law. Three cases were dropped because the defendant had already served a sentence for the same crime, so to not invoke double jeopardy, the committee permanently ceased proceedings against the three people.

Arrested child suspects line a corridor, awaiting response from the police
Arrested child suspects line a corridor, awaiting response from the police. Source: Yahoo Images.

The committee, unlike other Iraqi courts, attempted to review individual cases more fairly and better apply international standards. By doing so, it was able to convict the guilty and release the innocent, which Iraqi courts do not have the best record for. In the Iraqi-Kurdistan regions, children have been tried in Kurdistan and re-tried for the same crime in Baghdad-controlled territory, with courts ignoring whether or not the child had been acquitted or convicted and already served a sentence in Kurdistan.

This has been the case since the advent of ISIS in Iraq: hundreds of children have been charged with crimes of terror, and such convictions have been justified under Iraq’s 1983 Juvenile Welfare Act. The Act states that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 9 in Iraq and 11 in the Kurdistan region. Children that are under 18 at the time of the alleged crime are sent to a “youth rehabilitation school” which is designed to provide social rehabilitation and reintegration via educational or vocational training. However, a source within the Tal Kayf prison said that “the cells are identical to those for adult detainees, with no access to any reading or studying materials besides the Quran.”

What needs to be done?

The Nineveh committee is the first step towards attaining a more efficient and fair judicial system in Iraq where ISIS affiliation does not automatically translate to imprisonment. Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period, in compliance with international law. Countries should provide proper assistance for children illegally recruited by armed groups and/or forces, including assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. The Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional government should amend their counterterrorism laws to end the detention and prosecution of children solely for participating in ISIS training or membership with recognition of international law that prohibits recruiting children into armed groups. And the High Judicial Council should permit committees to delve into more counterterrorism cases to avoid the trend of double jeopardy, while instructing judges across Iraq to release all children who have not committed crimes and ensure their proper rehabilitation and reintegration.

In the first half of 2020, Iraq has taken an essential step towards protecting the rights of children rather than trampling them. But this progress is at risk of Iraqi officials do not implement such steps elsewhere.

Anti-Asian Racism in America

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic which originated in China, xenophobic attitudes towards Asian Americans have spiked and resulted in a communal fear among Asian Americans. The STOP AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate reporting center formed in San Francisco on March 19, 2020, in hopes of keeping a record for hate crimes towards Asian Americans. Since last spring, Stop AAPI Hate has reported more than 2,800 incidents, ranging from “verbal abuse and workplace discrimination to storefront vandalism and physical violence,” several of which have been fueled by xenophobic sentiment. The sentiment seeks to scapegoat Asian Americans for coronavirus, and the sentiment has only propelled further by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist terms to describe the virus. 

Some examples of this anti-Asian sentiment include violence towards elderly members of the AAPI community. In San Francisco, 84-year old Vicha Ratanapakdee died after getting shoved to the ground. A 91-year old in Oakland, CA, was brutally pushed from behind. In San Jose, a 64-year old woman was robbed in the middle of the afternoon. These attacks have had devastating impacts, as Cynthia Choi, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said in a press call. She elaborated that the AAPI community is “fearful of being in public alone, simply going for a walk and living our daily lives.” Activists have been trying to draw attention to these instances of violence and are putting forth their best effort in pressuring local governments to provide more financial support for victims. The activists also have emphasized the necessity for communities of color to stand in solidarity and focus on cross-racial education and healing in order to “raise awareness about the discrimination that different groups experience.” 

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Asians are not a virus, the hatred is. Source: Yahoo Images.

Another horrific incident occurred in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 16, 2021 which resulted in the deaths of six Asian women and two others who were shot in their workspace by Robert Aaron Long. Long claims he was not racially motivated, but he did target Asian-owned spas. The shooting has not only shaken up the Georgia Asian community but the entire nation, and the event has received immense backlash from all communities. It is unfortunate that a shooting is bringing attention to this ongoing issue. 

Asian American lawmakers are also taking a stance to respond to the anti-Asian racism. They want Congress to pass the No Hate Act, which boosts local government funding for tracking hate incidents, along with a meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice and a hearing about recent attacks. These efforts are led by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, chaired by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), and has gained support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and lawmakers in the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses. Previously passed in the House of Representatives as part of the Heroes Act, the No Hate Act aims to establish regional hotlines for people to report hate crimes, provide resources for local governments to investigate the reported crimes, and focus on the rehabilitation of offenders through community service. The lawmakers in favor of this act claim that AAPI hatred and bigotry is not a new concept in America, quoting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which framed the Asian American population as “forever foreigners” in the United States. Having such a xenophobic attitude dating from so long ago is something that must be dug deeper into for it to be eradicated from the American mindset. 

aapi hate
Ongoing protests by all members of the AAPI community have commenced from the time the violence began. Source: Yahoo Images.

The severe disrespect and violence that members of the AAPI community are enduring for a pandemic that has affected the entire global population is unfair and inappropriate. In any community, the elderly are valued as wise people who have enlightening advice to pass onto their successors. The act of even pushing someone who is a senior citizen is a very lowly act that should not go unobserved or unchallenged, especially by the federal government. And the shooting of 8 people, 6 of which are Asian, is not as coincidental as Robert Aaron Long may claim. Xenophobia is a very damaging concept that is unfortunately part of American history, but that does not mean it should be repeated, especially in a time of dire need for unity against a global pandemic. 

Violent Persecution of the Shi’a Hazaras of Pakistan

Who are the Hazara Muslims?

The Hazara Muslims are a predominately Shi’a Muslim group that originate from Afghanistan. Hazaras are famous for their music, poetry, and proverbs from which their poetry stems, which have been passed down orally through generations. They speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi – Persian dialect) called Hazaragi.

The conflict of Sunni Muslims versus Shi’a Muslims derives from a varying interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and the distinct lineage both sects choose to recognize. Consequently, extremist groups in Pakistan have resorted to violence carried out by Pakistani governmental organizations who have feared Shi’a Islam becoming a major sect since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

These targeted killings had continually existed, but they reached unprecedented levels in 2013 with approximately 700 Shi’a murdered, many of which were Hazaras in Baluchistan. Bombings in 2013 also claimed innumerous Hazara lives, and such violence eventually led to protests by the Hazaras, including refusing to bury the deceased bodies until the Pakistani government took some action.

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Women protest the loss of innocent lives of Hazara Muslims. Source: Yahoo Images

What has been happening with the Hazaras recently?

Believing in a different interpretation of Islam and allowing more freedom to their women are two red flags to extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). The IS massacred. eleven Shi’a Hazara coal miners in Machh, Baluchistan, on January 2, 2021. The families of the deceased refused to bury the bodies and demanded a visit from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, along with immediate action against the perpetrators who claimed responsibility for the killing. On January 6, 2021, the Baluchistan Chief Minister, Jam Kamal, visited a protest camp and urged them to let go of their demand. He tried to reassure the protestors that his government is doing all they can to eradicate terrorism, but with little success. Considering the mass murder that has been occurring since 2013, the Hazara people have no reason to believe the Chief Minister of their state.

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A father overcome with grief as he is told about his son’s death. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

For starters, the Pakistani government can acknowledge the persecution that Shi’a Hazara Muslims have been encountering for generations, and find a way to actually eradicate such acts of terrorism that are being justified by extremist groups with the overarching term, jihad.

To ensure progress is being made, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and the leader of the prominent Afghan Hezb-e Wahdat-e-Islami political party, Karim Khalili, met in Islamabad on January 12, 2021. They exchanged views on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and progress in the Afghan peace process. The political figures also briefly recalled the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in November 2020 to Kabul to hold talks with Afghani President Ashraf Ghani. During those talks, Afghanistan promised Pakistan it would do “everything, whatever is possible” to aid the peace process. But Pakistani officials like Qureshi believe that there are “spoilers” within and outside of Afghanistan who do not wish to see the return of peace in Afghanistan and other affected regions.

It is time for the international system to fulfil its role in protecting the global population. Years and years of persecution of a people who have done nothing to deserve such brutality needs to come to an end.

The ‘Kisaan’ Protest: A Turning Point for India’s Democracy

Depiction of Kisaan
A kisaan in his khet, or field. Source: Yahoo Images.

You may have heard or seen news about the ongoing farmers’ protest in India right now. This protest was sparked by three bills that were adopted by the Indian government in September 2020. These three bills primarily place the livelihood of these farmers from the state of Punjab at the mercy of corporations. The privatization of the agricultural economy will surely benefit the Indian government, but the farmers will suffer greatly since corporations will purchase their crops at a much lower rate, leading to generational debt which has already led to farmer suicide in India. To prevent the exploitation of their livelihood, the kisaans (“farmers”) have set out on a protest, the highlight of which has been their march from Punjab to Delhi, India’s capital. The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has not reciprocated the farmers’ concerns with any form of sympathy. Rather, senior leaders of the Indian government have called the protestors “anti-nationalist” and “goons.” Such a reaction from the government is not unusual for the Sikh farmers who have been the target of persecution by the Indian government multiple times in the past.

Historical Context

In the 1970s and 1980s, Punjabi Sikhs held similar views in regards to the Indian government’s support for agriculture, an industry which has always been essential to the Indian economy and still is with 60% of the Indian population reliant upon farming for its sustenance. Unfortunately, the Indian government reacted the same way it is in 2021 – by labeling the protestors anti-nationalist. Additionally, the government launched a series of egregious human rights abuses consisting of attacks on the Punjabi population in the 1980s, attacking the Golden Temple of Amritsar in June of 1984, launching a state-sponsored pogrom in November of 1984, and extra-judicial killings in the following decade. What is worse is that the Indian government has never acknowledged nor apologized for these events, giving the people of Punjab a reason to have grievances towards the government.

But the state of Punjab is not the only population that has been the prey of India’s ongoing human rights abuses. The rise of right-wing authoritarianism in India coincides with the ascension of Narendra Modi to the role of Prime Minister; Modi himself took part in genocidal violence in 2002 while presiding over Gujrat’s anti-Muslim pogroms as chief minister of the state. Though the current protests are pogroms, the Indian government has acted in an undemocratic manner with its press censorship, journalist detention , and violent crackdowns on the non-violent protestors.

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Protestors took over the Indian capital of Delhi, demanding their rights. Source: Yahoo Images.

What do the farmers want?

Farmer unions and their representatives have asked that the three farm acts passed by Parliament be repealed; they will not settle for anything less. The government proposed an 18 month delay of the laws to give the farmers time to adjust, which was also rejected. Between October 14, 2020 and January 22, 2021, eleven inconclusive rounds of talks have taken place between the government and union representatives. The farmers even suggested overthrowing the government on February 3, 2021 if the laws are not repealed.

The reasoning for the farmers’ escalating anger is two-fold: one, the human rights abuses the Indian government is inflicting on the non-violent protestors, including tear gas; and two, the failure of the Indian government and leaders to cooperate with the unions. To peacefully protest a set of acts is well within the rights of a people belonging to a democratic nation, but it is not the right of the government to respond to peace with violence and neglect the concerns being voiced by its people. That is not what a democracy is.

COVID-19 in ICE Detention Facilities

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Children ask for their parents’ safety while they are in ICE facilities during COVID-19. Source: Yahoo Images

On a visit to a private United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Texas, a reporter met with Philip, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to speak about the conditions of ICE facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic. Philip recalled his experience, telling the reporter that ICE does not “pay attention to the rules,” and “agents do not wear masks and do not respect quarantine.” Furthermore, he shared that the agents claim “health isn’t ICE’s responsibility.”

How severe is the risk of COVID-19 in the ICE facilities?

After hearing about the first warnings of COVID-19, Chris Beyrer, MD, Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights, highlighted the potential for catastrophic outbreaks of the virus in America’s jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers. His background in epidemiology and research on infectious diseases in prisons gave him the credibility he needed to make such a grave claim. Additionally, in Wutan, China, where one of the first big outbreaks of COVID-19 was, prisons and jails had all the red flags that worsened the spread of COVID – indoor facilities, crowded populations, and hygiene challenges. This was more alarming to Breyer since he was aware of America’s densely populated facilities and their lack of preparedness in handling a pandemic.

Breyer was approached by a group of lawyers working with five older Latina women in the El Paso ICE facility; the women, in addition to their age, had at least one preexisting condition, such as diabetes and hypertension, putting them at a greater risk of becoming severally ill if they were to contract COVID. The lawyers sent Breyer detailed plans of the facility and housing arrangements, and Breyer’s team concluded that ICE could not protect the five women; they would be at high risk if they were exposed. The case reached a federal court where the judge ordered the release of all five women, who fortunately had family in the U.S., so they could go home. The judge’s ruling cited the irrefutable scientific evidence and explicitly said that ICE had failed to prove that they could protect the women from exposure. This precedent itself sets the standard for any other case that emerges during COVID in relation to ICE and the safety of a detention facility amid a pandemic.

Police in ICE facilities ignore COVID-19 guidelines. Source: Yahoo Images.

What else has ICE been doing amid a pandemic?

The sad part is that this unsanitary environment was present prior to the pandemic. In a 2019 inspection of ICE facilities by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the report says the DHS found “egregious violations”: moldy bathrooms, food safety issues, lack of hygiene items, and inadequate medical care. If these problems existed pre-pandemic, there is no guarantee that ICE has improved their filthy detentions’ environments. Though the ICE website has posted that it is abiding by CDC guidelines, there is no solid proof of such changes. Instead, ICE’s ongoing deportation flights have not ceased. Since January, over 450 deportation flights to fifteen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have taken place. Eleven of these fifteen countries have confirmed that deportees returned with COVID-19. Since March, ICE has arranged 180 flights from detention centers in hotspot states – Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida – to the Northern Triangle and Mexico. Cases across the region in March jumped from few to thousands, which has been worsened by the deportations of COVID-positive immigrants.

A Call to Action

Amy Zeidan, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Emory University, called for ICE to comply with mandatory CDC guidelines and release as many people as possible from immigrant detention. It has also been suggested to do three things in the meantime to fix the underlying structural issues that have worsened the spread of COVID in detention facilities: “increase COVID-19 screening and mass testing; improve access to medical care outside of ICE facilities for COVID-19 positive detainees; [and] implement systematic investigation into ICE facilities in violation of other guidelines.”

Homeland security is something that everyone cares about. But if America needs to cage immigrants in unsanitary, filthy conditions where they are at a greater risk of dying, then the DHS and ICE need to rethink their stance and their treatment of people who have immigrated to the United States. This pandemic affects everyone, but it can be mitigated with the correct precautions. People like Philip who witness such malnourishment within ICE facilities do not deserve to be treated with such cruelty.

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One perspective into an ICE detention facility. Source: Yahoo Images.

Let’s #BreakTheChains

Break the Chains
Source: Human Rights Watch.

“I used to be chained around the waist and one ankle. My waist used to hurt because the chain was so heavy. My leg used to hurt, I would scratch it and cry. I felt relieved when the chain was removed.”

–Rose, Kenya

An estimated 792 million people globally – that is 1 in 10 people, including 1 in 5 children – have a mental health condition. Despite this irrefutable fact, governments spend less than two percent of their health budgets on mental health. The absence of proper mental health support and knowledge of how to cope with a mental health condition has lead to thousands of people being shackled in inhumane conditions.

“People in the neighborhood say that I’m mad [maluca or n’lhanyi]. I was taken to a traditional healing center where they cut my wrists to introduce medicine and another one where a witch doctor made me take baths with chicken blood.”
—Fiera, 42, woman with a psychosocial disability, Maputo, Mozambique, November 2019

This brutal practice is an open secret in many communities, according to Kriti Sharma, the senior disability rights researcher at the Human Rights Watch. Sharma and her team compiled a 56-page report titled “Living in Chains: Shackling People with Psychological Disabilities Worldwide,” shedding light on the conditions in which people with mental disabilities are bound by families in their own homes or in overcrowded and unsanitary institutions against their will. This is due to the widespread stigma and taboo of mental health issues within governments and health institutions in several countries. In state-run, private, traditional, and religious institutional “healing centers,” people with mental health conditions are often forced to fast, take medications or herbal concoctions, and face physical and sexual violence.

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“A mentally ill patient is chained in a cell at Mia Ali Saeb Shrine in Samar Khel, Afghanistan on Nov 12, 2008. Patients, usually brought here by family members, are only given daily rations of bread, black pepper and water, and are kept in their cells for 40 days. With mental illness widely misunderstood, many Afghans believe God will cure the patients with such treatment.” Source: Yahoo Images.

The Human Rights Watch’s study of 110 countries unveiled evidence of shackling people with mental health conditions across age groups, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic levels, and urban and rural areas in about 60 countries. Countries that indulge in these types of practices include Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Palestine, Yemen, and several more.

Though a number of countries have started to acknowledge mental health as a real problem, the inhumane act of shackling remains largely out of sight. There is no data or coordinated effort at either international or regional level to eradicate the binding of people who are mentally ill. The act of shackling impacts both the mental and physical health of someone who is already ill. Some effects include post-traumatic stress, malnutrition, infections, nerve damage, and cardiovascular problems, not to mention the loss of dignity. The #BreakTheChains Movement is an organization devoted to bringing awareness of shackling to nations and increasing access and awareness of mental health services in countries where shackling is a common problem. The movement has been successful in Indonesia where its country-wide interviews and advocacy led the government of Indonesia to deepen its commitment to #BreakTheChains. Over 48 million households in Indonesia now have access to community-based mental health services.

Laymen can also assist the movement by following two easy steps: sign the pledge, and share the movement on social media to promote awareness. It is time to acknowledge that mental health is a real issue that affects millions of people, and shackling and ignoring the issue will not resolve any issues, nor will it reduce the stigma associated with mental health. If we, as global citizens, have learned anything from this pandemic, it is how deathly and dangerous the invisibility of a disease is. Mental health is invisible like COVID-19, but there are always symptoms. Make an effort to educate yourself, and take the opportunity to check in on people by simply asking how someone has been. It really is that simple.

Brief Video about the Chained

Persecution of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria

A peaceful procession of the IMN for the release of Zakzaky. Source: Yahoo Images.
A peaceful procession of the IMN for the release of Zakzaky. Source: Yahoo Images.

In Nigeria, the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) has been the victim of brutal police force at its ongoing peaceful protests that started in 2015. Recently, the religious group has been categorized as a terrorist group by the Nigerian government, which is an explicit violation of the Muslims’ human rights. On December 12, 2015, Sheikh Ibrahim el Zakzaky and his wife Zeenat, were arrested by the Nigerian Army and handed over to the Department of State services following a bloody clash between the soldiers lead by Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai and members of the IMN. The clash occurred in Zaria, Kaduna State, and since the arrest of the leader of the IMN, the followers of the movement have been protesting for the release of their leader. In light of the multiple protests, the Nigerian government issued a ban on the IMN on July 28, 2019, after a protest in the capital, Abuja. The ban was ordered by a Nigerian court which ruled the activities of the Shia IMN as “acts of terrorism and illegality.”

What is the Islamic Movement of Nigeria?

Introduced by Sheikh Zakzaky in the 1980s, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) is a Shia minority sect with close ties to Iran. The sheikh visited Iran and was inspired by its revolutionary movement where the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty was replaced with an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Zakzaky created his own sect in Nigeria known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and has approximately four million followers located in northern Nigeria. They are separate from Boko Haram, an group of Islamic Nigerians who use violent means to spread their influence, something that Zakzaky and IMN members profusely denounce. The Shia IMN, like Boko Haram, sees the secular state as evil and wants an Islamic state based on sharia, or Islamic law.  Their movement calls for the rejection of the Nigerian Constitution and encourages a revolution that focuses on enlightenment.

IMN members at the Abuja protest. Source: Yahoo Images.
IMN members at the Abuja protest. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Abuja Protest

On July 22, 2019, the Human Rights Watch reported that the Nigerian police fired unlawfully at a peaceful protest led by the IMN in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. At around 12:30 p.m., thousands of protestors marched toward the Federal Government Secretariat to register their grievances, particularly regarding the ailing health of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim el Zakzaky and his wife. Mohammad Ibrahim Gamawa, a member of the Resource Forum of the IMN group, reported that as the protestors approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Nigerian Police Force opened fire and threw teargas at them. Eleven protestors, Channels Television journalist, Precious Owolabi, and Deputy Commander of Police, Usman Umar died. The government of Nigeria claimed the IMN was responsible for the deaths of the journalist and police officer, hence the ban being issued six days later by a Nigerian court.

This protest was not the first one that resulted in deaths though. Nigerian authorities have used excessive force against the minority group since 2015. On December 12, 2015, the police used brutal force on the IMN’s street procession in Kaduna to allegedly clear the way for the army chief’s convoy, resulting in 347 members dead and several arrested, including the leader and his wife. Rather than holding the police accountable, the Kaduna State prosecutors brought charges against 177 IMN members for the death of Corporal Yakuku Dankaduna – the only military casualty at Kaduna. Several more examples like this exist, but the Shia Muslims have not ceased their nonviolent protests for the release of their leader.

The Ban

Justice Nkeonye Maha issued the ban order on July 26, 2019, declaring the activities of the Shia IMN as “acts of terrorism and illegality.” The order was declared after an ex parte hearing, the application for which was filed barely 72 hours after the Abuja protest by the Attorney General. The Islamic Movement of Nigeria was the sole respondent to the application, but it was not represented by a lawyer since this type of hearing is issued without the responding party being made aware of it. In her ruling, Justice Maha ordered the Attorney General of the Federation to publish the order in the official gazette and two national dailies.

How is this a human rights violation?

Anietie Ewang, the Nigerian researcher at the Humans Right Watch, says that the court ruling “threatens the basic human rights of all Nigerians,” and the government should “reverse the ban, which prohibits the religious group’s members from exercising their right to meet and carry out peaceful protest.” Both the Nigerian Constitution and international human rights law prescribe the rights to freedom, association, and expression, which the proscription violates. Under international law, no restrictions can be placed on these rights unless it is provided by law, serves a legitimate government purpose within a democratic society, and is necessary for attaining that purpose. Allegations of criminality do not present legitimate grounds to proscribe the activities of a religious group, according to Ewang. She also suggests that the ban may foreshadow a worse security force crackdown on the IMN, having dire human rights implications throughout Nigeria.

Not just men, but women also protesting the illegal detention of the leader. Source: Yahoo Images.
Not just men, but women also protesting the illegal detention of the leader. Source: Yahoo Images.

Why has the IMN been protesting since 2015?

The obvious reason is the arrest of Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat. Upon their arrest, the couple was handed to the Department of State Services (DSS), and they remained in DSS custody for over two years without charge. In April 2018, the Kaduna State Government filed eight counts against the leader and his wife. The charges include killing Corporal Yakuku Dankanuda who died during the December 2015 bloody clash at Zaria. The protestors have not only been vocal about the allegations but also the health of the sheikh and his wife since they also sustained injuries in the Zaria clash.

What has happened since with the case?

As of September 29, 2020, the Kaduna State High Court dismissed a no case submission application submitted by Zakzaky and his spouse. Justice Gideon Kurada said it was premature to rule on the application to quash the charges against the defendants. The case has been adjourned till November 18 and 19, 2020, where the prosecuting counsel will present evidence and continue the trial. The charges are eight counts including culpable homicide, unlawful assembly, and disruption of public peace.

The frustration of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria is understandable. They are simply asking to practice their religion in a peaceful manner. The clash between Shia and Sunni Muslims is prevalent in other parts of the world as well, but Islam preaches brotherhood and unity. All Muslims are considered a part of the global Ummah, or community. The unjust bloodshed of these people will not resolve any problems, nor will it bring peace to the ongoing conflict in Nigeria. It is time for the human rights of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria be restored and their leader be acquitted.

International Day of Rural Women: Honoring Their Sacrifices during COVID-19

UN Logo.
UN Logo for Rural Women’s Day, 2020. Source: Yahoo Images

The United Nations has designated October 15th as the International Day of Rural Women. This year, the theme is “Building rural women’s resilience in the wake of COVID-19.” The reason behind this theme is because of the health and human rights risks that are deemed risks for rural women in light of this pandemic. Rural women hold a crucial role in the fields of agriculture, food security, and nutrition, while simultaneously battling struggles in their daily lives, such as restrictive social norms and gender stereotypes. Since the coronavirus has emerged, women are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines, and vaccines. Despite all these difficulties, rural women like 45-year-old Yan Shenglian of China’s Qinghai Province have been at the front lines, responding to the pandemic while their domestic work increased dramatically due to lockdowns.

Yan Shenglian volunteered along with 28,000 rural women to monitor COVID-19 in her village. Source: Yahoo Images.
Yan Shenglian volunteered along with 28,000 rural women to monitor COVID-19 in her village. Source: Yahoo Images.

Yan Shenglian’s Story

Yan Shenglian is one of 28,000 women who have served as medical workers in the province deemed as hardest-hit by the pandemic – Hubei Province. These women have been dubbed “roses in the battlefield.” Shenglian joined her village COVID-19 management team where she ensured that anyone entering or exiting the village got their body temperature checked and had their vehicle information recorded. A few years ago, perhaps Shenglian would not have been able to serve in the capacity she does currently due to a belief that participating in public affairs was a man’s job. But after attending a workshop brought by the United Nations Women, she and several women in her village learned a lifelong skill of raising pigs organically, ensuring food security in the village, even during the pandemic.

Shenglian’s story is just one village among millions in rural communities around the world. Rural women make up 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, yet they face a great deal of discrimination in regards to land and livestock ownership, equal pay, and access to credit and financial services. These women are responsible for entire households and perform the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work, while reaping minimal, if any, benefits. In rural areas, the gender pay gap is as high as 40%, leaving women with little to no pay and giving financial authority to men. If rural women had equal access to agricultural assets, education, and markets, agricultural production could increase to the extent that the number of hungry people could be reduced by 100-150 million.

Rural Women Stuck with the Worst of COVID-19

Due to these inequalities, rural women bear the brunt of the impacts of COVID-19. The mandated border closures and lockdowns are disrupting agricultural value chains and food systems. Although this generally affects rural men, women face disadvantages that make it harder for them to recover, including a lack of agricultural assets. Additionally, rural women do not have access to digital platforms to disseminate information about the pandemic or available support. In South Africa and Asia, the majority of 393 million women who lack access to mobile phones and internet connections consist of poor rural women; they rely on person-to-person networks for information.

Rural women in India performing their daily duties. Source: Yahoo Images.
Rural women in India performing their daily duties. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

Women’s access to technology and digital financial services being limited is not only detrimental to them but to society. Without this access, rural women are not able to be informed on targeted solutions to problems presented by COVID-19, nor are they able to connect with the world in general. Educating women in technology and in services that they need to know, such as how to save money, take a loan, generate income, and manage their livelihoods in general, is essential in progressing rural women’s roles in society. Shenglian was able to gain skills training and received advice from professionals, allowing her to have an established livelihood. There needs to be more Shenglians among the international community of rural women, which consists of a quarter of the global population. These initiatives will be brought about only through policy. And true reform will only benefit the economy and livelihoods of these women and the villages in which they reside.