On Monday, October 1, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based and law organizations, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 1: Focus on Europe. Following, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of UAB Institute for Human Rights, and April Jackson-MacLennan, J.D., from the Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., covered the legal challenges of this phenomenon from an international and national perspective, respectively.
The event began with a viewing of the documentary Non Assistance, sponsored by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, which illustrates how sociopolitical crises in the Middle East and North Africa have galvanized thousands of people to flee their home countries, permeating the Mediterranean Sea with frail boats past occupancy, holding limited supplies. Just like its title, the film focused on the lack of assistance refugee boats receive during their treacherous journey, highlighting the tragedy on March 27, 2011 that lead to 63 Tripolitanian refugee fatalities.
Despite endearment from many Europeans citizens, like the vigilantes that aim to rescue whoever they can with their personal boats, many ships in the Mediterranean to do not strive to assist the refugees. However, in 2015 alone, Doctors Without Borders rescued over 23,000 people in the Mediterranean with a just three boats, demonstrating how non-governmental parties can be instrumental in addressing this crisis. One theory for this disparity is, since the first country of contact is responsible for reporting asylum, governments do not want to carry the burden of assisting refugees. Such an outcome begs us to ask: What steps are the European Union (EU) taking to address this issue? How would you feel being lost and abandoned at sea with just the shirt on your back? Where is the humanity?
After the film, Dr. Reuter and Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan fielded questions from the aghast, yet spirited, audience. People wanted to know what can be done; answers centered on policy change and contacting elected officials. Others asked why rescue ships are being held at the ports, leading to discussion about the legal entanglements that now restrict these boats from aiding refugees. Despite there being less rescue boats navigating the Mediterranean and a drop in migration via this route, often attributed to slowing of violence in the Syrian Civil War, there is still a need to assist refugees.
On November 12, the sequel to this three-part series, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part II: Focus on the United States will be held at Birmingham-Southern College and followed by the third event in early 2019, at Samford University, where action planning around this global issue will take place. Please join us for the following events whereas every voice and helping hand counts.
On Thursday, September 13, the Institute for Human Rights had the opportunity to host Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, parents to actor and student Tom Phelan; and Brianna Patterson, a transgender activist, veteran, former firefighter and UAB health educator. Joan covered her journey as a parent supporting her transgender son and advocating for trans representation on television, while Brianna shared her story of being a transwoman from the South, moving from social isolation to embracing her womanhood.
Joan opened with a presentation titled “Transforming My Family”, where she spoke about Tom’s transition that began at 17 but addressed his once reserved feelings about his gender. Tom was very confident as child, but this withered with his teens, becoming suicidal and even briefly moving from Malibu to Boston with his family so he could receive outpatient treatment. One day, after his mental health improved, while being dropped off at school, Joan and Tony received an email from Tom as he walked to class. The email was Tom’s proclamation of being transgender, at the time using they/them/their pronouns, while including resources for his parents to better understand. Usage of the internet and technology has proven to be a positive resource, not only for people in the transgender community to communicate, but to inform allies about the transgender experience, allowing to amplify these traditionally marginalized voices.
A year into his transition, with support of his parents, Tom pursued “top surgery” which is the process of removing one’s breasts through medical procedure. As soon as he had his doctor’s approval to workout, he began jogging without a shirt, feeling a sense of liberation. Soon after, Tom debated the idea of hormone therapy that would ultimately change his voice, becoming a compromise between his options as an actor and happiness. Tom chose the latter, eventually leading to a role as a trans teen, Cole, on ABC Family’s The Fosters. Once Joan saw her son’s role validating the experience of transgender fans, she saw it was her and Tony’s obligation, as television producers/screenwriters, to amplify such voices through media representation. This led to emergence CBS’s Doubt, including Laverne Cox as Cam, a transgender law graduate from Yale University who often litigated for underrepresented clients, contributing to the mainstreaming of complex, genuine transgender identities.
She then demonstrated the importance of voting in support of transgender rights and, if possible, donating to people and organizations who fight injustice professionally. Joan closed by insisting that when facing transphobia, we must be brave and cannot allow intolerance to go unchecked.
Brianna Patterson, an Alabama native and current health educator at UAB’s 1917 Clinic, shared the challenges and accomplishments throughout her journey, including her transition that began in 2012. Brianna expressed the first time she “felt different” was in 1st grade, not knowing how to identify these feelings and consistently using the girls’ restroom. Also, with being raised by strict grandparents, Brianna claimed to have been disciplined violently when caught experimenting with her grandmother’s clothes. At the age of 14, Brianna experienced her first suicide attempt, followed by self-isolation in high school, poor grades and an immediate retreat to the United State Marine Corps (USMC) at 17.
Brianna felt her new home in the USMC gave her the unconditional love she didn’t receive back home. Although, she described having internalized transphobia because she didn’t feel masculine enough. However, after serving her term in USMC, which included tours during the Somalian civil war, Brianna, still, didn’t feel masculine enough. This led to her joining the fire service at a local department in Alabama, which she served for 23 years. Toward the end of this career, Brianna pursued hormone therapy, but was first refused care by nine different physicians throughout the state, demonstrating the discrimination transgender patients experience in the health care field. One day, after producing her driver license with her new name, following a traffic accident, the local officer spread the word about Brianna’s identity. As a result, two years before being eligible for retirement, the city council voted to demote Brianna’s Captain status, highlighting how Alabama doesn’t provide protections for the transgender community.
Soon after, Brianna finished her Master’s in Public Health, first working for Planned Parenthood and now representing UAB’s 1917 Clinic, a job she loves because she gets to address vaccine education, recruit research participants and address health issues salient to the transgender community. Although there was a silver lining in Brianna’s story, many don’t include such an ending, demonstrating the need for local, national and international protections for the transgender community.
Following Joan and Brianna’s presentations, the guests, alongside Tony, fielded questions from the audience, including insurance coverage for gender confirmation surgery, internet support networks, advice for coming out and how to be a genuine ally to the transgender community. Brianna responded to the latter by confidently saying, “The best way to be an ally: Treat everyone like a human being. Educate yourself. And if you wouldn’t ask a cis woman that question, you shouldn’t ask a trans woman that question.”
Recently, members from UAB’s Institute for Human Rights (IHR), including myself, had the opportunity to visit the United Nations (UN) in New York City for the 11th Conference of States Parties (COSP) on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD is an agreement that details the rights of persons with disabilities (PWD) with a list of codes for implementation, where both states and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) are suggested to coordinate to fulfill such rights. Currently, the CRPD has 177 ratifying parties, with the United States being one of the last to have not ratified it, although it was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the cornerstone for disability rights in the U.S.
I had the opportunity the serve as rapporteur for Round 3 of the General Debate, witnessing representatives address issues such as education and employment barriers for PWD in rural Afghanistan, India’s concern about the treatment of women and girls with disabilities, Malta’s 20 million Euro dedication to programs and organizations for PWD and Peace 3 Foundation describing how climate change disproportionately endangers PWD. Additionally, I attended many side events that covered topics such as the Voice of Specially Abled People (VOSAP) phone app, barriers to political participation in the Middle East and North Africa, and the first Regional Report of the Americas. The side events were less formal and engaging because the audience was welcomed to participate by sharing their thoughts and expertise, allowing coalition building to take place.
Amid this experience, there were a few important lessons learned. First, there is an enormous push for inclusive education, as opposed to special education, which values PWD’s contributions, equips them with essential skills and validates their societal presence. This approach would allow PWD, namely children, to learn and grow with their peers. Secondly, many nations are not responsibly addressing psychosocial disabilities which are clinical conditions/illnesses that affect one’s thoughts, judgments or emotions. Many countries have legislation that prevent people with an “unsound mind” from full participation in society, which doesn’t relate to one’s acts, but only their character. This stigmatizing approach effectively criminalizes their disability status, possibly resulting in forced institutionalization that separates them from loved ones and their community. Finally, there are countless people worldwide addressing disability rights. In the U.S., it seems disability rights are in the background, while other justice causes get most of the attention; however, I am confident that persistent coalition-building between justice organizations, especially in our impassioned political climate, will change this narrative, much like the collaborations built through the CRPD.
Two years ago, during the 9th COSOP to the CRPD, Paul Deany (Disability Rights Fund Program Officer) claimed psychosocial disabilities are addressed in many countries through Western-influenced legislation that is separate from other disabilities, streamlining the establishment of psychiatric institutions that undermine fundamental issues for PWPD such as workforce participation, health care and political/rights. Therefore, we cannot view this concern as being exclusive to poor, underdeveloped nations because psychosocial disability stigma in rich, developed nations have fed this narrative and still have a prominent effect on PWPD. Although, to achieve collaborative global efforts that empower PWPD, supportive mental health policy must, first, be endorsed on the homefront. For example, political turmoil in the U.S. has contributed to recent events geared to strip health coverage from millions of vulnerable Americans. These efforts clearly demonstrate political incompetence of the mental health discussion at-large and confess to a larger narrative that admits power doesn’t always equate to knowledge and global leadership must be justified, not assumed.
To someone living in the modern U.S., such treatment seems unimaginable. However, past images of PWPD experiencing isolation and inhumane treatment inside the asylum walls are now echoed from a different, yet similar, perspective. During the mid-20th century, the U.S. underwent a period of deinstitutionalization which saw the closing of large state institutions that harbored PWPD. Largely due to the advent of the antipsychotic drug Thorazine, thousands of people were discharged from state mental hospitals and the shutting of such doors soon followed. However, the following decades have seen an influx of criminalizing PWPD, leading to their incarceration, where jails and prisons now serve as some of the nation’s largest de facto mental hospitals. This series of events, which moves PWPD from one total institution to another, undermines the liberation narrative of deinstitutionalization by continuing to segregate PWPD from their families and communities. As a result, this misfortune contributes to the current crisis that has seen the U.S. prison population increase by 408% between 1978 and 2014.
These appalling scenarios underscore a comment made by the representative of Kenya, during my visit to the UN, who insisted that policy cannot solely enforce human rights because programming must also be present to guide that path. Since 2007, Users and Survivors of Psychiatry in Kenya, a DPO, has not only influenced legislation that expands the rights of PWPD, but also organizes participatory public education programs through various media outlets, challenging stigma and misconceptions. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Connecticut, the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights works with local governments, universities and health systems to ensure recently incarcerated people access health care and insurance. Many of the individuals receiving such care access health-related goods and services to treat psychosocial disabilities that could’ve influenced or been a byproduct of their incarceration. Looking forward, this is the type of advocacy and programming that needs to be highlighted so it can be shown that good governance, particularly through the CRPD and ADA, is possible.
Continuing the Institute for Human Rights’ blog series on gun violence, this contribution illuminates a public health lens, offering an evidence-based analysis and pragmatic solutions to the U.S. gun violence epidemic.
Following the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, FL) that resulted in 17 fatalities, mainstream fervor on U.S. gun violence has, once again, returned. Parkland Students have utilized their recent tragedy as a platform to demand an end to gun violence and mass shootings, stressing why their lives matter. According to Amnesty International, the world’s largest grassroots human rights organization, U.S. gun violence is a human rights crisis. Human rights are protected and enforced by international and national policy, and with the U.S. government marshalling many of these treaties and laws, it is, too, culpable of upholding such rights.
In the U.S., a common method to circumvent the argument that guns extrapolate acts of violence is to scapegoat people with mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), the leading voice and conscience of modern psychiatry in the U.S., recently published a book on gun violence and mental health. Specifically, they address the topic of mass shootings and mental illness.
Some popular misperceptions are:
Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent the most significant relationship between gun violence and mental illness.
People with serious mental illness should be considered dangerous.
Mass shooting will be effectively prevented with gun laws focusing on people with mental illness.
Gun laws focusing on people with mental illness, or a psychiatric diagnosis, are reasonable, even if they perpetuate current mental illness stigma.
On the other hand, it is evidence-based that:
Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all annual gun-related homicides.
People with serious mental illness contribute to an overall 3% of violent crimes. An even smaller percentage of them are found to involve firearms.
Laws for reducing gun violence that focus on the previously mentioned 3% will be extremely low yield, ineffective, and wasteful of resources.
The myth that mental illness leads to violence is perpetuated by gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness, as well as the misunderstanding that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked.
Last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine analyzed data from the Nationwide Emergency Department (ER) sample between 2006-2014 and concluded the U.S. accumulates an annual $2.8 billion in hospitals bills from gunshot wounds, with an average ER cost of $5,254 and approximately $96,000 in follow up care per patient. This study was limited because data was only used for gunshot victims who arrived at the hospital alive; people who did not seek medical treatment or were dead on arrival were not counted. Furthermore, after accounting for lost earnings, rehabilitative treatment, security costs, investigations, funerals, etc., a 2015 Mother Jones report estimated gun violence cost Americans $229 billion annually.
The APHA insists gun violence is not inevitable but preventable, and suggests core public health activities are capable of interrupting the transmission of gun violence. Notable ways to curb gun violence are:
Increased congressional funding of The National Violent Death Reporting System which is currently employed in 40 U.S. states, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
Lifting restrictions on federal funding for research on gun violence. There is barely any credible evidence on the effect of right-to-carry laws.
Common-Sense Gun Policies
Criminal background check on all firearms purchases. This includes gun show and internet purchases.
Expanded Access to Mental Health Services
Funding for mental health services has declined, so increased financial support for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is advised.
Resources for School and Community-Based Prevention
Intervention and preparedness programming to prevent gun violence and other emergencies in communities, namely schools.
Gun Safety Technology
Innovation that prevents illegitimate gun access and misuse such as unintentional injuries.
If the above prescriptions are not followed, the tragedies will likely continue. So, it is imperative we support leaders who will encourage gun policy that protects public health and our right to life. Tomorrow, March 24, 2018, people across the world will March For Our Lives, demanding the lives of kids and families, amidst the controversy circling around gun violence, become prioritized.
A march for our lives, your life and mine is exactly what the doctor ordered.
On Wednesday, April 11th at UAB Edge of Chaos, dozens of Blazers met, in the spirit of Earth Month and Earth Day (4/22), to hold a discussion titled A Conversation about Sustainability. The event centered on a faculty panel, consisting of Dr. Hessam Taherian (School of Engineering), Dr. Suzanne Judd (School of Public Health), Dr. James McClintock (Department of Biology), Dr. Tina Reuter (Institute for Human Rights), Dr. Josh Robinson (Collat School of Business), and, moderator, Dr. Shauntice Allen (School of Public Health), alongside an inspired, and vocal, student body.
Conversation began with a simple question: Why should we care about sustainability?
The conversation began as far from Birmingham as possible, in Antarctica, where Dr. McClintock conducts research, inspiring him to mention risks to the continent’s biodiversity and its resources that enable pharmaceutical innovation. Dr. Taherian asserts that with almost 7.5 billion people on this planet and counting, so it is imperative we think about our actions, especially as finite resources dissipate. Dr. Judd mentioned how she just came back from Paris, where, in recent years, often rises, and threatens to flood the heart of Paris.
Discussion then turned to Alabama, where raining has increased, resulting in river erosion. Although the effects in Birmingham are minimal, as hurricanes travel through warm water, their strength compounds and influences greater threats to our environment and communities.
When discussing resource distribution, the tragedy of the commons became an immediate talking point — a scenario where individual actors are capable of taking a resource with no clear owner, leading to its depletion. This concept was then related to big hunting in Africa because no one owns the wildlife; therefore, excessive hunting practices have guided many species to their endangerment. Since human behavior was addressed, conversation quickly shifted toward a human rights perspective, demonstrating sustainability’s impact on conflict and displacement of vulnerable communities, namely poor and indigenous persons. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international document that aims to protect security of the person, was proposed as a framework to protect these communities. However, no legal mechanisms are yet in place to protect “climate refugees”, a growing phenomenon.
Panelists exclaimed we need to incentive sustainability because it directs responsible behaviors. For example, in France, one is charged if they don’t bring their own grocery bags, while, in Dr. Reuter’s home country of Switzerland, she mentioned trash bags are $2 each, incentivizing sustainable behavior. Inevitable critiques of business practice then emerged, where Dr. Robinson claimed businesses are designed for sustainability, meaning accumulating costs of unsustainability will pressure enterprises to adapt. However, it was insisted major oil companies don’t want to leave their product in the ground because of it investment, pitting money against environment. Strikingly, the same researchers hired to protect the tobacco industry about the harms of smoking now help Big Oil with denying the existence of climate change.
As the topic of taxing the population entered the discussion, audience members suggested such an approach would disproportionately affect society’s poorest. Although, it was insisted taxes are not monolithic and can be tiered by income brackets. In addition, the groundswell of communities pressuring the Chinese government to clean the polluted air was mentioned. This generated conversation about the multi-stakeholder process that has been excluded from many environmental decisions, leading to a strong suggestion for non-state actors to be included in such discussions.
When formal discussion ended, students forwarded more insightful questions to the panel, which many responses resulted in conversation about behaviors such as beef consumption, sustainable transportation, Styrofoam cups and the importance of not being aggressive when discussing sustainable behaviors with others. As the lively dialogue ended, it was clear that UAB is the largest electricity consumer in the state, inside a city with poor transportation, and represents a state with some of the nation’s greatest solar potential, meaning Blazers are in the unique position to participate in a global cause by leading local initiatives that advocate for a greener, more sustainable community.
On Thursday, April 5, UAB hosted Dr. John Thabiti Willis, Associate Professor of African History at Carleton College, to discuss the relationship between masquerading traditions of the Yoruba people in Nigeria and hip hop. The Yoruba people are a West African ethnic group of 30 million worldwide; nearly 25 million live in Nigeria.
Dr. Willis’ 19-month long archival and ethnographic investigation was to understand how such traditions arrived in Otta, an ancient Yoruba town that represents some of those most elaborate masquerades. Dr. Willis discovered that a religious leader James White arrived at Lagos in 1852, becoming the first person to preach the gospel in the region. To appeal the local Yoruba people to Christianity, White recruited musicians to perform local melodies which become early influence for Christian music in the region. Today, masquerades in Otta are notable spectacles that celebrate social rites and acknowledge political causes.
Willis’ lecture primarily focused on the masquerade tradition of Egungun, an honoring of ancestors and their living descendants, which originated in Old Oyo. The Egungun masquerades are performed by men masked and veiled in lavish fabric, to conceal the carrier and reveal unseen forces/spirits, while women participate in the harmonics. Performance garments include Burial Shrouds (death), Resurrection (of the deceased) and New Clothes (new life).
Another masquerade tradition, Gelede, originating in Ketu, honors women as mothers. Masked performance symbolism includes: Women (productive and reproductive labor), Foreign Men (productive labor: economic, political and religious) and Mother Nature (nature as the primordial mother). As opposed to Western traditions that prioritize male dominance and the individual, the masquerades center on African indigenous sentiments which champion men and women as leaders, coalitions and support of the people.
Reflecting on these findings, Dr. Willis identified five main elements of masquerading that carry striking similarities with elements of hip hop performance:
Drumming (rhythm masking)
Verbal Arts (praise-singing and poetic performances
Masked Dancing (choreographed and improvised)
Visual Art (mural paintings)
Biological and Ritual Kinship (community, identity & purpose)
Though Dr. Willis originally journeyed to Nigeria to understand the masquerading origins of Otta, he discovered this how masquerading and hip hop convey similar narratives with different cultural contexts. Much like masquerading, hip hop, too, can reveal the power of metaphor, as demonstrated in Soul Sonic Force’s 1983 classic “Renegades of Funk”, allowing viewers to reflect on social and political power dynamics as well as enable discourse expression through performance of power.
Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tragic death. It is imperative we reflect on his contributions as a civil and human rights icon while working together, in these trying times, to pursue Dr. King’s dream. This blog, the first in IHR’s MLK, Jr. 50 series, commemorates Dr. King’s commitment to economic and social justice by describing the events preceding his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.
Though the sanitation workers were granted a charter in 1965 by the AFSCME, a 1966 strike that addressed usage of out-of-service trucks and overtime pay was foiled by then-mayor Henry Loeb. On February 11th, 700 men attended a union meeting, ultimately deciding to go on strike and, within a week, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) officially supported their efforts. On February 22nd, a sanitation worker led sit-in provoked a City Council vote to recognize their union. However, under Mayor Loeb’s authority, this vote was rejected.
After Mayor Loeb’s controversial decision, a nonviolent march to City Hall led resulted in local police challenging demonstrators with mace and tear gas. This event generated a meeting between 150 local religious leaders, where they formed the Community on the Move for Equality (COME). COME was a nonviolent disobedience collective, led by Dr. King’s ally James Lawson, designed to fill Memphis jails and create attention for the sanitation workers’ plight.
After being updated by Lawson over the phone, Dr. King arrived to Memphis on March 18th and spoke to a crowd of nearly 25,000, the largest indoor civil rights gathering at the time, where he exclaimed, “You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down”, encouraging a citywide sanitation work stoppage.
On March 28th, thousands of strike supporters and Dr. King attempted to march, but violence promptly cut the event short. This was followed with shop looting and the murder of a 16-year old by a police officer. Though Dr. King sought refuge in a hotel, many of the marchers fled to Clayborn Temple where police released tear gas into the place of worship and proceeded to club disoriented activists. Subsequently, Mayor Loeb declared martial law, leading to the deployment of 4,000 troops from the National Guard. However, avoiding discouragement, over 200 striking workers marched the following day, holding the acclaimed “I Am A Man” protest signs.
Back at his home in Atlanta, working on the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King considered not returning to the chaos in Memphis, but, in the name of successful nonviolent struggle for economic justice, decided he must. Reluctant to invite Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) agreed to welcome him back on April 3th where he presented his legendary “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, declaring, “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through”. The following evening, Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, leading to national mourning and despair.
Under scrutiny from this tragedy, President Lyndon Johnson ordered his Undersecretary of Labor to negotiate a deal with Memphis leaders to end the strike. Soon after, on April 8th, 42,000 people, led by Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, SCLC and union leaders, marched to City Hall where AFSCME pledged to support the sanitation workers until the bitter end. On April 16th, negotiations finally allowed the City Council to offer the union a deal, finally ending the 65-day strike and guaranteeing sanitation workers a better wage.
Reflecting on the Memphis sanitation strike demonstrates how the voice of a generation helped intensify one community’s plight, though it is also a testament of how ordinary people can successfully advocate for social justice when they believe “we’ve got to see it through”.
On Thursday, March 22, Grammy Award-winning Beninise performer and human rights activist, Angélique Kidjo, offered a lecture at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center titled, Give Her Wings – Teach Girls and Empower Women. After bestowing the audience with an opening melody, Kidjo spoke of her diverse musical influences, such as R&B, funk and jazz, then shared stories about her childhood, personal growth and activism for girls — periodically breaking out in song whilst incorporating the crowd.
Born into a music family, Kidjo was not shy about her childhood, confessing she had “cool parents” shared with nine other siblings. Claiming to have never lived with fear, she was pressured into her first stage performance at the age of six, gracefully under spotlight, displaying her young talent which led to a standing ovation. However, during her adolescence, her singing become an issue for some boys in her community in which she became the victim of sexist ridicule and physical confrontation. Being discouraged by this incident, she told her mother she no longer wanted to sing, but was uplifted when told, “If you let people define who you are, you will never have a life”. Her father also claimed that once you engage in a physical fight, you have lost the battle – the most powerful tool is your brain. This encouraged Kidjo to coin the term Batonga which confidently means, “Get the heck out of my life. I’ll be whoever I want to be”.
In secondary school, Kidjo started noticing children not attending class, which confused her, then realized keeping girls in secondary school limits helping mothers in the home. This gave her conviction that without secondary education, girls are limited to being mothers and wives, influencing her activism for children’s education and girl’s empowerment. Kidjo’s Batonga Foundation addresses the gender disparity in secondary and higher education throughout Africa, offering scholarships, books, tutoring, mentoring and meals.
Kidjo believes educating girls will engender world peace and influence them to not raise macho men who hijack women in the name of fear. She asked the crowd, “How do you view your kids, if your wife is viewed as inferior? Man up!”. She then briefly touched on her experiences as an African woman living in 1980s Paris, being shocked by blatant racism but standing her ground, and declared the brain and soul have no color, the world is yours and don’t be afraid to challenge people – a mindset inherited from the empowered women who raised and supported her.
Kidjo ended her lecture with one final number that included the crowd. With her grace and leadership, the crowd joined her and steadily chanted, “Chez mama, chez mama Africa”, a precursor to the following night’s concert.
Soon after, young girls and boys rushed to the microphone and asked Kidjo how they could be leaders just like her. She expressed to many of these young, impressionable minds how the liberating power of music gives one the confidence and strength in the face of adversity – Batonga.
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