Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice for the World Day of Social Justice

 

People in shape of a justice scale
Source: Yahoo Images


Yesterday, February 20th, 2022, marked the 14th annual global observance of the World Day of Social Justice, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly on June 8th, 2008. Since 2009, the day has marked a celebration that reflects on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all through employment, social protection, and social dialogue, in addition to fundamental principles and rights at work, according to this article from Baker College. Social justice is defined as the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights, and opportunities. Social justice is also referred to as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. The UN General Assembly has also conveyed their recognition of social development and social justice as a crucial aspect of peace among nations worldwide. 

What are Human Rights? 

Human rights are commonly referred to as rights everyone has just because they are human. These rights are specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an international document laying out 30 fundamental rights and freedoms of all human beings. Examples of these include the right to life without discrimination, slavery, or torture, in addition to explaining that all humans are equal before the law and that the law protects all human rights. The UDHR was drafted by representatives of various demographics and backgrounds and is considered a milestone in human rights history. The UDHR was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on December 10th, 1948, as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” 

Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice 

Women protesting injustice
Source: Yahoo Images

To better understand the concept of social justice, the definition has been broken into four core principles: access, equity, participation, and human rights. These four principles apply to issues such as: 

  • Reproductive Rights 
  • Access to good education 
  • Employment Discrimination 
  • Voting Discrimination 
  • Disability Discrimination 
  • And many others

Since human rights is one pillar of social justice, a “just” society is impossible within the absence of security for all human rights. 

Although their meanings are different, the concepts of human rights and social justice are often correlated closely, especially in academia and political debates. Here at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences’s Political Science Department, a concentration of study in human rights and social justice is offered within the political science major, like many other institutions worldwide. Outside of academia, the general public often groups human rights and social justice together in regard to their stance on politics. Unfortunately, many social injustices and human rights issues have become controversial topics in America, further polarizing the U.S. political climate, especially within group rights (minorities rights, rights of people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.). Understanding the relationship between human rights and social justice can bring about a more unified approach to how these issues are perceived and addressed. 

Ways to Celebrate the World Day of Social Justice 

Woman with sign: "We will not be silenced"
Source: Yahoo Images

Becoming an advocate for social justice in society can happen at any time, but with the current celebration of the World Day of Social Justice, it is a great time to start. Celebrating this day can be done by taking the time to examine your own beliefs and values to increase your self-awareness regarding the way you view injustices in society and your level of sympathy for those who are currently facing a human rights crisis. From there, examine what you are doing to help and what you can be doing. Furthermore, researching a few injustices in society that interest you or sharing your experiences of enduring discrimination in your own life can shed light on the importance of this day and the constant work to be done to create a “just” society across the globe. If you choose to celebrate this day by donating monetarily, here is a list of organizations accepting donations: 

Pegasus: A Frightening Era of Digital Surveillance

Imagine a secret company tapping every word you say and email you read, all because someone decided you are a threat. It may seem draconian and futuristic, but this is the reality of human rights activists around the world under a mysterious spyware called Pegasus. Reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, Pegasus is an international symbol of decreasing privacy, invasion of privacy restrictions, and increasing digital surveillance of citizens by their governments.  

Pegasus, named after the Trojan horse, is a malware created by an Israeli cybersecurity company known as the NSO group. The spyware was initially intended as a global weapon against terrorism and crime. Normally, most malware infects a device through an email or link containing the software, but Pegasus requires no action on the receiver’s device to become embedded in the device’s systems. Through the “iMessage zero click” exploit, Pegasus is automatically downloaded onto the target’s iPhone. Only a digital security lab has the resources to detect Pegasus on a device, because the program itself does not cause any disruptions to a device’s function.  

Pegasus spyware can access GPS location, calls, texts, contacts, emails, and more dangerously, encrypted and private data such as passwords. Attackers can gain access to a device’s microphone and camera, as well, which opens the door to unauthorized agencies recording audio or video without the owner’s knowledge. The first use of Pegasus was traced to 2013 and has since impacted over 45 countries, but international investigations only began a few years ago. Earlier in 2021, an international collaboration of news media including Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International launched The Pegasus Project to investigate, country by country, the impact of Pegasus use. Evidence has shown that governments use Pegasus to target activists, journalists, and public officials although every country accused has denied the allegation or insisted that it was necessary.  

Painted image of a CCTV camera on a white background
Black CCTV camera stamped on white paint on a concrete wall; Source: Upsplash

India 

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is accused of using Pegasus to illegally spy on people they classify as “Anti-India” or having an anti-government agenda.  

In July 2021, the Pegasus Project found over 300 Indian phone numbers including those of activists, politicians, journalists, and lawyers being tracked by the surveillance software. Four years earlier, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy is protected under the Constitution. Despite the legal provision, the Indian government has used excuses of national security and protection when confronted with allegation of using the notorious spyware. This year, the Supreme Court appointed a committee to investigate the data produced by the Pegasus Project and determine whether the government did use Pegasus to spy on citizens and thus, violated the law.  

The Indian government has expanded the umbrella of legal surveillance since the passing of the 1885 Telegraph Act and 2000 Information Technology Act, rendering any word of restricting unauthorized surveillance from them laughable. The country’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is responsible for enforcing the 2021 Information Technology Rules, but the legislation has increased the hunt for human rights activists and news outlets that criticize the government’s actions. Initially passed to prevent social media misuse, the rules act as an access card to control streaming sites, social media services, and online news sources that are crucial for citizens to become aware of accurate, although incriminating, investigative reports. 

Journalists sitting down and taking notes at a press conference
Journalists in search of the truth are targeted by governments. Source: Upsplash

Middle East 

Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, and Turkey show similar patterns of digital repression over the last couple of decades. The UAE is already known for having the most surveillance over its people in the world. By claiming the invasive surveillance efforts for national security, the Emirati government tracked conversations of its residents, Qatari officials, members of the Saudi Royal Family, and other opponents. In 2016, a human rights activist from the UAE, Ahmed Mansoor, was targeted with Pegasus in 2016 before his arrest in 2017 and subsequent 10-year jail sentence. Fellow activists and scholars have sufficient evidence to suggest that governmental surveillance caused his illegal arrest. 

In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a progressive journalist from Saudi Arabia, was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by a team affiliated with the Saudi Arabian government. He was the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel and went into hiding in 2017 after the government threatened him. From Turkey, he wrote articles chastising his home government. After his death, Pegasus was allegedly used to keep tabs on his son, fiancé, and other affiliations without their consent.  

Palestine 

Frontline Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organization, found Pegasus on the phones of 6 Palestinian activists that began in July 2020. The activists belonged to human rights and civil society organizations such as Defense for Children’s International – Palestine and the Union of Palestinian Work Committees in Israel of which 6 have been declared terrorist organizations despite lacking credible evidence supporting the designation.  

Most Israeli surveillance laws do not apply to security companies and give them free reign to use the NSO’s spyware. In 2019, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for invading the popular international messaging platform WhatsApp on 1400 devices. And on November 23rd, Apple sued the NSO Group in California Court for violating a federal anti-hacking law by providing dangerous software to spy on their Apple customers. Despite the obvious unethical nature of spyware, the Israeli government fully licenses Pegasus and is a client of NSO Group. Experts speculate whether the Israel had a role in the hackings around the world, which may be considered an international crime if proven.  

Zoom of a computer screen with green and white lines of code
Source: Upsplash

El Salvador 

The Pegasus Project also uncovered illegal surveillance of investigative journalists in El Salvador, a region in Central America torn apart by frequent gang wars and corruption. Citizen Lab and Access Now forensically analyzed phones from reporters at El Faro and GatoEncerrado, media outlets that have been facing the brunt of President Nayib Bukele’s wrath in the race to retain his position. Evidence gathered by journalists and human rights organizations suggest that Bukele negotiated deals with El Salvador’s deadliest gangs in return for political advantage. Some individual’s phones were hacked over an extended period while others were infected intermittently when the media houses were investigating corruption in Bukele’s administration.  

In 2021, the Biden Administration officially blacklisted the NSO Group and a lesser known surveillance company, Candiru, as well. This severs each company’s access to hardware necessary for maintaining servers and outsourcing the software. 

Access to accurate information, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and privacy is crucial to maintaining autonomy and a fundamental human right. Backsliding democracies and military states are re-instituting citizen surveillance digitally – endangering the lives of millions that are fighting for the future of their people. To contribute to cybersecurity labs and human rights organizations working to increase legislation against digital surveillance, please donate to the Citizen Lab (https://engage.utoronto.ca/site/SPageServer?pagename=donate#/department/91) and Frontline Defenders (https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/donors). 

Additional Information related to recent digital surveillance and human rights violations: 

https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/unsafe-anywhere_-women-human-rights-defenders-speak-out-about-pegasus-attacks_en.pdf 

If you would like to learn more about the people the Pegasus Project, follow the link below https://cdn.occrp.org/projects/project-p/#/  

 

International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Disability Rights Successes in South Asia

The image shows a man with a prosthetic leg sitting on the ground. In his hand is a volleyball, on which he is writing something with a marker.
“Disabled men play volleyball” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

December 3rd marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities – a day to raise awareness of disability rights, the benefits of inclusion, and the challenges society poses for individuals with disabilities. The theme for this year is “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.” In honor of this occasion, we wanted to highlight a few of the many instances in recent times where strides have been made in inclusion and accessibility. This post will focus on the progress made in south Asia, while the post by Danah Dib will speak to the achievements that have been made in the Middle East. There have been numerous successes in the efforts to push disability rights forward in south Asia, particularly in the spheres of politics, health, and education.

Political Rights

Efforts to secure the political and civil rights of individuals with disabilities in south Asia passed a milestone in 2015. The “South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation” convened for the first time in October of 2015, bringing together over 80 representatives from disabled people’s organizations and election management bodies across south Asia. The conference aimed to advocate for increased access to elections for people with disabilities by providing recommendations to the Forum for South Asian Election Management Bodies (FEMBoSA) during its annual conference. After three days of deliberation and advocacy work, the participants in the South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation produced a nine-point charter on disability inclusion in elections and managed to get the Columbo Resolution modified to include language that was inclusive of people with disability. The Columbo Resolution was the culminating document of the conference, setting forth the Forum’s priorities and commitments for the future. In the same document, FEMBoSA also resolved to develop appropriate standards to ensure that people with disabilities are included in elections.

Numerous changes occurred in the wake of this resolution, in part due to continued advocacy by disabled people’s organizations in implementing the recommendations. Smitha Sadasivan, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance India, described the work of the organization in the implementation process in the state of Tamil Nadu, India: “Persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities were enrolled in electoral rolls after the Colombo Declaration”. Numerous additional steps were taken, starting with the appointment of officers specifically responsible for disability inclusion. Electors with disabilities were mapped, and reasonable accommodations were identified. Inclusive voter educational material was developed, and election officers and volunteers were trained on inclusive practices. In 2016, the Election Commission of Sri Lanka included a unit regarding disability in its strategic, four-year plan, with the intent to research barriers to inclusion and increase the participation of people with disabilities. These changes are key steps in ensuring that individuals with disabilities are afforded their civic liberties and can take part in shaping their community.

The image shows a stethoscope placed on a surface covered by cloth. The length of the stethoscope is coiled.
India has made progress in improving clinical care for individuals with disabilities by reforming medical education. Source: Unsplash

Rights to Health and Healthcare

A second important development for disability rights takes us from the polling booths to hospital clinics. The impacts of healthcare providers holding negative attitudes towards disability, and a lack of knowledge on appropriate communication, is well documented. It not only impacts the doctor-patient relationship and decreases quality of care, but also results in individuals with disability utilizing healthcare services less frequently. It goes without saying that this contributes to worsened health outcomes for those who are disabled. In recent times, the Medical Council of India has taken steps to bridge this deficiency in clinical care. Starting from August 2019, medical schools in India are required to conduct a month-long training on disability rights that covers culturally appropriate communication and optimum clinical care for people with disabilities. This change came after numerous disability rights advocates, and doctors with disabilities, raised their voice regarding the lack of disability related competencies in the new medical curriculum designed by the Medical Council of India in 2018. Spearheading these efforts was Dr.Satendra Singh of the University College of Medical Science in Delhi University.

Collaborating closely with people with disabilities and educators across the country, Dr.Singh and his colleagues developed 27 disability competencies based on the human rights approach to disability, as enshrined in the UN Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities. While more can be done to make education on disability rights increasingly comprehensive and immersive, such as inclusion of experiential learning where medical students spend time with individuals with disabilities outside of the hospital, these actions are undoubtedly a much-needed step in the right direction. India, like many other countries, also faces challenges in increasing medical student diversity in terms of disability – significant, structural barriers still exist for competent medical school applicants with disabilities. Disability rights advocates like Dr.Singh continue to challenge inaccurate and negative stereotypes regarding the abilities of individuals with disabilities, hoping to further improve medical care and education for people with disabilities.

The image displays gold medals stacked in pairs. Engraved on the medals is writing and a logo signifying the Special Olympics.
The Rising Sun Education and Welfare Society of Lahore, Pakistan, has trained numerous athletes with developmental disabilities who went on to win international competitions like the Special Olympics. “SPECIAL OLYMPICS EUROPEAN SUMMER GAMES 2014” by Special Olympics Oesterreich is licensed under CC0 1.0.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

Another area of development is the not-for-profit sector, organizations that are working at the grassroot level to offer support to individuals with disabilities and to help implement and further systemic policy changes. An example of such an organization is the Rising Sun Education and Welfare Society in Lahore, Pakistan, which aims to encourage the independence of individuals with disabilities through education and training. One noteworthy aspect of the organization is their training in sports. Sports training is offered as a way to develop capabilities and life skills of individuals with disabilities and to allow them to compete at the highest level in international competitions like the Special Olympics. Over the years, athletes from the organization have won 91 medals in numerous events across the world.  The organization also provides vocational training in cooking through their “Special Chef” program – individuals who participated in the program went on to not only work for the Education and Welfare Society, but also join other organizations as chefs and start their own business ventures. Lastly, another crucial role the organization plays is in raising awareness amongst parents regarding the support services available to their children with disabilities. These efforts attempt to combat the stigma surrounding disability and promote the inclusion of individuals with disabilities as equal members of society.

Future Directions

Despite these accomplishments, there is a lot more work that needs to be done. A study by Paul Chaney of Cardiff University revealed that ableism is still pervasive in Indian society. Educational programs for individuals with disabilities are not funded adequately, and private schools often ignore the minimum supports for students with disabilities as required by the law. Individuals with disabilities in rural areas are particularly disadvantaged in terms of educational opportunities, leading to much higher likelihood of unemployment and poverty. Concerns continue regarding the accessibility of the healthcare system for people with disabilities. Still, efforts are being made to combat forced institutionalization and forced sterilization of individuals with disabilities, issues which compound at the intersection of gender discrimination.

The successes discussed in here are just a few examples of the change created by the disability rights movement across the world and the driving force behind it: namely, the advocates who work tirelessly to push society forward in its inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Although more progress is yet to be made, these testimonies give us hope that transformational change can occur, however gradually it may come about. This is our letter of gratitude to those who continue to work to ensure the equitable and rightful treatment of individuals with disabilities and our call to action to all others.

Women’s Education in Afghanistan

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, a bleak future dawned on girls and women across the country. Despite the Taliban’s promise to be supportive of women’s goals under Islamic law, the deadly crackdown on the progress of women’s rights has already begun.  

The Taliban regime, like the older one that ruled from 1990-2001, upon capturing the capital, shut down the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for Protection of Virtue and Vice. Later, they announced that women cannot go out in public without a male relative or without being fully covered, and female workers have been instructed to stay home. Education, politics, sports, freedom of expression, and whatever else requires women venturing outside with a voice has been banned by the government, punished by beatings or floggings.  

Afghan Women in Veils
Afghan women in veils with the words “Taliban vow to respect women We can still see We can still watch We can still notice We will no longer accept.” Source: Flickr

Education and Occupations 

Girls’ education in Afghanistan took a lot of effort to achieve, but many obstacles, specifically financial security and accessibility, still stand in the way. Knowledge gives individuals mobility and power to decide their future for themselves — a source of pride that Afghan women have fought for. In Afghan villages and cities alike, many women and girls would work for low wages in poor conditions to finance their education, and now these efforts and opportunities have been ripped away.  

Pride is now fear. After the fall of the Afghan cities Kabul and Herat, the Taliban prohibited girls over 6th grade from attending school and segregated universities between genders. Boys were allowed back weeks ago, but no indication was given to girls — a silence that told them to stay home. The regime previously stated that education will resume under the laws of Islam. Even if girls can go back to school, they may not learn certain subjects such as engineering, vocational education, cooking, and government studies.  

Dreams of becoming pilots, surgeons, activists, and lawmakers have evaporated for Afghan girls, and women already educated under a democratically controlled Afghanistan are seeing their lives turn on their heads. A university student who was supposed to graduate with two degrees from the American University of Afghanistan and Kabul University frustratedly remarked that she must hide any IDs, diplomas, and all evidence that she received a higher education, throwing away decades of work for her career. If she does not do so, she risks the lives of herself and her entire family. 

A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Source: Flickr

The Taliban is not their only issue, however. Many female political figures remaining in Afghanistan fear retaliation from men they jailed or sentenced. Despite the years of progress since the last Taliban occupation, women in powerful roles still made men in Afghanistan uncomfortable. The Taliban has not instituted strict restrictions on law and order  allowing incidents of physical and sexual violence against women to increase. 

Female Workers 

Women have taken to streets demanding their rights back as the Taliban prepares to deal with international questioning for their rise to power. Although once numerous after the fall of Kabul and Herat, protests are now few and far between. Organized protests were broken up by the Taliban’s gunshots, beatings, and killings in early September, effectively dampening the morale of activists. Now, the regime demands prior registration with a detailed account of the event and any slogans that are to be chanted, decreasing the right to assembly in the nation. 

Female journalists, teachers, activists, and especially judges are also being targeted by the oppressive regime. It is common practice for the Taliban to break into homes of instrumental feminist voices and threaten their families, and the United States’ promise to protect Afghan women activists from the Taliban has fallen flat.  

Former Afghan legislator Fawzia Koofi fled Afghanistan to Qatar after she was placed under house arrest and guarded day and night by the Taliban. Parliament members Shagufa Noorzai and Homa Ahmadi escaped to Athens, Greece, along with 177 other high profile female lawyers and judges with help from the Melissa Network and Human Rights 360. Even though activists like Koofiand Noorzai are far from their home country, they have already started networking to protect the rights of women and girls from where they are. 

In late August, 15 members of the inspiring 20-member Afghan Dreamers fled Afghanistan, with 10 arriving safely in Mexico City, Mexico, and 5 in Doha, Qatar. This all-girls robotics team made waves after winning multiple international robotics competitions in the United States and becoming a luminescent symbol of the potential of girls in science, mathematics, and engineering. These girls left with the hope of continuing their education and competing in robotics tournaments. Some girls voluntarily stayed behind to help education efforts in Afghanistan. They all hope that their achievements and stories will empower girls in their home country to fight for their education and convince the regime to adapt to a new generation of women. 

Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab.
Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab. Source: Flickr

Education as a Human Right 

The Taliban violated many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 26 proclaims that basic and fundamental education should be free, compulsory, and equally accessible. Education is stated as the driving force to foster respect for human rights and personal freedoms all over the world which is crucial for women to rise from societal restrictions. 

The head of the Afghan Women’s Network, Mahbouba Seraj, emphasizes that Afghanistan is not the same country that the Taliban left. Women will not sit and stand by while they try to take away their rights. Over 6 million women have established their presence in traditionally male-dominated fields such as media, medicine, law, and government. She believes that the gender equality movement in Afghanistan will prevail over the Taliban’s resistance.  

Earlier in October, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to approve a rapporteur on the grounds of Afghanistan to investigate and report civil and human rights violations. The European Union’s ambassador to the UN cited particular concern for the restrictive actions of the Taliban against women and girls. In addition to the UN, the public can offer donations to other international human rights organizations that are also working on the safety of female Afghanistan officials and girls seeking to continue their education such as Amnesty International, CARE, and Women for Afghan Women.

The Current State of Sex Trafficking and Celebrity Perpetrators

Girl with text "The Truth about Sex Trafficking"
Source: Yahoo Images

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Sex trafficking has commonly been regarded as a human rights crisis that receives an inadequate amount of attention. However, recent news articles surrounding the arrest and conviction of musical artist R. Kelly have invoked national concern over the issue of sex trafficking rings. The arrest of R. Kelly highlighted how minors and members of marginalized groups are disproportionally affected by the sex trafficking industry and that the issue cannot go ignored by media outlets and the public. In 2019, nearly 70% of human trafficking victims in the U.S. were identified as either being sex trafficked, or victims of both forced labor and sexual exploitation. The High Court recently stated that 25 million people worldwide are not afforded their fundamental right to freedom; however, the International Labor Organization estimates the number of human trafficking victims to be approximately 40 million. It is difficult to maintain an accurate report of victims and survivors of human trafficking since cases are largely unreported.  

Who is most at risk? 

Although sex trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, victims are most frequently identified as members of marginalized groups and communities. The National Human Trafficking Hotline stated that “56 percent of prostituted women were initially runaway youth.” Runaway and homeless youth often lack a strong support system making them especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. Since child participation in commercial sex acts of any capacity is illegal in the U.S. and many countries around the world, these children are a part of a strenuously handled special victims group. Other groups susceptible to human trafficking include those who have endured past traumatic events or violence because traffickers exploit trauma to control and attract their victims.  

Trafficking in the Pandemic  

In recent years, human trafficking has received less attention from the media and general public due to the Covid-19 pandemic occupying the majority of major news publications.  The Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly paused our lives; however, the pandemic did not pause trafficking crimes as many law enforcement officials had hoped. Instead, traffickers have used the effects of the pandemic to their advantage. As many people are experiencing higher levels of economic and social vulnerability, there is consequentially a growing number of individuals put at a higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, “COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as stay-at-home orders and travel limitations, increased rates of gender-based violence and substance abuse, both of which put individuals at a higher risk of human traffickers exploiting them.” 

Celebrity Sex Traffickers  

Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly
Source: Yahoo Images

American singer and songwriter R. Kelly has recently been accused and convicted of multiple sex trafficking crimes. With accounts that span over two decades, Kelly was found guilty of using his superstar status to bribe and blackmail women and children for sexual exploitation. Tellingly, prosecutors claimed that it was this “superstar” status that allowed Kelly to use his persona to hide his crimes, and his victims, in plain sight. On a CBS interview with Gayle King in September of 2021, Azriel Clary, who had been one of Kelly’s “girlfriends” for five years from the time she was just 17 years old, admitted that she had been heavily manipulated and abused both sexually and verbally, which she also stated while testifying in court against Kelly. Curry went on to say that she regretted defending, now 54-year-old Kelly, in a prior interview with CBS in 2019. Curry admitted that she had lied to Gayle King regarding the condition she and his other victims were enduring in an attempt to satisfy Kelly and out of fear for her own safety. 

Unfortunately, R. Kelly’s case is not the first-or only -time famous artists or other celebrities have used their power to justify and attempt to get away with sexual crimes. One of the most famous of these cases involves financer Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in 2019 for his role in facilitating a sex trafficking ring on a private estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was also convicted as a child sex offender due to his role in coercing minors into sexually exploitative acts as well. Some of Epstein’s famous acquaintances include former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, who each faced backlash for their connection to Epstein yet were not convicted for committing a crime. Regardless of their level of indictment, cases like these have raised questions regarding why so many celebrities feel that their A-list status increases their ability to disregard the law, and how many may be successful in getting away with various crimes due to their social power and other resources. 

The fight against Sex Trafficking & #MuteRKelly 

people protest outside with #MuteRKelly signs
Source: Yahoo Images

Many current anti-trafficking efforts have had to adapt swiftly amidst Covid-19 protocols and safety measures. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, “governments and civil society organizations conducted in-depth research assessments on the impacts of COVID-19, leveraged technology as a method to address emerging trends, adapted policy approaches, and sought to expand protections for victims.” The anti-trafficking communities’ pivot has been essential in the continuous attempt to rescue and prevent victims from trafficking and the ongoing data assessment and research of current information.  

Regarding R. Kelly’s case specifically, viewers of the accusations and trials have taken to the streets in protest and to social media in attempt to “#MuteRKelly” in support of his victims. Although the “MuteRKelly” movement was deemed by his own supporters as an unnecessary use of ‘cancel culture’ tactics, many have stood their ground that Kelly made no excusable offense and should face up to life in prison. 

Learn more about supporting possible sex trafficking victims and how to receive help by visiting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

The History of Policing in the US and Its Impact on Americans Today

Feature Picture
Several policemen in riot gear spray the camera crew walking by with a fire hose. Source: Yahoo Images

Policing in America has a long history, one that dates back to the founding of this country. Although it has always been a controversial issue, the recent instances of police brutality that have come to light along with the increasing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement have forced it back into the social and political limelight. The differences in beliefs are influenced by popular political outlets and political activists on both sides of the spectrum. However, when examining the history and the facts surrounding the creation and implementation of the policing system in the US, it is clear that policing also shares a racially biased history.

The History of Policing in America

The history of policing can be traced back to the days of slavery in colonial America. In the South, where slavery was central to the economy, slave patrols, responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, was the first unofficial police in America. Considering how slavery itself was one of the most egregious treatments of mankind in human history, slave patrols were especially cruel in the ways they captured runaway slaves and punished them for their daring escapes. Slave rebellions were a constant threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts. In return, these wealthy plantation owners protected the interests of the slave catchers. As a result, this practice created a social hierarchy between the wealthy landowners at the top, the slave patrols separating the wealthy from the poor, and the slaves who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

To show that the history of policing as slave patrol is a known fact
A crowd of protesters advocating for the end of police brutality. One of the women in the crowd holds a that reads, “US police began as slave patrol.” Source: Yahoo Images

These slave patrols slowly morphed into policing units in charge of breaking up insurgencies that began to rise in the aftermath of the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, many colonists, especially Southerners, felt threatened by the population of freed African Americans, arguing that they would disrupt the social order. As a result, African American communities experienced an increase in violence committed against them in the form of police brutality. The Reconstruction Era, which came immediately after the Civil War,  was a racially charged environment, as the newly freed citizens attempted to live peacefully amongst their oppressors.

During the Reconstruction Era, cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labor, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labor of the newly freed populace, who were shortly enslaved again, this time through the prison system.

Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of legislations were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of color. In part due to the loophole in the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centered around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow Laws, denying them their fundamental rights as human beings. Racism was still rampant in the South and was especially tolerated under the prison system. Ironically, the loophole provided by the thirteenth amendment gave rise to today’s prison industrial complex.

These racist policies were further encouraged by the passing of the “separate but equal” verdict by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and they continued to target African Americans for simply existing. The Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that as long as both white communities and black communities were able to have access to the same resources, they could remain segregated. The verdict only emboldened and encouraged policing to incorporate racism into lawful practice. Unfortunately, this legal segregation lasted almost a hundred years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Continuing their roles of breaking up insurgencies, policing during the Civil Rights Movement centered around riot control. As the Civil Rights Movement took place, inspiring hundreds of people to come together to demand justice, police were on the frontline of the opposing end, protecting the economic interests of America at the expense of human beings. Police used water hoses, police dogs, tear gas, and other crowd control measures to break up protests and peaceful sit-ins. The police would also brutally beat up and bruise the peaceful protesters, while others were incarcerated for daring to protest for their civil rights.

Policing since then has evolved to incorporate discriminatory practices, such as the “stop and frisk” policy – which empowers police to stop and search someone without a warrant if they have a reason to believe that individuals are doing something wrong – or the practice of racial profiling individuals to “fit” the description of a suspect the police can then target. Along with these practices, the war on drugs further aggravated the situation, granting the police the power to detain drug users by racially targeting people of color, and further enabling discrimination and harassment of marginalized communities. Today, the discrimination that is present in policies like stop and frisk, and racial profiling; and the war on drugs upholds the social hierarchy created during the times of slavery. These unethical policies continue to bolster the wealth and income inequality between wealthy communities and marginalized communities.

Additionally, the Revolving Door Phenomenon continues the historical practice of sabotaging marginalized communities. The Revolving Door Phenomenon refers to the fact that even after prisoners have served their time and get released, many of them end up back in prison. This is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented, to name a few. They can also face homelessness, and as a result, become victims of police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is still rampant to this day with no accountability of the police. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which became a worldwide phenomenon during the summer of 2020, is attempting to bring an end to police brutality and the violent murders of unarmed African Americans committed by the police.

Police Brutality and Rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement

To show how popular the movement has become
Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles. July 1st, 2020; Source: Yahoo Images

The Black Lives Matter protests began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy that was murdered by a White man on Neighborhood Watch. The man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, facing no form of accountability for his actions. The hashtag movement gained further popularity when Michael Brown was murdered by a White officer, and yet again, no one faced any charges for the killing of a Black man. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to record and report any instances of police brutality they witness, and soon, hundreds of civilians reported such instances on social media.

The murder of George Floyd was caught on camera, and this recording enraged the public. As a result, the Black Lives Matter Movement expanded nationwide, and over the years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. This movement brought attention to the frequent instances in which innocent African Americans were brutally murdered by the police. An NPR investigation revealed that since 2015, there have been 135 instances in which the police have murdered unarmed African Americans. They also found that of these 135 instances, 75% of the time, the officers were White. Another source places the total number of people who have died at the hands of police as high as 1,126, and that’s just in 2020. They allege that 96% of those deaths were a result of being shot. Reprehensibly, these instances continue to occur, as people such as Tameer Rice, Bryanna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Jamarion Robinson, Ronald Greene, and too many more have continued to face cruelty at the hands of the police.

Especially jarring is the cruel way in which Ronald Greene was murdered. The brutal death of Ronald Greene, an African American man who was beaten and shocked to death by a group of police officers, has been under investigation since 2019. The police falsely testified that he had died in a car crash, but body camera videos show the extent to which the police viciously killed Greene as he begged them to stop. Additional reports came back on Greene’s autopsy that further discredit the claims of the police that Greene sustained fatal injuries due to a car crash. Heartbreakingly, this is yet another instance of police brutality that was allowed to occur.

To show just a few of the names of the people who have been victims to police brutality
Among a group of protesters, one activist holds a sign with the names of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, three of the well-known victims of police brutality. Source: Yahoo Images

Accountability

One of the main reasons why police brutality continues to take place is due to the fact that the police face no real consequences for their actions. As has been the case too many times, police are reported to be found in compromising situations, leading to the inhumane treatment and in many instances, death of innocent people. Following those reports of human rights violations, it has also become common-place to find that those officers accused of brutality rarely get charged or punished for their behavior. They are generally held accountable only due to public outcry. Unfortunately, even then, accountability comes in the form of simply getting transferred to a different department. Too many instances over the past decade have highlighted the dangers of a militant police force without proper policies in place that hold responsible those that abuse the law. Policing leads to a power dynamic between communities and authorities, and in the wrong hands, without the proper measures of liability in place, can lead to an abuse of powers and people alike. As a result of the racial history that plagues America, the relationship between the police and marginalized communities is one that is (understandably), very fragile and filled with distrust.

Reform or abolish?

Many people have proposed policies to reform the police system in America. This can get pretty complicated, as police departments all across the country follow different rules and regulations and are state-funded entities. This can mean that implementation and enforcement of regulations can be a difficult task, requiring different entities for each state. Furthermore, there is not much data collected on policing misconducts, and the available data can be biased or lacking details. Additionally, many of the acts of police brutality are explained away using legal powers vested in the police, such as the ability to use force while conducting an arrest. The vague language of the policy allows the police to use excessive force and justify their actions in court. Moreover, police unions hold a tremendous amount of political power and influence and protect their officers from facing any real accountability. Even the attempts at limiting qualified immunity, (which protects government officials from civil lawsuits) have gotten nowhere, as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has yet to be passed in the Senate.

An info graph that showcases some of the misuses of the police budget and supports calls to defund the police.
An info graph that depicts some of the data that supports defunding the police. Source: Yahoo Images

As a result, cries to abolish the police have increased since the Black Live Matter protests of summer 2020. While police may be effective in situations where a crime has occurred, the abolitionists of today argue that police only complicate things in some instances, including interactions with people of color or when approaching people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Without being educated on systemic racism and the role of the police or having the proper training to care for people with mental or physical disabilities respectively, the police can make things worse, even if they are attempting to de-escalate the situation. The abolitionist approach is to restructure the entire policing system in order to divide the undertaking of community safety and security into various different institutions that are tasked with protecting the human rights of individuals. This enables the option of having other agencies in place aimed at solving community issues and nurturing a relationship with people within the community, making it more accessible and reliable for the community members to ask for assistance. Doing so could eliminate the oppressive climate brought on by the social hierarchy that has been ever-present in policing throughout American history. By reshaping society and its structures, we can ensure that the needs of the people in society are met, while preserving their fundamental human rights.

 

 

A Look at Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

The Exhibit

Girl in front of Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts  (AEIVA) has welcomed a new exhibit, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. The exhibit explores the United States’ criminal justice system, mass incarceration, discrimination and the very concept of justice with works from more than 70 different artists. Many of the pieces on display come from artists who are or were incarcerated, who used art as an essential outlet and form of expression within prison. Nonincarcerated artists are also featured, influenced by the damages of mass incarceration within their families and neighborhoods. The entire exhibit creates a critique of mass incarceration from a human right’s perspective, representing the voices of incarcerated persons that are typically silenced or ignored. “Marking Time” boasts three galleries of moving pieces that speak to the gravity and scale at which the human rights violations within our punitive justice system disenfranchise impoverished and minority communities throughout the United States, and features data and interviews that discuss ways these glaring problems should be addressed and combatted. 

“Marking Time” was organized by curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, who has spent a decade researching the importance and development of visual arts and creative practices for incarcerated persons. Dr. Fleetwood deliberately removed any mention of charges or reasons for conviction for the incarcerated artists featured in the exhibit, forcing viewers to remove a layer of prejudice or thought regarding whether or not the artist is inherently a “good” or “bad” person, or deserving of their incarceration. As I progressed through the galleries of “Marking Time ”, one of the first things I noticed was exactly that; how I continuously perceived the artworks as being the creations of a fellow artist, not a criminal or prisoner. This intentional shift in perception creates an environment of thoughtfulness, analysis and depth that may not have been achieved otherwise, and makes the exhibit an excellent ignition for thought, conversation and activism.

When analyzing the works themselves, I was surprised to see how many were masterfully created from hair gel, sheets, uniforms, newspapers and contraband items when traditional art supplies were not accessible. Incarcerated artists are often limited in the tools they have to create art from, but countless works within “Marking Time” reveal the true resilience of an artist’s spirit, and how artistic expression can prevail above the smothering limitations of prison.

The Pieces 

As this exhibit has been analyzed and discussed through its many travels from MoMA to AEIVA, I wanted to highlight a few of the pieces and discuss their particular significance to the conversation of human rights within the United States punitive justice system and mass incarceration.

Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney

Hundreds of sketched portraits decorating a wall.
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

Loughney’s series, Pyrrhic Defeat, is named for a theory within criminal justice studies that explores how a failing criminal justice system that discriminates in its criminalization of certain groups substantially benefits certain elites. Mark Loughney has created over 750 portraits of his incarcerated peers in order to mark the passage of time within his own sentence, as well as provide fellow inmates with a positive alternative to the dehumanization caused by mugshots and prison IDs. His pieces provide the individuals with a level of personalization, dignity, and respect that is often forgotten and ignored within the prison system. Loughney spends 20 minutes on each sketch, and has to carve a creative, open atmosphere for each session out of the typical chaos and disruptions within a prison environment.

Untitled by Gilberto Rivera

Three mixed media paintings depicting the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gilberto Rivera, Untitled, 2020. Newspaper, caulk, silicone, spray paint, acrylic, and markers on canvas and recycled canvas. L: 48 ½ x 60 in C: 59 ¾ x 51 ⅜ in R: 48 ¼ x 60 in, Overall: 60 x 156 ½ in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

This Triptych by Gilberto Rivera places a spotlight on how mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted vulnerable communities throughout the artists’ hometown of New York. Rivera was a graffiti artist prior to his incarceration, and this piece truly reveals the artist’s emotions and style in a brilliant display of keywords, colors and figures. Rivera’s triptych incorporates newspaper clippings that highlight his disgust for how minority and immigrant essential workers were neglected as well as the fear incarcerated people experienced throughout the public health crisis. Prisoners across the globe were put into lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and the result of this is an experience extremely similar to that of solitary confinement; a punitive mechanism proven to have extreme mental and physical health consequences. Despite these sweeping lockdowns, extreme overcrowding lead prisons to host the majority of the largest single-site outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Despite these major outbreaks and casualties, prisoners fell to the bottom of priority lists for treatment and aid when medical equipment and essential items faced shortages. Rivera’s piece displays frustration and criticism of these issues that have hardly received the mainstream coverage they deserve.

Ellapsium: master & Helm by Jared Owens

Three painted panels with painted blueprints of a slave ship and federal prison overlapping.
Jared Owens, Ellapsium: master & Helm, 2016. Mixed media on birch panels. Each: 48 x 31 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood. Source: Original Photo

With Ellapsium, Jared Owens addresses the racism of the criminal justice system as well as hierarchies and power struggles within Fairton, the correctional institution where Owens was imprisoned.  This complex work features symbolism as a form of rebellion and disapproval, and bears an immediately recognizable resemblance to the infamous map of the Brookes Slave Ship from 1788 that displays how slaves were forced to live through their passage to America. This intentionally chosen symbol represents the violence, dehumanization, and other atrocities that slaves faced in early American history. The second and less known image present in this work is a blueprint of the Fairton prison; Owens’ combining of the two blatantly compares the horrors of the historical institution of slavery to the atrocities and discrimination committed by the United States’ current carceral state. Owens also utilizes color symbolically throughout his piece, and all of the colors used correlate to the artist’s daily life within a federal institution. The green of the institutional walls represents restriction and being subdued, blue represents the uniforms worn by prison guards, and brown represents the uniforms of those imprisoned. Orange, the most used color within the piece, was used within Fairfield to indicate areas that were off limits and unavailable to incarcerated persons, so Owens deliberately used that color for the boundary between the blueprint of the slave ship, of Fairfield, and the world outside of the two. 

Owens is open about how his pursuit of art posed a legitimate threat to him within the Fairfield facility. Being caught with planks of wood to paint on or stretch canvas could have resulted in solitary confinement, extension of his sentence, or complete confiscation of personal possessions and art supplies. While these overwhelming restrictions greatly limited Owens while he was in prison, he has chosen to use his experience to create, raise awareness, and call for change- like so many artists featured alongside him in “Marking Time”.

Peace, Love, Harmony by Susan Lee-Chun

A rack of uniform orange detention hoodies, with patterns on the interior lining.
Susan Lee-Chun, Peace, Love, Harmony, 2007. Cotton fabric and dye. 36 x 60 x 18 in. Courtesy of artist. Source: Original Photo

Women on the Rise! (WOTR) was a feminist art project founded by Dr. Jillian Hernandez to provide girls in juvenile detention facilities with a platform for self-expression and dialogue. Inspired by her participation in this project, Susan Lee-Chun worked with a group of girls in juvenile detention to explore the politics of fashion, and asked her participants to “Think about who you are, what words, images or symbols define you or your beliefs. Use them to create a fabric design”. The resulting hoodies on display conform to detention center uniforms on their exterior, and on the inside feature patterns with rainbows, checkers, and the word “Love”. Upon completion of this project, Lee-Chun attempted to give the girls she worked with the resulting hoodies of their creation; and was denied that request. None of the girls involved were allowed to wear the hoodies. In public defiance, Lee-Chun’s hoodies now hang among the many artworks of “Marking Time”, criticizing a system that would prioritize conformity and uniform over the individuality, creativity and expression of a child. 

How To See “Marking Time”

If you would like to see “Marking Time” and any of the artworks or artists featured above first hand, the exhibit is free and available to the public until December 11. Reserve your free ticket to view the exhibition here. Spaces per time slot are limited to 10 for a one-hour long visit. If you cannot make your time slot for any reason, please cancel the booking or call 205-975-6436. If you have any issues with booking your ticket or would like to reserve a group tour, contact AEIVA at aeiva@uab.edu. 

Visitors must wear a mask at all times inside the AEIVA building and keep socially distanced. Free and metered parking is available along the streets surrounding AEIVA. Safety is UAB’s priority. The pandemic is a fluid situation that UAB is monitoring, in consultation with infectious disease and public health experts; events will be subject to change based on the latest COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

All upcoming “Marking Time” programs are designed as hybrid events, with both in-person and virtual components. AEIVA is prepared to move any of the events entirely virtual at a moment’s notice. Visit AEIVA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for the latest updated information.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

clipart of women of various backgrounds lifting a megaphone
Source: UN Women

Today, November 25th, marks the 22nd Annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women as declared by the United Nation’s General Assembly in 1999; however, women living in Latin America and the Caribbean have honored the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women since 1981. The resolution, introduced by the Dominican Republic, marks the anniversary of the death of three sisters, Maria, Teresa and Minerva Mirabel, who were murdered on the island on November 25th, 1960, due to their involvement in a growing underground uprising against Dictator Trujillo’s dangerously misogynistic rule, according to this article from History. This day also represents the start of the 16 Days of Activism, where people are encouraged to fight against gender-based violence, concluding on December 10th, which is declared as International Human Rights Day. Activist organizations worldwide have utilized this period to shed a light on domestic affairs including sexual and physical violence, emotional abuse, and to draw attention to the dangers of human trafficking, all of which are issues that disproportionately affect women, transgender, and nonbinary individuals.  

Domestic Abuse in the Pandemic 

YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Source: UN Women

One of the major examples of threatening violence towards women is domestic abuse, especially regarding violence in romantic partnerships. Domestic abuse includes sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sexuality, or marital status. Fighting domestic abuse is especially prevalent in eliminating violence against women because unfortunately, eight out of 10 victims of sexual assault or rape knew their attacker, as was the case in my own story. For child victims and students on college campuses, the rate is even higher. Regarding the pandemic, the United Nations has recently stated that, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.” Referred to as the “Shadow Pandemic,” women and other marginalized groups have been especially susceptible to abuse and emotional neglect due to many countries’ lockdown and stay-at-home orders, in addition to people around the globe facing an increased level of financial hardships throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Sex Trafficking and Outside Threats 

This increased level of vulnerability has also translated outside of the home, where women face dangers in varying capacities, including the prevalent threat of sex trafficking. Over 70% of all sex trafficking victims are women and girls, and although there have been a growing number of legislative improvements as more countries criminalize trafficking, conviction rates for traffickers remain low. As Covid-19 news updates have held many people’s attention since the pandemic began, it is essential to remember the other human rights crises that have not paused or slowed down as law enforcement efforts had hoped. Outside threats of violence also disproportionately affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) women. Although many general sex trafficking statistics are difficult to find considering many cases go unreported, this article from Polaris did include numbers from specific jurisdictions stating that “In Louisiana, Black girls account for nearly 49 percent of child sex trafficking victims, though Black girls comprise approximately 19 percent of Louisiana’s youth population and in King County, Washington, 84 percent of child sex trafficking victims are Black while Black children and adults together only comprise 7% of the general population.” Polaris went on to add, “Latinos are disproportionately represented among human trafficking victims and survivors in general, and labor trafficking survivors in particular.” 

Eliminating Violence Against Women 

STOP Victim Blaming
Source: UN Women

Women’s organizations around the world have come together in efforts to eliminate misogynistic acts of violence with advocacy that anyone can participate in, such as protesting for legal action to be taken and supporting the #MeToo social media movement, which began in 2006. The #MeToo movement encourages survivors of sexual assault and rape to share their stories in a safe environment of other survivors. The hashtag has been used by millions of people around the world and has been translated into dozens of languages. 

Considering this, there are many ways to help support survivors, even during a pandemic. UN Women lays out ten important steps: 

    1. Listen to and believe survivors 
    2. Teach the next generation and learn from them
    3. Call for responses and services fit for purpose 
    4. Understand consent 
    5. Learn the signs of abuse and how you can help 
    6. Start a conversation 
    7. Stand against rape culture 
    8. Fund women’s organizations 
    9. Hold each other accountable
    10. Know the data and demand more of it

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, click here to speak with trained advocates worldwide. 

Recap: A Conversation with Dr. Harriet Washington

Last Thursday, Dr. Harriet Washington  conducted a seminar with the UAB Institute for Human Rights where she discussed the contents of her book, Medical Apartheid. Dr. Washington has been the recipient of the American Library Association Black Caucus Non-Fiction Award and currently teaches bioethics at Columbia University. The seminar was moderated by Dr. Kecia Thomas, the Dean of UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Cover of Washington’s book. Source: Yahoo Images

In the discussion, Dr. Washington highlighted several aspects of medical treatment of black people that previously went unnoticed. Her motivation for her highly popular book, Medical Apartheid, was a file she discovered in the 1980s during her job at a hospital. At that time, talking about diversity was a taboo thing. But as she was working one day, she came across an old filing cabinet with patient files from the 1970s of people who needed kidneys. As she began sifting through the files, Dr. Washington analyzed the social profiles of those patients and observed a key difference — the files of ethnically white people were much thinner than that of black people. That was a precursor to her next discovery–one of the files of a black person had the word “Negro” underlined, and the health plan laid out was that of imminent demise, not for healthcare. In that moment, Dr. Washington grew acutely aware of racial plights within the healthcare system and of the inferior care that was being offered to marginalized communities. 

In 2001, she was invited to an international conference on human medicine in Germany, where the only discussion of the mistreatment of African Americans in medicine was the Tuskegee crisis. This claim was boldly made by the international community because there were no other major records of such mistreatment in healthcare. In that moment, Dr. Washington decided to write Medical Apartheid  “so no one can decline this ever happened in history.”

Why use “apartheid”?

According to Dr. Washington, that is precisely what her discovery is. Dr. Harold Freeman, a cancer surgeon in New York, found in 1990 that the men of Harlem, NY had medical profiles similar to the men of Bangladesh. Such a finding is shocking and very disturbing, but Ms. Washington described internalizing his information as an indication of a foundation that enables such actions to be discoverable. The reason why these medical disparities translate to an apartheid is because we have highly effective historical policies that have and continue to succeed in making us “two different Americas.” 

While this history and factual information has been ignored for too long, people seem receptive to this information and have been utilizing the history in an attempt to correct it. That is why calling the movement what it is — an apartheid — and doing everything in one’s power, be it from the capacity of an educator or a student, use the information to actually influence a change. 

Vaccine Hesitancy 

Dr. Thomas shifted the focus of the conversation towards the COVID-19 pandemic and the speculations of vaccine hesitancy among black people being a consequence of the Tuskegee Scandal, an event where black people were given a placebo of the cure for syphilis. This myth, however, was quickly busted by Dr. Washington who first stated blatantly that the American healthcare system is untrustworthy, so blaming people for being untrustworthy of it is unfair to do. She continued to quote a study that founded that black people who have never heard of the Tuskegee scandal are more scared of vaccines than those who are familiar with the medical injustice; thus blaming Tuskegee, according to Dr. Washington, is a form of laziness. Rather than speculate on behalf of black people, and people of color (POC) in general, Dr. Washington’s suggestion is to ask and clarify why POC are less likely to participate in clinical trials. Her own research indicates that prioritizing an elderly age group in such trials is synonymous to penalizing POC, for POC tend to be younger populations while white people have a larger older population. The solution to this is creating more nuanced policies that take into consideration restrictions like not having insurance or limited internet access. 

Harriet A. Washington. Source: Yahoo Images

Ethics and Informed Consent

Another area of medicine Dr. Washington specializes in is the ethics of clinical trials and the common violations of informed consent that researchers often engage in. Fraud and deceiving POC in trials is not a new concept; it happened in the Tuskegee trials and continues to happen, unfortunately. In 2006, only black people were given artificial blood to see if they would still heal from the disease treatment being tested; the subjects died of heart attacks because of this deception. While we know placebos exist in clinical trials, administering the placebo to a select group of people rather than across the tested subjects, irrespective of race, is something which is unethical and illegal. 

Actions to Take 

First, we must be willing to eradicate our generations of ignorance towards people of color, especially black populations, starting with valuing their lives. Having open conversations such as the one had with Dr. Washington is a great place to start because the only thing that is being presented is facts and evidence corroborating a painful yet honest history of medical apartheid. And implementing the information we learn in our research and education is one step we can all take to put an end to this apartheid. The second thing anyone can do is openly advocate for nuanced policies that are socially and economically aware of the implications and disadvantages current policies present to diverse populations. Urging our public servants to pay attention and take action against healthcare injustices is yet another change we can bring forward amid the pandemic, a time that has taught our global community the immense need for a united front against injustices.

Disability Rights under the Taliban

Pictured is the Bamyan Band Amir road in the Bamyan province of Afghanistan. It is a black, winding path in the middle of pale yellow hills.
Bamyan Band Amir road in the Bamyan province of Afghanistan. Source: Unsplash

Imagine being confined to your home. Imagine not being able to go to work or attend school or play sports. Over the course of the past year, individuals across the world have experienced such limitations. While many are inching closer towards glimpses of life before these restrictions, for Afghans with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, this is more likely to become an enduring reality.

Almost twenty years after their first regime, the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan, raising concerns that the same violations of the rights of women and other minorities will be committed again (for a brief history of Afghanistan and the Taliban, visit a previous article on the IHR blog linked here). While no longer a minority in terms of numbers, the 80% of adults in Afghanistan who are disabled are already seeing these concerns materialize. Disability rights advocates are being targeted, with many fleeing the country out of a fear for their lives and many more desperately trying to do the same. In light of these events, this article explores the status of individuals with disabilities in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban came into power, and how their future might look.

Disability in Afghanistan

The war in the 1990’s devastated health systems in Afghanistan, leading to individuals with disabilities being neglected. After the Taliban was overthrown by the U.S. in 2001, there was an influx of international funding to help rebuild the infrastructure of the country. NGOs and other international organizations attempted to fill the gap in the health system by offering medical services, although the demand did, and continues to, exceed the supply. Moreover, reconstruction efforts in the country were not inclusive of people with disabilities, as bus transports, buildings and bathrooms were inaccessible which made it difficult for individuals with disabilities to navigate their daily lives outside of their homes. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on Rights of People with Disability in 2012 and even passed legislation in 2013 that was meant to safeguard the rights of individuals with disabilities to be included in society. Although awareness regarding disability has increased over the past two decades, and disability rights have been named a priority by the former government, much of the work towards this end has been carried out by NGOs, international organizations, and dedicated activists.

In addition to systemic barriers, the societal attitudes and stigma pertaining to disability is also a significant factor impacting the lives of disabled individuals in Afghanistan. Different kinds of disability are viewed differently, receiving varying degrees of negative attitudes. Congenital disability, or developmental disability, is considered a punishment to the parents for their past deeds. This problematic perception leads to discrimination against the individual with the disability, as well as their family, to such an extent that the parents tell others that their child acquired the disability as a result of the war. Amputees, on the other hand, do not face the same discrimination because they are assumed to be war veterans. One individual with a physical disability described to the Human Rights Watch her experience of this stigma: “Some time ago, my friends and I decided to go to the market in our own wheelchairs and shop ourselves. But people called us ‘grasshoppers,’ which is why we decided to stay at home.” Such accounts depict how the freedom and independence of individuals with disabilities is being curtailed not only by structural barriers, but also by regressive attitudes.

Disability under the Taliban

Benafsha Yaqoobi, a blind disability rights advocate and a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), stated in multiple interviews that individuals with disabilities will be discriminated against under the Taliban rule, experiencing severe neglect and even death. She is concerned about their access to basic human rights like food and shelter. Yaqoobi had to flee Afghanistan when the Taliban takeover seemed imminent. She described her traumatic experience in attempting to escape, as she heard gun fire but could not see where the guns were pointed or who got shot – or if it was her husband who was wounded. Her experience also highlights just one way in which war can have a disproportionate psychological, and physical, impact on people with disabilities.

Isabella Hodge, executive director of the United States International Council on Disability (USICD), told The Nation that there is also concern that stipends will no longer be provided to individuals who were disabled in war and that rehabilitation centers will close. Hodge strongly believes that individuals with disabilities will not be valued by the Taliban, saying that the “Taliban wouldn’t think twice about killing someone with a disability.” These concerns are reflected in reality when considering that 80% of suicide bombers of the Taliban had either a physical or psychological disability of some kind. Dr.Yusef Yadgari of Kabul Medical University attributed this statistic to societal stigma, due to which people with disabilities struggle to find employment to support their family. Out of both necessity for money and resentment, according to Dr.Yadgari, they are more likely to become suicide bombers.  However, one cannot help but question how much value that the Taliban attributes to the lives of people with disabilities when they were willing to sacrifice so many for their cause.

With the Taliban’s rise to power, people with disabilities will likely have less opportunities to flourish. One stark example of this is that Tokyo 2020 Paralympic athletes from Afghanistan almost lost the opportunity to participate in the event because of the dearth of flight transport created by the turmoil in August. Fortunately, with the help of the international community, these athletes did manage to finally make it to Tokyo, although one athlete missed the event he was preparing for. Opportunities and freedom of people with disability does not seem to be a priority. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi echoed similar concerns in an interview with Reuters – that people with disabilities will be confined to their homes and isolated from the rest of society due to the loss of programs and initiatives like the Special Olympics (which works specifically with people with intellectual disabilities). Sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities is a great way to develop essential life skills like walking and eating. Zala Hashmi, a women’s coach in the country’s special Olympics organization, believes that the Taliban does not care enough for the success of these individuals to ensure the continuation of such programs. The grim situation is put best in Jawed’s own words: “we cannot support them, we lost them.”

A girl with a prosthetic limb, donning a black dress and a determined expression, walks through the ward of a rehabilitation center in Afghanistan. The ward has light blue walls, and there are other individuals with disabilities sitting on benches that line the wall. There is a support beam in between the girl and people sitting on the benches.
“Learning to walk again with support from UK aid” by DFID – UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Women with Disabilities

Women with disabilities experienced intersectional discrimination in Afghanistan long before the Taliban came into power. They are often considered a burden to the family and are considered not fit for marriage, consequently increasing their likelihood of being subject to violence both in and outside the household. Women with disability are also more likely to be sexually harassed when seeking government assistance or employment. One individual in an interview with the Human Rights Watch said, “the ministry employee told me that I can get this certificate only if I agree to be his girlfriend”. The status of education of girls with disabilities is not any more promising. In a Human Rights Watch report, a disability rights advocate describes the pushback from schools in accepting girls with disabilities: “The schools do not want girls [with disabilities] to go to the classes. Usually, they argue that they are not normal people so they cannot sit in the classrooms and learn like other students.” In addition to this stigma, public schools are not wheel-chair accessible, leaving some kids out of the classroom and other school related activities, while few private schools enroll people with disabilities at all. Moreover, schools are also often far and difficult to reach without dedicated transportation, which is often not available.

These inequities for women with disabilities are likely going to be exacerbated under the Taliban. While the Taliban promises that they will uphold the rights and freedom of women, their actions so far have not conveyed the same message. Women have been removed from their jobs, which has been particularly devastating in cases where they are the sole earners in the family. Women have already been told to stay at home for security reasons, an excuse that sounds eerily similar to the one they provided during their time in power in the late 1990s as they imposed oppressive restrictions on women. This confinement will be particularly detrimental for women with disabilities, compromising their access to rehabilitative services and other beneficial activities like sports. Nilofar Bayat, a women’s rights activist and captain of national wheelchair basketball team, expressed deep concern about girls with disabilities not being allowed to play sports, saying their disability will become more severe without the activity. In addition to this, the barriers to education for women with disabilities will also increase under the Taliban, who completely banned education for women during their previous regime.

Support for People with Disabilities

Disability rights activists in Afghanistan are being targeted due their association with the United States, leading to a decline in supportive services offered to individuals with disabilities. The United States International Council on Disability (USICD) reported that around 50 disability rights advocates are currently in danger of being attacked by the Taliban and are in urgent need of evacuation. Many of them participated in a conference on disability rights organized by USICD and the Afghanistan embassy in 2017 and received grant funding from the U.S., putting them in a precarious position. One advocate describes severe persecution, being forced to move from one house to another to avoid being captured after the Taliban launched a grenade into his house and attempted to find him at his organization’s office. He told The Nation that the Taliban believes advocates are spying for the US because they received grant funding from the U.S. The evacuation plan of the US did not account for the needs of people with disabilities either, as multiple disability rights advocates were unable to make their way around Kabul airport. One amputee had to return home due to extreme pain. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi believed the Taliban was searching for them as well, coming to their offices and damaging their property. All this points to the fact that disability advocates will find it increasingly difficult to play their crucial role in supporting the disabled community. For example, initiatives to make bathrooms more accessible, to provide rehabilitation, to conduct vocational training, and to provide trauma care service for land mine victims all are at risk of being lost. The champions of the rights of individuals with disability are being silenced.

Disability rights activists are not the only ones facing difficulties in continuing operations – humanitarian organizations too are struggling to continue providing their essential services. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that approximately three-quarters of organizations faced challenges in providing aide since August. The Taliban has a history of actively clamping down on organizations providing humanitarian aid and health services as well, banning the Red Cross and WHO in 2019 from operating in its territories after claiming they were carrying out “suspicious” activities and not sticking to their mission. They have since lifted the ban, and Red Cross is providing services currently, but this incident sets a chilling precedent to the relationship we can expect to see in the future between the Taliban and international aid organizations. In addition to this, a Human Rights Watch review reported that the increase in conflict since 2016 has led to increased difficulty in collecting data from rural areas. This is likely to be the case in Afghanistan’s current state of turmoil, making it difficult to assess the needs of people with disability and whether they are being addressed.

In a recent report, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that health systems in Afghanistan are on the brink of collapse, partly due to a decrease in funding. While the services provided by aide organizations and advocates are far from being able satisfying the immense demand, and by no means replace systemic efforts to rectify the situation, the role of advocates and aide organizations is undoubtedly more important than ever to ensure people with disabilities are not neglected.

The Taliban take-over might deconstruct the existing structures, but there is no guarantee that that they will build them back, let alone build them back better. It is disheartening to know that the violations minorities experienced under the Taliban occurred for more than five year and would have continued for longer if the US did not invade in 2001. My point is not to comment on the merit of the “war on terror” but to point out the more prolonged, devastating consequences that could have occurred in the past, and that very well may occur in the foreseeable future, due to insufficient action by the international community. The international community needs to mobilize resources to aid those who are disproportionately impacted by this transition. You and I can contribute to bettering the situation in Afghanistan as well. Consider donating to trusted humanitarian aid organizations, like the Red Cross, UNICEF, and UN Women, that are doing essential work on the ground. Humanitarian aide itself, however, is insufficient – foreign governments need to increase pressure on the Taliban to guarantee the rights and well-being of marginalized communities.