The first images that come to mind when you hear the words “human trafficking” usually include ones from popular media where the victims, typically young and wealthy individuals, are miraculously saved soon after they go missing by well-connected family members in action-packed scenes. Often, the savior is glamorized, and the victim is portrayed as an Icarus-like figure who flew too close to the sun and fell to their demise by being prideful and overexcited. This representation of human trafficking victims is wholly inaccurate in that anyone of any race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background can end up being trafficked against their will and a quick rescue is challenging to come by.
What is Human Trafficking and Why Should You Care
According to the United States Department of Homeland security, “human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” The act of being trafficked is complex, with many illicit systems in place to ensure trafficked people remain shackled, silent, and subservient. Although there are many misconceptions about the process of trafficking a human being such as the thought that people are kidnapped against their will and always take opportunities to escape when presented with one, these beliefs are not based in fact. Victims are sometimes coerced by human traffickers or slave traders through violent actions, manipulative tactics, false pretenses, and fake relationships. These situations leave individuals feeling trapped with their captors and they may not feel like anyone can help them. Unlike the romanticized portrayals of rescues from drug dens and slave auctions found in movies, the struggles of people who have had their liberty forcibly taken away are not so easy to resolve by arresting one key individual who runs an entire illegal enterprise, thereby leaving a collapsing system from the top-down.
The violation of a person’s right to liberty and the trauma they face while in forced labor or sex trafficking environments are not the only dangers of human trafficking. The United States Department of State outlines multiple ways human trafficking harms not just those who are trafficked, but the nation as a whole in the following ways: human trafficking is a national security risk, it interferes with global markets, and it funnels currency into the hands of criminals. The perception of human trafficking being something that is not the general population’s problem until and unless it comes knocking on your doorstep leaves you vulnerable to manipulation, just like the millions who were manipulated into believing a QAnon trafficking conspiracy theory in July of 2020.
Misinformation and Misunderstandings
A distorted view of human trafficking and the lack of knowledge about how people are controlled by human traffickers led to social media outcry from people around the world when #SaveTheChildren began trending in early July of 2022. Internet users on all platforms from Facebook to Reddit to Instagram and Twitter began rallying against Wayfair for allegedly allowing human traffickers to sell kidnapped children disguised as cabinet and pillow listings on the Wayfair website. To start, the entire affair was part of a conspiracy theory perpetuated by the QAnon conspiracy group that was made viral via an internet user who tweeted a screenshot of expensive storage cabinets with non-generic female names like “Alyvia Storage Cabinet” under the pseudonym Amazing Polly in June of 2020. Polly’s tweet was then circulated by QAnon, of which she is a member, and soon gained traction outside of the far-right political group, trending on social media platforms the following month after the initial tweet was posted.
On the surface, rapid dissemination of information about a supposed human trafficking front is a good thing, however, in this case, the trafficking front allegation turned out to be false on all counts, but by the time the investigation was over, misinformation had been flooding the timelines of millions of people for days. People rallied against Wayfair and demanded justice for the children whose names appeared on listings, leading to an upset of many lives overnight since some of the “missing” children had been at home recovering for months, or years, leaving them living in fear as they watched their personal information circulating online. In this case, well-intentioned public outcry overtaxed Polaris, the nonprofit in charge of the National Human Trafficking Hotline in that connects victims of human trafficking to support resources in America, and made it difficult for the organization to help real victims in need.
Trending stories that go through the social media cycle and lose coverage once they are deemed unmarketable make it hard to trust what you see online, especially if delivered by what you believe are reliable sources and individuals. Knowing what to believe and when to be skeptical is essential to protect yourself from having the wool pulled over your eyes, making you lose sight of any hidden agendas that may be pushed through viral stories. In actuality, the children in the Wayfair listings had their names chosen by an algorithm to differentiate industrial products, and a glitch led to surges in the prices of some pillows.
Spotting A Fake Story
While it is disheartening to not have the truth of the Wayfair matter broadcasted as far and wide as misinformation about the case was, leaving many people still believing in a lie, there are almost 25 million victims of human trafficking in the world at any given moment who have been ripped away from any possibility of normal life and may never escape their new, harrowing situation. Traffickers profit from this exploitation of individuals, whether it be sex trafficking, forced labor, or the sale of people to others. Human trafficking may seem like an issue so far out of sight to the everyday person living comfortably in a wealthy country, but the reality is human trafficking could be happening to anyone anywhere in the world. Human traffickers don’t solely target subpopulations shunned by traditional politics, and everyone should remain aware of this danger. The lives of the children whose pictures were circulated around the world during the Wayfair scandal had their lives overturned by well-meaning people who didn’t look closely enough at facts and ended up buying into fiction, taking away dozens of people’s sense of safety and leaving them vulnerable to harm.
It can seem hopeless to think about how you could help a victim of human trafficking who might seem out of reach, but what we can learn from the Wayfair event is to keep in mind that you should always look for facts and not take frenzy-inducing headlines at face value. Remaining questioning until presented with concrete evidence will help limit the spread of misinformation and save resources from being wasted on fake breaking news stories.
If you want more information on how human rights are defined and protected, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created at a United Nations assembly in 1948 to outline globally recognized rights and is a great starting point on the topic.
Recently, I sat and had conversations with fellow peers in graduate programs and professional schools ranging from subjects such as Master of Art Education to Medical School and Graduate studies in Nonprofit Management. We talked about mental health resources and access within their schools and professors. Our conversations ranged tremendously, with some saying they are provided with resources and time off if stressed, to some feeling like they are not seen or cared for within their programs but are cared for by their professors. With the immense pressure of graduate and professional schools, students tend to go through many life changes that have had effects on their mental health. Graduate programs and professional schools contain an intense climate and harbor a strong need to succeed. With the stress, long hours studying, and a lost balance of life, many students do not feel that they are provided with the proper mental health resources. Mental health is typically overlooked or not given as much importance when considering human rights. The right to mental health is just as important as any other human right and has increased importance at the Human Rights Council. The balance between studies, life, work, and outside obligations, takes a toll on any individual. Ensuring that every person has access to free or affordable mental health services has been a goal for human rights advocates and organizations. The UNHCR notes that the right to health includes mental health.
Mental Health in Graduate School
A study done by Harvard found that students within graduate schools are three times more likely to experience mental health struggles than an average individual. The study conducted a survey of over 500 students in graduate programs and found that in every 10 students, one had suicidal thoughts over a two-week period. With the constant stress and studying, graduate students begin to develop depression and anxiety. The environment of graduate schools differs immensely when compared to the undergraduate level. Rather than having to attend class and prepare for exams, they spend their entire time—often 2-6 years—dedicated to a research project. Typically, 60 hours per week is spent preparing and studying research.
Many factors and challenges aid in stress for graduate students: poor mentorship, lack of access to counseling services, lack of training, and leave-of-absence policies. The list can go on and on about the challenges faced by graduate students. In addition, the biggest factor I found is the academic mindset. There is an embedded mindset within professional studies that a failure is never an option. Every student tries to be the best, the smartest, and the most achieved. This leads to many bad outcomes; a 2019 survey of Ph.D. students found that 76% of students work more than 40 hours a week on their research and projects and cannot attain a work-life balance. They have no room to take a breath or a break. As noted by a student, they said, “if you slack, you are out.”
Mental Health in Professional Schools
Studying to become a doctor, lawyer, dentist, etc., carries immense stress. Students within professional schools dedicate their entire lives to a program in the hope of getting their dream careers. But the process of getting into professional school and finally being accepted to study all have factors that can deter one’s mental health. Within law school, it has been found that depression rates have increased from 10% to 40% among students. 96% of law students and 70% of medical students face significant stress. Factors that have been found ranging from loneliness, rejection, alcohol and substance abuse, academic performance, anxiety, depression, peer pressure, and the list can go on and on. There is constant stress and worry about entering the professional field. If one gets a good score on their exam, that determines the path of their career. While in professional school, the worry of not being the smartest, being able to handle the stress, or burn out. Although the studies and information are stressful, and the process of becoming a doctor or lawyer does contain high stakes, there still needs to be a fixation on acknowledging mental health. Many students are extremely gifted but get slowed down and begin facing challenges due to mental health neglect.
Where to Go from Here
It is very important for every institution and university to have the proper mental health resources; it is just as important to make sure these resources are constantly being worked on and evolved over time. The stigma and thought that students must be overworked and can’t take breaks must be removed. Within higher studies, a work-life balance must be implemented to ensure every student is learning and working at their highest potential. Over time, there have been drastic improvements in mental health awareness worldwide, but that is just a starting point. Mental health resources and accessibility must be a requirement within all universities and institutions. Below are resources for students and professionals to maintain and implement positive mental health practices.
For students at UAB:
UAB has a Student Counseling Service that provides mental health services, prevention, and outreach. The services include counseling and emergency support. Resources can be found here.
Note from the author: This post is the first of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.
Content Warnings: mass financial abuse, famine, malnutrition, dehumanization, classism, starvation
Imagine grocery shopping for your family, and instead of finding a variety of food choices, you find a store filled with a surplus of children’s socks, different colored hats, and beach toys even though you live nowhere near the coast. The only food you can find in the store is a few loaves of moldy bread, a small produce section filled with rotting vegetables, and a frozen section with freezer-burned packaged meat. The best you can do is buy a bag full of rotting vegetables and plant them in the ground behind your house, careful not to be caught doing so by the police. The soil you remember being rich with vitamins has turned to gray dust, and everything you plant dies before sprouting. Your family will live off the rotting leftovers from last week’s grocery trip until you can scrounge together enough scraps to make it through. You know that your neighbor has a secret garden that does moderately well, so you sneak over to offer her what’s left of your money in exchange for a few vegetables. If the police catch you exchanging goods, you and your neighbor will be charged for participating in a free market, thrown in a prison camp without a fair trial, and held for an unregulated amount of time.
The only media you’ve ever seen tells stories of a utopia; the Kim family is sent from heaven to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, the most wonderful place to live. They tell you that people in other countries, like South Korea and the United States, live under terrible governments who do not care for them the way the Kim family cares for you. In the end, you have no reason not to believe them. You have never seen the conditions of other countries and any criticism of your regime has been consistently disputed throughout your entire life. The stark reality of your consistent mistreatment exists in a dichotomy with the ideals that you have been brainwashed to believe to be true.
Approximately 20 million rural North Koreans live in this reality…
The class system of North Korea is called Songbun. At birth, each North Korean citizen is labeled as core, wavering, or hostile based on their place of birth, status, and the national origin of their ancestors. For example, a person whose ancestors immigrated from South to North Korea will be given a low Songbun and be assumed to have genetically inherited hostility towards the government. One’s Songbun can never be changed, as it determines every aspect of one’s life including how resources will be allocated to your community and how much mobility you will have throughout the state.
The Command Economy
The Workers Party of Korea (WPK), more commonly known as the North Korean Regime, holds tight control over the command economy and uses it to abuse all people of low Songbun, specifically those who live outside the capital, Pyongyang. Instead of ordering the production of valuable goods like food and home maintenance products for their communities, they overproduce menial things, like children’s socks and beach toys. Many do not have the mobility to go to a neighboring town for resources, and as I will expand on later, many believe that they deserve to starve if they are not entirely self-sufficient.
This economic system has the dual effect of limiting opportunities to participate in the job market. People are not allowed to sell products unless they are commanded to do so by the WPK. Because the WPK is not tasked to create job opportunities for rural people, these people have no opportunity to make money, which only exacerbates the problem of reduced resources.
The March of Suffering
The culture that encourages the idea of “suffering for the greater good” is called juche. Juche is the Korean term for the culture of self-sufficiency. It is an idea that is pushed hard into the minds of all North Koreans. Asking for help, depending on friends or family, or participating in a small-scale economy of goods with your neighbors makes you an inherently weak person because you are expected to work harder instead of “begging”. This idea is so ingrained in the minds of North Koreans that they will accept immense abuse from higher-ups at the expense of asking for help or demanding rights.
Starting in 1990, a great famine swept the nation under the rule of Kim Il-Sung. He coined the term “The March of Suffering” to refer to the famine. Using this name, he convinced those who took the hardest hit, the rural people of low Songbun, that they were doing the most honorable thing for their country by suffering in this famine. They were dying for it. Kim Il-Sung glorified their suffering by convincing them that not only did they deserve it (juche), but that their suffering was contributing to the greater good of the country. He had such control over the minds of these people that they loyally followed him straight to their graves.
Handled correctly, this famine could have lasted no longer than a year, and would not have become nearly as severe as it has. Instead, estimates from Crossing Borders suggest that between 240,000 and 3.5 million people have died in the DPRK from malnutrition since 1990.* The famine has outlived not only Kim Il-Sung but also his predecessor Kim Jong-Il.
*The reason for such a wide range of statistics is that collecting accurate data in North Korea is virtually impossible. I expand on the use of outside media control in the second part of this series titled, “How the North Korean Regime Uses Cult-Like Tactics to Maintain Power.”
Suppose the topic of North Korea is interesting to you and you want to work towards clearing up the fog surrounding the nation. In that case, I highly recommend Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record by Sandra Fahy. This book is very informative and one of the only easily accessible, comprehensive accounts of North Korean human rights. It is where I learned most of what I know about the DPRK. It set the baseline on which I built my entire comprehensive understanding of the social systems at play.
As I will expand upon in the rest of this series, it is imperative that people outside of the DPRK “clear the fog” and find ways to look into the state. One of the biggest motivators for activism is awareness. As people on the outside, some of the most valuable things we can do are spread awareness, garner activism, and bring that activism with us into our participation in the government, whether that be running for office or simply voting for people who share our concerns.
The issue of immigration in America is one that is divided on so many fronts, and recognizing this division, political leaders have exploited the public’s conflicting views to push their own political agendas. Immigration has a rich history in this nation, and unfortunately, America has had a very unequal approach to how immigrants are treated. While some immigrants, (including many from Western nations) are treated with great respect and dignity, many of the immigrants that come from Central American nations, African nations, or Asian nations are portrayed by many political leaders in the United States as “criminal” or “coming to the US to steal our jobs.” This has been a tactic used historically since the founding of this nation, and it has led to the racial hierarchy that functions in America to this day. Even today, there have been comparisons drafted between Ukrainian refugees and how they are received versus how refugees from Palestine are treated. Ukrainian immigrants were accepted fully without any concern for space, funding, or any of the other arguments that come up in regard to immigration. Palestinian immigrants, who have been struggling with a similar situation as Ukraine, (where another nation has invaded their own nation, claiming property and lives in the process), continue to deal with political attacks and discrimination simply for being Palestinian immigrants. (For more on how countries value immigrants from different nations differently, read a recent post by my colleague Danah Dibb). This discrimination is also present in how immigrants from Central America are treated, including the fact that children are still being held at the border in inhumane conditions separated from their parents.
Additionally, immigrants have been a source of cheap labor for industries since the founding of America. At first, there were indentured servants and slaves that helped build the economic success of America early on. Yet, after slavery was abolished and indentured servitude was outlawed, industries faced a new challenge to find cheap sources of labor to maintain their profit margins without sacrificing their productivity levels. This has led to industries using the modern-day prison industrial complex, (which has evolved slavery and indentured servitude into a legal process), or outsourcing jobs to other poor nations to be able to exploit laborers for their own benefit. Yet, another way that industries have aimed to address their cheap labor needs is through the employment of immigrants, mainly undocumented immigrants who are not protected under American labor laws, and as such, industries can (and do) exploit their labor without any regulations or transparency in the process. Even the process for naturalization and legalization for immigrants is purposefully long and difficult, forcing immigrants to still pay taxes, without receiving any benefits that documented immigrants would receive. Despite the misconceptions of many Americans, immigrants do not take away jobs from the American public; they take on jobs that are generally avoided by most Americans. Also, contrary to the American myth that immigrants are “criminals,” the immigrant population is more rule-abiding than most U.S. citizens. All these facts are relevant to frame the political landscape for immigrants in America. This historical context is necessary for comprehending the full reality of the political stunts that occurred recently in regard to immigrants.
A Bit of Background on Human Trafficking
So, what is human trafficking, and what does it have anything to do with immigrants? Let’s begin with the first question, focusing on what it is, the federal laws on human trafficking as well as international and human rights laws that protect people from being trafficked. Human trafficking is the sale and purchase of human beings for the single reason of exploitation, whether it be for the victims’ labor, or for sexual manipulation. According to the human trafficking institute, over 24 million people worldwide are trafficked, of which 20 million are trafficked for labor-related issues, and another 4.8 million are exploited for the sex industry. These victims of trafficking are comprised of men, women, and children, from various nations, and from any and all age groups. Just looking at the numbers for America, it is estimated that around 14,000-17,000 people are trafficked into the United States. This does not even include the people that are trafficked within the borders, and this estimate is based on reported findings, which means that many people being exploited that have not been reported are not included in this statistic. Of course, as it is with any other issue, the more marginalized the group of people being targeted, the more vulnerable they are to being trafficked. Among other fields such as the sex industry, some of the most popular industries that employ people who are trafficked are the agricultural, manufacturing, domestic, and construction industries, which benefit from the cheap labor force. Victims are coerced into being trafficked through a variety of ways, including the threat of physical and psychological abuse to themselves or their family members (which can include sexual abuse, deprivation of food and sleep, as well as shaming and isolating victims from their family members). Traffickers also abuse the legal system to confuse or manipulate the victims, such as withholding their passports or documents and forcing them to comply with the trafficker’s rules. Immigrants and refugees are especially vulnerable, because they come from another nation, and most of the time, don’t speak the language of the country they are exploited to, are not familiar with that country’s laws, and are also threatened with deportation back to the country they escaped from fearing for their lives.
What protection do people have under the law against being trafficked?
Under most nations’ laws, human trafficking is a heinous crime that can result in serious punishment for those who participate in criminal activity. Protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 4,slavery and forced labor are prohibited. States that have ratified the UDHR are under a bounded obligation to protect the rights outlined in the UDHR. The United States has only selectively ratified the rights outlined by the UDHR, and as such, any issues of accountability they might face for any violations of the UDHR can become complicated. The United States does have its own laws against human trafficking, and according to the American state department, they have made it one of their policy priorities. One such legislation passed in 2000 to address this issue was the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which put into place an updated legal framework that focused on the protection, prevention, and prosecution of human trafficking. Additionally, to better define who falls under the victimhood of trafficked individuals, the A-M-P model was proposed, focusing on the Action, (how the trafficker approached the victims), Means, (what strategies the trafficker employed, mainly force, fraud, or coercion), and the Purpose (for sexual exploitation or labor exploitation) for the trafficking of individuals. This framework helped the legal system better understand not only how the people were trafficked, but also defined the why. With all this being said, let us now move on to the issue of two political leaders, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Gregg Abbot of Texas, who engaged in the trafficking of migrants across state borders to stage political stunts, in the process of uprooting the lives of many vulnerable immigrants.
Case of Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis Transporting Migrants Across States
The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbot, in an attempt to make a political statement regarding the United States immigration policies, began loading up busses full of migrants he picked up at the US-Mexico border to then be transported to the houses of his party’s opponents, such as Vice President Kamala Harris. He also proceeded to send busses into cities that are led by Democrats, such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City, arguing that the borders were not secure enough and that the United States allowed too many immigrants into the country. While this argument is far from the actual truth, Abbot is not the only political leader spouting this hateful rhetoric. The cruel tactics that were used were originally made popular by former president Donald Trump in 2019, who envisioned a much more sinister approach to collect all the “rapists and criminals” and “bus and dump” them in blue states to stoke fears against immigrants. The trafficking of migrants has been put into practice many times since then, by political leaders from his own party acting on the former president’s ideas.
Similarly, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, also put into practice Trump’s “bus and dump” tactic but using a private plane this time, to fly migrants to Massachusetts, a state he claims is a “sanctuary state,” (which means these states or cities have an understood policy, whether written or unwritten, to protect the reporting of immigrants and their status to law enforcement, unless the individual is under investigation for a serious crime). In this latest stunt pulled by DeSantis, with the help of an individual identified as “Perla” (Perla Huerta, who is said to be a former counterintelligence agent for the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq), rounded up 48 migrants in San Antonio, Texas, mostly from Venezuela, and lured them under false pretenses of new opportunities of employment and survival, to board the flight that landed in Martha’s Vineyard. These migrants were handed brochures that came from the Massachusetts Refugee Benefits center (which was made up), and had presented information on the pamphlet which they had copied from the real office for immigration services, Massachusetts Office of Refugee and Immigrants (who had no idea about any of these events). This brochure included “benefits” that the migrants were wrongly led to believe they would be eligible to receive and were flown to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. These benefits included promises of eligibility to receive up to eight months of cash assistance, housing assistance, food, clothing, and transportation assistance, and even help with childcare and education. Not knowing that these were only eligible for documented immigrants that had already been granted asylum, many of the Venezuelan asylum seekers (who had not been granted asylum by the United States) were misinformed and manipulated.
So, what happened to the migrants in both these cases?
Despite the belief by both Abbot and DeSantis that these migrants would not be well-received, the people from the cities where the migrants were dropped off took it upon themselves to ensure that the migrants had adequate food and shelter arrangements as the issues of what to do moving forward were being decided upon. Chicago, one of the cities which received the waves of migrants sent by Governor Abbot, went out of its way to ensure that the migrants’ needs are being met and that they receive the medical care and legal advice they need as they await their fates. Similarly, in Massachusetts, Governor DeSantis’s plan was to drop the migrants off at the foot of a community center and they were told to knock to receive help. No one knew what was happening, but the entire community around Martha’s Vineyard came together to help feed and clothe the migrants. The 48 migrants later ended up at the military base in Cape Cod, using the military’s empty barracks for places to sleep.
If the actions of governors DeSantis and Abbot are run through the A-M-P model discussed earlier, the purpose of these stunts would be the only aspect that might be hard to judge from a legal perspective. The actions the two governors took would clearly fall under the transporting criteria of the first step, and their means would include both fraudulence and coercion for the second step. Although their purpose was of a political nature, they still rounded up migrants through fraudulent means to be migrated forcefully out of their current residence, without a proper place to be sheltered and provided for. While DeSantis dropped the migrants off at Martha’s Vineyard and forced the people there to deal with the aftermath, Abbot transported the migrants to the doorstep of the houses of his party’s political opponents. These actions, if committed by someone, not in a position of political power, would have led to the person facing severe legal repercussions. Yet the two governors have doubled down on their actions, proudly taking responsibility for the stunts, and Abbot even promises that more migrants are on their way, implying that he is not yet finished.
Update: Migrants file lawsuit against DeSantis
Still, DeSantis might face some form of accountability for his actions, as the 48 migrants he flew to Martha’s Vineyard have filed a civil lawsuit against him, claiming that in the process, he violated the fourth and fourteenth amendments as well as many federal laws. The attorneys, on behalf of the migrants filing the lawsuit, are calling on DeSantis to be banned from repeating this political stunt again and are asking for DeSantis to pay for the damages caused to the migrants as a result of his actions. DeSantis came out protesting this accusation, claiming that his actions were legal because he had obtained signed consent forms from all the migrants who boarded that plane. He also alleged that this was not an act of coercion but that the migrants willingly took the journey to Martha’s Vineyard. However, most of the migrants claim they did not know where they were being taken to, only that they were promised good employment opportunities and a chance at a better lifestyle. Many of the migrants that were coerced into getting on the plane did not even speak or understand English. Additionally, there have been updates provided that the funds for these political stunts pulled by DeSantis came from public, tax-payer funds, meaning that this is also a case of misappropriation of state funds. Some legal experts are even proposing that these political stunts can be categorized as “kidnapping” because the victims were moved from one place to another without knowledge about where their destination was going to be. We will have to wait and see how this lawsuit plays out, mainly on the issue of whether there will be any accountability for people in positions of political power.
So, while we await the final verdict from the courts, what can be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again? For one, we could put immense public pressure on the two political leaders using a tactic known as “naming and shaming” to discourage them from pulling similar stunts in the future. However, many people that support these politicians, mainly the Republican base, have applauded the two governors’ behaviors, doubling down on their anti-immigration stances. In a society that continues to become more polarized, “naming and shaming” might have the opposite results than expected. Additionally, another step that can be considered is impeachment, or even banning the two politicians from holding office again. Some people might say this may be a drastic move, but if, as an elected official, you are irresponsible with so many human lives, including those of children, where you think it is okay to treat others with disrespect and ignominy, then you should not be allowed the opportunity to serve a position that would put you in charge of people’s well-being.
Another approach would have to come from the international community, mainly the international criminal courts, in an attempt to hold these individuals accountable for violation of human rights. This too, however, might not be as easy as it seems. For one, the federal courts would have jurisdiction before the international courts, and even still, in 2002, then President George W. Bush “unsigned” the Rome Statute, and a few months later, Congress passed the American Servicemembers Protection Act, which forbade the US from assisting or supporting the ICC or any member states that support the ICC. Further, it granted the president full power over securing the release of any US person, or allies that are held or imprisoned by the ICC. Although there has been renewed interest in revisiting this legislation, from an unlikely individual at that (Lindsey Graham), this support might not extend as far as investigating members of his own party. America has long struggled to hold its political leaders accountable, whether it be for war crimes committed by past presidents, or even for simply acknowledging historical atrocities that have occurred in the nation’s past. However, without proper accountability for these heinous political stunts, the two governors would set a precedent for the worse treatment of migrants in the future.
Monday, October 17th is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty; in 2022 we have a lot to acknowledge and a lot of work to be done. The theme for this day of commemoration is dignity, focused on how every human has the right to live with pride for themselves and respect from others. The first line of the Preamble for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasizes the importance of how the “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and that is precisely the ideology behind the founding of this human rights holiday. But why, exactly, is poverty an international human rights issue?
Global poverty is defined as “lacking enough resources to provide the necessities of life—food, clean water, shelter and clothing. But in today’s world, that can be extended to include access to health care, education and even transportation.”
This international day of recognition was adopted by the United Nations in December of 1992 to recognize the structures that cause poverty, to listen to and amplify the needs and desires of impoverished persons, and to place a specific focus on how the international community and global leaders can work to solve this persistent social problem. October 17th was chosen to observe this topic because on this day in 1987 a crowd of over a hundred thousand protesters gathered in the Trocadero Plaza of Paris, France to honor the victims of extreme hunger and poverty. In commemoration, a stone was placed in the Plaza, now renamed the Plaza for Human Rights and Liberties, engraved with the following message from Father Joseph Wresinski, “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty”.
The right to live free of poverty is not listed in the UDHR, but our current understanding of poverty constituting a violation of human rights has been developing since before the UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This is because living in extreme poverty is almost always accompanied with a loss of essential human rights that were explicitly enumerated in the UDHR, like the right to health, safe food and water and the right to adequate housing as illustrated in Articles 25 of the UDHR and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Even in developed and wealthy nations, citizens living in poverty experience obstacles in their ability to access the right to education, work, and political participation named in Articles 21, 23, and 16 of the UDHR.
While persons living in poverty are often denied many, if not all of those fundamental human rights listed above, this holiday gets its theme from Article One of the UDHR, from which this holiday gets its theme: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Those in poverty often lose this right as limited access to the essential requirements of a quality life places them in a position where they rely on the aid of others, who often treat the impoverished as less than equals. They are patronized and degraded in their daily lives, and the social response to an impoverished person exercising their agency to decline charity is typically one of rebuke.
The Current State of Poverty
Global poverty rates have increased since the beginning of the Pandemic in 2020, and World Bank estimates that we have been set back 3-4 years on our path to ending extreme poverty as of October 2021. In addition to climbing unemployment and poverty rates is the leap in inflation, which has climbed globally as supply chains stretch thin. The Pew Research Center has found that the global middle class shrank while the global poor increased as the pandemic progressed, disrupting the progress of developed nations around the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.
These economic impacts affect more than immediate financial conditions of those involved. One side-effect has been a loss in education; as the United States and other wealthy countries moved online in response to the pandemic, other nations (particularly in the Global South) had to close schools entirely. Human Rights Watch has noted that, for millions of school-aged children, the pandemic effectively ended their formal education as alternative school options were few and the need for work and additional income rose. The International economic recovery will be challenging, and may take years to accomplish, but it is paramount that we keep the most vulnerable, both their dignity and agency, in mind as we navigate our collective path forward.
International Human Rights holidays are often overlooked due to their focus on what are often perceived to be niche categories outside of major religious or cultural practices. However, observing human rights holidays is a practice that allows for shared positivity and encouragement as we mark progress and victories in the field. They also provide days of unity to focus on pervasive issues that still need attention and work. On this holiday, join me in taking the time to think about how poverty affects your community, how your community has responded, and how it can alter that response to alter the quality of life for its impoverished population.
All refugees are welcome…well, not all, just those who fit the criteria. In the last decade, the plight and the rights of refugees has been a major topic of conversation and tension. Whether they’re escaping war or persecution, refugees are a vital part of the local and global economies, though people are deeply divided over how to handle refugee crises. There is a constant question on whether refugees should be welcomed, what resources should be given, how much aid should be provided, and how much of one’s human rights and physical security should be given. The UNHCR defines Refugees as “people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.” The definition does not change a refugee’s status based on race, ethnicity, or religion. However, the ways in which they are received by host countries very much depends on their origin, religious beliefs, and appearances. It is essential to provide equal assistance and support for all refugees, not exclusively those who align with a country’s beliefs, ethnicity, or race. Looking at the world and media’s contrasting responses in relation to the European refugee crisis of 2016 and the current Ukrainian refugee crisis, a question arises of whether there are specific requirements that make certain refugees more deserving than others.
Governments & Individual’s Responses to Refugees
Each country has its own legislation regarding how to govern the state and circumstances of accepting refugees. These laws and policies are heavily influenced by politicians and citizens. These policies have been found to change depending on the source of the refugee crisis. For instance, Japan breaks the news by not conforming to its regulations on accepting refugees and immigrants. This shocks many, as it is a huge contrast to its former response and actions taken in the past. About 1,800 Ukrainian refugees fled and went to Japan. Evidently, the community and country’s reaction reflected an “outpouring of sympathy for the Ukrainians.” It is seen that refugees from Ukraine were considered an exception to the government, apparent from Japan’s gesture of granting refugee status to 74 applicants, which is considered a high record for Japan, never done before. For a long time, Japan has not identified nor considered itself as a country that welcomes immigrants or refugees. They attempted to maintain a nation that houses one ethnic group, one culture. The 74 applicants who were granted refugee status can be compared to Heydar Diman’s story. Diman fled the Iranian persecution and has resided in Japan for over 30 years. He became accustomed to their culture and fluent in the language. Throughout that period, he repeatedly filed for refugee status; he was rejected each time and detained for more than four years.
Europe has been the center of focus when looking at government and citizen responses to the refugee crisis. The director of the Migration Policy Centre, Andrew Geddes, highlighted the dramatic difference between the “very warm welcome” given to Ukrainian refugees compared to the unwelcoming “hostile” responses to the refugees from the MENA region. Countries within the European Union (EU), such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, have the highest acceptance rates of Ukrainian refugees yet were the “most resistant” when it came to the MENA region, such as Syrians. The resistance continued, as shown when most of the Syrian refugees in Europe were only allowed to enter four years after the war began once the EU struck a deal with Turkey. Poland accepted Ukrainians with open arms, hosting about 1.2 million refugees (about the population of New Hampshire). Whereas, when the Syrian refugee crisis occurred, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a strong political figure in Poland, stated in 2017 that to host Syrian refugees would be “dangerous and would completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country.” The response to Ukrainian refugees was more open and accepting when compared to the past refugee crises that involved Europe. The Robert Schuman Centre, EUI, found different responses to how European citizens felt towards refugee crises. There are statistical charts that display the responses toward allowing Ukrainian refugees as opposed to the acceptance of Syrian refugees. By all accounts, these charts resemble the harsh reality of the unequal treatment provided to refugees holding similar statuses of different origins, hence the willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees rather than the Syrians.
The Media’s Response to Refugees
The World is One News (WION) released a video in February highlighting the contrasting responses of the media and government officials when comparing the refugee crises. Within the media, there have been blatant instances of racism, stereotypical judgments, and discrimination when discussing the urgent need for help in aiding Ukrainian refugees. The quotes below have all been taken from the news broadcast calling out the biased news sources and anchors.
A BBC expert stated, “it is very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed” 1:10
A journalist from NBC reported on live TV that “these are not refugees from Syria, these are Christians, they are white, they are very similar to us.” 2:07
A news anchor on Al Jazeera emphasized that Ukrainian refugees differ from the traditional refugees because “these are prosperous middle-class people…these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the middle east that are still in a big state of war. They look like any European family that you would live next door too.” 3:33
Prime Minister Kiril Petkov of Bulgaria stated, “These people are intelligent; they are educated, people. …this is not the refugees we have been used to. People were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.” 5:29
These statements and false representations highlight the discrimination within the media sectors and governmental individuals. It deems only certain refugees from specific areas as worthy of help. It is crucial to create unbiased coverage in the media since, at the end of the day, all these individuals require help. Viewing or reading false information created biased responses from citizens and individuals.
What Can We Do?
The most important thing is to recognize how crucial it is to eliminate biased statements bestowed by the media, politicians, and ourselves. All refugees hold the same status. Their definition does not change based on their appearance or where they come from. Awareness of the discrimination and selectivity that occurs within international communities can aid in stopping it. All refugees are worthy of help and protection. To learn more: Check out this guide on detecting bias in the media. Read more on the topic of refugees and immigrants, and some books can be found here.
One third of Pakistan is underwater following disaster-level floods that have ravaged the country since mid June of 2022. The flooding is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, bringing climate change and environmental justice into the focus of conversations about why the floods are so devastating. The record-breaking monsoon rains have affected 33 million citizens, leaving millions displaced and threatening the economy by washing away the fall harvest and essential farmland. Pakistan’s most vulnerable are struggling to access the scarce aid that is available, including the 19 million children affected by the floods. It is an unprecedented, once in a century crisis event exacerbated by climate change, poor infrastructure, and the damages of the recent economic crisis prior to the flooding.
Direct Impact of the Floods: Hunger, Disease and Displacement.
The monsoon rains have killed over a thousand people, roughly 400 of which are children. However, hunger, thirst, disease, and shortages of essential supplies threaten the lives of even more; millions of Pakistani people have been displaced over the course of the floods since June. The United Nations Refugee Agency has estimated that 6.4 million people are in need of immediate support.
Any discussion of rebuilding has been shelved in submerged regions as the flood waters may not recede for months, leaving the thousands of kilometers of roads, tens of thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of homes, thousands of essential healthcare facilities destroyed by floodwater, and prior residents stranded or displaced. In addition to the initial death toll from the floods, the Pakistani people are facing immediate dangers of water borne disease, lack of access to food, water and shelter, and risks of violence; especially for women, children, and minority groups.
The country’s health system has faced substantial blows, both from loss of structures and supplies caused by the flood and the overwhelming need of those affected. Dehydration, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and dengue fever are ravaging make-shift camps as the flood waters become stagnant and clean water and sanitary supplies become harder to come by. Sindh Province, the second-most populated province in Pakistan, and one of the hardest-hit by the floods, has seen over 300 deaths from water borne-diseases since July. Early disease surveillance by the WHO has revealed that tens of thousands of cases of flood water-caused diseases are already present amongst those within reach of relief efforts. Countless villages remain stranded as roads and highways are underwater, so the true number of deaths, displaced persons, diseased, and persons otherwise impacted by these crises are expected to climb as more recovery efforts continue to search the flooded regions.
Without international aid and intervention, an epidemic of disease caused by the floods will cause a second wave of deaths in Pakistan, of which the elderly, children, and pregnant women will be the largest groups facing losses. International aid, medical and humanitarian organizations have joined the Pakistani government and are regularly dropping medical supplies, malaria nets, food and provisional shelters, but the need continues to grow as more people find their way to temporary camps and the rate of disease climbs.
Human Rights & The Most Vulnerable
A nation’s most vulnerable populations are often the ones who suffer the worst effects for the longest time after a natural disaster like these floods. For Pakistan, those vulnerable groups are women, children, the Khwaja Sira (transgender) community, those living in extreme poverty, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups. Typically, socially disadvantaged groups are living in regions with lesser infrastructure, facing the initial worst impacts of natural disasters, but marginalized status often leads to upwards battles to access humanitarian aid after the disaster as well. There are estimated to be 650,000 pregnant women displaced in Pakistan right now, in urgent need of maternal health care and safe, sterile facilities to give birth in, with many taking perilous journeys in hopes of reaching a hospital or safe places to give birth.
CARE, an international human rights and social justice organization, spoke on this concern. Pakistan Country Director for CARE, Adil Sheraz said, “With entire villages washed away, families broken up and many people sleeping under the sky, the usual social structures that keep people safe have fallen away, and this can be very dangerous for women and girls.”
Following the 2010 floods in Pakistan, denial of aid and violence against minorities became a prevalent issue and large protests against law enforcement arose due to their failure to protect vulnerable groups. Preventative measures against recurrence of these issues have been few and far between since 2010, and international human rights communities are on high alert for rising reports of discrimination in relief distribution and crimes against minorities. Reports of sexual violence have already increased following the floods.
In addition to some of the most vulnerable Pakistanis are roughly 800,000 Afghani refugees who have been hosted by Pakistan in Sindh and Balochistan; two provinces faced with the worst of the flooding and submersion. Pakistan has a deep history of offering asylum and refuge for those fleeing across the border from conflict in Afghanistan, and is home to 1.4 million Afghani refugees currently in 2022. Following the August 2021 withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate government (also known as the Taliban), Pakistan became an even more essential haven for the influx of refugees fleeing a violent authoritarian regime. In the wake of this natural disaster, the loss of $30 billion dollars worth of infrastructure, homes and supplies, and facing an economic crisis, Afghani people with hopes of finding refuge in Pakistan must now find new routes to safety.
Environmental Justice & Climate Change
Though Pakistan faces annual flooding of the Indus river from heavy rains in monsoon season, record breaking rains preceded by an extended heatwave contributed to an unrivaled degree of flooding this summer. Heatwaves brought temperatures around 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit) to India and Pakistan between March and May of this year. Monsoon rains followed the spring heatwaves, and in the regions of Sindh and Balochistan rainfall reached 500% above average. The 2022 floods will leave a significant economic, infrastructural, and humanitarian impact on the country of roughly 220 million people. The reason for the dramatic influx in severity is complex, but simple at its core: climate change.
Pakistan is facing an unfair share of the consequences of climate change; while it was responsible for only .3% of global CO2 emissions in 2020, it is likely that this year’s heatwaves and floods will be on the less severe end of what is to come. The United Nations has deemed Pakistan a “climate change hotspot”, stating that people in South Asia are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts. As the global temperature rises and geohazards become more extreme, disaster-prone regions like Pakistan will face more and more devastation. The best prognosis for the region comes with prevention efforts like strengthening anti-disaster infrastructures. As the global north is responsible for 92% of excess emissions contributing to global warming and climate change, Pakistan, the United Nations, and other international agencies are calling for countries like the United States to make increased contributions to relief funds and infrastructure development overseas.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while visiting Pakistan in September 2022, said, “…the fact is that we are already living in a world where climate change is acting in such a devastating way. So, there must be massive support to what usually is called adaptation, which means to build resilient infrastructure and to support resilient communities and to create conditions for those that are in the hotspots of climate change. Pakistan is one of the hotspots of climate change. For those countries to be able to prepare for the next disaster and to be able to resist the next disaster, this needs a huge investment and this investment needs to be provided.”
Relief & Aid
Pakistan has faced an overwhelming series of calamities since the start of this year, and the impacts from these disasters are greatly exacerbated by food shortages and an economic crisis prior to the start of the disasters in March. There are millions of people in need of aid, and every bit of support helps. If you are unable to financially contribute, please consider sharing this or other articles about this crisis to increase international attention on those who need our help.
For donations of money, time, or other resources, we have compiled some reputable aid agencies below:
Pakistan’s Red Crescent Society is providing clean drinking water, medical treatments, temporary housing, and other essential aid across flood-hit regions. Donate or get involved with their flood response efforts here.
The International Medical Corps are on the ground in Pakistan, providing medical care and responses to both the floods and gender-based violence across the country. Find out more & how you can donate here.
Muslim Aid has reached over 29,000 people in three affected districts of Pakistan, providing hygiene kits, shelter, and essentials to those in need. Contribute to their fund here.
Over 6,000 individuals killed, 765,000 individuals displaced, 2,200,000 individuals in need of humanitarian support, and 600,000 children stripped of their education.
Where, you might ask, is this currently occurring?
Bordering the Atlantic coast in west Central Africa, the country of Cameroon is entering into its sixth year of armed conflict. Deemed the “second most neglected crisis in the world” by The Norwegian Refugee Council, only 29 percent of the country’s Humanitarian Response Plan has been funded and/or implemented.
This conflict divides the country of 27 million inhabitants into two distinct groups: the Anglophones and the Francophones. The Anglophones, the English-speaking minority of the West regions, have experienced marginalization across multiple levels by the Francophones, the French-speaking majority of the Central and Eastern regions.
Once comprised of many ethnically distinct kingdoms, or Fondoms, the region now known as Cameroon became established in 1884 under German colonial rule. At the end of World War I, Germany receded control of West Cameroon to Britain, and Central and East Cameroon to France under the League of Nations. European governance remained in place until 1960, when France granted independence to the country of Cameroon. The following year, the British-controlled North-west and South-west regions voted between the option of joining Nigeria or the newly established Cameroon. The North-west region voted to become a part of Nigeria, while the South-west region (now referred to as Southern Cameroons) voted to become a part of Cameroon.
Teachers, lawyers, and judges within Southern Cameroons initiated a series of protests to call for an equal representation of Anglophones and the use of the English language in legal settings, government, economic development, community services, and education, as stated in the constitution of Cameroon. A movement to establish an independent Anglophone nation, Ambazonia, strengthens alongside the protests. The desire for independent Anglophone and Francophone nations relates to the establishment of Cameroon in the 1960s. The British-controlled regions were given the option of joining with the governance of one of their neighboring countries, not the opportunity for independence.
As tension heightened between the Anglophones and the Francophones throughout 2016 and into 2017, violence ensued. Both groups engaged, and continue to engage, in armed conflict. Armed governmental forces in support of the Francophones and armed separatist forces in support of the Anglophones have created a humanitarian crisis within the country. In addition to the continued acts of direct violence, acts of structural violence run rampant, particularly in Southern Cameroons. Schooling and health care access disrupted, resources blocked, property and land seized, lack of clean water and food, rolling electric and internet outages, individuals imprisoned on political grounds, allegations of election fraud… and the list goes on.
Humanitarian organizations struggle to provide the basic necessities for those affected by this conflict. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees (primarily in neighboring Nigeria) continues to increase, with women and children at particularly high risk. The International Crisis Group currently classifies the conflict in Cameroon as an “unchanged situation”. Additionally, The Institute for Economics and Peace ranks Cameroon 11th globally on the 2022 terrorism index. First-hand accounts continue to be shared that validate these statistics. A cemetery worker in Southern Cameroons reflects in an interview with the BBC, “It is a blessing to be buried at all, let alone by family and friends.”
This is the first in a series of blog posts that will look further into the conflict in Cameroon. Each month a humanitarian need and/or organization working in response to the humanitarian crisis will be featured on the UAB Institute for Human Rights’ blog.
Imagine discovering that your internal identity does not align with the way that your body looks or the way that you are perceived by society. Because you recognize this internal dichotomy, the society you know and love treats you as an outcast. You are regarded as less than human. Your family abuses you for pursuing a physical body and social presentation that aligns with your internal identity. Society at large is structured in a way that makes it relatively impossible to get a formal job or make money in a safe way. Transgender people in India experience this every day.
A. Revathi is an activist for the rights of transgender people and other gender and sexual minorities in India. In her book, A Life in Trans Activism, she details many struggles she faced while navigating the economic system of India. Most transgender people in India work in the informal spheres of sex work and street begging, but a lucky few find low-salary jobs at LGBTQ+ Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or service places.
Because of the prejudices and stereotypes held by many employers within India, transgender people are often discriminated against in the formal sphere. If a man comes in for an interview, and his documentation still has an F sex marker, the employer will know that he is transgender and all prejudices and stereotypes that they hold will then apply to the man searching for a job. The process of changing one’s sex marker on official documents is a complicated and grueling process for transgender people, which makes it almost impossible to go stealth* in one’s workplace. It was this lack of economic mobility that lead Revathi, and many others like her to the streets for sex work.
*Stealth (adj.) – describing a transgender person who presents themself as a cisgender member of the gender they identify as, often to avoid discrimination. For example, a male-to-female (MTF) transwoman presents as a cisgender woman and keeps her trans identity a secret to avoid violence.
In India, self-employed sex work is legal, but many police officers will find other reasons to accuse sex workers of crimes like loitering or stealing, whether the accusations are true or not. The general public tends to accuse them of stealing in order to demonize them or try to get them off the streets, which often leads to violent confrontations with community members and the police. During sex work, Revathi, like many transgender women, was often put into dangerous situations with the public as a result of the deeply rooted stigma surrounding transgender people. She experienced sexual assault, public abuse, and was sometimes not paid for her services. Most transgender sex workers must be very careful to keep their identities as transgender silent because many face violence if they are outed.** On the other hand, when outed, some people receive dehumanization in the form of fetishization which results in more violence and less pay.
**To out someone (v.) – to reveal someone’s sexuality or gender identity without their permission or control, often leading to dangerous situations for them.
The few that find jobs, often at LGBTQ+ organizations, are often paid less and treated with disrespect by their colleagues and employers. While reading A Life in Trans Activism, a pattern stuck out to me. I would like to call this something like “The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality.”
The formal work of a certain group of people is undervalued and/or ridiculed by society.
The marginalized group then internalizes this as a reflection of their character and feels as though they have “something to prove” while working in the formal sphere.
They then work harder and accept lower pay than their colleagues.
Co-workers and employers take advantage of their willingness to work hard for lower salaries and disrespect their work-life boundaries.
The disrespect becomes a foundational aspect of their workspace, and transgender people feel and live subserviently to society. The cycle repeats.
The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality can apply to any group of people whose work is undervalued. We see this in the American workforce with Black employees. There is a widely-held stereotype in America that Black people are “lazy workers” because of their lack of sufficient economic mobility. Employers internalize this and hold Black workers to a higher standard in which they must “prove themselves” as hard workers. It is often the case that Black employees work twice as hard as their White counterparts and are still undervalued by their employers and colleagues. They internalize this as a reflection of themselves and work harder and harder for less and less. This phenomenon is not only manifested in the salary gap between races, but also in the levels of worker burnout and unemployment rates.
A. Revathi experienced the Vicious Cycle herself while working as an openly transgender woman at an LGBTQ+ NGO in India called Sangama. Even while she was head director of multiple subsections of the NGO, she experienced disrespect from the staff she was directing. Here, Revathi reflects on her experience:
“[Sangama staff] were well behaved with [past directors] and respected boundaries. However, with me, they were very different. They would storm into my cabin and argue endlessly with me, often in very rude or offensive language. They demanded prompt promotions, increases in salaries, and crowded my working hours with endless demands and trivial things, which they could have handled themselves.” (Rēvati, 110)
Revathi charitably credits this to her open-door policy and her show of belief that hierarchies in workplaces were solely for accounting purposes, and should not reflect upon the social interactions of the staff. I suspect that the main reason that she has these policies and beliefs is that her work has been consistently undervalued and she has internalized that she will never be seen as “above” anyone else in her workplace. By setting and enforcing certain boundaries with her staff, she would have to acknowledge that she is above them in the workplace. This would break the social contract that says that she is always on the base of the metaphorical pyramid because of her transgender identity.
Government Progress (or lack thereof)
The Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2014 to create a third gender category called “hijra” which would be inclusive of gender nonconforming and transgender individuals. People in this category were legally categorized as an “other backward class” or OBC. Job reservations were made for people of OBCs in an attempt to improve the economic status of transgender people. Read more about this ruling here.
In addition to this ruling, in 2019 the “Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill” was passed, which served as an anti-discrimination bill meant to improve the status of transgender people in education and the workforce. It was faced with backlash from the trans community because it required a person to submit proof of gender reassignment surgery to the government before being able to change their gender marker legally. This type of policy is called trans-medicalism*** and is exclusive and harshly binary. Read more about this bill here.
***Trans-medicalism (n.) – the idea that one must medically transition, in other words: go through gender reassignment surgery, in order to be a valid member of the transgender community.
Although these actions were well-intended, neither the 2014 ruling nor the 2019 bill has been well enforced. They have been inefficient in changing the economic and educational statuses of transgender people. Employers still have room to discriminate against workers. Sex workers are still treated horrifically and inhumanely in the streets. Transgender employees are still disrespected in their workplaces and have low opportunities for economic mobility. One of the problems with these actions is that they are both “top-down” approaches, which start with government implementation and slowly trickle down into cultural changes and real-life improvements for transgender people. Many recommend a “bottom-up” approach, which begins with radical cultural shifts and builds its way up to government implementation. While both are valuable, the “bottom-up” approach is more efficient in creating quicker social change for people genuinely affected by the social issues at hand.
On Friday, September 16th, 2022, in response to a court’s ruling that the university cannot block the formation of a LGBTQIA+ group, New York’s Yeshiva University decided to temporarily suspend all undergraduate student activities and clubs. Yeshiva claims that permitting the formation of a LGBTQ+ student organization would be “inconsistent with the school’s Torah values and the religious environment it seeks to maintain.”
How It Started
The LGBTQ+ group in question is Yeshiva’s Pride Alliance, which was unofficially created in 2018. They were unofficial in the sense that their support was low and their group size was small— as all student groups are in the beginning. The student group describes itself as a supportive space for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, with the goal of allowing all members to feel secure, respected, and represented at Yeshiva.
It is understandable that one of the group’s goals was representation. In the modern day, it is extremely unlikely to find any major university without an instituted pride alliance group. Therefore, Yeshiva’s Pride Alliance group wanting that same, basic characteristic—of representation—should not come as a surprise.
However, when they approached the university last year to ask if they could get officially recognized as a student group, they were instantly denied. In response, however, they remained determined, and proceeded to sue the school for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Legal Claims
The Pride Alliance group sued Yeshiva for breaking the New York City Human Rights Law, a law code prohibiting discrimination on a basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other classifications.
In response to the lawsuit, Yeshiva University, which identifies itself as an Orthodox Jewish university, claimed that they could not recognize the group because it “conflicted with the school’s interpretation of the Torah.”
The lawsuit first went to a court in New York, where it was concluded that the university must officially recognize the group. The court argued that Yeshiva was not a religious institution (which would thereby make it immune to New York City’s Human Rights Law), but an educational institution.
However, that standing changed rather quickly. Just earlier this week, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court told Yeshiva that they should follow the prior court’s ruling because they have not exhausted all their options before appealing to the Supreme Court. In other words, the Supreme Court voted to send Yeshiva’s appeal back to local courts; they did not rule that Yeshiva acted unconstitutionally.
Enforcing such drastic measures upon the entire undergraduate population, as one might assume, was an unprecedented move on Yeshiva’s end. Many might infer that this action could have been done in an attempt to mask discrimination. Is it truly discriminatory to not recognize a pride alliance group when also not recognizing any other groups at all? Most would say it is not. That, from what we can assume, is what Yeshiva wants until the legal proceedings sort out: put forth a blanket disapproval of all student groups so they cannot be faulted for targeting an LGBTQ+ one.
However unshakable Yeshiva’s love for LGBTQ+ students might be, we have yet to see. We must not overlook what we have seen—it merely took a pride alliance group to ask for recognition to rid the entire university of all its undergraduate activities and clubs.
What’s to Come
As Yeshiva returns back to local courts we are unsure of what will happen in the future—except that it will not be filled with any undergraduate activities. If Yeshiva’s appeal succeeds and the city’s ruling is overturned, then the LGBTQ+ group will not be able to get recognized by the school. If the ruling does not get overturned, Yeshiva could appeal their way back up to the Supreme Court.
However, even if this were to happen, precedence seems to be against the LGBTQ+ group. In prior cases, the Supreme Court has sided consistently with religious universities when discussing issues of religious freedoms (i.e. what a religious university can and cannot do).
Moreover, one of the dissenting members of the initial Supreme Court vote, Samuel Alito, stated, “[Does the First Amendment] permit a State to force a Jewish school to instruct its students in accordance with an interpretation of Torah that the school, after careful study, has concluded is incorrect? The answer to that question is surely ‘no.’”
In other words, Justice Alito is stating that in his opinion, states should not have the authority to tell religious schools what to do if it does not align with their religious understandings.
With all of this in mind, one could reasonably come to the conclusion that the future of Yeshiva University’s Pride Alliance group is dependent on whether or not the initial city court was correct in deeming Yeshiva a state institution and not a religious one.
If the city court was incorrect, Yeshiva could inherit the authority to deny recognition to a group seeking representation—even though, allegedly, their commitment and support for LGBTQ+ persons is “unshakable.” If the city court was correct, representation and recognition of those underrepresented shall prevail.
The events that unfolded between Yeshiva and its pride alliance group returned a variety of different topics to the forefront of the media. One of which, in particular, is the topic of LGBTQ+ persons and the rights they have.
Discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons has been an ongoing issue for hundreds of years. For years, The United Nations has repeatedly stated that “discrimination against LGBTI people undermines the human rights principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet discrimination and violence against people in the LGBTI community are all too common. Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes remain deeply embedded in many cultures around the world.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was published in 1948. 74 years ago. Not only does discrimination still exist, but same-sex marriage, in 2022, is only legal in 24 countries.
With Yeshiva University’s recent decision, we are seeing the global issue of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights back in mainstream media. Equality and respect for all people should be the standard that we live by.
Despite all that has occurred, Yeshiva could bring forth new lessons for us all. Maybe, (or perhaps hopefully), one of those lessons could be that we, as a society, should strive to make discrimination of all people a thing of the past—make it history, so we can learn from it.
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