Assisting the Non-Assisted

On Monday, October 1, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based and law organizations, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 1: Focus on Europe. Following, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of UAB Institute for Human Rights, and April Jackson-MacLennan, J.D., from the Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., covered the legal challenges of this phenomenon from an international and national perspective, respectively.

Dr. Reuter Presenting Refugee Statistics. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

The event began with a viewing of the documentary Non Assistance, sponsored by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, which illustrates how sociopolitical crises in the Middle East and North Africa have galvanized thousands of people to flee their home countries, permeating the Mediterranean Sea with frail boats past occupancy, holding limited supplies. Just like its title, the film focused on the lack of assistance refugee boats receive during their treacherous journey, highlighting the tragedy on March 27, 2011 that lead to 63 Tripolitanian refugee fatalities.

Despite endearment from many Europeans citizens, like the vigilantes that aim to rescue whoever they can with their personal boats, many ships in the Mediterranean to do not strive to assist the refugees. However, in 2015 alone, Doctors Without Borders rescued over 23,000 people in the Mediterranean with a just three boats, demonstrating how non-governmental parties can be instrumental in addressing this crisis. One theory for this disparity is, since the first country of contact is responsible for reporting asylum, governments do not want to carry the burden of assisting refugees. Such an outcome begs us to ask: What steps are the European Union (EU) taking to address this issue? How would you feel being lost and abandoned at sea with just the shirt on your back? Where is the humanity?

After the film, Dr. Reuter and Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan fielded questions from the aghast, yet spirited, audience. People wanted to know what can be done; answers centered on policy change and contacting elected officials. Others asked why rescue ships are being held at the ports, leading to discussion about the legal entanglements that now restrict these boats from aiding refugees. Despite there being less rescue boats navigating the Mediterranean and a drop in migration via this route, often attributed to slowing of violence in the Syrian Civil War, there is still a need to assist refugees.

Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan Engaging with a Student. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On November 12, the sequel to this three-part series, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part II: Focus on the United States will be held at Birmingham-Southern College and followed by the third event in early 2019, at Samford University, where action planning around this global issue will take place. Please join us for the following events whereas every voice and helping hand counts.

The United Nations and Psychosocial Disabilities

Recently, members from UAB’s Institute for Human Rights (IHR), including myself, had the opportunity to visit the United Nations (UN) in New York City for the 11th Conference of States Parties (COSP) on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD is an agreement that details the rights of persons with disabilities (PWD) with a list of codes for implementation, where both states and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) are suggested to coordinate to fulfill such rights. Currently, the CRPD has 177 ratifying parties, with the United States being one of the last to have not ratified it, although it was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the cornerstone for disability rights in the U.S.

I had the opportunity the serve as rapporteur for Round 3 of the General Debate, witnessing representatives address issues such as education and employment barriers for PWD in rural Afghanistan, India’s concern about the treatment of women and girls with disabilities, Malta’s 20 million Euro dedication to programs and organizations for PWD and Peace 3 Foundation describing how climate change disproportionately endangers PWD. Additionally, I attended many side events that covered topics such as the Voice of Specially Abled People (VOSAP) phone app, barriers to political participation in the Middle East and North Africa, and the first Regional Report of the Americas. The side events were less formal and engaging because the audience was welcomed to participate by sharing their thoughts and expertise, allowing coalition building to take place.

IHR at the 11th COSP to the CRPD. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

Amid this experience, there were a few important lessons learned. First, there is an enormous push for inclusive education, as opposed to special education, which values PWD’s contributions, equips them with essential skills and validates their societal presence. This approach would allow PWD, namely children, to learn and grow with their peers. Secondly, many nations are not responsibly addressing psychosocial disabilities which are clinical conditions/illnesses that affect one’s thoughts, judgments or emotions. Many countries have legislation that prevent people with an “unsound mind” from full participation in society, which doesn’t relate to one’s acts, but only their character. This stigmatizing approach effectively criminalizes their disability status, possibly resulting in forced institutionalization that separates them from loved ones and their community. Finally, there are countless people worldwide addressing disability rights. In the U.S., it seems disability rights are in the background, while other justice causes get most of the attention; however, I am confident that persistent coalition-building between justice organizations, especially in our impassioned political climate, will change this narrative, much like the collaborations built through the CRPD.

I want to use this blog as an opportunity to address an issue that has personal sentiments and speaks to my second point, stigma toward people with psychosocial disabilities (PWPD). Given my experience working in homeless shelters and having someone close to me who was institutionalized for their schizophrenia diagnosis, I believe there is a cultural disparity in how we talk about psychosocial disabilities because, on many occasions, they are addressed from a criminal and/or deviant lens, often devaluing the person(s) being addressed. According to the Mental Health and Human Rights Resolution of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, PWPD are defined as those, “…regardless of self-identification or diagnosis of a mental health condition, face restrictions in the exercise of their rights and barriers to participation on the basis of an actual or perceived impairment.” Psychosocial disabilities differ, meaning they are capable of being episodic, invisible and/or not clearly defined (e.g. depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia). Also, psychosocial disabilities are subjected to a medical narrative that arguably benefits mental health industries more than consumers.

Two years ago, during the 9th COSOP to the CRPD, Paul Deany (Disability Rights Fund Program Officer) claimed psychosocial disabilities are addressed in many countries through Western-influenced legislation that is separate from other disabilities, streamlining the establishment of psychiatric institutions that undermine fundamental issues for PWPD such as workforce participation, health care and political/rights. Therefore, we cannot view this concern as being exclusive to poor, underdeveloped nations because psychosocial disability stigma in rich, developed nations have fed this narrative and still have a prominent effect on PWPD. Although, to achieve collaborative global efforts that empower PWPD, supportive mental health policy must, first, be endorsed on the homefront. For example, political turmoil in the U.S. has contributed to recent events geared to strip health coverage from millions of vulnerable Americans. These efforts clearly demonstrate political incompetence of the mental health discussion at-large and confess to a larger narrative that admits power doesn’t always equate to knowledge and global leadership must be justified, not assumed.

Although many countries have enacted and enforced rights for PWPD, other countries are falling behind. For example, in Indonesia, roughly 18,000 people are forced into pasung, the practice of shackling or locking one in a confined space. Although pasung was banned by Indonesian authorities in 1977, families and healers continue to exercise this inhumane practice because they believe evil spirits or immoral behavior induce such disabilities. A similar practice in Ghana, at Nyakumasi Prayer Camp, was scrutinized last year, followed by the release of 16 people and the country’s Mental Health Authority claiming they would begin properly enforcing the shackling ban put into law in 2012. Such treatment of PWPD clearly impinges the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR), a watershed document for global peace, by violating commitments to end “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5) and equal protection before the law without discrimination (Article 7).

To someone living in the modern U.S., such treatment seems unimaginable. However, past images of PWPD experiencing isolation and inhumane treatment inside the asylum walls are now echoed from a different, yet similar, perspective. During the mid-20th century, the U.S. underwent a period of deinstitutionalization which saw the closing of large state institutions that harbored PWPD. Largely due to the advent of the antipsychotic drug Thorazine, thousands of people were discharged from state mental hospitals and the shutting of such doors soon followed. However, the following decades have seen an influx of criminalizing PWPD, leading to their incarceration, where jails and prisons now serve as some of the nation’s largest de facto mental hospitals. This series of events, which moves PWPD from one total institution to another, undermines the liberation narrative of deinstitutionalization by continuing to segregate PWPD from their families and communities. As a result, this misfortune contributes to the current crisis that has seen the U.S. prison population increase by 408% between 1978 and 2014.

These appalling scenarios underscore a comment made by the representative of Kenya, during my visit to the UN, who insisted that policy cannot solely enforce human rights because programming must also be present to guide that path. Since 2007, Users and Survivors of Psychiatry in Kenya, a DPO, has not only influenced legislation that expands the rights of PWPD, but also organizes participatory public education programs through various media outlets, challenging stigma and misconceptions. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Connecticut, the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights works with local governments, universities and health systems to ensure recently incarcerated people access health care and insurance. Many of the individuals receiving such care access health-related goods and services to treat psychosocial disabilities that could’ve influenced or been a byproduct of their incarceration. Looking forward, this is the type of advocacy and programming that needs to be highlighted so it can be shown that good governance, particularly through the CRPD and ADA, is possible.

Conceal and Reveal

Egungun masks in Abomey, Benin. Source: Davide Comelli, Creative Commons

On Thursday, April 5, UAB hosted Dr. John Thabiti Willis, Associate Professor of African History at Carleton College, to discuss the relationship between masquerading traditions of the Yoruba people in Nigeria and hip hop. The Yoruba people are a West African ethnic group of 30 million worldwide; nearly 25 million live in Nigeria.

Dr. Willis’ 19-month long archival and ethnographic investigation was to understand how such traditions arrived in Otta, an ancient Yoruba town that represents some of those most elaborate masquerades. Dr. Willis discovered that a religious leader James White arrived at Lagos in 1852, becoming the first person to preach the gospel in the region. To appeal the local Yoruba people to Christianity, White recruited musicians to perform local melodies which become early influence for Christian music in the region. Today, masquerades in Otta are notable spectacles that celebrate social rites and acknowledge political causes.

Willis’ lecture primarily focused on the masquerade tradition of Egungun, an honoring of ancestors and their living descendants, which originated in Old Oyo. The Egungun masquerades are performed by men masked and veiled in lavish fabric, to conceal the carrier and reveal unseen forces/spirits, while women participate in the harmonics. Performance garments include Burial Shrouds (death), Resurrection (of the deceased) and New Clothes (new life).

Another masquerade tradition, Gelede, originating in Ketu, honors women as mothers. Masked performance symbolism includes: Women (productive and reproductive labor), Foreign Men (productive labor: economic, political and religious) and Mother Nature (nature as the primordial mother). As opposed to Western traditions that prioritize male dominance and the individual, the masquerades center on African indigenous sentiments which champion men and women as leaders, coalitions and support of the people.

Reflecting on these findings, Dr. Willis identified five main elements of masquerading that carry striking similarities with elements of hip hop performance:

Masquerading Hip Hop
Drumming (rhythm masking) DJing
Verbal Arts (praise-singing and poetic performances MCing
Masked Dancing (choreographed and improvised) B-Boying/Break-Dancing
Visual Art (mural paintings) Graffiti
Biological and Ritual Kinship (community, identity & purpose) Knowledge

Though Dr. Willis originally journeyed to Nigeria to understand the masquerading origins of Otta, he discovered this how masquerading and hip hop convey similar narratives with different cultural contexts. Much like masquerading, hip hop, too, can reveal the power of metaphor, as demonstrated in Soul Sonic Force’s 1983 classic “Renegades of Funk”, allowing viewers to reflect on social and political power dynamics as well as enable discourse expression through performance of power.

Angélique Kidjo Brings Batonga to Birmingham

On Thursday, March 22, Grammy Award-winning Beninise performer and human rights activist, Angélique Kidjo, offered a lecture at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center titled, Give Her Wings – Teach Girls and Empower Women. After bestowing the audience with an opening melody, Kidjo spoke of her diverse musical influences, such as R&B, funk and jazz, then shared stories about her childhood, personal growth and activism for girls — periodically breaking out in song whilst incorporating the crowd.

Angélique Incorporates the Crowd. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Born into a music family, Kidjo was not shy about her childhood, confessing she had “cool parents” shared with nine other siblings. Claiming to have never lived with fear, she was pressured into her first stage performance at the age of six, gracefully under spotlight, displaying her young talent which led to a standing ovation. However, during her adolescence, her singing become an issue for some boys in her community in which she became the victim of sexist ridicule and physical confrontation. Being discouraged by this incident, she told her mother she no longer wanted to sing, but was uplifted when told, “If you let people define who you are, you will never have a life”. Her father also claimed that once you engage in a physical fight, you have lost the battle – the most powerful tool is your brain. This encouraged Kidjo to coin the term Batonga which confidently means, “Get the heck out of my life. I’ll be whoever I want to be”.

In secondary school, Kidjo started noticing children not attending class, which confused her, then realized keeping girls in secondary school limits helping mothers in the home. This gave her conviction that without secondary education, girls are limited to being mothers and wives, influencing her activism for children’s education and girl’s empowerment. Kidjo’s Batonga Foundation addresses the gender disparity in secondary and higher education throughout Africa, offering scholarships, books, tutoring, mentoring and meals.

Kidjo believes educating girls will engender world peace and influence them to not raise macho men who hijack women in the name of fear. She asked the crowd, “How do you view your kids, if your wife is viewed as inferior? Man up!”. She then briefly touched on her experiences as an African woman living in 1980s Paris, being shocked by blatant racism but standing her ground, and declared the brain and soul have no color, the world is yours and don’t be afraid to challenge people – a mindset inherited from the empowered women who raised and supported her.

Kidjo ended her lecture with one final number that included the crowd. With her grace and leadership, the crowd joined her and steadily chanted, “Chez mama, chez mama Africa”, a precursor to the following night’s concert.

Kidjo and the IHR Gang. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Soon after, young girls and boys rushed to the microphone and asked Kidjo how they could be leaders just like her. She expressed to many of these young, impressionable minds how the liberating power of music gives one the confidence and strength in the face of adversity – Batonga.

Orphan Fever: The Dark Side of International Adoption 

Adopting a child from a country foreign different from your own is a complicated and controversial practice. If done correctly, you have saved a parentless child from a life of probable poverty and despair. If done incorrectly, you have either aided organizations who coerce parents into giving their children up or even facilitated child abuse, if the individual institution is unethically managed. Even if the adoption is conducted using appropriate channels and oversight, the adopting families are not always well intentioned.

International adoption peaked in 2004 and has been declining ever since, in part because of increasing restrictions fueled by incidents of violence. The problems that surround international adoption are complex and deeply intertwined with a variety of factors. Race, gender, religion, culture, sexuality, and global inequality together form the sticky, problematic web of international adoption.

Two children stand in a circular entrance to a tunnel holding hands.
“Tomorrow and the Next Day and the Day After That.” Source: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons. 

“Orphan Fever”

At the peak of international adoption in the United States nearly fifteen years ago, much of the hype was driven by religious organizations. Adoption became a primary social welfare issue in the early 2000s after American Evangelicals began to champion the issue. This is not to be taken as an explicitly negative phenomenon; some religious organizations are instrumental in protecting human rights violations for international orphans. Many individuals who adopted in the name of their religion have vibrant, happily integrated families. However, religiosity does provides a cover of moral legitimacy that often discourages scrutiny of organizations or individuals.

Adoption agencies are not legally required to be accredited, and many faith-based agencies are not. Only 303 organizations are accredited per international standards of the roughly 3,000 agencies that perform adoption services in the United States. Central to this issue is the white-savior industrial complex, a term coined by notable author and activist Teju Cole. Cole explains that white people (often Americans) tend to view less developed regions but most specifically Africa as “a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism.” Families sometimes adopt international children with perverse motivations of piety and applause. Children are stripped of their culture and forced to adapt to Western norms overnight, and face dire consequences when they cannot conform. Individuals have relayed being severely disciplined for hesitating to eat unfamiliar foods, not adapting to American norms for eye contact quickly enough, and for speaking their own languages. This is a direct violation of the human right to culture. Internationally adopted children have the right to fully experience their birth culture for the sake of human dignity and the preservation of that child’s identity.

Adoption Facts and Flaws

The majority of international adoptees (71%) in the United States from the last twenty years have come from one of five countries: China, Russia, Guatemala, South Korea, or Ethiopia. All five of these countries have increased restrictions on foreign adoption, accounting for 88% of the decline since 2004 (Source: Pew Research Center). The restrictions come on the heels of majorly publicized cases of abuse and/or deaths of international adoptees.

Abuse and deaths in intercountry adoptive families are common. Numerous appalling incidents involving the misfortune of adopted children have circulated in the media in the past few years. International adoption is a tricky subject. Exploitation can occur on a number of levels, as the adoption process includes a variety of actors. The adopting families, the adoption agency, and the source institution can all be separately complicit in unethical behavior. To amplify corruption, there is little to no legislation to identify or prosecute exploitation on any level. “Sending countries” or the countries which children are most frequently adopted from, have had to become increasingly strict on foreign adoption policies. This is one of the most critical issues – the sending countries, who are most often relatively disadvantaged compared to receiving countries, carry the burden to make major policy reform in order to protect their children from exploitation. International policy on intercountry adoption is scarce, vague, and often unenforced.

Policy Issues

While the international adoption system contains many flaws, the most identifiable fundamental issue is lack of oversight and policy. Adoptions are most often conducted through private, individual agencies who each have different standards of what the adoption process should look like. These private agencies operate without much restriction placed on their activity. It seems unacceptable to permit adoption to occur through non-accredited agencies, yet that is the current norm. Lack of accreditation creates a wider pathway for unethical behavior. The market for adopting children is huge and incredibly lucrative, as it is full of wealthy potential adoptive families. The desperation for many families to find and adopt a child can often generate more demand than the current supply of available children can sustain; this eventually leads to gaps in supply being filled by non-orphaned children who were either stolen, coerced through misinformation, or otherwise manipulated into leaving their families.

Three boys stare up at the camera, smiling.
“Curious Children at an Orphanage, Mumbai.” Source: Tobias Leeger, Creative Commons.

Internationally-Adopted Victims of Child Abuse

One of the most recent and infamous cases was that of Sherin Mathews, a three year old girl from India who had developmental disabilities. Sherin died in October of last year from allegedly choking on milk that she was being forced to drink, though her adoptive father has made various claims about the circumstances of her death. The three year old was missing for a period of time but was found in a culvert. The international community was in an uproar after this crime came to light, and India quickly adopted legislation to reduce foreign adoption.

Ethiopia made similar measures last month following similar stories of abuse, though this act still surprised many, as the country has been well known for their high frequency of international adoption. Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams died at age thirteen from exposure after being forced to stay outside for hours as punishment. Hana was adopted by Carri and Larry Williams in 2008, but was quickly subjected to torturous conditions after Carri became dissatisfied with Hana’s maturity. Carri reportedly said, “I expected to adopt a little girl, not a half-grown woman,” as Hana began to menstruate shortly after arriving in the United States. The Williamses forced Hana to stay in a closet for upwards of ten hours at a time and required Hana to use an outdoor portable toilet, while the Williamses’ biological children were never subject to such misery. The night that Hana died, the entire Williams family spectavted and allegedly laughed as she staggered around naked for several hours in the cold, rainy backyard.

Two victims who survived their abuse are Guatemalan adoptee Carolina and Russian-born Leonid, who together endured years of physical and psychological torture from Kathleen and Martin O’Brian. The O’Brians were originally charged in 2012 of abusing their adopted children, including allegations of “locking them in a room with no bathroom, forcing them to kneel naked on sharp rocks and stand in a feces covered dog pen, and withholding food from them.” Both Carolina and Leonid have been happily adopted by different families after both Kathleen and Martin were found guilty, but will likely always retain the emotional and physical scars from the hellish O’Brian family. Russia banned foreign adoption the same year that the O’Brians were charged, as nineteen Russian children have died at the hands of foreign adoptive parents in the past twenty years. Stories of child abuse inflicted upon international adoptees are depressingly frequent. It is imperative to identify which flaws in the system are to blame for these horrible crimes, and how change can be enacted to prevent future suffering.

A man, face turned away from the camera, holds a sleeping baby.
“Air Force family adopts child from Ukraine.” Source: Dvidshub, Creative Commons.

Re-Homing

Despite the seemingly endless desperation to adopt, it is surprisingly easy to exchange children online with no legal intervention or monetary exchange. Re-homing communities exist in niches of the Internet, where families with adopted children post advertisements to give their “troublesome” children away. Reuters gave a detailed investigation of this practice in 2013, recounting several personal narratives of individuals who have either taken part in rehoming children, been re-homed themselves, or otherwise interacted with the re-homing community. Laws vary by state and have become more common since Reuter’s report incited brief public interest, but many states still only require the signature of a legal guardian to transfer custody to another adult. The exchange can occur privately without notifying any government officials, which creates a dangerous avenue for predators to easily obtain vulnerable children from desperate parents. Within Reuter’s report, multiple detailed accounts were given of children who were re-homed with individuals with documented pasts of abusing children physically, sexually, and emotionally. This occurred because the original adoptive parents did not thoroughly vet the family who was taking their child, a common experience among re-homing communities. One mother stated of her twelve year old adopted daughter, “I would have given her away to a serial killer, I was so desperate.”

Re-homing perseveres despite ethical quandaries due to the imminent need for post-adoption support for adoptive parents. Most agencies provide little to no support after the adoption process has been finalized, despite the difficulties that many families have in acclimating to the change. Reuters found that 70% of the children being re-homed were of international origin, and many of those children had behavioral problems indicative of some form of trauma or disability.

Several young orphans in matching uniforms stand in a grassy area, holding some types of tools.
“Orphanage.” Source: Clay Junell, Creative Commons.

The Path Ahead: Hope and Reform

The dark side of international adoption is one shrouded in mystery and corruption. Vulnerable children all over the world are being victimized on all levels within the process of adoption. Abuse can occur at the hands of adoptive parents, in re-homing families, by private non-accredited agencies, and within local orphanages. Considering that these children are already incredibly vulnerable (as many are already impacted by compound discrimination of race, disability, and class), this systematic abuse is particularly heinous. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child fully secures and protects all human rights of children, and specifically requires that “the system of adoption shall ensure that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.” Shockingly, the United States is the only UN member nation who has not yet ratified the CRC. This is a blatant failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our population. America cannot remain complicit in such an exploitative system; it is truly reprehensible that our country is so heavily engaged in the adoption of vulnerable foreign children yet refuses to protect them. This is a failure for the global community as well — international community has accepted a flawed adoption system for far too long. Both domestic and international policy reform are essential to preserving and promoting the human rights and dignity of children.

Angélique Kidjo and the Importance of Education

On March 22, 2018, Grammy-award winning singer and human rights activist Angélique Kidjo will be speaking at the University of Alabama at Birmingham about the importance of education for girls and boys. Angélique is from Benin, a small country in West Africa; the IHR has previously published on challenges facing Benin on our blog, which may be found here. One pressing human rights concern facing the Beninese people is access to education. The Batonga Foundation, Angélique Kidjo’s non-profit organization states, in Benin, 3 out of 4 girls do not make it do middle school, and 1 in 3 girls get married before the age of 18. Per UNESCO, in 2015, only 48.93% of students enrolled in secondary education were female compared to 68.52% of enrolled male students in Benin. Lastly, in 2012, the female literacy rate for female population aged 15 – 24 in Benin was only 40.94%.

Grammy Award winner Singer / Songwriter and Unicef Goodwill Ambassador Angelique Kidjo visits Kazanchis Health Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 11 November 2013. Photo by Jiro Ose

As Angélique explained to CNN, unlike the majority of girls in Benin, she grew up in a household that emphasized the critical necessity of education. Growing up with ten siblings and one paycheck, Angélique used to sing for extra money for her family. She eventually wanted to drop out of school and work as a full-time singer, however, her father insisted females should be educated and made dropping out of school non-negotiable.

“My education has empowered me so much: it gave me the confidence not only to sing but also to speak on CNN or BBC and to meet world leaders to lobby on the behalf of the women of Africa.”

– Angélique Kidjo, ONE

Primary and secondary education for all children is now accepted as a universal basic need and human right. Data from the World Bank highlights the sobering relationship between education and development. The poorest countries in the world have national secondary education enrollment rates of less than 35%, along with low levels of tertiary enrollment of less than 15% (Sachs 254). Higher education institutions are necessary “to ensure that there are qualified teachers, sufficient numbers of technical workers, and a generation of young people trained in public policy and sustainable development (Sachs 255).”

In many communities, cultural roles and expectations create substantial gender gaps in the division of household responsibilities, economic opportunities such as employment, access to job-training skills, and education levels. The burden of gender inequality has detrimental and disproportionate impacts on the economic security, poverty levels, health, nutrition and environmental safety of women worldwide. These can also be prevented. Education provides mothers and children the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and fuel social mobility, which here refers to the change in social class and socioeconomic status of individuals or families.

The Ripple Effect of Education on Social Mobility

  • Educating women equates to higher economic productivity. Studies determine lower female enrollment rates in school is associated with lower GDP per capita. Specifically, UNICEF states in 2011 that one percentage point increase in female education increases the average level of GDP by 0.37 percentage points. As a result of basic education and skills, women are able to work and contribute to the economic growth and productivity of their country. Likewise, education plays a key role in endogenous growth – economic growth based on new technological breakthroughs, such as the internet and advancements in computer science using research and development (Sachs 271). The current revolution of new information and communication technology (ICT) is exceedingly dependent on trained individuals with advanced degrees in their fields of study. Research and development is deeply concentrated in high income countries due the complex interplay of successful management systems ranging from universities to high tech business companies, and even national laboratories (Sachs 273). The fundamental anchor for the success of these institutions is strong systems of higher education in sciences, public policy and engineering.

At the local level, educated women are able to work and provide for their families. UNICEF states every added year of primary school enhances girls’ ensuing wages by 10 – 20% and another 15-25% for every additional year of secondary school. Employment opportunities provides financial stability, and thus averts families from falling into poverty due to the parents’ ability to invest in their children’s human capital. Human capital is here defined as the “collective skills, knowledge, or other intangible assets of individuals that can be used to create economic value for the individuals, their employers, or their community.”

  • Educating women translates to reduced child mortality. The number one indicator for the survival of a child under the age of five is the mother’s education level. Education establishes health behaviors and customs that have a constructive impact on an individual’s health. Specifically,“Educated mothers have a greater ability to identify healthcare services for treating their child’s illnesses; higher receptivity to new health-related information; familiarity with modern medical culture; access to financial resources and health insurance; better decision-making power; and increased self-worth and self-confidence.” (Bado 2016)

Reduced child mortality breaks the intergenerational cycle of poverty of the future generation. First, healthy children and less likely to miss school and more likely to complete their education. Higher levels of education are associated with better socio-economic status. Second, healthy children grow up to be active members of society, and contribute to the productivity of their national economy. Third, families with healthy children can invest money into other areas of development and human capital such as education rather than health services.

  • Parental educational level is an important predictor of children’s educational outcomes. Educating women translates to increased chances of education for the next generation regardless of one’s social environment or income. Educated parents understand the critical relationship between education and social mobility, increasing the likelihood of putting their children through school. Likewise, educated parents have the financial means to help put their children through school. Lastly, parent education levels are associated with the parents providing children a more stimulating cognitive, emotional physical environment in the household. Motivating home environments have a positive influence on a child’s achievements and aspirations (Gunn 518-540).

“The association of  family income and parent’s education with children’s academic achievement was mediated by the home environment. The mediation effect was stronger for maternal education than for family income.”

Educating girls and women is the most cost-effective way to reduce poverty and improve quality of life. Education enables both national and local social return that continue to affect quality of life years after formal education is completed.

Female education is an imperative stakeholder in the development of women all over the world. Angélique Kidjo uses her voice and social influence to advocate for female education all over Africa. In 2002, Angélique Kidjo’s advocacy journey flourished as she became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for education. As a Goodwill Ambassador, Angélique has campaigned for education on behalf of UNICEF by attending high level meetings, speaking and performing at public events, and granting media interviews. Her advocacy work continues to bring attention to these issues. Along with her work with UNICEF, Angélique founded a non-profit, the Batonga Foundation. Angélique created the word batonga which means “get off my back, I can be whoever I want to be.” According to Angélique, she created the word during her Junior year of high school to protect herself against male bullies at her school. The word confused the boys, who eventually left her alone. The Batonga foundation focuses on the education of women and girls throughout Africa. Their services focus on providing scholarships, book materials, latrines across schools, shoes for walking to schools, and access to girls clubs.

The IHR is proud to host Angélique Kidjo. On Thursday, March 22nd at 6:00 p.m., Angélique will present an educational lecture at the UAB Alys Stephens Center. This event is free and open to the public.

Additionally, on Friday, March 23rd at 8:00 p.m.,  Angélique Kidjo give a musical performance at the UAB Alys Stephens Center. Registration for her performance can be found at the UAB Institute for Human Rights website.

References:

Sachs, Jeffery. (2015). Enviornmental Sustainability and Peace. New York: Colombia University Press

Greg, D., Brooks-Gunn, J. (1997). The Consequences of Growing Up Poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation

The Persistence Grit of Suffragettes

a picture of an "I Voted" sticker
Day 36/366…I voted. Source: Denise Cross, Creative Commons

Enfranchisement is the act of participating in the political process, namely through voting. It is the acknowledgement and acceptance of citizenship. Sociologist T.H. Marshall defines citizenship as the status a person enjoys as a full member of a community. Citizenship participation in the community has three components that function as rights and duties: civil, political, and social. First, civil citizenship encompasses all individual freedoms—the inalienable rights given to each human being. Second, political citizenship afford the right to participate in the political process, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and/or ability. Lastly, social citizenship provides the right for an adequate standard of living. Full participation in a community, through the act of enfranchisement, has been a difficult and tenuous process for half of humanity: women.

Women have sought to gain full citizenship status for centuries. While this blog briefly focuses on the women’s suffrage movements in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), the breath of the women’s rights movement extends to and finds mirroring throughout Europe and in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and parts of South America and Africa according to Dolton. She reminds that women’s movements are grassroots operations, which strike at the heart of hegemonic institutional and cultural systems. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ascribes the right for everyone to take part in their country’s government with equal access to public service, and the expression of the collective will through free and equal voting. In other words, while voting is a method utilized in some nation-states, an understanding of the variations in governmental form is imperative.

The US and UK Suffragette Movements

American women were growing dissatisfied with their lack of position and subsequent silence within the public sphere. The outgrowth of this dissatisfaction was the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The topic of voting was a part of the discussion, as was divorce and martial rape. Despite economic and social progress during the 19th century, including Wyoming becoming the first state to extend voting rights to women, the failure to grant voting rights in all states left women undeterred. English women were dissatisfied also but seemingly protested quietly until the late 1890s.

Emmeline Pankhurst initiated the UK suffragist movement in 1898, following the death of her husband. By 1903, she began the Women’s Social and Political Union and recruited her daughter, Christabel, and cultivated an alliance with the Independent Labour Party. The outbreak of WW1 brought about the suspension of politics; yet, the enfranchisement of women, under 30 who met a minimum set of requirements, occurred in 1918. Full enfranchisement for all persons over 21 took place in 1928.

August 18, 1920

Two years following the enfranchisement in the UK, the long-awaited battle for women’s suffrage in the US ended with the passage of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920. The amendment afforded women the right to vote in the US. The victory secured the right to vote for some but not all.

 

 

Moving Beyond ‘Victim’

The normative value of universal human rights is constantly scrutinized both within the academy and in the field alike, as has been previously featured on the Institute for Human Rights Blog. Universal human rights, codified in international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, are writ large by a group of representatives operating at the international level and are ideally enjoyed by everyday citizens on the societal level. Human rights are both universally created and culturally applied. Problems arise when specific, codified human rights directly contradict cultural norms of a particular society. Examples of this contradiction include female genital cutting, the right to return of refugees, and international tourism.  The underlying tension is this: how can the local / global communities reconcile cultural beliefs with universal norms? Can human rights activists and scholars find a third way- marrying the universal with the particular? To evolve the conversation surrounding these issues, this blog uses the incidence of human trafficking in Benin to illustrate the discursive dimension of human rights advocacy and to counter the notion that universal human rights are incompatible with culturally particularistic beliefs.

Picture of a harbor in Cotonou, Benin
Shubert Ciencia, Creative Commons

Benin & the US: Bound by Cotton

Benin, formerly known as the Kingdom of Dahomey, is located in western Africa between Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Togo. Benin’s capital is Porto-Novo, official language is French, and has a population of almost 10 million individuals. And finally, according to the United States’ annually published Trafficking in Persons Report (US TIP Report), Benin is grappling with a human trafficking crisis. According to the 2017 TIP-Report, vast numbers of Beninese girls and boys are:

“… subjected to domestic servitude or sex trafficking in Cotonou and across Benin’s southern corridor. Some families send children to wealthier families for educational or vocational opportunities, a practice called vidomegon; some of these children are subjected to domestic servitude.”

(Emphasis in original document)

However, before we may contextualize human trafficking trafficking in Benin, the political motivations of the TIP-Report must be unpacked.

Every year, the US compiles all available data on the incidence, prevalence, and efforts to combat human trafficking worldwide. This information is provided from policy analysts, field researchers, first-hand testimony, and a vast array of informants working with or for the US State Department (among other national agencies). Once this information is analyzed, the US labels each country a 1, 2, 2-Watchlist, or 3 Tier ranking. The lower a country’s rank, the more successful efforts a country is undertaking to prevent trafficking in general, protect trafficked persons, and prosecute traffickers. Once a country reaches the Tier 2-Watchlist (in some cases) or Tier 3 designation, the US has precedent to curtail or eliminate monetary aid and other diplomatic exchanges with the state. Danger occurs when political instrumentalism and lack of awareness of cultural beliefs thrust themselves into this ideally ‘objective’ designation process.

As an example of political gaming,  China receives low rankings, despite a sprawling human trafficking plight, to maintain polite integrity of US-China relations. In the case of Benin, ignorance of cultural mores and beliefs fundamentally redefine what trafficking is and looks like on the ground; this fact is not internalized by the US State Department. Hence, Benin’s designation of Tier 2-Watchlist.

This designation means the US believes Benin is making active strides to combat trafficking, but these efforts do not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking within the country as a whole. Massive structural issues complicate Benin’s anti-trafficking process, including: sweeping inequality, crumbling infrastructure, political corruption, and a national economy unable to withstand price gauging from foreign actors. The last issue is particularly germane to the incidence of trafficking in Benin, as Howard (2012) explains:

“In Benin, cotton is the major cash crop. It accounts for around 5 per cent of the GDP and almost 40 per cent of the country’s export receipts… [I]t is a household industry and provides income for thousands of families… When prices are high, people benefit… [C]otton prices have been at record lows for over a decade, in large part due to illegal US subsidies.”

(Emphasis added; Howard, 2012)

According to Oxfam, the US raised cotton subsidies, which decimated many economies in Western African dependent on cotton production from local farmers. Benin’s economy in particular is crippled; many rural and agrarian workers are unable to sell their cotton products at a fair cost. Therefore, they must turn to alternate means of income – in some cases, trafficking. This oft-unexplored antecedent of trafficking cases is the pressing economic demands of both the trafficked person and others (such as the trafficker, buyer of services, etc.) involved in the process (Bales, 2012). Here is the paradox: the US classifies Benin a Tier 2-Watchlist country on the TIP-Report (a supposed human rights-promoting mechanism) when US economic policy vampirically saps Beninese resources, thereby increasing the occurrence of trafficking in the Beninese state. The US indirectly causes trafficking in Benin and simultaneously uses diplomatic pressure to punish Benin for its trafficking “problem”. So what does this disingenuous relationship look like to human rights activists in Benin and the populations they wish to serve?

Politics in Trafficking Discourse

In his ethnographic portrayal of the lives of working Beninese adolescents, Howard (2012) explores the motivations and incentives of young Beninese persons attempting to make a livelihood for both themselves and their families. He interviews young men who often work in gravel pits in western Nigeria and young women who opt to work for families in major coastal cities within Benin itself. According to Howard’s interviews with anti-trafficking NGO workers, two concerning issues surround the designation of these young men and women as ‘trafficked persons’:

  1. The young men and women seeking employment are underage. International law decrees childhood ends and legal consent begins (for most individuals) at age 18. In Benin, societal tradition prepares adolescents for work before age 18, and many adolescents (highly aware of their dire economic need) opt to work to support themselves their families. Due to these definitional inconsistencies, one persons trafficking survivor is another’s entrepreneur.
  2. Many of these young men and women do not consider themselves as trafficked persons, despite using 3rd-party cooperation to cross borders to find work. Here is a conversation that exemplifies this issue:

 

(Howard): Have some of you ever been away to do holiday work?

(Young Man): Yes, every single one of us! This is what allows us to continue at school! You can go to Nigeria or Savé and earn 30,000 or 40,000 FCFA in a summer!

(Howard): Do NGOs, white people or the government come here and say that’s bad?

(Young Man): Yes, loads.

(Howard): Why?

(Young Man): Because they can see that it can be hard, but they offer us no alternative.

(Emphasis added; Howard, 2012)

The young man in this exchange, in addition to others interviews by Howard (2012), expresses frustration the Beninese government cannot aid employable citizens to find livable wages and jobs in their home communities. These individuals now must make long and arduous journeys to find work to sustain themselves and their families. This complicates the ‘victim-mentality’ all too common of anti-trafficking efforts; in many cases, anti-trafficking NGO’s see trafficked persons in need of ‘rescue’. However, via testimony from these so-called ‘trafficked persons’, these Beninese adolescents are exercising agency and ingenuity to pursue economic stability. They are not ‘victims’ of trafficking; they are victims of structural violence, in part propagated by the US government. In one fell swoop, the US government not only crippled the Beninese economy but also victimizes many Beninese workers through human rights discourse. What does the discursive process mean for human rights research and advocacy?

Notes on top of the written text of Michel Foucault
James Shelley, Creative Commons

Discourse, in a Foucault-ian sense, describes the process of transferring one’s worldview to another via communication (Howard, 2012). When we engage in dialogue, we construct a momentary reality for the person with whom we are engaged. They do the same. These conversations are laden with our worldview, power (a)symmetries, and culture; each of us brings these elements to the table. Therefore, the way in which we speak about a subject not only tells us about the subject itself, but it also of speaker(s). To speak of someone as a victim in need of rescue is to deny them agency and autonomy. This tactic may additionally heighten the moral authority of the speaker. This power asymmetry is epitomized by the dyad of the Beninese worker & US government.

Returning to the young man’s quotations above, we may infer he is an individual seeking agency and economic independence within a state that is unable to provide these opportunities. The state, Benin, is laden with political and financial woes; in part from price gauging by the United States. The US, also according to Howard’s ethnographic research, finances and sends NGO humanitarian aid workers to Benin to aid in anti-trafficking efforts. These aid workers, when pressed about why their Beninese ‘trafficking survivors’ were unable to find work within their homeland, often had no idea about the cotton subsidies or other reasons why the Beninese economy is suffering (Howard, 2012). Without a nuanced understanding of the structural barriers compelling Beninese adolescents to seek work in foreign lands, US aid workers revictimized Beninese citizens through discursive patronage and an inability to shoulder the burden of the US’s involvement in crippling the Beninese economy.

A Beninese woman balances a gourd above her head
AdamRogers2030, Creative Commons

A Challenge for Human Rights

Human rights are universal. The notion that all persons, irrespective of religious creed, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any other identifying characteristic, deserve their dignity and personhood honored and protected is a key mainstay of modernity. The protection of human rights should be implemented by transnational actors such as the United Nations. Human rights should also be protected by states, such as the United States of America and Benin. Finally, human rights have to be guarded be ordinary people living in societies all over the world.

Conversations about human rights inform us about the speaker and how they conceive of rights. In the case of US aid workers in Benin, they considered Beninese adolescents in need of saving and as involuntary trafficking survivors falling prey to a malicious trafficker. And indeed, this is the case for many Beninese. From the other perspective, through the eyes of impoverished Beninese young women and men, earning a livable wage to support their family is paramount. They do not see themselves as victims; they see the aid-workers as misinformed. This begs the question: how do human rights activists and the communities they wish to serve negotiate power-sharing in discourse and social / economic / cultural equality within the doctrine of human rights?

A fundamental challenge within the realm of human rights is the negotiation between two groups of people who have (sometimes radically) different interpretations of what human rights mean. Eastern vs. Western, secular vs. religious, North vs. South, these are illusory differences propagated by individuals who directly benefit from antagonistic discourse between these (and many other) groups of people. Sometimes, is it not the conversation itself that is the important part; it is what each speaker is bringing to the conversation.

We see a conflict of interest between aid-workers in Benin and Beninese adolescents looking for jobs. Neither is wrong in their pursuit; both are merely taking radically different approaches to protecting the rights and fortunes of themselves and of those they care about. These differences of opinion on the interpretation of rights do not, as my colleague has written, weaken the foundational argument for the existence of universal human rights. These differences throw down the gauntlet for human rights activists and researchers to expand the table large enough for all vested parties to have an equal opportunity to negotiate a culturally-practical implementation of universal norms. It is a challenge to dismantle structural barriers to human rights (such as the US’s involvement in Benin’s cotton industry). It is a challenge to marry non-Western and Western conceptions of justice and peace. Human rights as a normative prescription of beliefs and behaviors is still in its infancy. These ideals still need an anthropologically-informed ethic, a moral system steeped in cultural pluralism through a globalized mechanism of implementation, in order to realize the full potential of universal human rights and a shared global identity of what it means to be human.

 

References

Bales, K. (2012). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Press Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Howard, N. (2012). Accountable to whom? Accountable for what? Understanding anti-trafficking discourse and policy in southern Benin. The Anti-Trafficking Review, 1, 43-59.

Libya, Slavery Revisited

a statue, entitled Emancipation, of Lincoln standing over a kneeling freed slave
Emancipation statue at Lincoln Park. Source: David, Creative Commons.

A video of a slave trade in Libya presently circulates the international circuit, eliciting pleas from the international community to the UN, and the UN Security Council to Libyan government to do something to end the “heinous abuses of human rights.” Questions of the video’s validity arose when Libyan officials, based on President Trump’s go-to slogan, discredited the report as “fake news” because it is a product of a CNN investigation. However, in April, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) exposed the slave markets after staff based in Niger and Libya gathered testimonies of these markets. The trafficked individuals are migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, and Gambia seeking passage through Libya to Europe. “Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border. There they become commodities to be bought, sold, and discarded when they have no more value.” In other words, the video confirms what the humanity already knows: human beings are trafficked and disposed of by other human beings. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking in persons is an all-encompassing term for the recruitment, transportation, transfer, and exploitation of another for the purposes of commercial sex exploitation, labor trafficking, and organ trafficking. This blog focuses on labor trafficking, which includes domestic/manual forced migrant labor, and speaks to three issues surrounding this labor trafficking case: the international attention, the commonplaceness, and the international complicity.

The rawness of the video, in many ways, conjures images of American colonial and antebellum days gone by—when Africans were sold in markets and public squares to the highest bidder, thereby becoming property and labor on soil that was not their own. Given the fact slavery in the United States occurred nearly 400 years ago, why is this scene garnering international attention and creating a stir? First, the video provides undeniable evidence of the dehumanizing condition of slavery and the audacity of traffickers and traders. Second, it is a stack reminder that slavery, despite the Emancipation Proclamation in the US, never ended in many other regions of the world, including Libya. Lastly, it is challenges the notion of who is valuable and worth saving, and who civil society may continue to turn its back on.

It is essential to distinguish between indentured servitude and slavery. An indentured servant enters into an agreement with full acknowledgment of unpaid labor for a fixed and agreed-upon timeframe. William Mathews voluntarily made himself the servant of Thomas Windover in 1718 for the period of seven years. For his part, Windover agreed to teach, feed, clothe, and provide lodging to Mathews, who upon his release would receive “a sufficient new suit of apparel, four shirts, and two necklets [scarves].” Slavery, on the other hand, was and is about exploitation and “every sort of injustice…and debasement.” The written account of Olaudah Equiano and his family describes the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment of being “torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain… Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty”. The essential difference here is the presence or absence of choice.

Choice is the thin line separating the inferior from superior, poverty and enough, and animals and human beings. Choice, whether from individual, societal, or government level–influences how we perceive. Bales, in his book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, offers two views of slavery: old and new. Both possess a dehumanizing element. However, old slavery prided itself on ownership and maintenance of “property”; new slavery focuses on bodies for profits. Ownership takes a backseat to the profit margin. This new slavery relies on the disposability of human beings. This reliance enables Bales to assert slavery never ended; it simply evolved. Slavery, at its core, is the theft of life. The theft of one life indirectly affects another.

Traffickers sell sex slaves on the black market, underground, and on the dark web. Bonded labor is often intergenerational in places like Pakistan and India, thus, children oftentimes are born into slavery. Migrant workers build soccer stadiums in Qatar and Brazil for FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, respectively, after fleeing poverty in their home countries. Unpaid or slightly paid workers, specifically children, sew garments for major fashion brands, grind coffee beans for industry leaders, and pick cocoa beans for chocolate bars sold in America. The major issue with labor trafficking lies in the complexity of the supply and demand chain, and the complicity of local and national government officials.

book00 slavery project. Immokalee — Jose Solano shows the record book he is keeping that marks the hours he goes to work and the hours that he actually gets paid for in Immokalee. He, like many other migrant workers, said that they go to work early in the morning but then wait for hours before they can pick tomatoes yet they are only paid for the hours they pick. Source: Moody College of Communications, Creative Commons.

Per Free the Slaves website, of the estimated 40 million enslaved persons worldwide, 50% are forced laborers. ABC used last spring’s television show, American Crime, to bring some aspects of labor trafficking to light. The mini-series revealed the interconnectedness of an American tomato farming family and the illegal migrants they employed. In a poignant scene, a fire conflagrates the property, killing several enslaved workers trapped inside. A real-life similar incident occurred in July 2017, whereby nine migrants died in a semi-trailer at a San Antonio Walmart. Many quickly jump to the assertion that ‘they should have done it the legal way’ and ‘they are taking away American jobs’ or ‘should not seek refuge in the EU’, yet what often happens is we fail to examine the backstory and interconnections.

Libyan Arab Spring occurred in February 2011. The death of leader Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi in October 2011 by NATO forces left a vacuum for the rise of the Islamic State. Several failed attempts for parliamentary elections, crumbling infrastructure, thousands of internally displaced citizens (IDPs), and limited resources coalesce to create the perfect storm for the rise and perpetuation of trafficking in persons. Additionally, continental intrastate conflicts and civil unrest result in large migrations of IDPs and refugees desperate for a semblance of normalcy and peace. The proclivity of new slavery, unlike old slavery, is not race or religion but on “weakness, gullibility, and deprivation”. Put another way, the subjection of the trafficked is the misapplication of trust in an uncontrolled situation. Nikki Haley, in the 2017 TIPS Report, concludes that the impact of trafficking in persons is cross-cultural, leaving no country “immune from this crisis.” The slave markets of Libya are not the first occurrence and they will not be the last; however, the video makes them known.

After a month of awareness and contained outrage, where do we sit on the elimination of slave markets in Libya, specifically? The UN released a statement condemning the markets while noting Libyans have launched an investigation, and encouraging inter-regional cooperation. Amnesty International (AI) named and shamed EU governments–particularly Italy—for their collusion and complicity in creating and maintaining a system of abuse. AI discloses the three-pronged policy of containment consists of provision of assistance to run detention centers, coordination with Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return fleeing refugees, and cooperation with leaders on the ground to halt the smuggling of seekers by increasing border controls. The Italian government, a state party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, pays to refuse refugees and asylum seekers and knowingly returns them to a foreign land for detention and torture. Libya is not a state party; therefore, signing the Convention and implementing asylum law as suggested by Dalhuisen will constitute a step in the right direction, when Libya establishes a functioning government.

The fight to end human trafficking is a global civil society (GCS) responsibility. Glasius believes GCS is a voluntary, social contract based association with others who desire to reach and include humanity to think and participate in the world as global citizens, not simply national citizens. How can one participate in GCS? First, employing social media platforms as advocacy tools. Second, reading the TIPS report and following international entities like the UN and AI will keep you informed of changes in international government strategies and shortcomings for prosecution, protection, and prevention of human trafficking. Third, shop and buy products that are fair trade by understanding the relationship between the supply and demand. Fourth, dig deep and ask questions. Lastly, look up, become aware and watch your surroundings because you, like Shelia Fedrick, could rescue a trafficked person.

The Right to Menstrual Hygiene

a picture of three girls smiling
Jordanian School Girls. Source: David Stanley, Creative Commons

It probably goes without saying that periods are difficult to manage. They are painful, expensive, and often quite problematic for people who experience them.  We use resources such as pads, tampons, pain relievers, and bathrooms in an effort to manage menstruation. According to the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is when people with periods are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.  For those of us who do have access to what we need to manage menstruation, it seems that we often take these things for granted. But what if someone doesn’t have these resources within reach? The bottom line is that a lack in opportunity to practice proper menstrual hygiene is a violation of human rights due to its negative impact on mental and physical health, access to education, and gender equality.

What Is the Problem?

The aspect of this issue that might be the easiest to recognize is the inaccessibility of products like sanitary pads and tampons. One study in Kaduna State, Nigeria reported that only 37% of women in their sample had all the products needed for proper menstruation management. In Uganda, 35% of women reported the same thing. This can partly be attributed to financial issues and the frequency at which the products must be purchased. Some products, such as menstrual cups or washable pads, can be washed and reused over an extended period of time, making them cheaper in the long run. However, they are initially far more expensive than the disposable options. They are simply outside of the budget for many people. Even when someone can afford to pay for the reusable materials, finding somewhere to purchase them may be a problem.

Issues of accessibility do not end with menstrual hygiene products. In many countries, schools lack proper sanitation facilities, like bathrooms, which are vital to being able to safely and comfortably replace and dispose of used menstrual products. This is seen in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where there is an average of 1.2 “toilets” per primary school. These “toilets” are actually pit latrines. They are not usually kept in good condition and rarely have sufficient waste disposal options. In situations like this, there is little to no access to a truly safe and private place to change menstrual materials.

a picture of a traditional pit latrine, which looks like a very small building with a tin roof and two tin doors
Traditional Pit Latrine. Source: SuSanA Secretariat, Creative Commons

Exacerbating this issue are the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Around the world, girls are taught from a young age that having a period is something to hide and to be embarrassed of. In many countries, girls are even considered to be “dirty” when on their period. This can be seen in western Nepal, where there is a tradition called “chaupadi” which requires that girls and women stay outside throughout menstruation. If they enter a home, it is believed that all of the people and animals of the household will fall ill. This perspective puts both their mental and physical health at risk. Menstruation is frequently viewed as a taboo subject, so many girls are not taught anything about it before their first period. Even after they begin to experience menstruation, they do not have access to much knowledge of why it happens or what good menstrual hygiene management is.

It is also important to recognize the relationship between menstrual hygiene management and the transgender community. Menstruation is typically referred to as a strictly feminine issue, but that is simply not the case. Many transgender men and non-binary individuals experience periods, and they should be included in the conversation about menstruation. By failing to recognize their connection to menstruation, we fail to recognize the validity of their experiences and identities. This failure is a problem within itself, but it can also have repercussions on the mental health of transgender and non-binary individuals and their ability to access sanitary materials and bathrooms for menstrual hygiene management. We need to actively work towards being more inclusive with the language we use when discussion periods and related topics. This involves choosing gender neutral terms over gendered terms, such as choosing to say “menstrual hygiene products” rather than “feminine hygiene products”.

Why Does It Matter?

According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has “a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of themselves. When you are told that one of the basic biological processes that you experience and cannot control is shameful, it has the potential to lower the value that you see in yourself. Combined with the common lack in understanding of menstruation, this can lead to significant amounts of fear and confusion and have a considerable negative impact on mental health. Article 26 dictates that everyone has a right to education. Without access to clean menstrual management products or places to change and dispose of used ones, many girls around the world miss school during menstruation to try to keep it hidden. Some girls do not even have the option to go to school during that time. This creates a disparity between the educational and career opportunities of men and women, violating Article 2 of the declaration, which says that everyone is entitled to their rights without discrimination based on distinctions like one’s sex. It is unacceptable to allow limitations to be placed on individuals’ access to their human rights based on something that is uncontrollable. In order for things to change, individuals must take action.

What Can We Do?

Part of the reason why access to menstrual management products is such a difficult issue to deal with is that the majority of people are not comfortable talking about it. Even in the United States, where we generally have access to education about the most basic aspects of menstruation and know that it is normal and healthy, there seems to be some sort of collective, irrational fear surrounding the topic. Periods have a direct impact on half of the world’s population and an indirect impact on all of the population. We cannot continue trying to pretend that the obstructions of human rights that are caused by poor menstrual hygiene management do not exist. Conversations about menstruation might be uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary. uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary.

Many organizations have begun working towards improving MHM worldwide. AFRIpads, for example, works to provide menstrual kits with reusable sanitary pads and storage bags to women and girls throughout Africa, while creating job opportunities within the organization for women in Uganda. They also collaborate with Lunapads in a program called One4Her. For each eligible product that is purchased from Lunapads, an AFRIpad is donated to a student in need. On UAB’s campus, we have access to a chapter of Period: The Menstrual Movement, an organization that is dedicated to improving access to menstrual hygiene products for homeless women in the United States. If you are interested in taking action, the group is currently hosting a donation drive for pads and tampons through October 31. You can find donation boxes by the elevators in any of the residence halls. They are also hosting a Period Packaging event at the Spencer’s Honors House from 6:30pm to 8:30pm on November 1, where people will come together and pack menstrual hygiene products in kits to be given to those in need. Additionally, the Blazer Kitchen is hosting a toiletry drive through October 30, to which you can donate menstrual hygiene products, as well as many other non-perishable items.

If you lack the resources to financially support the improvement of MHM, do not be afraid to speak up and get involved in the conversation. Be a part of spreading awareness and breaking the stigma surrounding periods.