Cataclysm: COVID-19 in Brazil

As the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to grow in the United States (U.S.), another epicenter has been growing in South America. As the sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside an array of national controversies that make the response efforts considerably more difficult. This blog addresses Brazil’s growing importance in the COVID-19 discussion and how it impacts human rights issues concerning indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, favela communities, and good governance.

As of late-June, more than 1.3 million Brazilians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 55,000 have died from the virus. Brazil’s most populated state, São Paulo, is currently the country’s epicenter with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The northeastern state of Ceará has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (100,000+), while Pará in the northwest is nearing 100,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro has over 105,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Amazonas has to the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state with 67 deaths per 100,000 cases, compared to Bahia’s 11 deaths per 100,000 cases, which highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities that have been systematically killed, displaced, and denied access to health care and other preventative services that could help fight the spread of the virus.

Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

As the largest Brazilian state in the Amazon region, Amazonas is known for its indigenous communities who often live in isolated villages and have poor access to health care. In the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2 million+ and is only accessible by aircraft or boat, many recent respiratory-related deaths have resulted in quick burial in mass graves, which has likely led to a severe underestimate the pandemic’s toll on the local population. In the remote community of Betania, the Tikuna tribe has five government medical workers that accommodate an approximate 4,000 inhabitants, but they are not treating the sick due to lack of protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. One considerable threat are the indigenous community members who are not quarantining and are, instead, traveling in and out of town for work.

These unprecedented events compound the colonial legacy that has threatened Brazil’s indigenous peoples for centuries. Centuries ago, indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon were decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. In a way, history is repeating itself because the Brazilian government’s ineffectual response to the crisis have allowed COVID-19 to ravage the surviving indigenous communities and put them on the brink of genocide. Aside from the tribes who have contact with the modern world, the Brazilian Amazon inhabits 103 uncontacted tribes who have virtually no knowledge or resources to protect them from the threat of COVID-19. Signing this petition will help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Since COVID-19 has reached these Amazonian communities, deforestation in the region has also proliferated. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is important to the global ecosystem because it absorbs approximately 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thus, protecting the Amazon is pivotal for stalling the effects of climate change. However, for years, the Amazon has been ravaged to accommodate the agricultural industry as well as illegal loggers and drug traffickers. As a result, indigenous leaders fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will be used to exacerbate the destruction these industries have already caused.

During the month of April, deforestation in Brazil increased by nearly 64% which resulted in more than 150 square miles of rainforest destruction. In response, 3,000+ Brazilian soldiers were deployed to the region to prevent illegal logging and other criminal activities that contribute to deforestation. Some worry that such activity in the rainforest will lead to outsiders giving indigenous communities infectious diseases, namely COVID-19. Brazil’s Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) has made efforts to distribute N95 masks, gloves, and goggles to the region, but activists warn that the only way to protect uncontacted tribes is by keeping illegal loggers and miners out of these areas. Despite the Brazilian government establishing three military bases to prevent illegal actors from permeating the region, they are only expected to be present for 30 days. This is because Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, is expected to take over these efforts but are currently understaffed and underbudgeted.

Favelas in the Age of Social Distancing

More than 11 million Brazilians live in favelas which are shantytowns outside of urban centers. Already hit hard by gun violence, unsanitary conditions, and militaristic police presence, people living in Brazil’s favelas struggle to adhere to social distancing measures. Research has found that people living favela-like conditions spend roughly 50% more time per day with others than people in less-impoverished areas. Often, favelas are composed of two or three rooms with five or six people sharing these spaces. As such, favela conditions enable the spread of COVID-19, and with precious little assistance from the government, Brazil’s most impoverished communities are left to fend for themselves.

With little government help, residents of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo (population: 100,000) have offered a community-based solution. Due to donations and volunteer work, residents have responded to COVID-19 by organizing distribution of free meals, ambulatory services, and neighborhood watch persons. They even designated one building the quarantine house and repurposed closed schools in self-isolation centers. In Rio, members of the gang City of God drive through the local favelas, blaring a recorded message ordering people to stay home. Other gangs have become knowledgeable about COVID-19 in order to deliver essential goods to favela residents and have even gone as far to enforce social distancing measures by preventing restaurants from putting tables out. These forms of gang vigilantism in Brazil’s favelas demonstrate the lack of government support and tension with local police.

Small grave onlooking a favela.
At the bottom of this block destined to the burials of COVID-19, is the favela of the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha housing complex. Source: Léu Britto, Creative Commons.

Trump of the Tropics

These criticisms are largely attributed to the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who notoriously dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu”. Aside from personally ignoring social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has organized large rallies in an effort to confront local governors who have locked down their regions. Recently, after ignoring federal regulation that require wearing a face mask in all public places, a judge ruled that Bolsonaro (and any public official) is not exempt from this policy and should expect a 2,000-reais ($387) fine like anyone else. Bolsonaro even fired his Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, in April after he supported social distancing measures. His successor has since promoted a reopening of the economy and unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.

Known by many as the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has successfully maintained a strong coalition of supporters such as the agriculture community, evangelical Christians, and the military. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is an emerging economy with a weak social safety net that makes it difficult for government officials to convince people to stay at home. Health care access and the conditions to work from home are also quite limited. Recent cell phone tracking data has revealed that 45-60% of Brazilians are not complying with social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that they have to choose between feeding their families and being exposed to the virus. As such, it is assumed Bolsonaro’s defiance of a public health approach to COVID-19 is an effort to appeal to his core supporters. Bolsonaro has also slashed regulations and enforcement of land grabbing, which exacerbates the deforestation crisis currently impacting the Amazon.

Human Rights in Brazil

As demonstrated, Brazil has an array of chronic human rights problems that have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was passed that limited public expenditures in Brazil for the next 20 years. As a result, we are now witnessing how these austerity measures have affected access to housing, food, water, and sanitation when Brazilians need it the most, particularly within the most vulnerable groups – women, children, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and informally-settled persons.

Much like the U.S., Brazil’s COVID-19 response has mostly been subnational social distancing measures and an emergency basic income to placate the masses. However, these efforts are clearly inadequate considering Brazil’s COVID-19 cases are surging alongside another potential Zika outbreak. As a result, Brazil has effectively become the most prominent COVID-19 case study in the Global South, a nation plagued by a deadly virus and an array of human rights issues. Human rights experts suggest fiscal stimulus and social protection packages would only be the beginning of a COVID-19 response because many of these concerns are the consequence of marketization and privatization of public goods and services. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to reverse the market-based ideology that has failed so many countries, especially the Land of the Palms.

Please sign the petition to help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Eugenics in Peru

Indigenous Peruvian woman carrying her child on her back with mountains in the background
Quechua Woman and Child. Source: Quinet, Creative Commons

Many people don’t know what the eugenics movement is. Others know what it was, but think it was restricted to Germany’s sterilization—or making people unable to reproduce—of millions of people they saw as unfit: Jews, people with mental and physical disabilities, and the LGBTQ community, among others. However, Germany was not the first or the last to sterilize certain citizens in an attempt to “better the gene pool”; the United States’ policies actually inspired Hitler’s eugenic goals. After WWII, the United States publicly condemned sterilization and eugenics, but the last forced legal sterilization in the country wasn’t until 1981.

Eugenics has operated as a science of improving humans, whereby the procreation of the people deemed fit is promoted and procreation of those deemed unfit is limited. Proponents of eugenics believe nature wins in the nature vs nurture fight; if you’re born into poverty, it’s because you have a gene that’s keeping you there. Throughout history, the groups of people that were deemed unfit were those in low socioeconomic groups, minorities, and epileptics, most of which were women—basically, the people that didn’t fit the mold. They did this under the broad and vague diagnosis of “feebleminded”.

While the sterilization of poor and minority women in the United States is over, eugenics still goes on today. There are groups of people targeted by the modern eugenics movement—one of which is indigenous people. In Peru, almost 300,000 people—mostly poor, indigenous women living in rural areas—were sterilized between 1996 and 2000. Most of these sterilizations were forced or coerced, and some even led to death.

Then President Alberto Fujimori ran on a campaign of expanding health care and lowering poverty rates. However, instead of providing contraceptives to indigenous women, doctors forced sterilizations on them. Fujimori claims that doctors that forcibly sterilized women were not following the strict regulations that were put in place to prevent these occurrences. However, many of the doctors who performed these sterilizations have revealed they were given quotas to fulfill: “Dr. Hernando Cevallos… received an order to sterilize 250 women in 4 days in 1997.”

There were many ways doctors reached their quotas. Some sent public health officials to the homes of women with large families and pressured them to be sterilized even if they wanted more kids. For example, officials visited Gloria Basilio multiple times until she finally agreed. When she changed her mind in the operating room, they restrained and blindfolded her so they could continue with the surgery. Some of these women are illiterate or don’t speak Spanish at all, so the officials took advantage of that and got them to sign the consent forms without them understanding the procedure. Other officials never tried to get informed consent. Women have been pressured to be sterilized moments after giving birth.

These women have been affected in a far greater way than just being unable to have children. One woman had serious medical complications, which were written off by the doctors. She died less than two weeks later at home. She is not the only woman to have sterilization disable or kill her.

Aside from medical complications, they also experience social and mental complications as a result. In the indigenous culture, women are expected to have many children, and women who have been sterilized can no longer serve that purpose. These women can lose a sense of purpose in themselves and also lose the people close to them who were counting on them to have children. Maria Elena Carbajal, a woman who was pressured into a sterilization after giving birth at the hospital, lost her husband because he thought she had willingly been sterilized so that she could be unfaithful without consequences. She found another partner, but he also left her because she could not provide kids. Additionally, these women have to face the fact that they will never have more children—while some will have none at all. Florentina Loayza was only 19 years old when she was forcibly sterilized. She hadn’t had kids, but she wanted some, and she often felt “a deep sadness” whenever she saw a baby.

Another profound impact this has on many women is their connection with religion. Some religions, Catholicism included, believe that sterilization is a sin and that those who have been sterilized, voluntarily or not, have sinned. Justina Rimachi was told by nuns that she could no longer come to church because she had been sterilized. The stigma felt within the walls of a place that felt like home were only relieved by the forgiveness from the priest. He did not tell her it was not her fault, but he did not tell her to leave, so she was grateful.

The crimes against these women were atrocious, and luckily, they are starting to receive attention. In November of 2000, Fujimori stepped down after ten years of presidency. It wasn’t until 2009 that he was arrested and sentenced for some of his crimes, but none of them were for the sterilizations that occurred under his regime.

Some women and their families have received settlements and the Peruvian state promised in 2003 to conduct investigations. However, the Peruvian state continues to deny that the government had a part in the forced sterilizations. They blame instead the public health officials and medical practitioners. To this day, the Peruvian government, which is no longer under the control of the Fujimori regime, has not issued apologies or reparations to the survivors and their families.

While the government continues to deny its role in the sterilization of indigenous people, activists and human rights organizations are trying to call global attention to these injustices. One group, The Quipu Project, has used a free telephone service to collect the stories of over 150 people who have been sterilized, and the number continues to grow. You can hear these stories on their website in Spanish and in English. Not only is this campaign used to bring international awareness to this issue, but these stories are also being used by people fighting for justice within Peru.

Where Social Distancing is Impossible

US-Mexico Border
Source: Yahoo Images

As the COVID-19 outbreak crosses borders throughout the United States, the Center for Disease Control has released recommendations for maintaining public health, which includes working from home, hand washing, and staying six feet away from any person, if possible. For the past few weeks, I have noticed people in my own community adapt to this new way of life. Kroger and Home Depot put masking tape six feet apart in the checkout lines, and every company I’ve ever heard of has sent me a helpful email explaining their own “pandemic plan.” Amidst the anxieties associated with this global pandemic, focus understandably turns to our immediate family and community. I may get frustrated about the lack of toilet paper in my local grocery store, but millions are incapable of following any of the CDC’s guidelines. Areas with a lack of hand-washing stations, affordable healthcare, clean water, internet, housing, and infrastructure do not allow for proper social distancing. Even at the United States’s southern border, relief agencies are struggling to address the growing pandemic.

Thousands of migrants along the United States-Mexico border are stuck in limbo. Many have fled from Central America, fleeing domestic violence, gangs, and death threats, to seek shelter in the United States. However, due to the threat of COVID-19, “The U.S. closed its border to asylum-seekers, Mexico suspended refugee processing, and many migrants are afraid to go home to their native countries, even if it were safe to travel.” Therefore, people seeking asylum are left on their own to find shelter, food, water, and medical care in a place that lacks these things when there is not a global pandemic occurring. Volunteers that would usually come to help have been quarantined, basic supplies have become hard to find due to panic buying, and any assistance from medical staff has been stretched thin as case numbers continue to rise in both Mexico and the United States. Additionally, asylum-seekers have to be concerned for their own safety even after they have made it to the border and received a court date for immigration hearings. Human trafficking, sexual assault, and gang violence are all risks in the camps, and since immigration hearings have been put on hold indefinitely, asylum-seekers have to wait even longer in these dangerous areas. Aid efforts become increasingly complex with more restrictions put in place by Mexican and United States governments each day.

Pew Research Center Graph showing countries that have closed their borders due to coronavirus
Source: Pew Research Center

As economies are negatively impacted by the virus, countries are becoming increasingly isolationist. 90% of the world’s population currently live in countries with restricted travel, while almost 40% live in countries with closed borders. These countries include Canada, China, Japan, and Ecuador, with Greece suspending asylum claims at its border with Turkey, much like the United States’s current policy with asylum-seekers at its southern border. Millions of United States citizens have filed for unemployment, and businesses and individuals are struggling to stay financially afloat and pay rent. It makes sense that countries like the United States are turning their attention to the plight of their own citizens, but according to the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “If we let the virus spread like wildfires, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world, it would kill millions.” For many relief agencies and nonprofits, grants and funding for the year have already been distributed. However, the funds are typically earmarked for certain programs. Unfortunately, many of these programs, like funding for computer education, community engagement, and language classes, cease to exist in a world with COVID-19. Now, funding is needed to help displaced persons combat the threat of COVID-19, but it would require authorization to transfer funds from one program to another. Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has said that banks have not financially supported relief agencies who would help UN sanctioned countries like Iran and North Korea because they fear being sued by the US government. Bureaucratic lag in providing humanitarian resources will likely mean death for thousands, particularly those with limited resources. With donor countries being overwhelmed with their own coronavirus crises, where would the funding come from?

War-torn countries and refugee camps in countries like Syria and Sudan receive assistance from the UN in the form of educational, medical, and financial resources. When we see pictures of a child fleeing violence and war in Syria, it is understandable why the UN would come in to help. However, rhetoric around the US-Mexico border paints a different picture. Often, this population is thought of as simply a group of people seeking the “American dream”. In truth, these asylum-seekers and refugees are fleeing for their lives, just like refugees on other continents. Regardless of opinions surrounding citizenship and legal status, the reality is that thousands of people have come to this region to escape deadly violence. Executive Director of Global Response Management (GRM), an organization that provides medical care to vulnerable populations worldwide, Helen Perry explains the unique situation, “There’s not a lot of great oversight. Normally in a displacement situation, the UN would come in at either the request of the country they’re fleeing from or the country that’s receiving them…but unfortunately at the border that’s not happening because both governments [Mexico and the US] are sort of unwilling to admit that there’s a problem.” As a former nurse in the US Army, Perry is especially adept at assessing the needs of struggling communities. When she came to the US-Mexico border for the first time in 2018, she was surprised to see people facing similar levels of violence to patients she had helped in Yemen who had fled the Civil War there. Fortunately, her organization continues to provide aid along the border, but COVID-19 adds an additional layer of complications. The dire situation described above was her take last year, and her organization has had to make adjustments due to the pandemic, including creating a makeshift hospital. They’re not the only organization building makeshift shelters. A government agency tasked with building the US-Mexico border wall is currently creating semi-permanent lodging for its construction workers so they can continue building, despite concerns at COVID-19. These workers, like asylum-seekers on the other side of the wall, are worried about their health and how a lack of resources could impact them and their families.

Asylum-seekers and refugees have limited access to news updates, so there is a lack of knowledge in the camps about COVID-19 and its impact. Border towns like Tijuana are already overwhelmed with patients who are US citizens, so it would be virtually impossible for a non-citizen to get accepted should the need arise. They have been instructed by relief agencies to attempt to follow the previously mentioned CDC guidelines about social distancing and handwashing, but this is incredibly difficult in the camps. Tents are small, and many people have to sleep next to each other. Water stations and bathrooms are few and far between. As coronavirus tests are barely accessible to US citizens, finding one would be challenging for someone in the camps.

Discussions of this contagious virus have created anxiety for any empathetic person. Despite the grim reality, there are some positive efforts taking place. GRM is currently working on a twenty-bed field hospital near the Matamoros camps, although they may face more challenges as United States volunteers may not be allowed to travel there. Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization, and the Refugee Health Alliance have distributed medication and additional hand washing stations to many asylum-seekers. While there are few suspected cases of COVID-19 at the camps as of yet, these actions could be crucial in containing the virus should an outbreak occur. It’s important to remember wise words by Richard Blewitt, UN representative for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “At this time we need global and local solidarity and compassion with all those affected by COVID-19, wherever they live.”

Diamonds: A Symbol of Love and Conflict

Two young diamond miners.
Blood Diamonds. Source: Brian Harrington Spier, Creative Commons.

While I do not soon foresee a diamond in my future, I have been able to witness the happiness a diamond ring brings to the lives of other people. A diamond ring represents love and commitment, and nothing can be purer than that. Imagine my surprise when I learned in my economics class that a significant number of diamonds, called blood or conflict diamonds, can be linked to horrific suffering and bloodshed. A good number of these conflict diamonds can be traced back to one company: De Beers.

De Beers diamond company was founded in the 1800s by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa. Before 2000, the goal of De Beers was to effectively and efficiently buy as much of the world’s supply of diamonds as possible so as to be able to determine the price and guarantee price stability. This tactic earned the company the nickname “the custodian” of the diamond industry. In 2000, De Beers controlled around 65 percent of all diamond production, while in 2001 De Beers marketed two-thirds of all the rough diamonds in the world and produced nearly half of the world’s supply of diamonds from their mine. The company employed strategic marketing tactics to maintain their power and growth worldwide, effectively influencing the perception of diamonds to what it is today. For example, the phrase, “A Diamond is Forever,” was coined in a De Beers ad campaign. De Beers influenced the choice of a diamond as the centerpiece for an engagement ring and even the price of the ring to be two months’ salary. The Washington Post described De Beers as “a global cartel controlling mining, distribution, and pricing.”

For a company that produces a product to signify love, such as an engagement ring, De Beers has left a significant amount of bloodshed and controversy in its wake. The company has been banned from operating or selling inside the United States borders since 1996 over a price-fixing case. In the 1990s, De Beers bought billions of dollars’ worth of diamonds from conflict ridden areas in Africa, which in turn provided the means for rebel groups to obtain weapons and supplies on the black market. In the mid to late 1900s, De Beers benefited from the South African apartheid because the system of black repression ensured cheap labor for the mines, protecting the company from being hurt by the diamond boycotts sweeping the world at that time. The company became scorned as more and more information regarding conflict diamonds and De Beers’ blatant disregard for the harm conflict diamonds can cause became public.

Two diamond rings
Rings. Source: ilovebutter, Creative Commons.

The definition of conflict diamonds, as written by the United Nations, is as follows: “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.” Armed groups use the revenue from exploiting diamond mines and diamond workers to fund their personal agendas. Despite the diamond business being an $81.4 billion a year industry, the towns that house the diamond mines do not reflect the wealth that lies below. Many parents choose to send their children to work in the diamond mines in order to earn a meager salary, determined on a diamond-by-diamond basis, instead of sending the children to school. The difficulty that evolves from attempting to eliminate conflict diamonds is that the diamonds traded by rebel groups are physically indistinguishable from the diamonds traded by legitimate groups. Because of the long process a diamond goes through before it reaches the jeweler, it is very difficult to determine the original source of the diamond.

In 2000, De Beers put out a statement guaranteeing that their diamonds did not originate from conflict zones in Africa and promised that their purchasing of diamonds did not fuel any conflicts in Angola and Congo. The statement was met with mixed reviews, some welcoming the initiative the company was taking, and some believing that De Beers would be unable to control the smuggling system that crisscrosses across the continent of Africa. Since the initial statement in 2000, De Beers’ statements have been very contradictory, stating at one point that it would be easy to find the origin of the diamonds and yet continually releasing statements saying that it is impossible to distinguish the origin of the diamonds that they buy. Since 2000, some independent diamond dealers have not only claimed to sell diamond bunches that they bought from rebel groups to De Beers, but also that De Beers was aware of the origin of the diamonds. Currently on their website, De Beers boasts that 100% of their diamonds are conflict free. However, the company only cites the Kimberley Process, a process they helped to create, in regards to this certification.

De Beers’ promises have rested on determining the origin of the diamonds. It has already been stated but is worth reiterating that determining the origin of diamonds has been much disputed as diamonds are handled in groups, making the process of discovering the origin of a diamond very difficult. In 2003, a process named the Kimberley Process was established by the main actors in the diamond industry, including De Beers. The Kimberley Process is so named for the town where De Beers diamond company was founded, highlighting the influence the company had in the establishment of the process. It is an international certification process with the goal of distinguishing conflict-free diamonds from those diamonds associated with a conflict. The Process was created from a meeting in 2000 in Kimberley, South Africa, where the biggest diamond producers and buyers in the world met to address the growing threat of a consumer boycott. Consumers were becoming more aware of the influence the sale of diamonds had in funding to civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone and were threatening to forgo buying diamonds all together. In 2003, 52 governments and international advocacy groups ratified the Process, creating a system of certifications issued by the country of origin that must accompany any shipment of diamonds. If a country was unable to prove that their diamonds were separate from any conflict, said country could be cast out of the international diamond trade. The Process did marginally reduce the number of conflict diamonds in the market, but the process is ridden with loopholes. It is unable to stop the international sale of the majority of diamonds mined in conflict ridden zones and diamond mining even outside of a conflict zone is terrible work with many of the miners being school-aged minors.

Diamond mine in Australia
World’s Largest Diamond Mine. Source: Soundog, Creative Commons.

Many argue that the Kimberley Process is not only laced with loopholes, but it also does not go far enough. For example, the Process does not disqualify diamonds mined in an area with human rights abuses. Also, the definition of conflict used in the creation of the Process is so narrow that it excludes many situations that would generally be considered a conflict. The definition used is, “gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state.” An instance where the definition stated in the Kimberley Process failed occurred in 2008. The army of the government of Zimbabwe seized a diamond mine within Zimbabwe’s borders and proceeded to kill and rape hundreds of miners. Because the army represented a legitimate government, this instance is not considered to be against the Kimberley Process. The Kimberley Process did implement a ban on the Central African Republic when it was discovered that the mining of diamonds helped to fund a genocide of thousands since 2013. However, the UN estimates that $24 million worth of diamonds have been smuggled out of the country since the ban.

While a true fair-trade system would ban diamonds mined in a conflict ridden area and allow consumers to purchase diamonds that could improve the life of artisan workers, ultimately there is no way of truly knowing whether the diamond you buy is in somehow linked to a conflict. The Human Rights Watch has come up with a list of strategies that may help diamond companies fulfill their obligation of “identifying, preventing, mitigating, and accounting for their own impact on human rights throughout their supply chain.” Such strategies include: 1. Establishing a policy regarding the supply chain that is included in the contracts with suppliers 2. Creating a ‘chain of custody’ by requiring documentation for each step along the supply chain 3. Assessing thoroughly and respond promptly to human rights risks at all stages of the supply chain 4. Employing independent, third-party examiners 5. Becoming public with the names of suppliers 6. Sourcing responsibly and being wary of large-scale mining operations. The diamond industry has a long way to go but with established organizations calling out companies like De Beers, loopholes in certification processes can be closed and ultimately conflict diamonds may be eliminated.

Why Are Chilean Civilians Protesting?

Chile is a Spanish-speaking country located to the west of Argentina in South America. Its ribbon-like shape allows it to be a part of many different climates, from the Atacama Desert to the North to the snowy Alpine climate to the South. According to the BBC Country Profile, Chile’s population amounts to about 17.9 million people, with 6.7 million people living in Santiago, its capital city.

An image of the map of Chile.
Top 10 Hardest Working Countries of the World. Source: Workspirited, Creative Commons

Chile is a free country. The Freedom in the World 2019 Profile rates Chile as Free with a score of 94 out of 100. According to the report, Chile’s Freedom Rating, Political Rights, and Civil Liberties are rated as most free due to its growing civil rights efforts that emerged after its transition to a democracy in 1990. So, why are there high-scale protests currently spanning the country? High costs and economic inequality are largely to blame.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Chile’s income inequality is ranked 3rd in the world, only behind Costa Rica and South Africa (for reference, the United States is ranked sixth).

These statistics explain why the youth in Chile are currently protesting rising transport fares. In early October, “the government announced that the metro rush hour prices would rise by 30 pesos ($0.04).” These slight rises to the metro fare were met with backlash from many school children, who responded by jumping over metro turnstiles or even destroying them while chanting the phrase “Evade, and not pay, is another way of fighting.” These protests even spread to supermarkets and petrol stations where fires raged the streets during the night. It was due to these protests that the president, Sabastian Piñera, decided to declare a state of emergency while also issuing curfews in select locations. Last used after the 2010 earthquake, the state of emergency suspends free movement and assembly with the main purpose of maintaining public order. With this employed, “the military is [tasked] to guard the streets, with generals appointed in every region where the state of emergency is valid.” Piñera claimed that Chile was “at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits” while characterized these events as a problem concerning rebels rather than the government. Although it may seem that calling a state of emergency may be justified, since these unorganized protests involved setting fire to many metro stations, attacking Chile’s largest private electricity company, and throwing stones at the police, it did not bode well for Chile’s president whose policies have allowed him to appeal to businesses and investors while staying disconnected from the Chilean people.

A stack of gold round coins, stacked like an exponential graph
Gold Round Coins. Source: Pexels, Creative Commons

Economic inequality has been a major problem in many societies around the world with about “80 [of the] richest people on the planet now own[ing] as much as the bottom half of the world’s population” today. This problem has been so profound that even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has declared income inequality as a central challenge of this century. And, as seen in Chile, outrage over these policies have spurred many to protest the subsequent injustices and push it as a central issue in political discourse.

Inequality, especially in terms of income and wealth, has significant influence on human rights. Without access to money or a stable income, many are restricted in access to healthcare, education, food, and other commodities and services that every person should be able to access. The lack of access to these goods violates the 25th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Due to the ubiquity of poverty worldwide, this demonstrates that much of the world still has a long way to go until universal human rights are achieved. Inequality also distances the poor from proper services, such as some form of education, proper shelter, and access to water, which creates conflict between disadvantaged and affluent communities. By denying these universal human rights, countries are willing to perpetuate (extreme) inequality, which restricts access to fundamental needs that ensure equitable and sustainable living conditions.

According to an article posted by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, focus on economic inequality remains silent despite its major ramifications on the lives of people across the world. The article questions why the human rights community is relatively silent on an issue that challenges what human rights stands for in the first place and how the community can advance policies such as fiscal reforms, wage protections and social protection floors. While it is true these reforms and actions may help bridge the gap between the rich and poor, some of the larger scale benefits these programs can fund are financial literacy and incentives for self-governance.

A Chilean Flag
Chile | Democracy Now! Source: Democracy Now, Creative Commons

Looking at Chile specifically, the “richest 1 percent of the population earns 33 percent of the nation’s wealth.” This comes with the fact that 50% of laborers earn less than 400,000 pesos a month (about $550). Although Chile is recognized as a stable, peaceful, and wealthy country, those international impressions stand on very weak pillars, especially when looking at economic inequality across the board. These protests have also been peaceful, with many involving more than 5 percent of Chile’s population. According to Stephanie Diaz, a sports teacher living in a working-class neighborhood in Santiago, in an interview with Vox, “This protest is not about 30 pesos, but 30 years. It’s 30 years since the return to democracy, but we have preserved a constitution made under the dictatorship.” Chile’s 1980 constitution, which preceded a military dictatorship, made goods and materials, even those considered as public goods, privatized. As a result, this raised the value and cost to produce and distribute such resources. Furthermore, privatization has influenced Chile to have the highest university tuitions in the world which has, alone, indebted approximately 4.5 million people in the workforce.

According to Vox, Chile’s president’s approval rating had dipped below 14 percent, a historic number when looking at the amount of people who are livid and fighting peacefully for change. Such disapproval comes as Chile plays host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November, where President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping will be visiting to negotiate a trade deal, and the UN Climate Change Conference occurring in December. A solution proposed by Shivani Ekkanath in an opinion piece of the Borgen Magazine lays along the lines of cracking down on bureaucracy, fixing the misallocation of funds, ending corruption, etc. in order to lift the economic burden of poverty and other kinks in the economic system.

Based on what has occurred in Chile thus far, it appears the rise in metro prices by 30 pesos was simply the tip of the iceberg. Growing economic inequality combined with more business-friendly practices has caused more workers and everyday Chileans to suffer and be unable to work toward a promising future for themselves and their families. And, as seen when with economic inequality, the growing gap between the rich and poor simply brings into light how it is both a cause and a consequence of violations of human rights such as access to care, education, and housing. Current protests like these help us understand that even countries regarded as stable are not always what they seem unless one looks at the lives of everyday people. Thus, we must focus on social and economic stability by employing a human rights perspective through the view of the common Chilean rather than a perspective at a state-wide level. Chile is an excellent example of people fighting for fairness in society peacefully, where progressive fiscal reforms should be utilized and promoted, rather than solely looking to appeal businesses.

The Nutrition and Health Crisis in Venezuela

Child wears hat that says Venezuela on it and stares off into the distance.
ELEICOES 2013 NA VENEZUELA. Source: Joka Madruga, Creative Commons

The current president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, was elected in 2013 by a very small margin. During his first term, the Venezuelan economy took a turn for the worst. He was reelected for a second term in 2018, but his opponents feel that the election wasn’t valid because many of the other candidates were made ineligible to run or even jailed, so the National Assembly does not recognize his presidency and considers the presidency vacant. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, in cases of a vacant presidency, the leader of the National Assembly (currently Juan Guaidó) takes over as president. Guaidó has very little political power because the military still supports Maduro.

I first heard about the political and economic unrest in Venezuela when I went on an exchange trip to Spain in May of 2016. My host family had moved to Spain eight months earlier because their jobs had been the first affected by the economic downturn. They were lucky that the dad was a Spanish citizen—it was much easier for them to move to Spain than if none of them had been citizens—but many Venezuelans have not been so lucky.

Protests in Venezuela
Venezuelan Protests. Source: Trong Khiem Nguyen, Creative Commons

Since 2015, health statistics have been underreported—if they’ve been reported at all. December of 2016 marked the last report from the Venezuelan Ministry of Health. This report describes an alarming increase in previously eliminated and controlled infectious diseases, such as malaria and diphtheria, and in maternal and infant mortality rates. The report has many alarming statistics, but aside from that, it is the last one to have been published. Additionally, the Health Minister who published the report was fired immediately afterward.

With no one within the country reporting on the health needs and statistics of the people, it is nearly impossible for other countries to give external aid. Additionally, even when aid sent, the Venezuelan government refuses help. Even nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are forced by law to refuse help: the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that any NGOs receiving financial assistance from other countries would be committing treason. This has a devastating impact on the citizens as they are not receiving the help that they need.

The situations in the hospitals are dismal. According to a survey conducted by the political opposition, many services in hospitals are not consistently available, if at all, due to lack of supplies. Many supplies have gone missing from public hospitals and clinics, and those being shipped in often are embargoed and never make it past the ports. The reason is unknown, but many suspect it has to do with the corruption of the government. This has forced patients to bring their own medical equipment—which can include anything from medicine to surgical equipment—when going to the hospital, so they know they’ll have what they need. Private clinics, which have most of the supplies they need, ask for payment in US dollars, which means only the wealthiest can get that level of care. This leaves the average citizen without proper medical care in a country where the government is actively keeping lifesaving materials out of the hands of doctors.

Because of the low levels of health care, many diseases are reemerging and worsening. Between 2008 and 2015, there were no cases of diphtheria reported and one case of measles reported. However, in the past three years, over one thousand cases of diphtheria and over six thousand cases of measles have been confirmed. These statistics show a lack of vaccinations in children, which is potentially due to limited vaccines available. Malaria rates, which were once controlled through pesticides, medication, and reduction of mosquito breeding areas, have increased by over ten times from 2009 to 2017. Tuberculosis cases more than doubled from 2014 to 2017, which is even more concerning with the cases of untreated HIV on the rise as well. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Venezuela is the only country in the world where large numbers of individuals living with HIV have been forced to discontinue their treatment as a result of the lack of availability of antiretroviral (ARV) medicines.” 90 percent of HIV positive Venezuelans have to live without ARV medicines, and these people are majorly susceptible to and will be severely affected by the many diseases that are on the rise. Because all of these diseases are on the rise and the limitations of hospitals, maternal and infant mortality rates in Venezuela have risen back to their levels from the 1990s. Venezuela is the only Latin American country where this has occurred.

In addition to the health crisis, there is also a nutrition crisis. The last nutrition data published was in 2007, but many Venezuelans report only eating yuca or a tin of sardines for their one meal of the day. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 11.7 percent of the population is undernourished, meaning they are not getting enough nutrients. This is severely affecting Venezuelan children; as of March 2018, 17 percent of children under 5 in lower income areas of Venezuela have moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) or severe acute malnutrition (SAM)—a 7 percent increase from February 2017 and a level of crisis.  According to WHO, the fatality rates for children under the age of five who have SAM and MAM are between 30-50 percent, so it is important that children not only have access to healthy food, but that hospitals also have access to the necessary treatments, and at this time that is not generally the case in Venezuela. Pregnant women are also affected by MAM and SAM, which can lead to adverse outcomes during pregnancy, childbirth, and the child’s infancy.

Venezuela is not the only country that is experiencing a health and food crisis. However, many countries have these issues due to lack of resources, funding, or aid. While Venezuela is experiencing an economic downturn, they have been offered plenty of aid, which they have repeatedly refused. Additionally, the lack of reporting health and nutrition statistics is concerning for many reasons. First, this most likely means that no one, including the Venezuelan government, knows the extent to which the Venezuelan citizens are suffering. Second, it shows that the Venezuelan government is willing to conceal the level of suffering experienced by its citizens in order to protect their image, instead of asking for assistance; it sends a message that they do not care about the wellbeing of the citizens they are supposed to serve and protect. The UN continues to urge the Venezuelan government to let them send assistance, warning that their situation can become much worse than it already is, but they continue to refuse and push back on any assistance offered and put the lives of their citizens on the line.

Disability Rights: A Personal Perspective

* This is a repost from summer 2017

Myself signing for my sorority in front of a section of member nation flags on our last day at the United Nations.

“The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” When I was hired by the UAB Institute for Human Rights, I never dreamed that we would take the trip to the United Nations for the 10th Convention of States Parties on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Visiting the United Nations has always been a dream for me, but being able to take part in an international effort to promote disability rights was an unbelievable opportunity to me personally.

Disability has always intersected my life. My sister and I were born with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is basically a fancy way of saying that all the connective tissue in our bodies are about as stable as a limp noodle. Because of EDS, chronic pain is just a part of my life. I am unable to run, walk, or jump without a joint in my body threatening to dislocate. I suffer from sleep disorders and chronic fatigue along with a host of gastrointestinal issues. It also affects my heart and my autonomic nervous system; I tend to feel like a walking time bomb of anxiety, heart palpitations, and general malaise all wrapped up in a spaghetti-based body. I have lived my whole life without complaining for the most part. Most people in my life don’t know the extent of my disability, or even about it at all. I keep my pain hidden because I do not want anyone’s pity. I continue physically far beyond what my body’s real limits are because I do not want people to think I am lazy or helpless. It takes too much time to explain my disability to everyone I meet, so I deal with my pain with a smile on my face. This is the reality that most people with disabilities face—a life of “oh, I’m so sorry for you!” when they learn of your disability and “why can’t you do this?” when they do not understand your limits. My struggle as a woman with a disability is the reason why the Convention meant so much to me. Before the Convention, I had never in my life been around more than two people with disabilities or ever felt like anyone truly understood what I was going through. Seeing so many other people with disabilities raising their voices, sharing their pain and suffering, and demanding change gave me hope that one day I will no longer feel like I need to hide my disability.

Photo of the team at lunch at the United Nations.
Photo of the team at lunch at the United Nations.

I have always known that having a disability does not mean you cannot be strong and independent. Not being able to walk for long periods does not make me lazy, and my joint instability does not make me weak. I know these things, but sometimes the able-bodied world undermines these beliefs and makes me feel like I will never be good enough. The champions of disability rights who I met gave me such courage to fight those fears. The utter strength and bravery of these people were so encouraging to someone like me. I could see myself in Daniela Bas, the head of DESA and wheelchair user. Ms. Bas has managed to overcome so many obstacles as a woman with a disability yet constantly dazzles people with her charismatic personality and fierce intellect. Ms. Bas gave her knowledge on the importance of international cooperation in dismantling the cross-cutting barriers faced by women with disabilities. Her policy-based approach and political science background gave me hope that one day I could follow in her footsteps. Ms. Mia Farah, of the Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy, gave me such encouragement from her passion, skills, and independence as a woman with Down Syndrome. Ms. Farah organized one of the most enjoyable and successful side events I attended, despite the challenges that her intellectual disability can bring. Her story of her successes resonated with me because I have always feared my limitations. Mia Farah showed me that limitations that others place on you because of your disability don’t have to define you.

I not only found inspiration during my time at the UN but a wealth of new knowledge as well. Every individual gave new insight on disability rights that I had never considered before. Natalie Draisin spoke on road safety for women and girls with disabilities, and how unsafe roads and transportation can be fatal—an important issue that many ignore when discussing disability rights. I was touched by the story of Flavia Cintra, a Brazilian journalist, whose doctor told her to abort because he believed that tetraplegics should never have children. Ms. Cintra shared how Brazilian mothers with disabilities often lose custody of their children and have their reproductive rights stolen from them through deceptive paperwork. Some wedding officiators even refuse to marry people paralyzed below the waist because they are believed to be unable to bear children. I never knew any of these issues before speaking with Ms. Cintra. As a reproductive rights activist, Ms. Cintra’s story made me understand the importance of including people with disabilities in our activism. All of the stories and experiences that were shared with me hit deeply and gave me such insight into international policies on disability rights.

Audience view during the side event by IHR and IDPPS teams’ “Making Disability Rights Real: Implementing the CRPD through Regional Cooperation with Lessons Learned from ASEAN.”
Audience view during the side event by IHR and IDPPS teams’ “Making Disability Rights Real: Implementing the CRPD through Regional Cooperation with Lessons Learned from ASEAN.”

The global environment for people with disabilities is harsh, whether one is in Brooklyn, Bogota, or Bangkok. All over the world, people with disabilities deal with compound discrimination, lack of adequate healthcare, limited access to resources, sexual abuse and assault, and the negation of their independence.  Having this opportunity to partake in the implementation of policies on disability rights was genuinely life changing. Viewing the inner workings of the United Nations made me realize that I wanted to make a career in the international nonprofit organizations that work with the UN to effect change. It was incredible to see people from so many different places, all speaking in different languages. I could be listening to a speaker in Chinese, and put on a headset to have it translated live into French, Russian, English, and several more. Watching the sign language interpreters onstage during meetings was so thrilling— not only was it beautiful to watch, it also was critical in making the events accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. These events made me realize how necessary sign language is to have a successful career in advocacy, because the inclusion of nonverbal people is vital. I will always look back on this trip to the United Nations as the moment when I found my calling. As I have always tried to ignore my disability, I had never realized until now how central disability rights are to my life. Being around such fearless role models brought to life a passion to fight for the rights of women and girls with disabilities around the world.

 

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor: The U.S. Refugee Crisis

On Monday, November 12, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based, and law organizations at Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 2: Focus on the United States. The panel discussion, moderated by Anne Ledvina ( Associate Director at BSC – Ellie and Herb Sklenar Center for International Programs), included Yanira Arias (Campaign Manager at Alianza Americas), April Jackson-McLennan (Attorney at The Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C.), Sarai Portillo (Executive Director at Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice), Roshell Rosales (Member at Adelante Alabama Worker Center), and Jessica Vosburgh (Executive Director at Adelante Alabama Worker Center), addressing the Central American migrant caravan, definitions of immigration law, and Alabama’s role in the current refugee crisis.

From left to right: Anne Ledvina, Jessica Vosburgh, Roshell Rosales, and April Jackson-MacLennan pictured on the discussion panel. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Arias and Portillo first addressed the audience by speaking about the recent events in Mexico City where many Central American caravan refugees were staying in a stadium serving as a makeshift camp. Here, many tenants camped on the field or slept on the bleachers, received medical attention and waited in line for basic resources, such as water, that had limited availability. Not only does Portillo assist migrants in her birthplace of Mexico but heads the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ), a grassroots network of six non-profit organizations and various individuals dedicated to protecting and advancing immigrant rights by developing leadership, aligning with other justice causes, encouraging civil participation, and advocating for just policies. Arias’ organization, Alianza Americas, which is a national network serving Latino communities, is currently facilitating donations for Central American caravan refugees through the Refuge for Families Campaign.

Vosburgh then initiated discussion around the narrow qualifications for refugee status and mentioned the disproportionate effects of being an LGBTQ refugee such as allocation to immigration facilities based on birth-assigned gender and sexual exploitation. Additionally, Vosburgh insisted the United States plays a unique role in creating refugees, namely through the war on drugs and neoliberal economic policies which perpetuate destabilization in the Global South. Vosburgh heads Adelante Alabama Worker Center, a Hoover-based organization dedicated to uniting low-wage and immigrant workers as well as their families for defending and promoting human, namely labor, rights in vulnerable communities. Adelante offers a myriad of programs, including the Accompaniment Program, which matches volunteers with community members to assist with transportation to court hearings as well as probation appointments, as well as English classes and legal representation. Additionally, Roshell Rosales, an Adelante member and Montevallo University sophomore, spoke about her experiences as a Dreamer, including scrutiny from law enforcement and the opportunity to earn a scholarship through The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!).

Jackson-McLennan elaborated on the services provided by The Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., particularly their focus on affirmative asylum (obtaining asylum) and defensive asylum (defense against removal from U.S.) cases. Their services are salient to the region because not only is Alabama void of an immigration clinic, which often provide affordable legal services, but the political climate of the state often serves as a disadvantage to immigrants, speaking to the importance of their work. Also, due to predatory law practices in the Birmingham area, attorneys at John Charles Bell provide their immigration legal services on a low bono basis, meaning their assistance is accessible and affordable to potential clients.

Although these organizations do fascinating work to advance the rights of immigrants in the, every additional ally to the cause could be life-changing, whether it be through employment, housing, legal, or transportation assistance. Furthermore, our current political climate carries vestiges of anti-immigration efforts from the 20th Century when individuals and families, namely from the Jewish community, left their homes to escape conflict and faced persecution. As a result, more than 1,000 Central American refugees are at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, facing law enforcement with tear gas, pleading for a chance at a better life. Such a crisis speaks to our moral compass, not only as a country but global community, whose Universal Declaration of Human Rights, via the United Nations, demonstrates that everyone has the freedom of movement within each state (Article 13) and a right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being (Article 25).

If you’re interested in participating in the advancement of immigrant rights, both locally and globally, please mark your calendar for March 4, 2019 for the third installment of this series which will be held at Samford University and focus on a community action plan. Please stay tuned for more details.

America’s Youngest Prisoners: Inhumanity of Family Detention

**As the US government flip-flops on its “zero-tolerance” Biblical mandated immigration policy that isn’t a policy but enforcement of the law, this repost, from this February, describes some of state-sanctioned child abuse and human rights violations experienced those seeking safety in “the land of the free and home of the brave.” You can read more information and some of the latest reports: here, here, here, including former first lady Laura Bush, and this video of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The United States has long been lauded as the land of the free. As Americans, we have a tendency to consider our country to be an almost utopian land, far removed from the bleak landscapes and brutal violence of foreign countries that appear on the news. However, this ethnocentric attitude blinds us to the human rights abuses that happen frequently within our borders. Family detention centers are one such environment where human rights are regularly violated. The United States has three remaining family detention centers, referred to as “baby jails” by dissidents. Family detention has dwindled over the years due to protest, but our government currently detains close to 3,000 non-criminal immigrant mothers and children in horrifying conditions.

A couple sits next to a large wall with graffiti saying "Freedom," and "Take down this wall!"
Yarl’s Wood Protest. Source: iDJ Photography, Creative Commons.

“We are not delinquents who should be imprisoned.” – Eleven-year-old girl on her detention at Berks County Residential Center

Of the three family detention centers that remain open, the South Texas Family Residential Center (Dilley, Texas) is by far the largest. The other two centers, Karnes County Detention Center (Karnes City, Texas) and Berks County Detention Center (Leesport, Pennsylvania), hold less than 700 detainees combined. Dilley, as it is known, has a capacity for 2,400 inmates and, as of 2015, holds over 1,000 children and around 750 mothers. The fifty acres of land that comprise the Dilley center are dotted with small, two-bedroom, one-bathroom cottages with no kitchen, no telephones, and hold up to eight people per house. Nights in all centers are punctuated with officials checking in by shining flashlights on the sleeping families every fifteen minutes, reportedly causing insomnia and anxiety for the children. Medical care is essentially non-existent, as individuals report that the available doctors often only advise mothers to give their children water for any sickness they might have instead of prescribing medicine. On-site doctors have prescribed water instead of medical care for broken fingers, conjunctivitis, and even for a child who vomited blood, according to detainee’s reports.

A young child in a pink dress has her fingers held by a white-sleeved hand for an examination.
The Touch of Hands. Source: Alex Priomos, Creative Commons.

 “Simply, they don’t care. What is more important for them is control. These are delicate situations when someone is sick and vulnerable. They just care about control. I thought I came to this country to escape abuse, mistreatment and disrespect. But it’s the same here.” – a detainee at the South Texas Family Residential Center

The conditions at these centers are incredibly dangerous for children and mothers. Many mothers at the center have already faced sexual assault, brutal violence, or threats of murder against them and their family. This would normally grant these families asylum status, which is a status granted to people who are unable to return to their home country for fear of persecution. Asylum status is granted partially on the basis of past abuse or violence enacted on a person by a foreign government, but trauma survivors often struggle sharing details that would ensure asylum. Most asylum hearings do not have childcare available, so mothers must choose between either sharing explicit traumas in front of their children in order to be granted asylum or minimizing their struggle to protect their children but be denied asylum. The conditions of the centers themselves also are fraught with abuse. An increase in violence in Central America has led to an influx of migrants from unstable countries; most of the detainees at detention centers are of Central or South American origin and predominantly speak Spanish. However, few staff members are fluent in Spanish and the subsequent miscommunication lead to abuse. The women are rarely allowed to speak on the phone, and it is next to impossible to obtain legal advice privately within the centers. This denies women the ability to detail abuses of the center without fear of retribution by the staff. Detainees have been raped and assaulted by guards without adequate punishment; in 2016, a guard was sentenced to less than two years in prison after being found guilty of institutionally raping a nineteen-year-old Honduran woman.

Additionally, the children are deeply at risk for developmental regression and major psychological trauma. According to a report by the child advocacy group First Focus, over half of all children in family detention centers are under the age of six. Children under six are undergoing crucial stages in their development, and can easily be traumatized for the rest of their lives if exposed to the stress of detention centers. Children who have been detained are shown to have increased psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-harming, and suicidal thoughts or actions. Even short durations of being detained can have the same impact of week-long detention on children. Mothers have frequently reported their children losing unhealthy amounts of weight quickly, but doctors reportedly overlook the weight loss by claiming that the children are simply not used to the food or even claiming that they are bulimic. Children have been forced to sleep in rooms with non-related adults, creating a vulnerable situation that puts children at risk for sexual assault. At a now-closed center, kids as young as eighteen months were made to wear prison jumpsuits and expected to sleep in locked rooms with open-air toilets. Though the detention center where this occurred was shut down several years ago, similar abuses that display a blatant disregard for immigrant’s human rights have occurred in all family detention centers.

A crowd of people appear to be yelling as they hold signs that say "Close Karnes."
“Karnes Petition Delivery.” Source: WeAreUltraViolet, Creative Commons.

The overwhelming issue is that there is no legislation that ensures appropriate standards for immigrant detention. Management is left to the private companies who own the centers, and the desire for profit often overwhelms the adherence to ethical treatment. GEO Group, the company who runs Karnes, received $161 million in taxpayer dollars in 2015 from their contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Dilley, run by CoreCivic, generates 14% of the company’s income each year, despite owning seventy-four other prison centers– CoreCivic took away $71.6 million dollars from Dilley alone. These detention centers generate huge profits, which encourages the prison owners to fill beds with more detained immigrants. Last year, legislation was introduced in Texas to allow family detention centers to obtain child care facility licensing without meeting the minimum standards that other child care facilities must meet. Eventually, the bill was not passed and licensing was revoked from the Karnes center. However, the center continues to detain children. This is in direct violation of the Flores Agreement, which states that detained children must be kept in the least restrictive environment possible, requires child care licensing, and states that detainment for over three weeks is unlawful. Inaction from the government enables these centers to continue substandard practices that have harmed and will continue to harm children.

"Kids Out of Detention Centers" is stamped onto concrete in black ink with barbed wires surrounding the text.
Keep Kids Out of Detention Centers. Source: Stephen Mitchell, Creative Commons.

The government justifies the practice of detainment through “aggressive deterrence strategy,” which is meant to dissuade more migrants from attempting to gain entry to the United States. This strategy is not effective; the mass violence that many immigrants flee from is far deadlier than the misery of detainment, though both are damaging to families. Women with children are the least mobile group among communities in conflict, and often only flee in the face of real danger. Essentially, families who have fled violence must go somewhere, and the United States is both geographically convenient and generally safe. To deny families refuge is cruel enough, but to create more misery, vulnerability and trauma through inhumane detainment should be an unacceptable practice. We cannot deny that the United States is violating the human rights of thousands of children and mothers. Children in detention centers have a right to education, a right to an adequate standard of health, and the right to freedom from torture, along with all other human rights as defined by the UDHR. Educational needs have not been met by any standard, available healthcare is abominable, and much of the circumstances for detained children could be defined as torture or degrading treatment. Beyond this, the practice of family detention alone is a violation of the human rights of many detained children, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child states:

“No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

Smiling children hold signs that say "keep families together."
Untitled. Source: Peoples World, Creative Commons.

The conditions in which these vulnerable groups have been forced into are inhumane and dangerous. The detainment of children at U.S. centers rarely conform to the law adequately and detainment periods are often months long. Family detention is punitive by nature, yet none of the detained mothers or children in family detention centers are detained on the basis of crime. Data collected by the Detention Watch Network shows that the majority of families in the centers qualify for asylum status and therefore deserve to be freed, but institutional obstacles prevented the obtainment of that status. Families in detainment simply seek safety and protection from violent conflict in their home country. The mother who make the decision to uproot their homes in search of a better life have not committed a crime, and neither have the children who accompany them. The United States is actively harming a blameless population who has already been subject to trauma and abuse. This problem is not confined to the United States; family detainment occurs around the world in varying degrees of injustice from Australia to Israel. It is essential to call attention to this issue in order to preserve the human rights of children internationally. The global community must condemn the actions of any government that engages in the inhumane practice family detention.

Child marriage and the human rights of girls

Delaware, on May 9, 2018, became the first US state to prohibit child marriage, removing loopholes and exceptions that currently exists in marriage laws in every other state. This historic legislation–the first of its kind in the US–champions and protects the rights of children, especially girls. **This blog is a repost from 2016.

A child bride in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: SAM Nasim, Creative Commons
A child bride in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: SAM Nasim, Creative Commons

 

Imagine for a moment that you are a 13-year-old girl. Your parents are no longer as cool as they were when you were in elementary school but life on the whole is pretty chill. With the exception of awkward junior high encounters with people of the opposite sex, the occasional bully, unbearable PE class, and dreadful puberty, being a kid isn’t awful. Personally, you’ve graduated from earning coins for your chores to actual dollar bills and from having a pink room filled with stuffed animals to one with posters of your favorite boy band and magazine cutouts of women you want to dress like when you turn 18. At 18, real life happens. At 18, you’re an adult and the whole world knows it! Everything about your 13-year-old life is moving towards adulthood until your parents let you know that one of their friends is interested in marrying you. He is a nice man who is at least 10, 20, 30 years older than you so he will be able to take care of you, just like you were his own child. Except that you would not be his child, you’d be his wife. In all the ways a wife takes care of a husband…

 

Children are not small adults. They are molded by socialization as a result of the physical and cultural contexts of their lives (Boothby, 2006; Goodhart, 2013). They are vulnerably presented and completely dependent upon adults, typically parents, for the purpose of nurturing potential and protecting innocence (Garbarino, 1991). Garbarino asserts, “childhood is a special period in the life course when we shield the individual from the direct demands of the economic, sexual, and political forces of the adult world” (p. 10). Childhood is the loci for growth and development.  

The United Nations International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), signed in 1989, defines who qualifies as a child and outlines ideas on how to care for those most vulnerable among us. For the purpose of this blog post, I will appropriate the definition of a child as defined by the CRC:

The Convention defines a ‘child’ as a person below the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body for the Convention, has encouraged States to review the age of majority if it is set below 18 and to increase the level of protection for all children under 18.

The notion of childhood was recognized as law by the international community with the passage of the CRC (Garbarino, 1991; Goodhart, 2013). The childhood experiences of the female differ so dramatically from the male. In 2013, Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the UN leadership, reintroduced the female experience into the global narrative as she requested improvement for and protection of the rights of women and girls. There is a significant disparity and cultural bias when attempting to define the daily lives of children, particularly girls, living in the global South and developing nations as compared to those in the global North and developed nations (Boothby, 2006). The United States of America is the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC.

Girl wearing a wedding dress. Source: Amy Ann Brockmeyer, pixabay.com
Girl wearing a wedding dress. Source: Amy Ann Brockmeyer, pixabay.com

Child marriage is legal in the United States. In Massachusetts between 2010 and 2014, 200 children were married. The state does not have a “minimum age to get married, as long as minors receive judicial approval. Minors don’t need a lawyer, and the petition is only half a page. Parental approval is required, although with several exceptions.”

There were 4,500 children married over the course of 2004-2013 in the state of Virginia, and more than 200 of them were under the age of 15. On July 1, 2016, the state of Virginia passed a law that only adults could marry in the state. This new law replaced portions of the marriage law that had allowed for girls “13 or younger to marry if she had parental consent and was pregnant.” The new law has set the minimum marriage age at 18 but it also allows for emancipated minors of 16 to enter into marriage if a judge decides to overrule the law. Judges have the power to overturn this newly implemented law on the basis of four ideas:

  1. If the minor is not being compelled to marry
  2. If the parties are mature enough to get married
  3. If the marriage will not endanger the minor
  4. If marriage is in the best interest of the minor

Child marriage is illegal in some parts of the world, although it is common. Guatemala has recently increased the age of marriage to 18, while acknowledging there will need to be a cultural paradigm as to the relevant implication of “recognizing the full potential of girls and reframing how girls should be treated in society”. In Nigeria, child marriage is illegal; however, in the Northern, predominantly Muslim region of the country, the law is implied rather than enforced. Fifteen year-old Nigerian Wasila Tasi’u is a murderer. She poisoned her 35-year-old husband and three other men. For ten months, Tasi’u awaited trial in a Nigerian jail where she faced the death penalty. She was acquitted and will live with a foster family. Maryam Uwais believes this to be “an entirely avoidable tragedy, leaving in its wake four dead men and a thoroughly traumatised little girl. Poison – the only feasible escape to freedom – devised from the wild imagination of a naive, depressed little girl caught up in a painful forced marriage to a much older man. A tough lesson for families, communities and a government that is still ambivalent about sanctioning the perpetrators of child marriage.” The social justice organization, Girls Not Brides, has ranked Nigeria 13th in countries with the highest rates of child marriage, despite a governmental declaration entitled, Child Rights Act of 2003–which was created to make every action concerning a child and his/her best interest, a paramount consideration.

Child marriage impacts the female child more than the male child. Childhood creates the revelation of identity.

Young females in the West and developing nations should capitalize on their girlhood, embracing it as a time to discover themselves—their identity, their relationships with men, what boundaries or rules they can break without consequence, and to receive an education.

For child brides, the whimsy of girlhood is non-existent because they enter womanhood before they fully grasp puberty. The US has relegated the creation and implementation of marriage laws to the state level. The age of majority is 18 in the US. Although the state law of Virginia or Alabama [AL code 30-1-4] allows for a 16-year-old to marry, majority of Americans as well as the international world, she is still a minor who cannot vote, buy alcohol, work after 8pm, and possibly carries a high school identification card. For the thousands of children—90% of whom are girls—this change comes too late.

Child marriage does not take place solely in poor communities. In Virginia, the new law arose when Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel learned that a high school student in an affluent Northern Virginia district dropped out of school when she married a man in his fifties. The marriage, granted by the parents, halted all child-protection services. It is illegal to engage in sexual activities with a minor yet marriage laws make allowances and create caveats for offenders to marry their victims, rather than facing justice for their illegal behavior. Jeanne Smoot of Tahirih Justice Center states that the “laws can facilitate forced marriages of children.”  It is to be understood that not all marriages are forced; however, who is standing up for the rights of the child to remain a child? The laws may not facilitate forced marriage of children, but they are failing to protect children from the threat of human trafficking, statutory rape, divorce, child abuse, domestic violence, poverty, mental health issues, premature death, and becoming a murderer.

Child marriage makes children targets because the authorities given agency to ensure their best interest aren’t always acting on the behalf of the child. Fraidy Reiss declares that children are not equipped to live and play in an adult world, considering the imbalance of power when married to an adult and lacking adequate resources to acquire help and freedom. Gerison Lansdown, Tony Waterson, and David Baum acknowledge that governments are failing to honor the four principles of the CRC as they relate to the world’s children, but also argue that lack of knowledge within civil society is not a valid excuse. “Ultimately the government is responsible for the full implementation of the convention” and everyone working with children need to do their part in helping to protect their rights (1565-6). Diana Francis identifies it as “people power.” People power is the decision to act at “any level…ensuring that those who have been the subjects of structures of domination discover and develop the power to participate in what affects them” (Francis, 2002). In other words, it is the voice of the collective speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, in order to arrive at justice and democracy for all.

UN banner promoting the Sustainable Development Goals. Source: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/
UN banner promoting the Sustainable Development Goals. Source: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/

Ending child marriage around the world is an essential target in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as a Sustainable Development Goal of the UN. The UN is responsible for global governance. It offers suggestions that may be refused if the country deems it is not in their best interest. Joel Oestreich says that despite being considered a Western ideal, countries have signed the CRC, recognizing it as a model of international consensus building and allowing UNICEF to work intra-nationally as well as internationally in order to provide the implantation of CRC standards as a way of life for the children (184). African nations have identified the necessity of bringing an end to child marriage; there needs to be long-term strategies, governmental infrastructure, and a responsible civil society working together to see an advancement. The same can be said of the United States. As a result of the Virginia legislation, bills are set to pass in California, New York, Maryland, and New Jersey. Nelson Mandela concluded that each of us as citizens, has a role to play in creating a better world for our children.

 

Works Cited:

Boothby, Neil, Alison Strang and Michael Wessells. A world turned upside down: Social Ecological Approaches to Children in War Zones. Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 2006. Print.

Francis, Diana. People, Peace and Power: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. London: Pluto, 2002. Print.

Garbarino, James, Kathleen Kostelny and Nancy Dubrow. No place to be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone. Massachusetts: Lexington, 1991. Print.

Goodhart, Michael. Human Rights: Politics and Practice. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

Additional Resources:

Callaway, Rhonda L. and Julie Harrelson-Stephens. Exploring International Human Rights: Critical Connection – Studies in Peace, Democracy, and Human Rights. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2007. Print.  

World Policy Forum

UNICEF Child Marriage

America’s Child Marriage Problem by NY Times

Child Marriage is an unseen problem in US by Boston Globe

Child Marriage Video

UNICEF Video