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

 

 

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.

 

Mexico’s Interrogation Secrets Revealed

Barbwire fence. Source: Edmund Garman, Creative Commons
Barbwire fence. Source: Edmund Garman, Creative Commons

Cruel and unusual punishment is a human rights issue we don’t hear enough about. It is illegal according to our US Constitution and the Eighth Amendment and a grave human rights violation according to international treaties and documents. For example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  The Convention on the Protection of against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman Treatment or Punishment describes what actions constitute to be labeled as torture, the government and law enforcement’s responsibility to prohibit the use of torture or inhuman treatment through training and a concern for law and order, and the rights a person has if they were to be tortured by the state.

Imagine that you are being detained and questioned because it is believed that you may be involved in illegal drug activity. Your questioning consists of electro-shock, beatings, rape, and other forms of sexual assault. Would you consider that cruel and unusual punishment? Most would think so. Sadly, it is not unusual in many countries around the world. Mexico is only one case study.

Amnesty International reports that the government of Mexico is currently committing  torturous acts on women who have been accused of participating in illegal drug activity or organized crime. There are at least one hundred women who have come forward and spoken about their experienced abuse by law enforcement at every level: local, state, and federal- including the Army and Navy.  Each of these women have reported experiencing some kind of torture whether that be psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or both (usually both). It was reported that seventy-two women were “sexually abused during or hours after their arrest.” Thirty-three of those women stated that they were raped.

Mexican woman selling crafts. Source: Frank_am_Main, Creative Commons
Mexican woman selling crafts. Source: Frank_am_Main, Creative Commons

In 2013, Mónica was 26 when she was “gang raped by six municipal police officers, received electro-shock to her genitals, was suffocated with a plastic bag, was dragged across the floor by her hair, and had her head plunged into a bucket of water in the city of Torreón, where she also witnessed the torturous death of her husband.” She watched as her husband was being  tortured by “beatings with metal studded whips and the skin on his legs being peeled off with a knife…” When the couple and Mónica’s brother were being transported to the Attorney General’s office, she watched her husband take his last breath of life. She was later flown to Mexico City and taken to the Deputy Attorney General on Organized Crime. Mónica told Amnesty International that she was forced to “sign a confession stating that she was a part of a drug cartel,” notwithstanding the fact that it is a non-admissible confession in court if torture was involved according to Mexican law.

Torture and harsh interrogation tactics are common practice in Mexico’s investigations of drug-related organized crime.

Why did she receive such despicable treatment? I think the police of Mexico are trying to send the message that they are actively pursuing the drug trafficking problem the country faces. They are using women like Mónica who are of lower socioeconomic status because they are perceived as the “weakest link in the trafficking chain and are seen as ‘easy targets’ to arrest.” These women also are more susceptible to not being able to pay for even a halfway decent defense attorney. This means that not only are they vulnerable to arrest, but also vulnerable to police brutality.  This isn’t the first time Mexico has been “caught in the act” of committing illegal arrests and mistreating those who are arrested. In fact, Amnesty International reported that since 1991 there have been thousands of complaints associated with the ill-treatment and torture of those who have been arrested, yet only fifteen of these cases resulted in federal criminal convictions, including the case of General Manuel de Jesus Moreno Aviña.

Back in 2008, the Mexican Army took on an immense responsibility to put a stop to organized crime and drug cartel activity. General Aviña was accused of torturing and murdering José Heriberto Rojas Lemus. Lemus “was tortured within the Ojinaga military garrison where he was strapped to a post and soaked with water before he was given electric shocks for hours.” The court sentence read that it’s possible Lemus died from multiple cardiac arrests due to the shocks, yet the military doctor was ordered to write on the death certificate that Lemus overdosed. Another case involves a video that has surfaced of a woman being tortured by a female federal officer and two army soldiers through suffocation. The Department of Defense has stated that “these events occurred on February 4, 2015 in Ajuchitan, a small mountain town in southern Guerrero state.” The Mexican army has announced that the two soldiers involved are currently in a military prison awaiting trial, but there has been no word on whether the federal officer will face charges or not. What is different about these cases is that since they involved military personnel, the military justice system took control. As Raul Benitez, a security specialist and political science professor, explains it, “the military justice system tends to be very strict in such cases, because (the soldiers in the video) are casting the institution in a bad light.” Civilian prosecutors aren’t so swift in taking these cases on.

Source: Zachary Perlinski, Creative Commons
Source: Zachary Perlinski, Creative Commons

So, if cases of torture like these were investigated, why are a significant majority of them not? The torture case that occurred in Ajuchitan in 2015 is considered “special” because it was easy to investigate due to the fact that all the evidence needed is in a video rather than just simply accusations of torture coming from prisoners. Torture and harsh interrogations are prevalent in Mexico’s investigations. Mexico has signed and ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and  supported other human rights documents dealing with torture and arbitrary arrest and is thus in violation of these international human rights treaties. The reports are out from Amnesty International, as well as other human rights organizations, but reports are the only way thus far that Mexico can be held accountable globally. So my question is: what do we do now?

Mexico is breaking its obligations under international law by illegally detaining and torturing people. 

Mexico wants to give the appearance that they are in compliance with international law as they pursue and prosecute organized crime/ drug cartel activity that has plagued the country for years. However, when reports and videos surface that show exactly who they are harassing, arresting, detaining, and torturing Mexico was hard pressed to justify its actions. In my opinion, they don’t want to go after the real gangs and drug lords because money talks. Corruption is widespread –  in fact, drug cartels paid around $100 million A MONTH to police officers nationwide to turn their heads they other way. Part of the problem is the very low pay of police officers (just over 20 percent earns less than 1,000 pesos ($79) a month, while 60.9 percent earns no more than 4,000 pesos ($317) monthly. To fulfill its obligations towards the U.S. and expectations by the international community, Mexican authorities often target women and men of lower economic status who don’t have the funds to pay bribes to law enforcement officials or the network to be kept out of jail. This begins the cycle of violence described above, which will be very hard to break as long as corruption within Mexico’s federal, state, and local governments continues.  Fundamental reform of Mexico’s militarized police force, law enforcement, and the judicial system as well changes on socio-economic policy are needed to end unrest and diminish the power of organized crime and drug cartels.