“Wonder”: Bullying Redefined

a picture of boxing gloves
Boxing gloves. Source: Franz Kohler, Creative Commons

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Saying and repeating this mantra is a daily occurrence on some playgrounds and households. The harsh reality is words do hurt because the bruises and wounds they inflict remain in the core of the psyche and being. A video of Keaton Jones set the world of social media ablaze on his behalf late last year. Jones, a middle-schooler from Tennessee, tearfully retold his experience with bullies during the day. There is a temptation to turn Jones into a “poster child for inspiration porn”; thereby negating the reality that being different remains a negative within some societies, including America. Siblings bully each other by calling one another names, coworkers often haze the newbies, jocks put nerds in lockers, and presidential candidates mock journalists with disabilities. In other words, we are in the midst of a bullying epidemic.

Epidemic is generally used to describe the spread of an infectious disease, one that is seemingly out of control. Society fails to view the unintended consequences of words as part of an epidemic that spans the public and mental health sphere, and reaches into the realm of human rights. The ultimate issue with this bullying epidemic is that it infringes on the individual’s (or group’s) right to a peaceful environment. Humiliation and marginalization, fueled by a desire for control, are the ultimate effects projected onto countless targets. These effects, often times, cause targets to make irreversible and life changing decisions like 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis and 13-year-old Rosalie Avila who both committed suicide after copious amounts of schoolyard and online bullying they endured. Their deaths speak to a direct need for awareness and prevention tactics in the classroom, family, and society. The words bully and bullying have a stereotype and stigma that leads many individuals to make assumptions that seek to label the bully rather than their actual behavior. The misapplication of labels, placed on a bully, dehumanizes their personhood rather than their behavior. This blog examines the interplay between the assumptions and realities of the bullying persona.

R.J. Palacio wrote Wonder following an encounter with her child and another in an ice cream shop. Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a 10-year old boy, who is blighted by a severe facial deformity. Because of his deformity, his peers and often times other adults are cruel to him. As Auggie starts middle school, his peers find his appearance off-putting so they choose to isolate him. The school culture created an environment where ostracism is the result of not fitting in. The bullying behavior begins with isolation and badmouthing by his peers. The story begins to take a turn when one of Auggie’s friends, Jack, is caught making fun of him. Jack so desperately wants to fit in that his lack of self-confidence influences his courage and willingness to defend Auggie when others are badmouthing him. Jack is a classic example of the bystander role. Many of us find ourselves witnessing a bullying situation and we, more than not, choose to ignore the situation or join in on the bullying. Jack’s betrayal of Auggie cuts so deeply that he holes himself up in the bathroom in tears.

Auggie’s reaction is common. Much like Keaton Jones, those on the other end of a bully’s action and/or words do not understand why others are so cruel. Ultimately, in the book, Jack and the others in Auggie’s grade realize that it is better to choose kindness. They rally around Auggie and accept him as one of their own. They see all of the values he possesses and admire him for his courage and perseverance. This story is an example of what bullying awareness can bring; unfortunately, bullying situations do not always end so positively.

a face that is angry
anger. Source: Shaun Chin, Creative Commons

Bullying is a multi-faceted phenomenon, influenced by many factors that not easily explained. It is a unique and complex form of interpersonal aggression. Aggression takes many forms and manifests in different patterns of relationships; it is a show of oppression in an attempt to gain power over another individual. Coincidentally, bullying behavior is not just the result of individual characteristics, but influenced by multiple relationships with peers, families, teachers, neighbors, and various other interactions with societal influences. It is important to note this distinction in order to equate a bully’s actions to be a result of their personal psychology and their interactions with the environment.

Bullying can be broken down into two categories. The first form of bullying occurs when the bully and their target are in the presence of one another. This is direct bullying and observable when a bully physically or verbally harasses their target directly. Spreading rumors is a method of indirect bullying because the aggressive behavior occurs ‘around’ the target. Under those two umbrella terms, there are four types of bullying: physical, verbal, relational, and damage to property. Physical bullying encompasses hitting, biting, kicking, or punching. Verbal bullying occurs when the bully chooses to use words to hurt and harass their targets. Relational bullying involves efforts to harm the reputation or relationships of the targeted targets. Lastly, damaging one’s property is its own form of bullying because it not only involves a target’s personhood, but their property as well.

Bullying can happen in any number of places, contexts, and locations. It is not isolated to the stereotypical shove in a locker or thrown in the trashcan after school. The more digitized society becomes, the more complex and viral the bullying. Electronic bullying, or cyberbullying, involves the oppression and assertion of power over an individual through social media and other digital outlets. Cyberbullying focuses on context or location versus an actual type of bullying because it happens over the internet. Although this form of bullying occurs through the internet, its consequences are just as detrimental to its targets. Depression, suicide, and anxiety are just a few ways that cyberbullying can affect its targets. School, the workplace, the mall, online, and the bar are all places where bullying can be perpetrated. In the case of Ashawnty Davis, the viral sharing of the altercation she experienced at school proved too much for her to overcome.

When thinking about bullying and its perpetrators, it is important to note that it is fluid in its nature and involvement. Studies show that frequent targets and frequent perpetrators assume different roles in bullying across school years as well as young adulthood. Thus, individuals can observe bullying, experience bullying, and perpetrate bullying across different situations over time. Across contexts, for instance, a student may be targeted by classmates at school but bully his or her siblings at home.

Jack, who starts as August’s friend, later finds himself in the position of a bully. He badmouths August in order to gain notoriety with his classmates. Eventually, his role shifts from being a bully and a bystander, to becoming an “upstander.” An upstander is a person who acts for positive change. Jack does this by sticking up for August when others attempt to bully him. However, by standing up for August, he finds himself now being bullied as well, thus falling into the targets role.

Research shows that being involved as both a perpetrator and targets seems to compound the impact of bullying. Bully-targets find themselves at greater risk for anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, suicide, substance abuse, and a host of other psychoanalytic disruptions. The misconception that bullies bully because they themselves have been targets is an overgeneralization to the psychoanalytic aspects at play when an individual sets out to bully someone else. We cannot simply equate their actions as retaliation.

What makes an individual more susceptible to becoming a bully? A variety of factors including the association with callous-unemotional traits like psychopathic tendencies, endorsement of masculine traits, conduct problems, and antisocial traits may contribute to exhibiting bullying behavior. In children, being the target of a bully can manifest in depression, anxiety, truancy and poor performance, loneliness and withdrawal. Bullies targets those who tend to less well liked, less accepted, and more rejected by peers. The relationship between perpetrator and targets is a power struggle in allowance for the superior party to oppress and marginalize their targets. The consequences of bullying and targetization is complex in its nature. Studies show that bullies are also at risk for many of the same adverse side effects as their targets. Bullying perpetration often leads to anxiety and depression, social withdrawal, delinquent behavior, and adult diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.

We, as a society, must assist in implementing intervention and prevention tactics to combat bullying behavior. Education and awareness are essential. Begin by recognizing the many forms that bullying takes – beyond simple name calling in a second grade classroom. Bullying transcends the classroom into adulthood. At the end of Wonder, the revelation that Auggie’s bully experiences bullying brings the story full circle. Summer, along with Jack, help to balance out this narrative by offering their friendship and support to August when no one else will. Once we recognize the many facets of bullying, we can begin to have those tough conversations about choosing kindness.

 

 

Bacha Posh: The Resilient Girls of Afghanistan

Three curly haired Afghan kids look up to the camera
Afghanistan Kids. Source: Army Amber, Creative Commons

Afghanistan has been embroiled in numerous civil wars and regime changes as global powers like Britain, Russia, and the United States have attempted to each bring their own version of peace and governance to the country for the past 150 years. The international community’s involvement has made little progress in quelling the violence during this time span, despite attempts at installing kings, providing assistance, backing rebels, and imposing sanctions. In some ways, the international community has instead reaped the consequence of empowering extremist groups like the Taliban, who have used the money and weapons funneled to the country for the original purpose of fighting the Soviets to stage a takeover of their own once the Soviets withdrew. With this climate as a backdrop, many of the stories from the region told in the West are often focused on soldiers and battles taking place in Afghanistan’s arid desert, with men from the Afghan government, extremist groups, and foreign armies fighting vigilantly for their homeland, whichever land that may be. When the focus shifts, Afghan women take center stage as the West’s fascination with their sheet-like garment–the burka–brings out calls for liberation of the oppressed group; however, on rare occasions, a story of the resilience and resistance of Afghan women pierces through our media landscape and introduces us to a new facet of the human experience.

Inspired by her visit to Pakistani refugee camps and encounters with many Afghan women in 1996, Deborah Ellis wrote a book about an Afghan girl who dons the persona of a boy to provide for her family. An adaption of Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner was released in select theaters in November. Based on the book published in 2000, the narrative follows an 11-year-old girl named Parvana who lives with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. After her father’s imprisonment because of Taliban’s disdain for his western education, her mother and school teacher disguise her as a boy so she can work and become the sole breadwinner in the family, bringing in an income for the household of six. Audiences worldwide are now able to watch Parvana’s journey on the silver screen, but with the revelation that a portion of girls do dress as boys in Afghanistan, many questions arise. What happens if they are caught? How is cross dressing allowed by the families? Do the girls transition to being boys forever? If this is a more common occurrence than previously thought, why doesn’t the international community recognize this subversion being undertaken?

Jenny Nordberg steps in to dive deeper into the subject. Author of the 2014 book The Underground Girls of Kabul: in Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, she spent months tracking down and interviewing families across the country who had a bacha posh, or a girl “dressed up as a boy” in the Dari language. Through her research, she creates the “only original non-fiction work on the practice of bacha posh”, bringing to light the ways in which women in a hostile environment have innovated and found ways to survive under incredible circumstances. Both the fictional tale in The Breadwinner and the real-life stories of bacha posh in The Underground Girls of Kabul bear striking similarities in themes, but combined they also highlight how the experience of each girl is unique to her own personal circumstances.

War

One constant held across both accounts is the presence of war and the Taliban. For the bacha posh, physical and environmental factors force their adaptation. In both the story and in the in-person interviews, Afghan parents reminisce about the brief period of peace in their youth when they freely roamed the streets in their garment of choice without fear during the Soviet rule. It was only when the Taliban took control that the practice of girls dressing as boys became necessary, as the schooling of girls became illegal and all women who had reached puberty were ordered to wear a burka, be accompanied by a male escort, and stay inside. If a woman is caught outside without an escort and a burka, she risks assault and death. This threat drove the decision of Parvana’s family in The Breadwinner, for without the father figure her family was left without a male, and this lead to her mother and siblings being trapped in the house with no way to earn money or buy food at the market. By making Parvana a boy, even at 11, she was able to escort her family members and secure a job reading and writing letters for illiterate men that passed her by on the street.

 

A line of Taliban soldiers stand beside a table handing in their weapons
Former Taliban fighters return arms. Source: Resolute Support Media, Creative Commons

Society

Yet if girls were unable to navigate the street on their own, doesn’t dressing a girl as a boy increase the risk to her safety if she is found out? Many experts Nordberg consulted when she first began her project dismissed the possibility of the bacha posh’s existence as it seemed to run contrary to the Western view of conservative Islamic societies. In a community in which the roles of males and females are so well defined, it is hard to believe that someone crossing from one role to another would not be in the greatest of violations. Shukria Siddiqui, a bacha posh until she was 20, interviewed 15 years later, clarifies this contradiction by giving an example from when she was challenged by three Mujahideen soldiers at her home when she was 17. The soldiers called out for the rumored girl who dressed like a boy, and when she went to her door to answer one of the men stated “Okay, you look like a boy, and you are completely like a boy, so we will call you a boy.”

The soldier’s statement is the stance that most Afghans, male and female, religious and nonreligious, take when confronted with a bacha posh. In The Breadwinner, Parvana lived in constant fear of being found out by those around her, but Nordberg observes that as long as the status quo of the roles remain, meaning boys complete tasks outside the home and women complete the tasks inside the home, there is nothing provoking about a bacha posh’s actions. In their eyes, the child is still conforming to societal norms, unlike if they were to stay a girl and complete traditionally male tasks. As long as the child switches back at an appropriate age to be married, around their late teens, in order to continue fulfilling their role, all is well. This sentiment is also echoed by the majority of families interviewed who raised a bacha posh. They transform their daughter to become a boy anywhere between birth and 10 years old, but as the bacha posh begins to show signs of puberty, they switch them back to assume their female identity with little problem. Only in two rare types of cases did Nordberg find that the transition back caused lasting difficulties for the girl and her family: when the girl exhibits signs of gender dysphoria, and when the transition back to being a girl occurs later in life.

Psychology

Defined by the American Psychiatric Association,

“Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.”

The common term associated with someone who experiences gender dysphoria and identifies with another gender is transgender, however,

“Gender dysphoria is not the same as gender nonconformity, which refers to behaviors not matching the gender norms or stereotypes of the gender assigned at birth. Examples of gender nonconformity (also referred to as gender expansiveness or gender creativity) include girls behaving and dressing in ways more socially expected of boys or occasional cross-dressing in adult men.”

The majority of girls Nordberg spoke with fell into the category of being gender nonconforming; comfortable with being a girl even if they took on traditionally male roles. Yet Zahra, a 17-year-old bacha posh, felt the opposite. Transformed into a bacha posh at birth, she fully embraced the idea of being a boy, reveling in her male friendships and shunning interactions with girls as it was not considered manly to interact with the other sex. After working for several years, Zahra’s mother suggested that she transition back, but this caused Zahra great psychological distress. Zahra refused to change back, and feeling appalled by her now changing body she confessed to Nordberg that should she get the chance she would undergo an operation to permanently transition herself into a boy. This was outside of the norm even for a bacha posh, but it does fit into what would be diagnosed in the West as gender dysphoria. While Nordberg was unable to draw a conclusion as to whether the original bacha posh transition influenced Zahra or if the two happened in tandem, it was an important case to demonstrate that while the majority of bacha posh are not gender dysphoric, there may be gender dysphoric bacha posh.

The other case when the transition out of being a bacha posh is rendered more difficult is when the girl transitions back later in life. In Shukria’s case, she was transitioned back at 20 just before her wedding, set up by her family. She accepted this arrangement and went through with it, but she quickly found that she lacked many of the skills that women her same age were already competent in; cooking, cleaning, and recognizing non-verbal cues from other women were all difficult to pick up. It was as if her brain had settled into the male pattern of behavior and found it difficult to let go. Her steps were too long, her voice was too loud, and she found it hard to relate to idle gossip and conversations around childrearing. Yet, it is important to emphasis that all the problems she encountered stem from social, not biological, norms. When Nordberg asked Shukria if she could teach her, the Swedish born New York based reporter, how to become a man, Shukria look her over and said she was already a man due to her Western mannerisms. To Shukria, the basis of being male or female in Afghanistan was not in biology, and as Shaheed, another woman interviewed who remains a bacha posh at 30, describes, the difference is in freedom, and that “between gender and freedom, freedom is the bigger and more important idea.” 

Malala sits and speaks with David Cameron at a conference about Syria
David Cameron meets with Malala Yousafzai at the Syria Conference. Source: UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons

Heroines

The women in The Underground Girls of Kabul and The Breadwinner all demonstrate this spirit of defiance and freedom, and historically they are no exception. Much like the stories of Joan of Arc and Mulan, Afghanistan also holds a woman folk hero in high regard. During a fight against British troops in 1880 when the Afghan army was close to defeat, a woman rushed out, rallied the troops, and used her veil as flag to lead them to victory. While killed in battle, the memory of the warrior Malalai lives on to inspire both Afghan girls and boys to be strong in the face of adversity. Both Parvana and the bacha posh Nordberg spoke with bring to mind Malalai to give them strength when their own resolve begins to waiver, and even the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is named after Malalai. In 2009 at the age of 12, Malala began blogging for the BBC about her life under Taliban leadership as she was forced out of school. She continued writing for three years until, after rising to prominence for her activism for girls’ education, she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban in an attempt to silence her. Malala survived, and after her miraculous recovery and continued activism she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, making her the youngest person to ever become a Nobel Laureate. Even if their life is dominated by religious leaders, threatened by the Taliban, and restrained due to cultural norms, these women cling to the stories of their collective past in the hopes that one day, they too may be recognized as courageous and valuable in the eyes of their society.

Libya, Slavery Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugees: Peace of Mind

The Storm Refugees – Tribute To The Victims Of The Harvey Storm. Source: Daniel Arrhakis. Creative Commons.


“Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers,”

-Garca Machel, UNICEF

Global unrest and armed conflict are becoming more common, intense, and destructive. Today, wars are fought from apartment windows, in the streets of villages and suburbs, and where differences between soldiers and civilians immediately vanish. Present day warfare is frequently less a matter of war between opposing armies and soldiers than bloodshed between military and civilians in the same country.

In 2014, there were 42 armed conflict, resulting in 180,000 deaths worldwide. Civilian death tolls in wartime increased from 5 per cent at the turn of the century to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s. War and armed conflict is one of the most traumatic experiences any human can endure, and the brunt of this trauma is felt by civilians- most especially children.  In 2015 alone, some 75 million children were born into zones of active conflict. As of May 2016, one in every nine children is raised in an active zone of conflict. Two hundred and fifty million young people live in war zones, with the number refugees at its most prominent since World War II. Currently, there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, and half of them children.

For refugees, the events leading up to relocation (notably war and persecution), the long and unsafe process of relocation, settlements in refugee camps, and overall disregard for human rights, takes a major emotional and mental toll. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders are just few of many problems refugee children experience. Respecting human rights is essential to society’s overall mental health. Equally, a society’s mental health is essential for the enjoyment of basic human rights. Addressing the psychological needs of victims of armed conflict is essential for the prosperity of war-battered children’s future.

The Relationship between Mental Health and Human Rights
Armed conflict affects all aspects of childhood development – physical, mental, and emotional. Armed conflict destroys homes, fragments communities, and breaks down trust among people, thereby undermining the very foundations of most children’s lives. The psychological effects of loss, grief, violence, and fear a child experiences due to violence and human right violations must also be considered.

Throughout the process of becoming a refugees, the three main stages in which people experience traumatic and violent experiences include: 1) the country of origin, 2) the journey to safety, and 3) settlement in a host country. The interrelationship between human rights and mental health are recognized in various universal human right conventions and resolutions. Numerous legislative measures exists for mental health, but two main conventions that address the situations refugees experience include: 1) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and 2) The Convention on the Rights of a Child. These two conventions specially address mental health pertaining to violence.

UNHCR Tent. Source: Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Creative Commons.

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: 1987
This Convention is significant towards the promotion of mental health as a human right because “torture,” any act that creates severe pain or suffering, can be both physical and mental. This convention is particularly relevant to refugees because they are more vulnerable and susceptible to mental and physical torture.  The short video documentary released by the UNHCR provided refugees and migrants to tell their own stories of kidnap and torture during their journeys to Europe. The stories told by survivors are emotionally distressing but highlights the realities refugees continuously experience.

The Convention on the Rights of a Child: 1990
The Convention on the Rights of a Child is the first legally binding international instrument to integrate the full array of human rights. This convention is also an important document for mental health. The CRC explicitly highlights the significance of both the physical and psychological wellbeing of a child. This convention is particularly important because it addresses the relationship of affect armed conflict on mental health. First, Article 38 of the Convention highlights state parties’ obligation under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, and shall “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.” International humanitarian law is a set of rules which aim, for humanitarian purposes, to minimize and protect persons from the effects of armed conflict. Second, Article 39 of the Convention states “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect,… torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts.” For children refugees, the Convention on the Rights of a Child is an imperative document for the security of their right to mental health, and mental health services.

Barriers to Accessing Health Care Services
The process of becoming a refugee takes a tremendous emotional and mental toll on all refugees. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders are just few psychological diagnoses given to refugee children. The fundamental right to mental health care is addressed in various international standards, such as the Convention of the Rights of the Child, however, there continues to be numerous barriers preventing access to these services. There has been an unparalleled surge in the number of refugees worldwide, the majority of which are placed in low‐income countries with restricted assets in mental health care. Currently, responsibility for mental health support to refugees is divided between a network of agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), government, and nonprofit organizations. Yet, the reality is that most refugees with mental health problems will never receive appropriate services. Cultural barriers, such as language, persistently affect a refugee’s capability to utilize mental health series. A study examining health care barriers of post-settlement refugees reveals language is the most impeding cultural barrier to accessing healthcare. Refugees and mental health service providers often do not speak the same language, making successful communication during healthcare visits less effective. Language barriers affect every level of the healthcare system, from making an appointment to filling a prescription. A lack of multilingual interpreters for refugees and health care providers weakens the healthcare system, making miscommunication about diagnoses and treatments possibilities common. Lastly, stigma surrounding mental health is another barrier to health services. Refugees often feel the words “mental health issues” should be reserved for individuals with extreme learning disabilities, and do not understand mental health problems can be conditions like depression and anxiety.

Psychopathologies due to trauma are very powerful, however, recovery is possible. In Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery, she discusses her theory of recovery. She states recovery happens in three stages: 1) establishment of safety, 2) remembrance and mourning, 3) re-connection with ordinary life.

Stage 1: Safety
Trauma diminishes the victims’ sense of control, power, and overall feeling of safety. The first stage of treatment focuses establishing a survivor’s sense of safety in their own bodies, with their relations with other people, in their environment, and even their emotions. Self-care is also an important focus point during this stage. The purpose of this stage is to get victims to believe they can take protect and take care of themselves, and they deserve to recover.

Stage 2: Remembrance and Mourning
The second stage of Herman’s recovery theory highlights the choice to confront trauma of the past rests within the trauma survivor. It’s important for victims to talk about their goals and dreams before the trauma happened so they can reestablish a sense of connection with the past.  That second stage begins by reconstructing the trauma beginning with a review of the victim’s life before the horrors and situations leading up to the trauma. This second step is to reconstruct the traumatic event as a recitation of fact. The goal of this step is to put the traumatic event into words, and come to terms with it. Testimonies are ways for survivors to get justice, feel acknowledged, and find their voice.

Stage 3: Reconnecting
In the final stage, the victim focuses on reconnecting with oneself and the recreation of an ideal self that visits old hopes and dreams. The third stage also focuses on emotionally and mentally reconnecting with other people and social reintergration. By this stage the victim should have the capacity to feel trust in others. A small but influential minority of individuals revolutionize the meaning of their trauma and tragedy, and make it the foundation for social change.

Peace. Source: John Flannery. Creative Commons.

A Peaceful Future 
Even though human rights activists are not psychological clinicians, we can still contribute to the success of these stages. At present, more than half of the refugee children population are children. Despite the violence these children have experienced, refugee children are the foundation and hope for a peaceful future. However, for that to happen, refugee children need to find peace in themselves. Respecting human rights is essential to society’s overall mental health. As activists we need to advocate for refuges and children who don’t have a voice. Activists for human and mental health rights should start focusing their goals on ensuring their communities and hospitals contain mental health care provisions. As activists, we can lobby for more accessible mental health services throughout our health care system, join and volunteer at non-profit organizations, and advocate for the rights of refugees. As Herman Melville states, “we cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”

 

The Long-Term Risks of Depleted Uranium Outweigh Military Necessity for the Weaponry

 

30mm-DU-penetrator. source: wikemedia creative commons

The public knowledge about the U.S. military deployment of nearly 10,000 depleted uranium rounds (DU) in 2003 from jets and tanks remains virtually unknown. There is an estimation that the US fired 300,000 rounds during the first Gulf War conflict in 1991, without releasing knowledge or evidence of testing to inform of potential health hazards of new munitions. The only mistake deadlier than firing this overabundance of DU weaponry is the denial of it, and failing to acknowledge the hazards posed to civilians. American and British occupation forces have forbidden the release of statistics related to civilian casualties after the occupation of Iraq. Additionally, they refused to clean up contaminated areas, and deny international agencies and Iraqi researchers the right to conduct full DU related exploration programs.

Despite American and British disclosure that they used around 400 tonnes of DU munitions in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the United Nations Environment Program believes that the total may be nearer 1000 tonnes. Persistent and consistent reports from medical staff across Iraq have associated this legacy from the conflict with increased rates of certain cancers and congenital birth defects. The extent to which DU may be associated with these health problems is still unclear as the conditions since 2003 have not been conducive to studying civilian exposure and health outcomes. When looking at some of the major battles that took place during the operations in Najaf, Basrah, Al Samawa, Karbala and Nasiriyah, involving platforms armed with DU, Dutch Peace Corps PAX has established with certainty that DU was used in populated areas and against armored and non-armored targets.

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) campaign to eradicate DU stockpiles within countries who purchased DU munitions and DU capable weaponry, define and clarify DU and its potential risks to civilians and military personnel:

Depleted uranium (DU) is a toxic heavy metal and the main by-product of uranium enrichment. It is the substance left over when most of the highly radioactive isotopes of uranium are removed for use as nuclear fuel or for nuclear weapons. DU possesses the same chemical toxicity properties as uranium, although its radiological toxicity is less. Due to its high density, which is about twice that of lead, DU has been used in munitions designed to penetrate armor plate. It can also be used to reinforce military vehicles, such as tanks. Munitions containing DU explode upon impact and release uranium oxide dust.”

The radiological toxicity of DU is less than uranium so the concern for human exposure should be uranium oxide dust. Keith Baverstock explains what happens when DU oxides, “When uranium weapons explode, their massive blasts produce gray or black clouds of uranium oxide dust particles. These float for miles, people breathe them, and the dust lodges in their lungs.” In other words, the lung is most susceptible to DU and in the topographical context of Iraq, where much of the country is defined by flat desert, winds blowing DU particles along with the dust is particularly dangerous. Winds may blow particles from combat sites into civilian inhabited areas, contaminating water and people. Even if only a small demographic of civilians is contaminated in a particular area, the half-life of a DU particle lodged inside alveoli is 3.85 years; emitting radiation directly to the tissue.

DU debris left behind in destroyed tanks of buildings poses a threat towards peacekeepers, civilians, and military personnel years after the conflict has ended. Many abandoned vehicles still litter the Iraqi countryside as silent reminders of the invasions within towns, villages, and cities. These carcasses are fun locations for kids to play in; and civilians come close to these contaminated objects daily in order to get to work, retrieve water and many other simple daily activities. These tanks are sometimes towed away towards scrapping sites without proper decontamination procedures, leading to further potential hazards when the metal is stripped and used for the construction of manufacturing goods.

Pregnant women and their offspring are particularly susceptible to DU toxicity as an unborn within the embryo of a mother rapidly produces new cells, providing the perfect environment for genetic defects. As certain small uranium particles are soluble in the human lungs, they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, pass through the lymph nodes and other parts of the body before excreted in urine. Uranium accumulates in bones, irradiating the bone marrow, potentially inducing leukemia, while building up in organs causing the breakdown of certain biological faculties as well as developing cancers.

The U.S. military and WHO have conducted research in Iraq to determine how malignant DU is and what sort of dangers it poses to civilians. Their conclusions determined that the potential toxic hazard is far too low to warrant cleanup action. These claims come in direct confrontation with independent studies performed by PAX conducted thorough studies within laboratories and fieldwork in contaminated locations where DU was fired; their findings determined sites and recovered physical DU evidence that proved contrary to American studies.

A New Breed of Munitions

“It is a superior weapon, superior armor. It is a munition that we will continue to use if the need is there to attack armor.” Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, US Department of Defense.”

Conflict is often the mother of invention. Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaigns toward the Kurdish people of northern Iraq in 1991 lead to the largest coalition of nations. Both Gulf wars produced horrific weaponry on a scale not seen since WW2, capable of precipitating public health and human rights violations years after deployment. The US Department of Defense, in 2003, praised a new breed of munition first deployed in Iraq–the depleted uranium round. These weapons hailed for their tank and bunker busting abilities; 68% denser than lead and upon impact, known to spontaneously combust leaving charred remains of the unfortunate targets. Armor plating on tanks and other armored combat vehicles use DU.

The advantages of DU munitions are clear, and key countries including the United States, Great Britain, France, China, Russia, and Pakistan produce and stockpile them. Many more former Soviet satellite states currently possess tanks in their arsenal capable of utilizing DU; however, it is unknown whether DU is a component of their arsenal is unknown. Many governments, including the European Parliament and Latin American parliament, started passing legislation banning radioactive weaponry from purchase, production, or use. The Kingdom of the Netherland is a key player in bringing transparency on the issue of depleted uranium. Organizations and individuals such as the Dutch peace corps, PAX, and the committee’s chair, British MEP Struan Stevenson of the conservative ECR group stated that there was a “demonstrable case for a strong and robust resolution calling on member states like the United Kingdom and France to stop using DU”. Led by Stevenson, a group of MEPs from across both Europe and the political spectrum have also submitted questions to the EU’s foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton to ask what the European Commission has been doing to encourage the development of a common position on DU within the EU. They also call on the EU to demonstrate leadership on the DU issue. The questions remained unanswered at the time of writing, although pressure to reach consensus is rising with the new reports of spiking cancer rates and birth defects around Iraq.

The Deformed Babies of Fallujah, Iraq

The U.S. military supported by British forces, set the city of Fallujah as the stage of incredibly intense urban warfare in 2004, with intentions of deposing opposition forces within the city. The second occurrence of military operations in November and December 2004 dubbed ‘Phantom Fury’: the most brutal operation since the official end of major combat operations in 2003. The aftermath left in Fallujah was astonishing with 60% of buildings destroyed or damaged, and the population of the city at 30%-50% of pre-war levels. The physical damage the city has sustained is not what is most disturbing.

Since 2009, credible media reports from Fallujah released reports of high rates of congenital birth defects in the city to the world’s attention. Iraqi medical personnel acknowledge the health risks of DU despite the lack of a direct link between DU and rising birth defects in Fallujah. Doctors have called for further follow up research on DU and cancer patients in Iraq. The U.S. has denied usage of DU rounds in Operation Phantom Fury while they maintained the claim that no records had been kept since 2004. However, in 2005, two DU-contaminated tanks found within Fallujah, possibly destroyed by A-10 thunderbolts according to an interview with an expert from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Baghdad. Two other DU capable platforms utilized during the combat of Phantom Fury–the Abrams tank and the Bradley armored fighting vehicle (AFV).

Moving to Secure a Healthier Future

PAX estimates that there are more than 300 sites in Iraq contaminated by DU, which will cost at least $30m to clean up. Iraqi authorities are hard pressed to mobilize an effective cleanup effort and the calls for contamination containment in Fallujah have not been properly answered by the Iraqi government. Sampled hair from women with malformed babies in Fallujah tested positive for enriched uranium. The damage inflicted upon genetic code is proving to develop tremendous strain on the population of Falluja both mentally and physically as generations to come may be thinned out by fatal birth defects.

Due their economic superiority and contribution of deploying DU, the US and Great Britain should step forward with the funds and equipment necessary to conduct long-term research and contamination containment alongside Iraqi medical personnel. The ethical issues of toxic weaponry are clear. Militaries should discontinue the usage of DU weaponry or stockpiling under the notion that the usefulness of these weapons outweigh the potential harm caused to civilians. Human rights, specifically that right to life and safe environment, should take precedence over military needs. Children dying after only a few weeks after birth due to a country’s military actions years ago is a blatant breach of UDHR Article 3: Right to life, liberty, and security of person.

The issue of DU is not confined to DU alone. It also resonates within a broader spectrum of illegal weapon usage like gasses, weapons of mass destruction etc. Awareness of the suffering of those in Iraq is necessary so we, as an international community, may mold the peaceful and just world we envision.

 

A 29th Floor Perspective

 

1st Ave from the 29th Floor of the UN
1st Ave from the 29th Floor of the UN. Photo by Ajanet Rountree.

The United Nations (UN) Conference on State Parties (CoSP10) experience began on the 29th floor for me. I say this because I lived in New York City and toured the UN on a couple of occasions. Additionally, living a life that is inclusive of persons with disabilities is in my wheelhouse. A friend and mentor utilizes crutches to help him walk because an accident, when he was younger, took the full use of his legs. Cancer took the use of B’s legs when she was a baby, and a motorcycle accident left my uncle paralyzed from the waist, making them both wheelchair users. I lead with all of this to say that making room in my world for persons with disabilities is something I have done for decades. My familiarity, in a sense, is akin to the knowledge gained by a couple of tours of the UN lobby and gift shop. Therefore, walking into CoSP10, I was prepared or so I thought.

I had never been on the 29th floor. The perspective is much different up there.

The Division of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) is located on the 29th floor of the UN. The DESA team is responsible for both the economic and social affairs of persons with disabilities for all the UN member states as directly related to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). They write and disseminate policies and ideas to the member states as suggested modes of implementation. Each policy and suggestion lies within the UN mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which is an extension of the 1945 UN Charter. SDGs are the 17 goals all member states, through collaboration, seek to achieve by 2020 as a means of ensuring “no one is left behind” while honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and CRPD. Sitting in the conference room, I am inspired by the opportunity but not fully awake to what is about to take place.

Enter Daniela Bas.

Bas is the DESA director. During her chat with us, she disclosed a couple of points that stand out to me. First, the UN, as an employing entity, is beginning to put into action many of the policies and measures, tasked to member states for implementation. Most specifically, employing persons with disabilities in key leadership positions of which she is one. Second, the UN is an organization led by human beings seeking to do the right thing. With full acknowledgment, she reminds that the UN is not perfect but that the process of coalescing 196 backgrounds, traditions, religious affiliations, and attitudes to make significant strides at securing human rights and making the world more peaceful, is an accomplishment. Lastly, when compared to men and boys, and those who are able-bodied, discrimination against women and girls with disabilities doubles, and even triples if they belong to a minority race or class in their country. This last point, triple discrimination for women and girls with disabilities will become a recurring theme in the conference for me. The harsh reality of this fact remains an echo in my soul to this moment.

Confrontation with another person’s truth requires an adjustment to what is known through experience and education, and assumed through familiarity.

On the floor. Photo by Ajanet Rountree

I study and view life and the world with a gendered perspective in mind. I look for the role of women, our impact on families and societies, and our visibility and invisibility when it comes to equality. I am aware of the trials of living life at intersections. Intersectionality complicates because discrimination is complicated. I believe there is a temptation to separate the intersections so to obtain a solid understanding; however, it is in the attempt to separate that understanding is lost. Gaining a complete understanding of the dynamics of discrimination requires a holistic not segmented perspective.

Girls, irrespective of ability, are not as valuable or visible in many societies as boys are. Nora Fyles, head of the UN Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI) Secretariat, asserts invisibility is the fundamental barrier to education for girls with disabilities. She confirms this assertion when explaining the search for partnership on the gendered perspective education project by stating that 1/350 companies had a focus on girls with disabilities. For Bas, the failure to identify girls and women with disabilities is a failure to acknowledge their existence. Subsequently, if they do not exist, how can we expect them to hear their need? She suggests addressing crosscutting barriers. Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD), in partnership with the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNGEI, hosted a side-event where they released their findings regarding a lack of inclusive education opportunities for girls with disabilities. Still Left Behind: Pathways to Inclusive Education for Girls with Disabilities sheds light on the present barriers girls, specifically those with disabilities, experience when seeking an education.

Article 26 of the UDHR lists education as a human right. Bas believes if knowledge is power, and power comes from education, the fact that 50% of women with a disability complete primary school and 20% obtain employment, reflects social and economic inequality. Ola Abu Al-Ghaib of LCD emphasizes policies, cultural norms, and attitudes about persons with disabilities perpetuate crosscutting barriers for girls with disabilities to receive an education. She concludes that schools are a mirror of society. In the absence of gendered sensitivity, boys advance and girls do not. Every failed attempt to address and correct the issue is a disservice to girls generally, and girls with disabilities, specifically.

It is imperative to remember that the spectrum of disability is multifaceted. Most people recognize developmental and physical disabilities like Downs Syndrome, Autism, visual and hearing impairment, and wheelchair users, but fail to consider albinism and cognitive disabilities as part of the mainstream disability narrative. Bulgaria is focusing on implementing Article 12 of CRPD regarding legal capacity. Legal consultant and lawyer, Marieta Dimitrova explains that under Bulgarian law, only reasonable persons have the right to independence; therefore, persons with cognitive disabilities receive the “unable” descriptor under assumption they are unable to reason and understand, thereby placing them under a guardian. Guardianship removes the right to participate in decisions regarding quality of life, which is a deprivation of liberty. She resolves that although full implementation into law awaits, stakeholders are seeking renewal in the new government because pilot projects have proven that an enjoyment of legal capacity in practice yields lower risk of abuse, changed attitude within communities, personal autonomy and flexibility.

Not all disabilities result from birth or accidents. War and armed conflict factor into 20% of individuals maimed while living in and fleeing from violence. A lack of medical access leave 90% of maimed individuals permanently disabled. Stephane from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) submits that for refugees with disabilities, access to essential services can be difficult on the journey and in camps, but also for those who are unable to flee. He infers a “double disability” inflicted upon refugees with disabilities: first as a refugee, and second as a person with a disability. Human Rights Watch advocates that refugee camps produce a humiliating and degrading existence for persons with physical disabilities because the “tricks” employed prior to arrival in the camps, are no longer applicable as wheelchairs sink in the mud and crutches break on rocky grounds. The Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA) reports the underrepresentation of women and girls is significant when receiving information and access to assistance.

In a refugee simulation seminar, LASA informed that on the ground, confusion is high given that humanitarian organizations do not consult with each other, making communication difficult and non-supportive. For families with a person with a disability, nonexistence communication means a prevalence to fall victim to violence and harassment. Jakob Lund of UN Women divulges that humanitarian aid can be ineffective for women with disabilities, while Sharon with OHCHR suggests a clear dichotomy between the rights of the able-bodied and the rights of persons with disabilities holds central to the ineffectiveness. At the core of a lack of communication and accessibility is invisibility. Stephane concludes that there is an obvious need for a necessary and systematic retraining specific to educating others on how to see the invisible.

a picture of Chinatown, NYC and Brooklyn Bridge
Chinatown, NYC, and Brooklyn Bridge. Source: Madhu Nair, Creative Commons

The process of inclusion and equality relates directly to the decision to acknowledge a person’s existence. Retraining the mind to see any human being with a physical disability takes decisive action so I put myself to the test. First, I thought of all the famous women with a physical disability I could think of, and arrived at about six, including Heather Whitestone and Bethany Hamilton. I then googled celebrity women with disabilities which yielded a Huffington Post piece that identified Marlee Matlin, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller, and Sudha Chandran as 4/10 “majorly successful people with disabilities”. I had Marlee Matlin and Helen Keller. What is more interesting is that I arrived at seven when naming men with physical disabilities. Here is the point: society is not inclusive of persons with disabilities if we have to strain our brains to remember the last time we sat next to, opened the door for, ate a meal with, or saw on the television/movie screen/church platform a person who did not look like us physically.

Perspective changes everything because perspective is everything.

The Syrian War: a Needless, Unending Act of Violence

Photo of a White Helmet looking up to the sky, while the city behind him is in ruins
The White Helmets Documentary Cover, courtesy of Netflix

The Netflix documentary, The White Helmets, takes place in the midst of a war zone – on the ground, capturing the horrors of Syria during the present war. The Syrian War is extremely complex, but the documentary gives small amount of insight. The film is important because it peers into the horrifying life of Syrians, living in and through war. The airstrikes are horrifying to watch, taking the lives of innocent people in hospitals, schools, churches, and destroying families. Nowhere is safe in Syria. While the glimpses of children screaming for their parents, or begging them not to leave them in death are blood chilling and heartbreaking, it is impossible to take in all that happens and is happening. Enter The White Helmets, volunteer citizens who train and serve as first responders; normal men who held normal jobs, have families and seek peace while rescuing others. They search through homes and other buildings trying to locate survivors, facing the danger of another strike taking their lives while trying to save others. Since their beginning in 2013, the White Helmets have saved over 58,000 lives but lost more than 130 White Helmets. In light of all the strife their country faces, the White Helmets remain optimistic.

Photo of Qaboun, Damascus, where the city has been destoryed
Qaboun, where you will not find place to stand and take a picture. Source: Dimashqi Lens, Creative Commons.

“I am willing to sacrifice my soul for the sake of the people. This job is sacred.”

Why are the White Helmets necessary? They are necessary because there is no protection for Syrians civilians. No one is fighting for and defending them; the White Helmets are doing what they can to preserve life. Without them, the death tolls would be monumentally more. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has a right to life and security of person. This brings me to a two-pronged question. First, where is the justification for protesting Planned Parenthood in honor of “pro-life”, while remaining silent as war, as a result of political policy, decimates an entire country? The pro-life or right to life stance is described as being against abortion, or euthanasia, as those who are pro-life considers a fetus to be a human at fertilization. For those on the pro-life side of the abortion argument, a fetus possesses the same rights and protections as a human outside of the womb. This leads me to my second question: does pro-life apply only to the unborn? In other words, do the same rights apply outside of the womb as inside? Syrians are human beings. Under the pro-life position, they deserve the same protections as the unborn. However, the war in Syria provides evidence that this belief does not apply to all human beings. War and violence do not discriminate against gender, race, or age; they are two sides of the same coin. The infringement on the right to life applied to the unborn is the same infringement that should be applied to the lives of Syrians in a war zone or crossing the borders. It is seemingly the true definition of pro-life.

The impact of violence in the molding and shaping of a generation is, I believe, overlooked. On the one hand, children in Syria are able to tell the difference between a warplane and a normal aircraft, just by listening to them. They are growing up and associating much of the world with destruction, alienation, and isolation. For many, war is the only life they have known. The terrors of the Holocaust reveal, through research, that traumatic experiences are generational, meaning it transcends those experiencing the horrors and is passed down through DNA into future generations. It is theorized that generational trauma is responsible for the rapid growth in radicalism. The children who grew up seeing that the world is against them have been conditioned to be radical to feel like they have to fight to preserve themselves and survive. Therefore, it is of little surprise that if they grow up believing that some in the world despise their existence, they may feel the need to join together and fight back, in order to protect themselves. On the other, some children in America can hardly tell the difference in a helicopter and an airplane. Syrian children are found buried beneath the debris of buildings and are lucky if they are found; American children are found playing on a playground with their friends and are lucky if they find a four-leaf clover.

Governments create a façade of complete falsehood. They say they are doing something notable or acting in their country’s best interest but are killing citizens – other human beings – every day. These governments include our own in the US, along with several other first-world governments. Just two weeks ago, the US was responsible for performing an airstrike on Mosul. The attack resulted in killing over 100 civilians in the attempt to attack ISIS. In a statement issued from the US-led coalition, they said, “Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods.” At what point does one become the object of their vengeance or hate? We say that we are fighting terrorists, stamping every Muslim or Middle-Eastern with a scarlet letter of terrorism, shouting that they are the terrorists; yet, Syrians are not flying over our cities and dropping bombs on us.

“They say they are fighting ISIS, but they are targeting people.”

The horrors faced by the people of Syria transcend this documentary. Syrian civilians are not ISIS. ISIS is a child born of fear and hatred, oppression and violence; a factor in the loss of 200,000 lives. It is not a religion. The Islamic faith, taken in context, promotes peace and forgiveness, not murder and destruction. The fractured infrastructure of the cities, the tear-stained faces, and wailing of children over the parents and parents over their children reveal the unimaginable suffering. Earlier this month, a chemical attack on the province of Idlib has killed at least 70 civilians, mostly children. Following the Holocaust, nations declared “Never Again“, then there was Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, Kosovo, among others. And now Syria.

Photo of a sign reading: "#Aleppo Is Burning
#AleppoIsBurning. Source: Dimashqi Lens, Creative Commons.

The United Nations has declared that children possess their own set of rights. Originally drafted as a declaration under the League of Nations in 1924 and amended in 1959, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was codified in 1989. The CRC maintains the rights of children are universal, indivisible, and inalienable – the same as adults. Vanessa Pupavac states that the CRC gives children protective welfare rights as well as enabling rights. Both of these rights are infringed upon in Syria. Their welfare is threatened each day, and have no opportunities for escape or growth. The Convention recognizes children as autonomous rights holders; however, the meaning of their rights is problematic. They are seen as incompetent and unable to exercise their rights, forcing them to pay for the sins of extremists such as ISIS. The global model “seeks to empower the children but fails to recognize the rights of autonomous self-determination,” according to Pupavac. This goes against exactly what the Convention stands for by denying their autonomy.

Article 2 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child asserts, “The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom  and dignity.” Governments have failed to uphold this protection for the children of Syria, as facilities like hospitals and schools are destroyed. Article 6 of the CRC, State Parties must recognize that every child has the inherent right to life, and must ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child; while Article 9 states that “State Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will”. The requirements of these articles are not met for Syrians. A child with the inherent right to life is losing their life; children are found under the debris of buildings without a chance for survival; parents are being killed, leaving their children alone in a war-torn country. If children are seen as human beings by the United Nations, then the children who are suffering daily in Syria are experiencing an infringement of their collective rights.

To show exactly what happens when we infringe upon the rights of the children of Syria, CJ Werleman, columnist for the Middle East Eye, shared this tweet on April 8th:

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White Helmets accomplishes the first step into fighting against situations like this: bringing it to public attention. Civic responsibility is a social force that morally binds you to an act. Therefore, it is our civic responsibility to fight for the rights of those who cannot fight for them themselves. While we may not be there physically, we can join their fight. We have seen that through diligence and passion, civil societies can change the world. Without movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the present day would be entirely different. The White Helmets, on their own, are a civil society, which is here defined as a group of people with similar interests acting together. These interests include protecting the lives of their spouses, children, brothers, sisters, and friends;  interests we all support. They are not fighting back, they are simply trying to preserve what little they still have.

As a part of a marginalized group that confronts the complexities of a loss of personal security as a results of threat or attack, due to fear-based hatred, I find that I can identify with the Syrians, in a small way. I am in no way placing a comparison; I simply recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere because all oppression is connected as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.points out.  We are all connected.

We can all be White Helmets.

The White Helmets’ website (https://www.whitehelmets.org/en) has an open letter to the UN for anyone to sign. If you are moved by this documentary, or just feel it necessary to support them, please go to the website and sign it. It reads:

“Barrel bombs – sometimes filled with chlorine – are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today. Our unarmed and neutral rescue workers have saved more than 85,228 people from the attacks in Syria, but there are many we cannot reach. There are children trapped in rubble we cannot hear. For them, the UN Security Council must follow through on its demand to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a ‘no-fly zone’ if necessary.” – Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defence.

“Sesame Street” and Autism: An initiative about Inclusion

Sesame Street. Source: Gavin St. Our, Creative Commons.

Sesame Street introduced viewers to the newest “live” Muppet on the block, earlier this month. Her name is Julia and she is on the autism spectrum. Initially introduced in 2015 as part of Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children Initiative, Julia’s interaction with the other residents on Sesame Street teach them how to befriend and include individuals who are different, without being afraid. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause substantial social, behavioral and communication challenges. Individuals with ASD communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different to people without ASD. Dr. Stephen Shore believes that “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every individual diagnosed with ASD has diverse functioning abilities and level of autistic symptoms, making each individual case distinctive. Currently, 1 in 68 children worldwide are diagnosed with ASD. ASD crosses every social and economic sphere. The goal of the Sesame Street and Autism Initiative is to remove the stigma of autism. Julia optimistically reminds viewers that individuals with disabilities have the talent and ability to positively contribute to our society while making the world a more unique and interesting place.

Over the past two decades, the human rights perspective on disability has shifted from viewing people with disabilities as problems towards recognizing them as holders of rights. A universal victory for people and families with disabilities came with the ratification and adoption of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) by the United Nations in 2008. For children who Julia represents, the CRPD guarentees that those children can go grow up and have the same opportunities to achieve their goals just like children without disabilities. The United States has not ratified the CRPD, although there are continuous adjustments to domestic policies, ensuring the protection of the civil and human rights of persons with disabilities. There are currently numerous federal civil rights laws that safeguard people with disabilities so equal opportunities in employment, education, voting without discrimination are made available. The Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) became law under the Obama administration on October 8, 2010. This law increases the access of persons with disabilities to modern communications, and is up to date with 21st century technologies. Technology can revolutionize how people with disabilities interact and live in a society intended for those with no developmental or functional disability. The ratification of CRPD and continued promotion of the general welfare of all citizens should remain the focus of future government administrations.

People with disabilities have been marginalized and excluded from society within all cultures. National and international laws and conventions do not protect from discrimination on an individual level, with common responses of pity or disgust, which reinforced disabled peoples segregation in society. The lack of understanding regarding ASD and other disabilities can make life more stressful and challenging for individuals with developmental differences. The societal treatment towards people with disabilities lead to the phenomenon of invisibility. The phenomenon of invisibility rationalizes that society has the “tendency to construct everyday life with only the able-bodied in mind and the greater the lack of a physical presence of disabled persons in the mainstream, the more “natural” this assumption appeared to be (OHCHR).” As of March 2017, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) disclosed that only 20.4% of people with disabilities are employed compared to 68.7% employed individuals without disabilities. Likewise, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.6% compared to 4.3% for people without disabilities. Furthermore, in 2015, Cornell University approximates 20.1% of non-institutionalized individuals with a disability aged 21 to 64 years in the United States have less than a high school education. The invisibility of people with disabilities has a drastic effect on their enjoyment of civil and human rights because they have been excluded and isolated.

a picture of a child smiling a big grin
Smile for the camera. Source: Arielle Calderon, Creative Commons.

The stigmatization of people with disabilities will persist until society embraces disabilities as adaptable differences, rather than with negative connotations. For example, a study analyzing parental perspectives on the diagnosis of ADS found that parents of non-diagnosed children described the potential diagnosis as scary, dangerous and frightening. The study also found that parents with diagnosed children sometimes go through denial, and try to find other reasons for their child’s behavior because they are reluctant to label their child as having a disability. However after the denial stage, parents elaborated on how they are started to reconstruct their beliefs about ASD, and began to project ASD from a positive perspective. This is why initiatives like “Sesame Street and Autism” are so important; not only do they educate children and adults about ASD, but also normalizes and cultivates respect for people with disabilities such as ASD. In order to communicate, Julia expresses herself in different ways that other characters on Sesame Street, who are not on the ASD. She flaps her arms when she is very bothered or happy, avoids direct eye contact, and repeats words. Even though Julia’s behaviors are different, Elmo, Big Bird and the other characters have learned to adapt, accept through understanding, and intentionally include her in their play dates.

Autism made nation headlines was during the vaccination causing autism controversy, which misinformed millions, and portrayed a diagnosis and prognosis as a hindering, negative characteristic. Julia’s addition to Sesame Street has generated significant discussion about about autism specifically, and disabilities, generally, and the societal stigma surrounding them. Recently appearances on popular network shows such as the “The View” and “60 Minutes” allowed for explanation and clarification as to why “Sesame Street” felt it was finally time to introduce a character like Julia into the show. Stacy Gordon, the women who plays the voice of Julia, very much understands the hardships of autism and inclusion. Stacy’s son is on the autism spectrum. In an interview with 60 Minutes, she admits that her sons classmates did not understand how to react to his breakdowns and social differences. She truly believes that exposing parents and children to Julia is going to help progress our society into a more disability friendly world. Sesame Street‘s leadership and dedication to teaching children love and acceptance continues to pave the way for a brighter and inclusive future. This initiative constructs a conversation about disabilities and autism while it reinforces the positive narrative about differences and inclusion.

A Maasai Experience: Come to Kenya

a group of Maasai schoolchildren
Maasai schoolchildren. Source: Stacy Moak.

Traveling to Africa as a volunteer in orphanages and schools is a highlight of my life experiences so far. Witnessing people who possess so little compared to American standards, yet who are so happy and full of hope, is a life changing experience which calls into question all of our values and priorities. Many children in America often walk away from their opportunity for an education, while African children strive to be able to afford an education. Young women have additional struggles that may contribute to a lack of school, whether forced marriages and other family responsibilities, dating back in time so far that we cannot conceive of the cultural history driving them. Seeing stagnate water being used as the water source for families and communities and to see that in the 21st century, entire families dwell in primitive housing is something I will not soon forget.

We have much to learn from other cultures, just as we have much to share. While we can share a more modern understanding of women’s rights and women’s role in an educated society, and as we promote social justice and equality for all people, we can also learn from the generosity and spirit of hope evident in the smiles of these children. The one act of generosity that will stay with me forever is from a young Maasai girl named Liemon. My oldest daughter met this child on the trip last January (2016) and sent a letter with me to give to the child. I finally found her, or rather she found me. She came up to me from a crowd of children and took my hand. I asked her name and she told me she was Liemon. I was so excited to meet her and deliver the letter from my daughter. In return for the letter and pictures, this sweet child took off the necklace that you see her wearing in this picture, put it around my neck, and fastened it. She gave it to me as a gift. I have so much and she has so little, but this gesture of generosity will forever remind me of the gentleness of humanity that exists in all of us that connects us to each other no matter how different our cultures or our lives. This simple gift from a pure spirit, imprinted on my heart forever.

Liemon and Stacy’s daughter. Source: Stacy Moak.

Kenya is home to numerous tribal populations, including the Maasai people. The tribe has a long preserved culture in the way that they live and dress which makes them a sign of Kenyan culture. Easily identified by their traditional style of dress, the Maasai usually red or green plaid clothing tied across their bodies. Maasai live in both Kenya and Tanzania. Maasai lands include the great game reserves that overlaps with the Serengeti plains, an area famous for the great wildebeest migration that takes place every year. Although Maasai game reserves bring considerable amounts of money to the Kenyan government, Maasai people still live on as little as $1 per day. Entrepreneurs from the Maasai people are working to change that into a more equitable arrangement and volunteers can help support those efforts. One such project is that foreign owned hotels located on Maasai land now buy their soap products from Maasai women who make the soap. This provides sustainable income to the women and allows the community to benefit from tourism.

Swahili is the native language of Kenya but the national language is English. Most Kenyan students study English in schools, whereas Maasai children speak the Maa language–a Nilotic ethnic language from their origin. Language barriers can prevent Maasai people from full participation in events outside of their tribal community; therefore, Maasai children need to understand three languages to participate in the greater Kenyan society. Maasai children now have access to education. Education remains expensive for those who continue to live a traditional lifestyle. Kenya requires that children wear a uniform before they can attend school. The combination of school fees and uniform costs make education difficult for many Kenyan families, including Maasai families.

Women are truly the fabric of the community in the tribal culture of the Maasai. They build the traditional circular houses using mud, grass, wood, and cow-dung. Women also cook for the family, create jewelry to sell to provide for their families, and handle all child-rearing responsibilities. Despite their role in the community, girls as young as eight are at risk of their families trading them for livestock, and forcing them into marriages with much older men. When this happens, girls no longer attend school, are subject to and endure female genital mutilation, and forced into a life of a wife and mother. Many times, they are the second wives who have less standing in the community, less rights, and experiences of extreme levels of abuses.

The government of Kenya has passed laws against these types of human rights violation, but the practices go largely unregulated in tribal cultures. The Maasai people are leading the way to stop these practices by producing dramas for elementary and secondary schools. Further, they are building libraries, schools, and rescue centers to encourage young women to assert their legal rights and stay in school. Times are changing, and I remain thrilled to be a part of the change. Volunteering to provide education, clean water, green houses, and other sustainable solutions has truly been an amazing experience. Collaborating with Kenyans, specifically the Maasai people, and making a difference in their communities provides a life changing opportunity.

With My Own Two Hands, a nonprofit organization located in Laguna Beach, California, organized my trip to Kenya. Owner and Director, Lindsey Plumier raises funds to support local efforts of sustainable solutions that work to provide education, shelter, food, and fresh water to children in Kenya. With My Own Two Hands organizes volunteer trips to Kenya at least once a year, usually in January. More about the organization, ongoing projects, and opportunities to serve can be found at http://www.withmyown2hands.org.  My goal is to take students from UAB to Kenya over spring break of 2018 for them to participate in some of these projects. Their educational experience will be enhanced and their worldview forever changed by these experiences.

 **Dr. Stacy Moak will host an information session regarding this opportunity on Tuesday 7 March, 1230-130pm in the Institute for Human Rights

 

Right to and Role of an Education

 

a picture of a one way sign with the word EDUCATION written on it
Education: a street sign. Source: OTA Photos, Creative Commons

‘Ms. Crenshaw, make sure Jasmine keeps writing’. My mom was told this by my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, at my school’s open house event after she had read my book report on “The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963”. Mrs. Williams also had our class to write journal entries regularly throughout the entire school year. She gave us topics to write about, from everyday events to what our favorite things were as nine-year-olds. One entry of mine was about the weekend where I was baptized at my church. In the entry, I wrote about my shopping adventures to find a white baptism dress and how excited I was to experience this new part of my faith. Thanks to Mrs. Williams, I was affirmed in my writing abilities. Between elementary and high school, I had other teachers–mostly Black women–who encouraged, criticized, and strengthened my writing skills. As a teenager feeling inspired by books, music, and television, I wrote in my journals regularly. I also wrote poems, mini-novels, and essays, most of which will never see the light of day. I wrote these pieces because of the confidence Mrs. Williams had in my writing. And I’m forever grateful for her. Those skills have served me well through my collegiate and post-collegiate careers.

Education and mentorship is important for all girls and women to experience, especially for girls and women of color. For most of my life, Black women were in the front of my classrooms, teaching everything from English to Chemistry, while making sure that me and my peers were empowered to become our best selves. When students are presented with that type of environment, the sky’s the limit. There have been plenty of examples shared across social media platforms, where teachers have affirmed their students’ individuality and their desire to learn. In a video from Nadine S. Ebri’s classroom in La Core Christian Academy in Florida, two of her students are calculating a long division problem on the whiteboard, as her classmates, and her teacher sing a song to help her answer the question correctly. In another video, Jasmyn Wright, a third-grade reading teacher in Philadelphia, goes through an empowerment exercise with her students before they start the day. I do understand when students–especially those of color and those from other marginalized communities–do not have access to this environment at times.

Some students may not feel open to being in affirming learning environments due to previous disciplinary actions or because their previous teachers  had a lack of compassion for them. In multiple Southern states, it was found that Black students are expelled or suspended five times than the rest of their student population (Smith and Harper, 2015). Girls of color, especially Black girls, experience difficulties with this, especially when they are disciplined at higher rates than other racial/ethnic groups in the classroom nationally (National Women’s Law Center, 2016). When girls of color are being disciplined more and unjustly in classrooms, they might feel a sense of detachment and hurt, which might interfere with them wanting to continue working toward their educational aspirations (The White House, 2016; African-American Policy Forum, 2015).

a picture of girls playing clarinets while in a computer lab
Education. Source: Erin Lodes, Creative Commons.

Girls and young women of color, among other marginalized communities, such as those who identify as LGBTQIA+ and those with disabilities, also experience lack of access and availability to the resources they need to thrive in the classroom. In the case of our city of Birmingham, educational inequity between Whites and non-Whites, primarily African-American students, has existed since the early 1900s (Jefferson County Place Matters Team, 2013). Similar to other parts in the South, Birmingham underwent radical changes once ‘white flight’ occurred during the late 1950s, causing White citizens to create new towns and school systems in Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook (Colby, 2012). This level of educational inequity has continued even into 2017. A large income and poverty disparity remains between the Birmingham City School and the Mountain Brook City School districts, significant enough for it to rank highly on NPR’s list of the top 50 most segregated school borders in the country (Turner, 2016). When it comes to gender and sexual orientation, students in Alabama may feel that some of their schools are not equipped to handle the types of bullying and discriminatory behaviors they experience daily. This may be due to lack of safe spaces, lack of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), and lack of teacher/administrative training (The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, 2016). When students’ identities intersect, as being both Black and impoverished or Hispanic and gay (for example), they might feel more uneasiness about whether or not they belong in the classroom.

When students are not provided the resources they need or the affirming learning environment they deserve, this becomes an infringement on their right to have an proper education. Financial disparity, poverty, inexperienced teachers and staff, and unequal disciplinary tactics all contribute to this. Given our new administration and the new Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, we all have a responsibility to make sure our students have the best chance to a great education, however that may look like, and to become whatever they please. Our commitment the responsibility may vary. It may be through representation in media, mentoring programs, after school programs, or just students knowing that they are loved and they are seen. Every student should have a chance to meet their own Mrs. Williams and unlock their potential for greatness.

 

Jasmine E. Crenshaw earned both her Bachelors of Science in Psychology and her Masters of Public Health in Health Care Organization and Policy from at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2014 and 2016, respectively. She works as a public health professional, a writer, and the media curator of the online Southern feminist digital hub, Curated in Color. You can find Curated in Color at facebook.com/curatedincolor.

References

Colby, T. (2012). Some of my best friends are Black: The strange story of school integration in America. [Book]

Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, The. (2016, August). Living LGBTQ+ in Central Alabama: Priorities for action. Retrieved from http://www.cfbham.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Living-LGBTQ-in-Central-Alabama.pdf

Jefferson County Place Matters Team. (2013). Place matters for health in Jefferson County, Alabama: The status of health equity on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. A special report. Retrieved from http://media.al.com/spotnews/other/Place%20Matters%20for%20Health%20in%20Jefferson%20County%20Alabama.pdf

National Women’s Law Center, The. (2016). Let Her Learn: A Toolkit to Stop School Push Out for Girls of Color. Retrieved from http://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/final_nwlc_NOVO2016Toolkit.pdf

Smith, E.J. and Harper, S.R. (2015). Disproportionate impact of K-12 school suspension and explusion on Black students in southern states. Philadelphia: University of Pennslyvania, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. Retrieved from https://www.gse.upenn.edu/equity/sites/gse.upenn.edu.equity/files/publications/Smith_Harper_Report.pdf

Turner, C. (2016, August 23). The 50 most segregating school borders in America. NPREd. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/23/490513305/the-50-most-segregating-school-borders-in-america

White House, The. (2016, December). Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color: 2016 Updated Report. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/images/2016%20CWG%20WGOC%20REPORT%20.pdf