Accessibility and Education

 

Parking spot reserved for people with disabilities
Wheelchair Only. Source: JoshuaDavisPhotography, Creative Commons

For most people, the importance of the right to an education is not unknown.  It’s through education that people gain the skills that they need to be active in their communities, join the workforce, and live their daily lives.  While there is certainly division in regard to people’s ideas of exactly how systems of education should work, there continues to be a shared understanding that these systems should exist in some capacity.  The importance of the right to an education for people with disabilities is not well known or, at least, not as actively recognized, but it should be.

Background of Disability Rights and Education in the U.S.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) took effect as the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975.  It was meant to improve the access that children with disabilities have to “a free appropriate public education” and an environment that supports, rather than impedes, that education.  Part of IDEA is a requirement that public schools develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with a disability who is enrolled.  IEPs are created and tailored specifically to the needs of each student, because even people who have been diagnosed with the same disability have differing experiences and face different circumstances.  These programs are reviewed every year by the student’s teacher, parent(s), the child themself and a qualified agency representative related to special education.  Other individuals can be brought in to review the program at the discretion of the parents or agency involved.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and prohibits “discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.”  Title II of the act requires state and local governments to make their services and resources equally available to people with disabilities.  According to Title II, there are architectural standards that suggest buildings should be accessible to all people.  Buildings constructed after the act passed are expected to meet these standards upon when they are built, while buildings that were constructed prior to the passing of the act are to be altered.  Since the services/resources of state and local governments include public educational institutions, these institutions are expected to meet these standards, which helps to make education more accessible.

Acknowledgement Is Not Enough

Despite the American legislation put in place to ensure educational equality for students with disabilities, there is still a lot of work to be done.  Laws have been created but are not always followed.

The Oregon Department of Education, for example, is being sued by Disability Rights Oregon (along with four other legal groups) due to its “lax oversight of special education programs . . . in small, rural communities.” Many schools in the state have been found to give students with learning or behavioral disabilities a shortened school day of only a few hours.  The schools have given a range of explanations for shortening student’s school days, from saying that they were responding to inappropriate behavior (some of which is related to the symptoms of the students’ disabilities) to teachers saying they had a feeling that “it was going to be a bad day.”  In many cases, the students would be able to get through a normal school day if they had the resources they need.  They simply have not been given the opportunity to try.  The lawyers involved in the lawsuit wrote, “Some children who are subjected to shortened school days due to their disability-related behaviors are eventually denied any instruction at all.”  This is a denial of their right to an education and it cannot continue.

The seclusion and unfair treatment of students with disabilities in the U.S. is not limited to Oregon.  According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, more than 36,000 students were secluded during the 2015-2016 school year, and 66% of those students were students with disabilities, despite only making up 12% of all students enrolled.  Students with disabilities also make up 26% of those who received out of school suspension and 24% of those who were expelled.  Part of the problem is that the federal government does not currently have any actual regulations related to the seclusion of students with disabilities.  It merely suggests that seclusion be used if a student is a physical threat to themselves or others and that the seclusion should end when the student is no longer a threat.  Due to its impact on students’ access to their education, this issue needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Library books. Source: CCAC North Library, Creative Commons

An International Problem

This problem can be found around the world.  In Nepal, for example, children with disabilities are far from having their educational needs properly met.  In 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that more than 207,000 of the country’s children have disabilities.  In 2016, 30.6% of children with disabilities were not attending school.  In some cases, the students with disabilities who are enrolled in school are kept in classes that are completely inappropriate for their age group.  According to HRW report on the situation, one sixteen-year-old named Amman was placed in Class 2, where his classmates were between the ages of seven and ten years-old.  His disabilities are physical, limiting his movement and speech but not his mental development.  The school has steps at its entrance with no ramp available, forcing Amman to crawl to his classroom.  He was not able to use the restroom during the six hours school was in session, so another student would have to go to his house and get his mother to come to the school and help.  Not only is this an immense barrier to Amman’s access to his education, but it also an utterly dehumanizing way to treat someone.

The country is not ignorant of the fact that people with disabilities have a right to an education.  In 2010, the country even ratified the United Nations’ (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to promote and improve the access to the rights of people with disabilities around the world.

Recent Developments

Though many problems still exist in the field of education for people with disabilities, progress is being made.  On January 17, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans to “work with schools to reduce incidents of improper restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities”.  They will use “compliance reviews” of school systems under suspicion of improper restraint and seclusion of students and “offer guidance on obligations under federal civil rights law.”  According to Elizabeth Hill, spokesperson for the Education Department, they plan to do more than 70 interviews each year.

Disability Rights Are Human Rights

In public conversations about human rights, people with disabilities are often left out or overlooked.  It is important that we intentionally work towards being more inclusive.

Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which the United States has still not ratified) focuses on the right to education.  According to the document, countries associated with the UN are expected to “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning”.  This involves making sure that people with disabilities are not kept separate from the rest of the education system and receive the support they need.

In addition to acknowledging the right to education for people with disabilities, Article 24 includes an explanation of why education is incredibly vital, both in general and specifically in the lives of people with disabilities.  Education facilitates the development of one’s view of others and themselves, their personality, their creative talents, their mental and physical abilities, and their ability “to participate effectively in a free society.”  These developments shape the role that each individual plays in the world, making education an absolutely priceless and fundamental human right.

Resources at UAB

Students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham can contact the campus’s Disability Support Services (DSS) to request accommodations through their website or at 205-934-4205.  This process involves completing an online application, submitting documentation of their disability, and having an Accommodation Planning meeting.  Accommodations that are often used include reduced distraction testing, extended time on exams, note-taking services, assistive technology, and captionists/interpreters.

Keep up with the latest announcements related to the upcoming Symposium on Disability Rights by following the IHR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

Children’s Rights in the United States

A baby sitting on a blanket in the grass.
Cal. Source: Torrey Wiley, Creative Commons

Despite the many different viewpoints that exist on the political spectrum within the United States, one of the few things we all seem to be able to generally agree on is the importance of protecting children.  Their life and well-being completely rely on adults actively working to keep them safe and nurture them.  On September 2, 1990, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was put into effect by the United Nations to aid in the protection of these most vulnerable members of society.

Despite the resolution’s wide acceptance, the United States is the only one that has not ratified it out of the world’s 195 countries.  Why is this?  What are its implications?

What Is Included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

The CRC does exactly what the title suggests: it outlines the rights held by children.  It covers the rights to parental guidance, survival, development, nationality, identity, freedom of expression and thought, privacy, education, healthcare, and much more.

It states that, above all else, adults should be focused on ensuring that all their actions have as positive an impact on children as possible.  Governments are responsible for protecting children’s rights in all situations, and any legislation that affects children should support their development and well-being. The CRC also addresses government responsibility in trying to keep families together (so long as it is the best thing for the child) and the fact that child refugees, children with disabilities, indigenous children, and children of minority groups have the same rights as any other children.  Governments should take any extra action necessary to see that these rights are fulfilled.

Article 42 states that adults and children should be made aware of the rights put forth in the Convention.  It emphasizes the importance of adults teaching children about their rights.

The United States and Violations of Children’s Rights

The United States is currently involved in the violation of many of the rights set forth in the CRC, but if it were to ratify the CRC, it would then be expected to begin working towards fixing them.

Children Facing Life Without Parole

One way in which we are currently violating the CRC is through the fact that, in many states, children can be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.  More than 3000 people are currently serving life sentences without the possibility for parole for crimes they committed while under the age of 18.  In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for children to be given mandatory life-without-parole sentences.  However, in 28 states it is still a possibility for a child to face life in prison without parole.  This number does not include states that allow sentences lasting decades, even 90 years, which are in effect life-sentences, despite not being labeled as such.  This violates Article 37 of the CRC which states that children should not be sentenced to life without the possibility of release.

A young girl looking over her shoulder at the camera.
Child. Source: Florencia&Pe, Creative Commons.

Children in Adult Prisons

We are also violating the CRC because there are around 10,000 children in the United States who are being held in adult prisons and jails.  This fact within itself violates Article 37 of the CRC, which states that children should not be kept in prisons with adults.  This also violates Article 34, which states that “Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse,” as children are five times as likely to experience sexual assault in adult prisons than juvenile detention centers.  Children are 36 times more likely to commit suicide after being held in adult facilities than those who have been held in juvenile facilities.  This violates Article 27, which states that children “have the right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs.”

Trump’s Zero Tolerance Immigration Policy

The United States has also recently violated the CRC through the “zero tolerance immigration policy” that The Trump Administration put in place earlier this year.  As a result of the push for prosecution of undocumented immigrants caught crossing the border and “rules on holding children in either criminal or immigration detention,” thousands of children were separated from their parents.  This violates Article 9 of the CRC which states that children should be remain with their parents unless it is more harmful for them to be together than separated.

Despite the rules that relate to holding children in criminal or immigration detention, the children who were separated from their families were held in what were essentially cages: holding areas surrounded by “chain-link fences,” with 20 children being held in each of them and “few comforts besides foil blankets.”  They were kept in inhumane conditions, violating Article 27 of the CRC, which describes the right to an adequate standard of living.  It is difficult to see how these conditions could possibly have had a better impact on the children than finding a way to allow them to remain with their parents.

Most of the families who were separated have now been reunited and new families are no longer being separated, but it is still important that we recognize the impact that such situations have on the children involved.

Basic Human Rights for Children in the United States

The United States also has a long way to go in taking steps to improve and preserve children’s access to their rights.  In 2014, 22% of children lived in poverty, and 30% had parents who did not have job security.  Between 2012 and 2014, 53% of young children were not in school, bringing concern to the right to education.  Also, the US is the only high-income country that does not provide paid leave for new mothers.

The United States’ withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council makes it difficult to be optimistic about the possibility of ratifying the CRC any time soon.  It is a country that is self-proclaimed as being one of the most progressive in terms of human rights, yet we have not even ratified the document created to protect the vulnerable members of society whom we all agree need to be protected.  At this point in time, the actions of the United States do not match its claims, and that needs to change.

The Impact of Child Abuse

A sad boy sitting outside and staring into the camera.
Sad. Source: tamckile, Creative Commons

Childhood is a time in life that should be filled with joy and imagination, and free of fear and any serious responsibility.  However, for many people, this not their reality, as abuse and trauma have warped their experience of it.  In 2014, about 702,000 children were found to be victims of some form of abuse in the United States – this number does not take into account situations of abuse that went unreported.  It is estimated that 1,580 children died “as a result of abuse and neglect” in that same year, though it is possible that this number is actually much higher due to “undercounting of child fatalities by state agencies.”  The general impact and potential trauma caused by abuse can have a significant harmful influence throughout childhood development and adulthood.

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is “when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm, or risk of serious harm to a child.”  This includes many different forms of abuse, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect:

  • Physical abuse is “when a parent or caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child.”
  • Emotional abuse, which is recognized less often, is “when a parent or caregiver harms a child’s mental and social development or causes severe emotional harm,” and can include (but is not limited to) isolating a child, terrorizing, ignoring, and humiliating them.
  • Sexual abuse is “when an adult uses a child for sexual purposes or involves a child in sexual acts,” but it does not have to involve physical contact with a child. In addition to “contact abuse,” it can also include inappropriate sexual language, “making a child view or show sex organs,” and forcing a child to watch a sexual act.
  • Neglect is “when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection, and support needed for a child’s health, safety, and well-being,” and it occurs when an adult fails to meet even the most basic requirements for taking care of a child that they are responsible for. Neglect can physical, emotional, medical, or educational.
    • Physical neglect relates to reception of “care and supervision.”
    • Emotional neglect relates to reception of “affection and attention.”
    • Medical neglect relates to “treatment for injuries and illnesses.”
    • Educational neglect relates to a child’s “access to opportunities for academic success.”

Effects of Child Abuse

Experiencing abuse as a child can have serious, long-term effects on an individual.  Those who have experienced child abuse are at an increased risk for intimate partner violence, substance abuse issues, and mental illnesses.  Experiences of abuse also lead to children having an increased risk of exhibiting criminal behavior.  In the United States, “14% of all men in prison and 36% of women in prison” experienced child abuse.  Children who are survivors of child abuse are about “9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity” than those who are not.  Many survivors must deal with intense negative effects of their trauma for the rest of their lives.

Trauma and Child Abuse

Trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event, like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”  When considering the issue of trauma, people often think of veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Both PTSD and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) are common in survivors of child abuse, but they differ in exactly what circumstances causes them.  PTSD results from a specific event, while CPTSD results from repetitive experiences of trauma.  In terms of child abuse, PTSD is caused by a specific incident of abuse, while CPTSD is caused by experiencing numerous incidences of abuse over a period of time.

The three main categories of PTSD symptoms are “re-experiencing trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event,” “emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma,” and “increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated or angered.”  In addition to the symptoms of PTSD, people with CPTSD also experience problems with forming and maintaining relationships, negative views of themselves, and problems with regulating their emotions.  These symptoms negatively affect the ability of individuals with PTSD and CPTSD, including child abuse survivors, to live their lives in normal, healthy ways.

Treatments for coping with PTSD and CPTSD include individual and group therapy, medications (such as antidepressants) that help with some symptoms, and the establishment of a reliable support system.  Dealing with trauma is a life-long process.  Healing is possible for survivors of child abuse, but the impacts of their experiences will never fully disappear.

A sad boy sitting next to a dog on a couch.
Nathaniel. Source: Tony Alter, Creative Commons

The Cyclical Nature of Child Abuse

The presence of abuse can be seen as a cycle with the potential to perpetuate itself throughout the generations of a family.  According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, around one in three of all survivors of child abuse will “subject their children to maltreatment”.  This is because many survivors who become parents believe that the way they were treated as a child is the correct way to parent.  In other cases, parents believe that if they simply treat their children better than their parents treated them, then they are not being abusive.  This way of thinking is incorrect, because abuse is abuse, even if one example of abuse is not as overtly severe as another.  By spreading information and reporting incidences of child abuse we can help to interrupt the cycle.

Child Abuse is a Human Rights Issue

There are numerous ways in which child abuse can be clearly seen as a violation of human rights.  Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and Article 25 states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”  How can someone utilize these rights while living in fear (whether it be as an adult or as a child)?

The Convention on the Rights of the Child also deals with child abuse as a violation of human rights.  Article 19 calls for States Parties to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation…”  Article 24 states that children have the right to “the highest attainable standard of health,” which is a right that cannot be fully enjoyed in an abusive situation.  Article 27 describes the right “to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development,” and abuse is a known hindrance to childhood development.  Article 34 relates specifically to sexual abuse, stating that States Parties should do everything they can to “protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”

It is important that we remember that children are limited in what they can do to help themselves in any given situation.  It is the responsibility of the adults around them to protect and nurture them.  Adults should be attentive toward the well-being of the children they contact.  Adults need to be able to recognize and report abusive situations when they witness them and/or are aware of them.

Resources

Statelessness: Life Without a Nationality

A persons eyes, looking directly into the camera.
Eyes. Source: Demietrich Baker, Creative Commons

Nationality is a privilege which is often taken for granted.  For most, nationality is something that we are born into or that we inherit from our parents.  In these cases, it requires little, if any, effort on our own part.  Because of this, we often fail to realize that not everyone is recognized as a national by a state.  You could have been born in a country and lived there your entire life, and still not be claimed by that country.  This is statelessness.  According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.”  As of 2014, there were 3,242,207 known stateless persons in the world.  This does not include the numerous stateless persons who were unaccounted for.  The United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons in 1954 and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness in 1961.

People begin to experience the serious consequences of statelessness as children, when they are most vulnerable.  It impedes their access to a quality education and healthcare.  The effects of statelessness follow them as they grow up, keeping them from finding legal employment and taking care of themselves and their families.  Statelessness is then often passed on to their children, grandchildren, and so on.  It creates a vicious cycle, which is extremely difficult to break.

What Causes Statelessness?

There are numerous circumstances which may lead to person being without a nationality.  Gaps in nationality laws are a significant part of the problem.  An example of such a gap is seen when nationality is inherited from a parent in a specific country.  If the nationalities of a child’s parents are unknown, then the child is not seen as a national of that country, and the child is stateless.  Sometimes, nationality laws have discrimination built in to them.  In countries like Barbados, Iraq, and Sudan, mothers cannot pass their nationality on to their children.  If the father is unknown, the child is left stateless.  Statelessness can also occur if new states are formed or a country’s borders change, and people are left living a different state than they originally did.  For example, when Yugoslavia dissolved, the Roma people and other minorities of the area were left, struggling to gain citizenships in the states that came into existence, and continue to have great difficulty in acquiring documents for identification.  There are even times when an individual’s nationality is taken away by legislation changes or if they live outside of their country for a certain amount of time.

Real People

It is important that, as we discuss the issue of statelessness, we remember that this is an issue that affects real people.  It is more than an abstract concept.  Take Jirair, for example.  Jirair was born to Armenian parents in Georgia.  They moved to Russia soon after he was born but had passports from the Soviet Union (from before it dissolved) and were unable to obtain citizenship.  Jirair did not legally have a nationality.  He had no legal ties to Russia and no proof of his birth in Georgia.  He was unable to work legally or acquire life insurance until 2016, when Georgia’s citizenship laws changed.

The entirety of the Makonde people of Kenya were stateless until 2017.  Though they were originally from Mozambique, many of the Makonde people have been living in Kenya since before 1963.  They lacked citizenship and any official documents.  This made it difficult for them to work, travel, and even to obtain birth certificates.  Generation after generation of the Makonde people experienced statelessness, vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and poverty.  Everything began to change when Kenya’s 2011 Citizenship and Immigration Act was put into full effect and the Makonde became recognized as the forty-third tribe of Kenya.

Four children, standing together.
Children. Source: Lead Beyond, Creative Commons

Statelessness and Human Rights

Statelessness is heavily tied in with numerous human rights violations.  The first and most prominent violation is found in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to a nationality.”  It violates Article 23, which describes the right people have to employment, as statelessness often keeps people from working legally.  Without work, individuals cannot provide for themselves or their families, and will also have an even more difficult time gaining nationality.  Statelessness is also a violation of Article 25, which says that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family,” due to the poverty and lack of access to basic healthcare that result from statelessness.  In order to have a quality living situation, one needs to be able to afford safe housing, a balanced diet, and basic healthcare and insurance.  Many countries deny access to education to children who are not nationals of those countries, violating Article 26, which says, “Everyone has the right to education.”  Education is key in a child’s ability to have a better living situation in the future and to flourish in life.

In the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 7 states that every child has the right to acquire a nationality.  Article 24 recognizes the child’s right to “the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health,” and Article 28 recognizes the right to an education.  Children do not have access to these rights without a nationality.

The extent to which statelessness inhibits access to basic human rights makes it an issue with a severe need to be addressed.  Though the rights violations it causes are reason enough to justify a change, the problem is magnified by the way statelessness impacts entire groups of people and passes from generation to generation.

Lacking a nationality also impedes an individual’s ability to participate in political processes.  In many countries, such as the United States, you must be a citizen of that country in order to vote.  People who are stateless have a significantly lessened opportunity to have their voice heard, especially since it is not uncommon that entire groups of people are stateless, like the Makonde people.  This makes it even more important that people who do have a nationality of their own help to not only speak up and increase awareness of statelessness, but also to support a platform from which stateless people can be heard.

What Can We Do?

So, what can we do now?  One of the most important things that we can do as part of the general public is promote awareness of the issue.  Many people are not aware that it is even possible to lack a nationality, and more people do not know how serious the consequences of statelessness are.  The more people know about the issue, the more it will be pushed to the forefront of conversations.  Change cannot occur if people do not know that change is needed.

The UNHCR currently has a campaign called #IBelong, which aims to promote awareness of statelessness and work towards its end.  You can sign their “Open Letter to End Statelessness,” which declares the need to end statelessness.  The UNHCR also provides resources to those who are do not have a nationality.  If you are stateless yourself, you can click here.  You can select the country you reside in, and the website will provide you with resources that can help you on a path to acquiring a nationality, documentation that proves your nationality, or civil registration.

 

Black Panther: A Game-Changing Film

A laughing boy.
Child laughing. Source: cheriejoyful, Creative Commons

On February 16, 2018, the revolutionary movie, Black Panther, was finally released for the world to enjoy.  The film provides the audience with a much-needed source of representation for the black community, both on and off-screen.  Black Panther is part of a revolutionary change in an industry that has historically disregarded people of color.

Depiction of Black Characters

It is easy to see that Black Panther is a game-changer in the film industry in relation to its production, but it also includes a much-improved depiction of black characters.  They are multi-dimensional and have their own personal histories and experiences.  They are not forced into any one single role, challenging the idea that people of minorities are limited to the surface-level narratives that society usually expects.  They are real people who have struggles, fears, and triumphs.  It lacks the stereotypes that films often use to create characters of color.  The normative roles given to black actors are often of dangerous criminals with limited education, such as drug dealers and con-artists.  These kinds of characters worsen the incorrect and harmful perception that much of society has of black men.  When black roles are actually given positive characteristics, they are still generally given littles depth, and are used as nothing more than support for the white main character.

The Black Panther himself, T’Challa, is not just a superhero (though his being a superhero is significant in itself).  He is the king of Wakanda and acts as a diplomat, representing and speaking on behalf of his country at the United Nations.  He is respectful of women and recognizes their value and strength, as seen through his female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.  He does not let toxic masculinity impact his actions and has a strong connection to his family.  T’Challa is brave, intelligent, and compassionate, making him a well-developed main character and hero.

Even Eric Killmonger is given depth and undeniably human experiences.  If one seeks a traditional villain among the movies’ characters, most signs point to him.  All of his actions are focused around defeating the Black Panther and taking over the throne, and he does not care what it takes to do so.  However, if we look closer, the circumstances are not so black and white.  His anger towards T’Challa stems from the death of his father and Wakanda’s years of ignorance of the suffering of African Americans.  His primary goal in defeating T’Challa, is to send Wakandan resources to people facing oppression.  His methods were misguided, but his motivations are fairly easy to understand.

The development of Killmonger conveys the idea that we all think of ourselves as the hero in our own stories.  T’Challa sees himself as the hero, fighting to save the country he knows and loves.  Killmonger sees himself as the hero, trying to correct the wrongs of the past and seek what he believes to be justice.  The only thing that changes is the framework of the story, the perspective through which you are experiencing it.  In real life, the vast majority people make the choices they make because they believe they are doing the right thing (even when they are wrong).  While this does not excuse actions that harm other people or mean that everyone is concerned with doing the right things, it does suggest that wrongdoings are not independent events.  Every experience we have impacts the choices we make.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to address the causes and events that have led to different negative situations.

People are complex.  The fact that this concept is explored in a film about characters of color is indescribably important because it goes against the stereotypes and archetypes that are often used to create such characters.  It gives the characters dimensions which reflect the human experience that connects all people.

Depiction of Women of Color

The film’s use of well-rounded characters does not end with those who are male.  The character stereotype of black women in films is loud and dramatic and is perceived as having an attitude problem.  They are considered bossy, aggressive, and sometimes even mean.  The female characters in Black Panther defy traditional expectations and radiate empowerment.  Black Panther depicts numerous powerful black women without objectifying and over-sexualizing them as many movies do.  They are just normal women.  Realistic, intelligent, kind, and brave. These characters stand on their own and serve a greater purpose than supporting the development the male characters.

Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister, is a sixteen-year-old genius who leads the development of Wakandan technology.  She offers representation for increasing number of women and young girls, especially those of color, who aspire to be part of the STEM field.  She is not limited to being “the smart one.”  When the time comes, she is ready and more than willing to be part of the fight to protect her country.  In addition to her brilliance and strength, she is also equipped with a vibrant personality.

Okoye is a member of Dora Milaje, the group of women who act as bodyguards for the Black Panther.  She is a fierce warrior, dedicated to serving her people to the best of her ability.  She is strong and loyal, ready to sacrifice her relationship to do what is right for her country.  She would do anything to protect Wakanda.

Nakia is a Wakandan spy, who goes undercover in an effort to undermine human traffickers in the beginning of the film.  She takes action and puts herself in dangerous situations in order to help others.  Her work is her passion and main priority, and she refuses to sacrifice it for the sake of romance. She also encourages T’Challa to share the resources of Wakanda with the rest of the world.  She is driven and wants to make the world better place.  She is a world-shaker.

A smiling boy.
Jamaican. Source: Ashley Campbell, Creative Commons

Watching Black Panther as a White Woman

This film is not just important for the black community, or even just for minority groups.  It is important for white people to watch the film as well.  As a white woman, I originally went to watch Black Panther to simply support a film I knew was important for people of color and to enjoy the experience.  However, as I sat in a theater full of children of color, listening to their reactions to the dialogue and every plot twist, I truly believe that I gained a deeper understanding of the film’s importance.  The kids were excited and absorbed in every moment.  I realized the extent to which I am privileged to have characters I can identify with in just about every movie and television show.  It is something that I have taken for granted for a long time.

I also realized how important it is that black people have an increased opportunity to speak.  White people need to be close allies of course, but we should not dominate the conversation.  We need to support the creation and maintenance of platforms from which they can represent themselves.  We have a history of making everything about us, and we need to ensure that that does not continue.  In the past, white people have stolen land, enslaved entire nations of people, and destroyed families for their own selfish gain.  We now need to be a part of fixing the damage that our ancestors have caused and work to empower people of color in every way possible.

Why Does this Matter?

There are some people who question the importance of representation in the media.  They do not understand why it is so vital to have well-developed characters of color and female characters.  Dr. Christopher Bell provided a thorough explanation of this in his TED Talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes!”  In his talk, Bell explains public pedagogy, or “how societies are taught ideologies.”  This involves concepts such as what it means to be a member of the different genders, how to behave while in public, and how to be polite.  According to Bell, we now live in a 100% media saturated society, meaning every part of our lives, including public pedagogy, is influenced by what we seen on television, in films, and on social media.  The characters and the people that children see through the media are key in their understanding of the world.  When children are unable to see people they identify with as leaders, scientists, or artists, it is difficult for them to see a future where they are doing those things.  The media you consume impacts your outlook on who you can be.

The film shows traditional gender roles being smashed through all its characters.  Women can be warriors, scientists, and world-changers. They can be protectors and leaders. Men can be compassionate and emotional. They do not have to fit into ‘traditional masculinity’.  People can support each other in their choices, regardless of how it fits societal expectations.  In the film, the country of Wakanda contains a society in which gender roles do not seem to apply.  The proposal of a woman becoming the leader and Black Panther is not questioned.  The king’s guards are women, and no one tries to fight it or questions the Dora Milaje’s ability to protect their leader.  All people are equal and are offered the same opportunities.

In addition to its being a huge leap in representation, the film also acts as a proof that change is possible.  More representation, better opportunities, and a better future are all within reach for marginalized groups.  It is crucial that we maintain this momentum.  The Black Panther film is an immense milestone, but there is still more to do.  There still needs to be more representation for the black community and similar representation for other people of color.  We need to work towards a future where such a representative film is a norm rather than an anomaly.

 

Diagnosing ADHD: Mental Health and Human Rights

Playground adventures. Source: BrownZelip, Creative Commons

Mental health is a topic that is becoming increasingly recognized as an important public conversation.  It is usually focused on depression and anxiety and is often overlooked in the context of human rights. It is important to recognize that mental health is a public health issue, and therefore a human rights issue. Mental health has an irrefutable impact on an individual’s physical health and their quality of life.  It can also harm their ability to receive an education. This blog will discuss Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and the issues created by the stereotypes and stigmas related to mental health.

Conditions like ADHD are frequently given a specific popularized depiction. Though the depiction may not be entirely incorrect, it is rarely inclusive of all the individuals experiencing these conditions.  When people think of ADHD for example, they often think of a boy with a lot of behavioral problems and poor grades.  The fact of the matter is that people with ADHD can be any gender and can have any kind of experience in school. Using stereotypes to inform our ideas about the people who have certain conditions impacts if and when people who have these conditions are able to receive a diagnosis and treatment. Because of this, girls with ADHD are frequently unaware of what they are experiencing.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a disorder that results from the way the brain develops.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood.”  It is very important to understand that ADHD is not merely a behavioral issue.  It is a condition that cannot be punished away.  ADHD brains work differently than brains without ADHD.  ADHD brains lack a sufficient amount of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that transport signals in the brain.  They are like filters for your brain.  Dopamine helps to regulate the reward center of the brain, movement, and emotional responses. Norepinephrine strengthens signals that are relevant and important while blocking information that is unnecessary.  Medicines that treat ADHD typically aim to support the circulation of these neurotransmitters in the brain.  These medicines decrease the frequency of the symptoms of ADHD, though they do not eliminate them.

In addition to the symptoms related to impulsiveness and inattentiveness, the lack of filter ADHD causes in the brain can lead to sensory overload, which can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.  When this occurs, one becomes overwhelmed by all of the noises you hear, the things you see, and the things you feel.  You notice everything around you, including the things that are unimportant.

Depending on an individual’s personal symptoms and experiences, they may have one of three different types of ADHD. One type of ADHD is the “Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation”.  This type can involve a lot of fidgeting, feelings of restlessness, and an unusually large amount of impulsive behavior, such as interrupting people.  Another type of ADHD is the “Predominantly Inattentive Presentation”.  This type often involves forgetfulness and difficulties in fully absorbing new information.  The third and final type is called the “Combined Presentation” and involves experiencing the symptoms of the other types equally.

Differences Between Boys and Girls With ADHD

Girls are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys are, though they are not less likely to actually have it. One study, using data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, found that children whose parents reported ADHD behaviors and who were undiagnosed were girls more often than boys.  Because of this, girls with ADHD are more likely to go untreated than boys are.  The differences in how boys and girls experience ADHD contribute to the underdiagnoses of girls. Another study, which combined the results of 8 prior studies to have a sample of 772 boys and 325 girls, suggests that boys with ADHD are more likely to display symptoms of impulsivity that girls with ADHD are, based on the children’s performances on “Continuous Performance Tests”. Symptoms of impulsivity are often easier to recognize than inattentiveness and result in behaviors that catch people’s attention.  Inattentiveness, which girls more frequently experience, does not lead to behaviors that are as disruptive as the behaviors of impulsivity.

Children in a classroom reading with their teacher.
students-in-class-with-teacher-reading. Source: Ilmicrofono Oggionom, Creative Commons

Why It Matters

ADHD is highly connected to the issue of mental health. According to one study, girls with ADHD are more likely to experience comorbid disorders such as depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder than girls who do not have ADHD. Individuals with ADHD may internalize what they are going through, blaming themselves and feeling like what they are going through is their own fault.  They may externalize what they are going through, impacting the way they interact with other people and their environments.  Internalizing and externalizing behaviors occur in individuals with ADHD regardless of the existence of a diagnosis but being undiagnosed can make the situation more difficult.

The possibility of being diagnosed with ADHD is also impacted by many social determinants. Social determinants are defined as “conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age.” They lead to avoidable health disparities. It is important to recognize social determinants when it comes to mental health and human rights, because they highlight the fact that people of different backgrounds do not have access to the same resources. Factors that are out of an individual’s control impact their ability to access their human rights and maintain a good quality of life. By identifying social determinants, we can begin to identify changes that can be made to diminish injustice in the world. For example, even the country that someone with ADHD lives in can impact the chances that they will be diagnosed.

In France, 0.5% of children are diagnosed with ADHD, while about 12% of children in the United States receive a diagnosis. Different countries around the world have different views of ADHD, affecting their rates of diagnosis and the methods of treatment. The treatment of ADHD in France frequently involves prioritizing methods such as therapy and family counseling over medicines. In Germany, it is likely that students with ADHD benefit from the “outdoor component” of their education, as being outside can be more favorable for them than a traditional classroom. The United States relies more heavily on using medicinal methods to treat ADHD.

Another social determinant that impacts treatment is socioeconomic status. Even if a child in poverty has received a diagnosis, it is still possible that they cannot afford treatment. If they are uninsured, it would be difficult for them to access medication or therapy. Race also acts as a social determinant. The results of one study suggest that there is a large disparity in ADHD diagnosis and treatment that negatively impacts African-American and Latinx children.  According to the study, it is more likely that the disparity is due to African-American and Latinx children being underdiagnosed and undertreated than white children being overdiagnosed and overtreated.

Social determinants like nationality, socioeconomic status, and race can be barriers to a child’s diagnosis and treatment for conditions like ADHD. These factors are out of the child’s control and create disparities that cause further harm.  Even if an individual knows what a problem is, they cannot work towards alleviating it if they do not have the resources they need. If a black girl is born is born into a New York family in poverty, she may lack the ability to spend time outside, receive certain medications, or go to therapy. She would not have access to the same resources as children from families with higher incomes or different geographical locations. This injustice feeds into comorbid disorders and has a negative impact mental and public health, as emotional issues can develop from being able to understand the injustice.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to education (Article 26) and the right to an environment that promotes health and wellbeing (Article 25), along with many others.  Access to these rights is limited when individuals with conditions like ADHD are unable to seek treatment, whether that treatment be medicinal or a form of counseling.  The effect that these conditions have on one’s mental health makes a significant difference. Education is one of the human rights that is fundamental to growth and flourishing in life.

We, as a global society, must recognize the relationships between mental health, public health, and human rights. They are not isolated issues. The way we approach one impacts the outcomes of the others.  Mental health is a part of public health, impacting an individual’s physical health and their quality of life. Both mental health on its own and public health as a whole are largely influential in one’s ability to access their human rights. Everything is connected.

Partnership & Peace: Riane Eisler Visits UAB

Disclosure: The author is currently enrolled in Professor Eisler’s UAB course, “Cultural Transformation Theory” through the Department of Anthropology. Some statements in this post result from class session discussions and personal interactions between Professor Eisler and Nicholas Sherwood.

Riane Eisler signs "The Power of Partnership". Source: Nicholas Sherwood

Riane Eisler is a peacemaker. She is an attorney. A researcher. A mother. A grandmother. She is also a Holocaust survivor. On October 26th 2017, UAB’s Department of Anthropology and Institute for Human Rights hosted Eisler to deliver a keynote address to the annual Peace and Justice Studies Association conference held in Birmingham, Alabama. Eisler’s address to the UAB, PJSA, and Birmingham communities served as a call-to-arms for the audience members to embrace a complex and nuanced understanding of peace-through-partnership. Eisler posited the normative value of peace can only be internalized and implemented once a systemic understanding of peace has been embraced by intellectuals, activists, and advocates alike.

Eisler’s analytic framework is housed within the intellectual school of systems theory. In her case, a systemic approach to culture makes room for the total sum of human interactions, from the micro intrapersonal level, the intermediary levels, to the the macro transnational level. This interdisciplinary approach encourages integrative research from many fields of study to understand cultures themselves and how to transform cultures of domination towards cultures of partnership. To study partnership and dominator societies, Eisler and other researchers affiliated with the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) utilize a vast array of academic disciplines, including biology, functional neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and political science. Eisler’s most prolific work, The Chalice and the Blade, marked the beginning of her scholarly oeuvre, and first introduced Cultural Transformation Theory (CTT) to the world-at-large.  The central concept of CTT is the “partnership-domination” continuum, whereby any given culture may be ranked according to specific identifying markers: family / childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and cultural narratives / language. A culture’s placement is influenced many factors. However, a fundamental differential between these two absolute points is the relative equality (or lack thereof) of both primordial halves of humanity: male and female.

Cultures with gender inequality lean towards a domination orientation, whereas cultures with gender egalitarian values lean more towards a partnership orientation.  Furthermore, dominator societies are also marked by authoritarian ranking in all social relations (from the family level to the international level) and a high degree of accepted abuse and violence (again, from the familial to the international levels; Eisler, 1987). By contrast, partnership societies are noticeable by gender equality, egalitarian and democratic relations (from the family to the national level), and a low degree of built-in violence (Eisler, 1987). To orient a culture towards partnership and peace, four cornerstones of society must be addressed: 1) family / childhood relations, 2) gender relations, 3) economic relations, and 4) narratives / language (Eisler, 2017). Observing how a culture embodies these cornerstones offers the culture’s placement on the “partnership-domination” continuum, and any attempt to transform a cultures towards partnership must simultaneously attend to these four markers of a society’s norms and values.

Riane Eisler delivers the keynote address to PJSA 2017. Source: Nicholas Sherwood

First, family and childhood relations. Eisler’s book The Power of Partnership (Eisler, 2002), explores key relationships in every person’s life and how these relationships fundamentally orient an individual towards patterns of behavior aligning with partnership- or domination-based behaviors. For any individual, family and childhood relations set the template for relationships for the rest of her or his life. As children grow, they consciously and unconsciously adopt the behaviors they learn from their parents and family members. Values held by a family, such as embracing diversity or quashing the questioning of authority figures, can and do impact the socialization of a child.

Partnership societies typically socialize children to be empathic of others, tolerant of diversity, and explore the world with curiosity instead of fear (Rando, 2010). By contrast, dominator societies instill in children an unquestioning loyalty towards authority figures (typically the patriarch of the family), suspicion of Otherness, and a generalized fear of acting dis-concordantly with the norms of society. To create peace from the bottom-up, families must socialize their children to understand diversity is a ‘given’ of the human condition, empathy is a powerful tool to be used for good, and respect for authority may also mean resisting abusive or unfair treatment.

Eisler’s second cornerstone, gender relations, explores how cultures treat the fundamental difference between two halves of humanity: male and female. In dominator societies, conventionally feminine traits (such as caring and nurturing) relegated as being ‘lesser to’ conventionally masculine traits (such as aggression and violence; Eisler, 1987). Partnership societies tend to view genders as equal in right and measure (Eisler, 1987). This question of gender equality, according to Eisler, is critical to understanding how society views Otherness. Gender identity and expression are among the first identifiers a person assesses when meeting someone else, and how a society ranks (or chooses not to rank) this difference is critical to understanding conflict and peace within culture. Why do some cultures actively repress one gender in favor of another? Are rigid stereotypes socialized and expected in men and women? And what does this gendered system of ranking mean for other kinds of relationships? Eisler believes peace is impossible without taking a critical look at gender disparity across all cultures and societies.

The Real Wealth of Nations (Eisler, 2007) explores Eisler’s third cornerstone, economic relations. For a culture to move towards or sustain a partnership orientation, their economic system (whether socialist, capitalist, etc.) must promote caring policies that reward consumers and producers alike to engage in industries that promote our innate human capacities, such as creativity, care-giving, and sustainable development (Eisler, 2007). Economic systems featuring rampant inequality between classes, the devaluation of caring work (such as caring for the elderly, traditional “house work”, and the empowerment of marginalized populations), and mechanisms of suppression are dominator-based.

Caring economics, a partnership approach, features the reward of caring work not only by capital, but also policies such as: paid maternity / paternity leave, universal healthcare, educational standards, and just treatment of employees in any job sector. The benefits of moving towards a caring economic system are mighty, including: gender equality in public and private sectors, reports of higher life satisfaction, higher profit margins for for-profit companies, higher customer satisfaction, and higher GDP; Eisler uses the successes of Scandanavian countries to support her economic hypothesis (Eisler, 2007). Companies that have adopted a partnership-orientation in their business model include: First Tennessee National Corporation, New Age Transportation, Johnson & Johnson, and Berrett-Koehler (Eisler, 2007).

Finally, with respect to the partnership-domination continuum, the particular narratives of a culture offers insight into the normative ideals enshrined in a society. Myths such as the “Original Sin”, a narrative common to many religions, espouse a dark view of human nature that features an underlying belief in a fatal flaw (or flaws) inherent to all members of humanity. Idioms such as “survival of the fittest” imply the human condition is typically competitive and warlike. These two examples belong to the domination paradigm of culture. Rewriting cultural narratives that sanctify norms such as love, acceptance, and mutual aid would reorient a society towards partnership. Anthropologists have long attempted to glean lessons from the myths and symbols found in societies; these same lessons can and should be applied in a modern context. Repeated stories become narratives. These narratives can become myths. While no myth deserves to be destroyed, as cultural erasure is a gross human rights violation, a reframing and re-contextualizing of dominator myths will serve to move a society towards peace.

An Eislerian peace process entails a cultural shift towards partnership values, with emphasis on four cornerstones of society: family / childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and narratives / language. Her systemic approach to peace promotion covers broad swaths of the human condition, and requires a working-through at all levels of society, from the macro, to the micro, and between. Eisler’s insights provide a new and necessary approach to peace promotion: peace is systemic.

Peace requires a conceptual breadth that transcends typical disciplinary lanes. Finally, to orient a society towards peaceful partnership will require a reconfiguration of the most basic elements of a society, from interpersonal relations to the global political system. Given our human potentials for domination and partnership alike, the choice to create and sustain peace is firmly ours to make.

References

Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Eisler, R. (2002). The Power of Partnership. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Eisler, R. (2007). The Real Wealth of Nations. San Fransisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Eisler, R. (2017). Building a caring democracy: Four cornerstones for an integrated progressive agenda. Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, 4(1).

Rando, L. M. (2010). Caring & Connected Parenting. Pacific Grove, CA: The Center for Partnership Studies.

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.

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

 

THE BRIDGE PERSPECTIVE: HUMAN TRAFFICKING, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND RACE IN AMERICA

by Sunny Slaughter

It took me a minute to get my thoughts together on exactly what I wanted to say in this piece as a guest blogger. I rewrote this more than once, almost to the point of nausea thinking about whether I should not offend the host and its readers, but then I realized that truth can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow, one drop can create a ripple effect, and this truth is my reality. Human Trafficking thrives off many things including silence. Human Rights is not always a matter of what is given, but rather what is demanded. Race and racism has never been about justice, but rather privilege and the privileged can never fully comprehend what they won’t ever fully experience.

picture of Stone Town Slave Trade. Source: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons.
Stone Town Slave Trade. Source: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons.

History does matter. The truth is I don’t personally like the term “modern-day slavery”. In fact, I’ve often wonder whose idea it was to coin this phrase in the first place?  “Slavery” and particularly in the U.S., was the legal victimization and oppression of an entire population of people based solely on race, that continues to have generational repercussions. Black women and girls were raped, beaten, held captive, violated, taken from their families, sold, mutilated and even murdered. They were forced to bare the children of their perpetrators, teach others how to endure, passed between the family and visitors of their owners, and publicly shamed by their own people. Men were stripped of their human dignity as they stood by and watched helplessly as the women and girls in their lives were violated, impregnated, taken and sold.  Even more poignant is the unspoken evil with regard to their own rape and violation. Blacks were forced to endure extreme and hostile conditions of labor in fields and industries without regard to age, gender, physical condition or mental capacity. The laws protected perpetrators, not victims, there were no shelters, services, support, training or promises of restitution. It was called slavery, not modern, just slavery.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the premise behind the term “modern-day slavery” but it is disingenuous at best, to give weight to words in theory, without understanding or recognizing the ramifications of their historical context. I have long said that Human Trafficking is not new, it is slavery revisited, reinvested and renamed, but the only thing modern about it, would be the implication that now it is a problem, because the women and girls largely recognized as victims and survivors have European features. Laws are often changed when those who make them become uncomfortable with the societal ills that begin to impact them personally.

Nelson Mandela, said “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.

The perception of modern-day slavery When most people hear the word human trafficking, it is almost always in connection to sex trafficking and tends to immediately invoke a strong emotional reaction of horror and disbelief. The visual perception of women and girls, with European features and as very young, being held captive and forced to engage in acts of sexual depravity and violence is unthinkable. People become even more horrified to learn that this is not just happening in some third world country, but right here in the U.S..

News articles, press conferences and information of coordinated law enforcement agency operations regarding human trafficking, dominate the media about white women and girls reported as runaways or missing, being lured through on-line exploitation and rescued at big sporting events, in hotels and from street-based prostitution. According to Natalie Wilson, co-Founder of The Black and Missing Foundation, 64,000 black women, girls and others are currently missing in the U.S., and yet it fails to make the headlines and sometimes even falls below the radar for law enforcement. Even more disturbing, is the reality that “anti-trafficking groups and policy makers continue to ignore the impact that race and racism play in domestic sex trafficking efforts which do not recognize minority youth as victims.”

Documentaries, movies, conferences, printed material and social media awareness campaigns, continue to keep the focus on shelters and organizations that gather substantial support and funding, while making headlines by incorporating survivors who have become the experts leading the charge for change, but rarely, if ever, do they have a hue to their skin. Not that they don’t exist, because history and truth tells us, WE most certainly do. But once again, another crisis thrives off misdirection, false perception and coded language “evidence based practice”, which is fundamentally derived from data of marginalized minority populations that have been hi-jacked by the mainstream, and successfully hood-winked the masked and disengaged. The scriptures says “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

However, this does not begin to accurately depict the totality of all that is happening. The bias of information reported does not include the stories of men and boys, transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults who are homeless, missing from Child Welfare Services, have aged-out of foster care systems and who are being exploited or sometimes self-exploiting as a means of survival with no third party involved in the transactions. Prostitution, on-line sexual exploitation, child sexual exploitation, pornography and commercial exploitation are fueled by demand; however, they are also fueled and sustained by societal factors that have been managed in silos, with no regard to systems that are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes. There are vast populations of people, (veterans, formerly incarcerated, the elderly and disabled, single mothers, homeless and minorities) who are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes, that don’t typically capture the headlines, and go unrecognized because human trafficking has been pigeon-hold by what sells (sex) what can be sensationalized (sex and girls), and what is driven largely by emotion (white).

Unfortunately, people are less emotional and horrified when they hear the words labor trafficking often relying on the preconceived notion or misinformation, that these people (who are of foreign descent), and in the United States illegally, have willingly contributed to their own circumstances. The interweaving of issues like immigration, dreamers, confinement camps, and the belief that these people are stealing jobs from Americans and should be thrown out of the country, are heavily threaded in conversations of outrage without empathy or facts. The disregard for victims who are exploited in educational institutions through criminal justice systems, commercial business and major league sports, only scratches the surface of what is not always happening in silence, thereby making all the purported efforts to end human trafficking, splintered and unrealistic.

picture of Vigilia por la liberación de las niñas secuestradas en nigeria por Boko Haram
Vigilia por la liberación de las niñas secuestradas en nigeria por Boko Haram. Source: HazteOir.org, Creative Commons.

A global crisis Several years ago more than 200 black girls kidnapped in Nigeria sparked the global campaign “Bring Back Our Girls” individuals, groups and organizations across the racial, cultural and social spectrum galvanized and spoke publicly about what was happening. The viral campaign put black faces front and center in every form of media and print for the first time in the U.S., and bridged the nexus of human trafficking and global human rights. Unfortunately, according to photographer Ami Vitale, photos that she took on behalf of the Alexia Foundation were used and misrepresented as some the images of girls who were not actual victims of Boko Haram, nor from Nigeria. As someone who has been professionally engaged with international countries working on human trafficking and human rights issues for several years, I fully support the global response, but one must take everything into account when being responsive and responsible. Americans can quickly become horrified and outraged at what happens abroad and we can interject ourselves and posture about the money we give for the human rights atrocities. We can feel free to boast of our successes in politics and in a democracy which allows “our people” freedom of speech, choice and opportunity. But when the mirror turns inward, and we see our reflection from where we stand, as citizens of the greatest nation on earth, how dare we spin and spew with audacity, when we can neither reconcile our history of the slavery or even our attempts with modern-day slavery.

Paradigm shift  When you peel back the layers of structural inequality and violence, and identify the amount of injustices that contributes to marginalized populations becoming victims, you can recognize the nexus of human trafficking and human rights. Mandela said, “to deny people their human rights, is to challenge their very humanity”.  Systems embedded in structural violence only exacerbate opportunities of exploitation for marginalized populations. Organized and non-organized schemes swell out of the vulnerabilities known by the oppressor (trafficker, pimp, exploiter) and experienced by their victims (men, women, children); economic segregation, lack of access to quality education, health and mental health disparities and inequities, food gaps and disparities, cultural adaptation to concentrated poverty, generational trauma and violence, drugs gangs and groups, criminal behavior, discriminatory practices that alienate people and allow increased opportunities for victimization –bullying and much more.

Eleanor Roosevelt believed, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere…”.

These are not new, nor are they beyond our control. But until we are committed to doing something that will make a substantive difference for all people and not just the select few and privileged, nothing will ever change. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

More than ever before, it is critically important for individuals representing the vast diversity of human beings in this country (African Americans, Latino/Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan Native and others) to lead, not just serve organizations. To establish shelters that provide and develop programs through a culturally competent lens for the delivery of trauma informed services and care, that address the specific needs of marginalized victims. It is imperative that we demand seats in greater numbers at the tables where decisions and policies are made with respect to human trafficking legislation, services, support, and funding.  The time for one or two just won’t do, especially when the data used to garner attention and make the case for funding, comes from the very population that is being ignored. It is vital that existing shelters not be given a pass because it’s the name everyone recognizes, or it’s the only facility that serves human trafficking victims. We must raise the bar, not lower it or we risk contributing to the re-victimization victims, damaging the reputation of worthy organizations and institutions, and opening the door for predators to prey on unsuspecting individuals and businesses within our communities. People often think someone else has done their due diligence by vetting and verifying organizations and shelters are operating ethically and with integrity, but that may not always be the case. Human Trafficking is all about money, it just depends whose on the receiving end. Robert G. Ingersoll asserts, “nothing discloses real character like the use of power…”

Consider This  People are looking for ways to become involved but before one does, I suggest pausing to turn down the background noise of hype and rhetoric that drives funding, volunteerism and emotions. Take the time to become fully knowledge about the issue of human trafficking, “modern-day slavery”, that has had a law for less than 20 years, that even seasoned professionals working in judiciary, law enforcement and victim service providers are still trying to understand how to respond to.

Recognize human trafficking is the new hot topic and cause, and do your own due diligence before you attach your time, talents and finances. Many people may also consider their faith, and although faith based shelters (mostly Christian), are popping up everywhere, you should be clear, that not every victim will be, nor should any person be coerced into religious practice. When a person is coerced to consider faith as a means of freedom and shelter, you have just infringed on their human rights and dignity.

Human trafficking is about the exploitation of the vulnerable and often uninformed. Predators both men and women, don’t have a certain look, and their demeanor is often not what one might expect. The same can be said of some survivors, who claims have been proven to be false or called into question.  You must decide. So, before you dive in and dig deep consider this!

Before you volunteer, ask questions What safety protocols do you have in place for staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? Are background checks conducted on ALL staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? What type of security do you have in place? Fencing, locked gates, guards etc.? Is the location of your facility known to the public? What safety measures do you have in place when and if a person leaves your facility to ensure that others do not find out the location? Have you ever had an incident where someone who was not authorized came to your facility? What is your rate of turn-over in staff, volunteers and victims/survivors?

Before you give, dig deep Board members are responsible for ensuring the organization is following all laws, run ethically and with integrity. So, asking for and reviewing a board’s 1099’s (GuideStar Nonprofit database) to see the names of members and have long they have served is information that you would want to know. Frequent and constant turn over should raise concern. In fact, frequent and constant turn over in staff, volunteers and even location should also raise a concern. It could be an indication of instability, financial integrity, compliance failure and even ethical reliability. How much have board members personally invested in the organization? How many victims/survivors are you currently serving, and how many have they served since the program began? How many licensed, qualified and paid, full-time staff do they have working with victims/survivors? This is an important question as to capacity and especially when it comes to transition shelters that house victims/survivors 24-hours, and drop-in shelters who may provide services and support during specified times and day. A facilities failure to have “paid” staff providing on-going professional services and support should send up a red-flag. And while it may seem like an extra step, provide your questions in writing and ask for an authorized representative to provide the information in writing, giving you time to review the answers and ask any potential additional questions later. Remember, no matter how small you give or how often you give, you have the right to know where and how your money is invested and the right to ask additional questions outside of the standard information they provide. Any organization that cannot provide you with what you require, doesn’t deserve what they are requesting. While these do not begin to exhaust the amount of questions and concerns that one should consider, this is a start.

Lealholm Bridge. Source: Red Rose Exile, Creative Commons.
Lealholm Bridge. Source: Red Rose Exile, Creative Commons.

The bridge I started out by talking about my perspective on the bridge between human trafficking, human rights and race in America. By now given the scale and what some might consider diatribe on the complexities and nuances surrounding these three topics, you may have stopped several times, considered clicking off all together, found yourself agreeing with some and disagreeing with other analysis. However, if you’ve made it this far, and I hope that you did, I also hope that you have come to realize that this is not easy, the bridge is broken and damaged in far too many places, it’s has a history of being unsteady and sometimes unreliable, it’s weak and in need of repair, but it’s what we have, until we come together to build a new one. You have now done what many of us who work on issues that impact social consciousness do every day, keep going. When it’s hard, heavy and sometimes unbearable, when the lie takes our breath away and the truth rips at our heart, when darkness gives more to our movements, than light gives to our moments. When we are crippled with fear, and yet continue to crawl, because we are survivors not merely by circumstance, but most assuredly by choice. We are destined to fight for victims, demand human dignity for survivors and seek a measure of justice where injustice reigns most supreme. We cross the spectrum of race, culture and ethnicity, we ask not for favors, but for the opportunity to bring every person’s reality into focus, so that they may become free. This is the bridge and I’m doing my part to help others cross it.

Invest wisely in the matters of change!” (literally and figuratively) – Sunny Slaughter

 

Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter is the CEO/Principal consultant for Sunny Slaughter Consulting, LLC . Slaughter is  subject matter expertise on human trafficking and intersecting crimes for a national and international clientele and serves as a policy strategist, facilitator, law enforcement instructor, expert, TEDx speaker and subject matter expert, across a broad spectrum of human rights, social justice and civil rights issues.

 

Additional resources:

UNODC

US State Department Annual Trafficking In Persons Report