On January 21, 2017, over five million people marched–on all seven continents–in solidarity for women’s issues. In Washington D.C, one million marchers made their voices heard, nearly three times the size of the crowd at the inauguration, according to crowd scientists. The Birmingham, Alabama march numbered nearly five thousand, to the surprise of organizers who expected closer to several hundred. The official Women’s March website states the platform and approach is committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion. While initially, the Trump administration may have been the fuel for this rise, the movement presently signifies an international protest against the growing threat of a dishonest narrative about women’s rights and unjust treatment of them.
The sheer numbers of attendees at the march inspired and infused hope into the hearts of many deeply opposed to the injustices within the context of women’s rights. Critics of the march seem to misinterpret the intentions of marchers by claiming that the cause was American-centric, thus ignoring the subjugation of women globally. There is some validity to this, in that, the focus of many marchers remained centered in American political issues, and often excluded some key actors from the discussion like transgender people. However, many critics used these potentially valid grounds to deny the existence of oppression in America. Blogger Stephanie Dolce, after listing a series of wrongs against women in other countries, writes, “So when women get together in America and whine they don’t have equal rights and march in their clean clothes, after eating a hearty breakfast, it’s like a vacation away that they have paid for to get there.” This critical narrative reveals the false impression that many Americans have about women’s rights, the nature of protests, and the human right to participate in protest.
Dolce mentioned the issues of rape, limited education access, gender violence, and denial of bodily autonomy through legislation, infanticide, and female genital mutilation (FGM). She then suggests that American women do not experience these acts of violence and oppression. To believe that these issues are absent in America is to remain blinded by privilege. Dolce’s argument, supported and shared many times across social media, is rooted in privilege—a privilege that often undermines the nature of exploitation and oppression of another because distance rather than proximity and a lack of knowledge discredit the acknowledgement of an experience.
Marchers in cities around the world reflected the microcosm of the global civic society. It is highly unlikely that Dolce, who is vocally critical of the march, attended a protest based on her blog writing. Conversely, I have been an advocate for human rights for years and decided to experience the Birmingham march firsthand. I found myself deeply moved by the variety of issues and identities represented; therefore, I can bear witness to a crowd of people marching for a diverse set of causes, each inherently political but not as a political reaction. Protest signs held high regarding immigration, environmental issues, racism, disability rights, and more, dotted the landscape of Kelly Ingram Park. The diversity of the city was visible in the composition of marchers and their causes. The harsh, judgmental “anti-Trump” rhetoric is an insult to social justice, as this march and subsequent protests, are not about him or any one person.
The highly divisive stage in American politics provides a vehicle of change through shock and outrage; fortunately, the movement is not limited to the American arena. This activism is not a backlash to the election or simply a march about women’s issues. This is not, as some may see it, a petty protest against the shift in ideology represented in our new president. This is the beginning of a global movement to protect rights presently impacted by global structural violence targeted towards women specifically, and humanity generally.
The Women’s March website has listed steps to transform the vigorous energy seen on January 21 into a long-term international movement. Given the millions of marchers who came out, it is hard to imagine that the momentum and awareness for women’s rights will simply fade away. The evolution of the movement is already underway. They currently have two “global action steps” listed and a third still developing. First, communicate concerns for women’s rights by contacting representatives, using postcards or letters with a picture of the march. Second, organize local “next up huddles” which are intended to foster support and community. The goal is that each area brainstorm a “set of actions and strategies our group will pursue in the coming weeks and months”, mobilizing the community through grassroots activism and people power. The grassroots approach, fueled by people power, is essential because it empowers leadership and change from the bottom-up rather than top-down. People power initiates the quicker and more effective change across nations.
With an enormous base of supporters and power of grassroots change, it is clear that the spirit behind the Women’s March is thriving and quickly evolving into a transnational platform.
On Sunday, January 15, 2017–the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr–Ajanet Rountree and I filed into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, a day before the nation officially recognized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The historic location held a special church service commemorating King and his contemporaries, reinforcing the role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement, and honoring the career service of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Arriving a full hour before the service was slated to begin I was met with hundreds of congregants on the church’s steps. There was an air of energized reverence, among the mostly black audience, gathering to hear one of their own speak of her successes. I overheard bellowing laughs, old friends recognizing and greeting each other in the open air of Birmingham, parents importing their children “BE QUIET DURING THE SERVICE”, and the slow but steady knocking of feet slowly climbing the front steps of the church. An unapologetic rainbow of cloth, sequins, and even feathers peacocked in front of me. Here, I recognized, is an old and dignified community in their church best. With red dresses, gold sashes, purple bowties, green bowler hats, pink lapels, Birmingham decided to greet Loretta Lynch et al. with the glorious visage only a Southern, black church can offer. A greeter handed me a church pamphlet as I entered. He seemed annoyed with security constraints but overall pleased with the turn out. Up a tight winding stairwell we climbed, halfway up I had a fleeting thought, “Is this the stairwell where the bomb was detonated?” With our seats aggressively claimed, we settled in for a two-hour event.
Loretta Lynch was born on May 21, 1959 when much of the Southern United States lacked equal rights and protections for persons of color. At that time, black female lawyers were simply nonexistent. In her first appointment, she served under President Clinton as US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which led to her first leadership role under President Obama, as US Attorney for the Eastern District for New York. In between her presidential appointments, she was special counsel for the prosecutor for the UN International Criminal Tribunal. Her work as a prosecutor with specialties in witness tampering and public official corruption, garnered her successful influence on the national and international level. Working on the case of Rwandan genocide, with her assistance, this was the first case the UNICT successfully tried and delivered a verdict to individuals culpable in genocide.
As Attorney General, Lynch continued her impressive established human rights record. Before her appointment to Attorney General, one of Lynch’s most famous cases involved the prosecution of NYC police officers on behalf of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Louima was violently sodomized by the officers while in custody, and her involvement in this case began a focus of hers on the unfair imprisonment and maltreatment of men of color on behalf of police officers. Another case involved an undercover sting operation neutralizing a terrorist act by a Bangladeshi radical jihadist. The planned act would have detonated a 1000-pound bomb outside of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. She combated racism during her career while defending American freedom and security. During King’s time, these two ideals would have seem incompatible.
The service was–in the spirit of many evangelical black churches–participatory. “Amen!”, “praise the Lord”, “that’s right!”, and sometimes the affirmative “mhmm” punctured the speaker at hand. The church choir belted. The congregation did our best to keep up. Everyone completely focused on what was happening ‘onstage’. Actors from UAB’s theatre department performed a piece on the struggle for civil rights– weaving testimony, narrative, song, and history–during the service. Ministers preached and politicians charmed as we patiently waited for Loretta to take the stage… our leading lady I’m sure, waited patiently too.
I hope she enjoyed the pomp and circumstance in honor of her, in honor of a black woman leading the Justice Department, and in honor of the resilient and honorable fight for equality for which Birmingham has long contributed. The red carpet was a visceral color in this holy sanctuary; red is the color passion, power, blood, and love. If the room and all its inhabitants on that warm January afternoon had an aura, it was surely red.
Her father was a Baptist minister and, it was apparent to me at least, she has maintained a sacrosanct comfort inside a church’s walls. Early in her remarks, she quoted Exodus: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’, followed by “generations of men and women have found the Lord in 16th Street Baptist Church”. She continued by paying homage to King and his contemporaries. Both King and Lynch, certainly, were and are advocates for human rights.
Justice and human rights are intrinsically linked; one cannot protect rights without the legal mechanisms in place to defend them.
Both the power of the people (Dr. King’s specialty) and the power of the law (Lynch’s) must create a unity. Lynch’s speech reflected this unity. As Lynch’s remarks moved from King and Birmingham, and their involvement in the history of American Civil Rights, her discourse changed. This event was billed as a special service commemorating King while honoring Lynch. The past, and all its demons, was locked away in memory. Today, the congregation found out, the first black, female Attorney General was able to reconcile some of the atrocities that may have sat unchallenged in King’s time.
Lynch, in her final speech as Attorney General, swiveled her address from the past to the present. It was at this moment, the crowd hushed. “I know that we are in difficult days now. Many fear that King’s dream – and all that has flowed from it – is at risk like never before.” Her demeanor changed. Speaking of King, a human and civil rights luminary, provided a strength to her words. Indeed, this was prototypical King: a black, Baptist, southern church. How many of his addresses were delivered in such similar circumstances? Lynch seemed to sense the connection. As she spoke of the present, the congregation could sense how concerned she was for the present state of affairs in America. Attention was now assuredly and willfully fixed on Lynch and her words. Her voice, before this point reflecting a pastor’s cadence of lulls and jubilation, now quietened and hardened. She was no longer a guest minister who worked for the federal government. She was now a soon-to-be private citizen giving her critique and naming her personal fears.
As a prosecutor, what would she have feared? Injustice, I would argue. Her reputation as fierce suggests she had few fears in office and in practice. She understands justice and its many forms. She was unrelenting towards oppressors, terrorists, and corruption. However, Lynch was also just, often calling for lenience in cases of nonviolent crimes, especially drug related crimes, opting to provide second chances at a free life rather than jail indeterminately. She spoke for the victims too, with a special interest in police brutality and discrimination cases. The first black woman to serve as Attorney General, and one raised in the American South at that, Lynch understood racial animus. She knows too well how hard one must knock on a cracked glass ceiling before it comes crashing down.
Turning her speech from the past to the present, Lynch acknowledged the present political climate, which terrifies many minority groups in the United States. Her assumed replacement, Jeff Sessions, is from Alabama- another southerner taking over the Justice Department. Sessions has been criticized of blatant racism, as has his boss, now President Donald Trump. The juxtaposition weighed heavily in 16th Street Baptist Church. The first black female Attorney General will likely be succeeded by an accused-racist; the first black President replaced by an accused racist. However, Lynch litigated, the lesson to be gleaned from Dr. King is, and always should be, the persistent utility of hope.
Hope and hard work, she argued, will influence lawmakers and laymen alike.
Again, “amens!” and “yes ma’am!” rang LOUDLY in the congregation. There was fear, yes. However, Lynch bore witness to the fear and offered her testimony to rise from it. The congregation, taking their cue from her, found their voice once more and responded to her lines of power. Her best crafted line, in my opinion, acknowledged darkness and offered an existential purpose for it:
“And if it does come to pass that we do enter a period of darkness, let us remember – that is when dreams are best made.”
King’s Dream– she reminded us–arose like a phoenix from the ashes, galvanizing the struggle for civil rights in America. It is generational dream; a living one. “And when our time comes, we shall pass the dream on to those who are already raising their hand and those to come. So that the arc of the moral universe continues straight and true – continues towards justice.”
Her remarks ending, she thanked us. She returned to her seat and the entire church sang the anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. Like President Obama, her final speech was a plea for hard, hard work. She channeled both King and Obama at times; mixing King’s optimism with Obama’s realism. This balance of past and present, of hope and pragmatism, characterized her speech. Her illustrious public career, now ended, could be characterized in similar terms. She understands the power of mercy and granted hope to defendants who she deemed reparable. Lynch also recognized and publicly testified the threats to justice: discrimination, harassment, and corruption.
Now that her tenure has ended, I imagine Lynch feels comfort in being a public citizen who enjoys a church service, like the ones her father ministered while she was growing up. In 1963, at 16th Street Baptist Church, four girls–Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair– were murdered by white supremacists. Fifty-four years later, the first black, female US Attorney General gave her farewell address in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the enduring legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. History was reconciled but never forgotten at 16th Street Baptist Church.
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.
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 areof 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.
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.
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.
The Internet is a veritable minefield of content for women. For adolescent girls, as they begin to explore their freedom and independence, this boundless online environment contributes to their ability to educate themselves on women’s rights earlier than ever before. Online articles on topics from personal health to social change grant a generation of young girls access to an increased knowledge base for advocacy and protection. The Internet also empowers adult women through professional education, resources for help in dangerous situations, and access to communities that may be inaccessible in their areas. The United Nations’ Guidelines on Women’s Empowerment states, “‘Advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and the elimination of all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women’s ability to control their own fertility … are priority objectives of the international community’.” Empowerment at any age is vital to women in a time where sexism is still very much alive. In communities that may be lack gender equality, girls can find ways to adapt and thrive.
The internet equips adolescent girls with accurate information about puberty, sexual health, and reproduction in cultures where discussing reproductive health is forbidden. Menstruation, a taboo topic in many cultures, is often punishable by death. In Nepal, a practice called “chaupadi” has resulted in the deaths of many young women. Though outlawed, the practice involves banishing menstruating girls from their homes because they are viewed as “impure and treated as untouchable,” according to the New York Times. Forced to live in tiny, poorly constructed sheds for the duration of their menstrual cycle, girls often die from animal attacks, exposure, or suffocation from lighting a fire without proper ventilation.
In an example more familiar to Americans, Donald Trump recently commented on a female reporter by saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Though he later claimed that he was referring to her nose, the implication that periods contribute to irrationality garnered notice by much of the audience. Periods have long been used as evidence to block women from certain professions and fields. Some may recall a similar quote by Edgar Berman, claiming women were incapable of wielding political power because of “the raging hormonal imbalance of the periodic lunar cycle.” In direct response to Trump’s comment, social media created a campaign called #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult to empower menstruating females and erase the stigma of periods.
The online availability of domestic violence resources as proven crucial in the empowerment of women. The resources help save the lives of women in abusive relationships, including finding an escape from dangerous situations. Women are empowered to use resources like the “safety exit” feature on many sites, which exits the site with a click of a button if their abuser is nearby, as exhibited on the National Coalition against Domestic Violence’s website. The ability for victims of abuse to find a support network is invaluable. In cases of those escaping situations where abusers left them isolated and degraded, many victims felt helpless and alone until they find an online outlet. At the same time, these websites also offer help to victims of human trafficking. Online tip centers and hotline databases can bring justice to numerous women.
Online resources have been an avenue in providing an education outside of a traditional classroom. Women, previously hindered and halted in completing a college degree, now have the opportunity to enroll and graduate from online universities. Online education contributes to the empowerment of people with disabilities and social disorders. People with disabilities can find relief from an unaccommodating and inaccessible university through online classes. Women living with anxiety or sleep disorders can obtain educations without worrying about attendance or overwhelming social environments.
Finally, universal access to online communities is perhaps the most significant contribution to empowerment across genders, races, cultures, abilities, and sexualities. In societies that often silences minority voices, the ability to share your voice and connect with like-minded individuals is invaluable for both community and individual well-being. For example, the platform of Twitter has been a vital resource to the black community. According to the Pew Research Center, 40% of young African Americans online are on Twitter — more than 12% higher than the rate reported by young white Internet users. Jenna Worthan of Smithsonian Magazine writes an illuminating article on the relevance of Black twitter, saying in part that “black Twitter—and the Black Lives Matter activists who famously harnessed it—have created a truly grassroots campaign for social change unlike anything in history.” Beyond the activism aspect, a subject I wrote about in an earlier blog post, the beauty of Black Twitter is the visible, dynamic communal dialogue that allows white Americans a insight into the humanity and brilliance of a minority population.
The LGBTQ+ community also offers a vibrant insight into their culture through their online presence, while also extending support to people who are exploring their identities. Media platforms such as Tumblr gave rise to a vigorous culture of support for disabled people, giving hope and survival tips to afflicted individuals. Searching for the terms “disabled,” “chronic illness,” or “spoonie” (referring to spoon theory, which refers to a disability metaphor of how energy is dispensed through the day for chronically ill people) results in a plethora of supportive and potentially life-changing results. Increased visibility for these marginalized communities improves both how society perceives the group overall and each individual members’ well-being.
I am personally familiar with how valuable the Internet can be in advocating for and understanding human rights. Growing up in Alabama, where Southern culture can be particularly toxic to young girls, it was on social media sites that I was exposed to new viewpoints and gained access to social justice-related literature. I followed accounts and blogs run by marginalized members of society that I never had met in my predominantly white, able-bodied, middle-class hometown. I was able to discover my own identity and find how I fit in within these communities. Without access to the online communities where marginalized people freely and comfortably discussed their issues, I might be the same socially ignorant person that I was before I found online educational resources. I am certain that having access to the voices of people of color, LGBTQ individuals, persons with disabilities, and other groups has made me the person I am today: a passionate activist for all marginalized communities, whether I am a part of them or not.
UAB is home to many firsts. From the first women ever to receive a biochemistry degree from a university to the graduation of the first female African American nurse ever in the nation, UAB has been a symbol of strength, empowerment and confidence to me. As a proud Muslim American woman from the south, I strive to embody all three qualities. I have found that wearing my hijab is the best method for outwardly expressing these qualities. I believe that in order to exemplify strength, empowerment, and confidence consistently, I must possess and fundamentally adapt an understanding the integrity of human rights. The subject of human rights is often one that leads to various arguments. Yet for me, human rights have always been simple because by definition, they should be guaranteed rights to and for every human being. They are a birthright.
Last year our nation faced an intensely controversial time during the presidential campaign season. Senator Hillary Clinton and then candidate Donald Trump seemed to represent polar opposites. Supporting one candidate meant being passionately against the other. It’s difficult to identity a time in which our country has appeared more divided in partisanship. Rather than addressing important human rights topics like poverty and racial injustice, the value and right of refugees, climate change, and disability rights as human rights issues, candidates used them as talking points for soundbytes and the presentation of the best supporter garnering appeal. I personally struggled to find balance; so did the country.
“Our hopes for a more just, safe, and peaceful world can only be achieved when there is universal respect for the inherent dignity and equal rights of all members of the human family.” – UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
I believe that we can all agree, regardless of political stance, on the fact that any form of injustice–whether be it racism, bigotry or intolerance–is unacceptable. I see as the responsibility of every capable human being to participate in the fight for the inalienable and indivisible rights of humanity. Therefore, we have this opportunity to join one another, irrespective of individual differences including political and religious affiliations, and work together to right injustice beginning here in Birmingham and bring awareness to atrocities around the world. This is our time to make the local, global and the global, local.
This belief is what inspired me to start UAB’s first student organization directly dealing with human rights. Students for Human Rights is a student-led, student run campus organization that, as the student outreach arm of the UAB Institute for Human Rights, will afford students a platform and opportunity to express themselves as a voice for the voiceless by creating a community of inclusive dialogue, where partnership is paramount as we stand against bigotry, racism, or every form of injustice. This is an incredible time to be a part of UAB. Given that we live in the city that played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I see Students for Human Rights as an additional avenue for many as they recognize their role in changing the world.
The Department of Anthropology and the College of Arts and Sciences at UAB initiated a brand new Master’s Program in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights this spring semester. The program begins with an initial cohort of nearly 20 students from Alabama and beyond, who are eager to study, understand, and ameliorate conflicts and injustice, from local communities up to the national and global levels. The new Master’s program complements the educational and outreach activities of the recently established Institute for Human Rights at UAB.
The history of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham constitutes one reason why the development of peace and human rights at UAB is historically and culturally important. The Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program, with its educational purpose, can be seen as the one element among other positive developments in social justice and civil rights in Birmingham and Alabama over the last half century. The new program also takes a global focus.
Anthropology is the science committed to the comparative and historical study of humankind, looking across different cultural circumstances and into the depths of prehistory. Anthropology literally means the study of humanity and considers the interplay of biological and cultural factors. The new Master’s program in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights will introduce an innovative focus on peace, justice, human rights, and ecology, as considered from anthropological perspectives. The new program will address how factors such as ecological sustainability, human security, democracy, justice, non-violence, conflict resolution, and human rights are interconnected and related to peace in today’s interconnected world.
There certainly are no shortages of human rights challenges, conflicts, and violence in the world today, but as students will have a chance to explore in this new Master’s program, there also are viable solutions. To mention one aspect of cultural influences on conflict perceptions, a person’s view of humanity can affect thoughts on how best to seek justice and security. Culturally-based perceptions that human nature is naturally selfish, competitive, and aggressive can lead to fear of others, distrust, and a reluctance to cooperate. Such culturally-derived perceptions can also lead to pessimism about ending the institution of war or preventing particular wars. If human nature is nasty and aggressive, it follows that there may be only a slim chance of achieving a more peaceful and secure world. With such an orientation, it may seem sensible in seeking security to keep up one’s guard—“keep the powder dry”—and maintain suspicion about the intentions of others.
On the other hand, perceptions that humans can be cooperative as well as competitive, and peaceful as well as warlike, open the door to a different type of security strategy. As President Kennedy once suggested, “Every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward—by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace.”
Perhaps the abolition of war could be possible and disputes could be handled justly without violence.
A goal of the new Master’s program is to explore questions: How we can handle our disputes more justly and effectively, with less violence? How can we question assumptions and challenge habitual thinking about war and peace to explore alternative security approaches?
In 2017, for instance, a solid argument can be made that strictly military-based strategies for security are no longer viable in an interdependent world facing common challenges. Military strength can do little-to-nothing, for example, to halt and reverse the numerous threats posed by global warming. The only manner to successfully address this planetary crisis, and to achieve security more generally, is through international cooperation. Military might does not address the problems we are now facing on an overheated planet.
Fortunately, international cooperation has been shown to be possible. The successful protection of the Earth’s ozone layer proves this point. In the late 1980s, the countries of the world negotiated and implemented the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layerand then have worked together to phase-out ozone destructive chemicals such as CFCs worldwide. Since the elimination of global CFCs and other ozone depleting substances, the Earth’s ozone layer has been replenishing. As of 2016, it is on the mend faster than predicted. In Science News published last week, Dr. Susan Solomon of MIT emphasizes that “public engagement was key to solving the ozone problem, with people coming together to identify an issue that threatened society and develop new technologies to fix it. In that respect, the most successful environmental treaty in history holds lessons for dealing with a much bigger threat…climate change.”
Global interdependence can provide the rationale for why cooperation is absolutely necessary to address common threats such as global warming and climate change. Safety and security in an interdependent world of 2017 require that humanity give-up the institution of war and instead concentrate our vision, resources, and ingenuity on solving the common threats such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, nuclear proliferation, and attacks on human rights and freedoms wherever they occur. The globally concerted and successful effort to save the Earth’s shared ozone layer demonstrates that an understanding of interdependence can lead to global cooperative action to solve common challenges. These are the types of anthropological lessons about conflict, rights, and justice that the new Master’s program will consider in depth.
Anthropology can contribute to understanding cultural diversity; reflection on cultural relativism; appreciation of multiculturalism; understanding of effective communication in cross-cultural interactions; knowledge regarding cultural variation in norms, values, beliefs, and culturally-embedded conflict resolution styles; and the development of respect for cultural differences and human rights. This unique knowledge-base and set of perspectives is at the heart of the innovative Master’s program’s focus on peace and human rights, which simultaneously contributes to the explicitly stated goals of the UAB College of Arts and Sciences to “enhance students’ global perspective” in an era where “globalization is diminishing the importance of national and political boundaries while increasing the opportunity for international harmony.”
The Department of Anthropology hosts the Peaceful Societies website, which provides a valuable educational resource on peaceful societies from around the globe. Anthropology faculty work regularly with students to help them pursue their academic interests and to develop the skills needed locally and globally in the 21st century.
Uniquely, the new Master’s program will combine and integrate the study of peace and human rights from an anthropological angle. It will draw upon the rich perspective of anthropology to highlight respect for diversity, multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and a comparative cross-cultural perspective. The new program also will focus both on theory and practice, thus facilitating the learning of theory and applications, a feature for which the discipline of applied anthropology is known. All Anthropology faculty members will teach from time-to-time within the Master’s program, and several professors are experts in relevant areas:
Dr. Loretta Cormier is one of the originators of the undergraduate minor Peace, Justice and Ecology. Her most recent book is Disasters and Vulnerable Populations (with Lisa Baker, Springer, 2015). In the new Master’s program, Dr. Cormier will teach electives such as “Medical Anthropology and Health Disparities.”
Dr. Douglas P. Fry specializes in peace and conflict studies. He is author of Beyond War (2007, Oxford), The Human Potential for Peace (2006, Oxford) and editor or coeditor of Keeping the Peace: Conflict Resolution and Peaceful Societiesaround the World (2004, Routledge), Cultural Variation in Conflict Resolution (1997, Erlbaum), and War, Peace and Human Nature (2013/2015, Oxford), and Associate Editor of the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, & Conflict (2008, 2nd edition, Academic Press). He will teach courses such as “Peaceful Societies and Peace Systems.”
Dr. Chris Kyle is a specialist in political violence in Mexico. He recently has received a prestigious Harry Frank Guggenheim research grant to study drug related violence in the Mexican state of Guerrero through innovative methodologies. He is currently writing a book on this topic. He will teach courses such as the “Anthropology of Human Rights.”
Dr. Tina Kempin Rueter is the Founding Director of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB. She holds a primary appointment in the Department of Government and a secondary appointment in the Department of Anthropology. Her research focuses on human rights, ethnic conflict and genocide studies, and conflict management and peacemaking with a geographical focus on Europe and the Middle East. She will teach various courses on human rights.
Dr. Geneviève Souillac is the author of Human Rights in Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington Press, 2005), The Burden of Democracy: The Claims of Cultures, Public Culture, and Democratic Memory (Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington Press, 2011), and A Study in Transborder Ethics: Justice, Citizenship, Civility (Peter Lang, 2012) as well as numerous articles and book chapters. She will teach courses such as “Religion, Reconciliation, & Forgiveness” and “Conflict Resolution in a Cross-Cultural Perspective.”
Dr. Peter Verbeek specializes in studying conflict resolution and peacemaking in humans and other species and is the founder of the field of peace ethology. He is co-editor of Behavioral Processes and Systems of Peace (with Benjamin Peters, in press, John Wiley & sons). He will teach such courses as “Peace Ethology,” “Methods in Peace and Human Rights Research and Practice,” and “Peace and Environmental Sustainability.”
Online activists are often termed as “social justice warriors” by those who doubt their impact. Self-identified “trolls” cast ridicule on these individuals, beliving social media activism is useless. How merited are these claims, and how useful is online activism?
Social media users have transformed online platforms from casual social atmospheres to an environment of learning. The online practice of calling out culture, publicly identifying and shaming individuals for offensive statements or actions, is harsh while providing an avenue for social change. There are plenty of issues with this practice – bullying minors, for one;however, there is a need for accountability in today’s age where people can spread harmful opinions across the web in seconds. A popular Tumblr blog called “Racists Getting Fired” participates in online call-out culture in a practice sometimes known as doxxing – publicly spreading information about individuals with the intention of harming their social or work lives. The blog details the work information of the individual(s) in question and contacts the employer, which can lead to the termination. Some claim this is too harsh of a practice, yet others say that these are simply the consequences of posting racist or bigoted opinions online.
The use of hashtags has also been an effective tool in raising awareness for human rights. Groups of activists tweeting #blacklivesmatter or #noDAPL has raised global awareness for these issues. Social media allowed activist groups to spread the word about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, when the media turned a deaf ear. Social media has been a platform for organizing protests and spreading knowledge about public dissent over the murders of black individuals at the hands of the police. Many outside of the Black community would not be aware of the heartbreaking stories of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and so many more without the aid of social media. Twitter in particular has been useful in giving voices to activist leaders such as DeRay McKesson, and giving rise to celebrity activists like Zendaya.
The power of social media cannot be understated. To suggest that online activism isn’t real or impactful is simply false. Successful maneuvering of social media platforms creates significant changes in society through the impact of an individual who cultivates awareness and makes knowledge accessible to millions. In the past, those with the loudest voices and the most opinions were those with the most power and money, and the proper connections to global media. Today, the advancement of social media has favored the voices of the marginalized minority groups–people of color, LGBT, disabled, indigenous, Syrians in Aleppo–have been heard globally by millions when they have been silenced for centuries.
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