The Current State of Sex Trafficking and Celebrity Perpetrators

Girl with text "The Truth about Sex Trafficking"
Source: Yahoo Images

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Sex trafficking has commonly been regarded as a human rights crisis that receives an inadequate amount of attention. However, recent news articles surrounding the arrest and conviction of musical artist R. Kelly have invoked national concern over the issue of sex trafficking rings. The arrest of R. Kelly highlighted how minors and members of marginalized groups are disproportionally affected by the sex trafficking industry and that the issue cannot go ignored by media outlets and the public. In 2019, nearly 70% of human trafficking victims in the U.S. were identified as either being sex trafficked, or victims of both forced labor and sexual exploitation. The High Court recently stated that 25 million people worldwide are not afforded their fundamental right to freedom; however, the International Labor Organization estimates the number of human trafficking victims to be approximately 40 million. It is difficult to maintain an accurate report of victims and survivors of human trafficking since cases are largely unreported.  

Who is most at risk? 

Although sex trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, victims are most frequently identified as members of marginalized groups and communities. The National Human Trafficking Hotline stated that “56 percent of prostituted women were initially runaway youth.” Runaway and homeless youth often lack a strong support system making them especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. Since child participation in commercial sex acts of any capacity is illegal in the U.S. and many countries around the world, these children are a part of a strenuously handled special victims group. Other groups susceptible to human trafficking include those who have endured past traumatic events or violence because traffickers exploit trauma to control and attract their victims.  

Trafficking in the Pandemic  

In recent years, human trafficking has received less attention from the media and general public due to the Covid-19 pandemic occupying the majority of major news publications.  The Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly paused our lives; however, the pandemic did not pause trafficking crimes as many law enforcement officials had hoped. Instead, traffickers have used the effects of the pandemic to their advantage. As many people are experiencing higher levels of economic and social vulnerability, there is consequentially a growing number of individuals put at a higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, “COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as stay-at-home orders and travel limitations, increased rates of gender-based violence and substance abuse, both of which put individuals at a higher risk of human traffickers exploiting them.” 

Celebrity Sex Traffickers  

Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly
Source: Yahoo Images

American singer and songwriter R. Kelly has recently been accused and convicted of multiple sex trafficking crimes. With accounts that span over two decades, Kelly was found guilty of using his superstar status to bribe and blackmail women and children for sexual exploitation. Tellingly, prosecutors claimed that it was this “superstar” status that allowed Kelly to use his persona to hide his crimes, and his victims, in plain sight. On a CBS interview with Gayle King in September of 2021, Azriel Clary, who had been one of Kelly’s “girlfriends” for five years from the time she was just 17 years old, admitted that she had been heavily manipulated and abused both sexually and verbally, which she also stated while testifying in court against Kelly. Curry went on to say that she regretted defending, now 54-year-old Kelly, in a prior interview with CBS in 2019. Curry admitted that she had lied to Gayle King regarding the condition she and his other victims were enduring in an attempt to satisfy Kelly and out of fear for her own safety. 

Unfortunately, R. Kelly’s case is not the first-or only -time famous artists or other celebrities have used their power to justify and attempt to get away with sexual crimes. One of the most famous of these cases involves financer Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in 2019 for his role in facilitating a sex trafficking ring on a private estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was also convicted as a child sex offender due to his role in coercing minors into sexually exploitative acts as well. Some of Epstein’s famous acquaintances include former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, who each faced backlash for their connection to Epstein yet were not convicted for committing a crime. Regardless of their level of indictment, cases like these have raised questions regarding why so many celebrities feel that their A-list status increases their ability to disregard the law, and how many may be successful in getting away with various crimes due to their social power and other resources. 

The fight against Sex Trafficking & #MuteRKelly 

people protest outside with #MuteRKelly signs
Source: Yahoo Images

Many current anti-trafficking efforts have had to adapt swiftly amidst Covid-19 protocols and safety measures. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, “governments and civil society organizations conducted in-depth research assessments on the impacts of COVID-19, leveraged technology as a method to address emerging trends, adapted policy approaches, and sought to expand protections for victims.” The anti-trafficking communities’ pivot has been essential in the continuous attempt to rescue and prevent victims from trafficking and the ongoing data assessment and research of current information.  

Regarding R. Kelly’s case specifically, viewers of the accusations and trials have taken to the streets in protest and to social media in attempt to “#MuteRKelly” in support of his victims. Although the “MuteRKelly” movement was deemed by his own supporters as an unnecessary use of ‘cancel culture’ tactics, many have stood their ground that Kelly made no excusable offense and should face up to life in prison. 

Learn more about supporting possible sex trafficking victims and how to receive help by visiting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

The History of Policing in the US and Its Impact on Americans Today

Feature Picture
Several policemen in riot gear spray the camera crew walking by with a fire hose. Source: Yahoo Images

Policing in America has a long history, one that dates back to the founding of this country. Although it has always been a controversial issue, the recent instances of police brutality that have come to light along with the increasing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement have forced it back into the social and political limelight. The differences in beliefs are influenced by popular political outlets and political activists on both sides of the spectrum. However, when examining the history and the facts surrounding the creation and implementation of the policing system in the US, it is clear that policing also shares a racially biased history.

The History of Policing in America

The history of policing can be traced back to the days of slavery in colonial America. In the South, where slavery was central to the economy, slave patrols, responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, was the first unofficial police in America. Considering how slavery itself was one of the most egregious treatments of mankind in human history, slave patrols were especially cruel in the ways they captured runaway slaves and punished them for their daring escapes. Slave rebellions were a constant threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts. In return, these wealthy plantation owners protected the interests of the slave catchers. As a result, this practice created a social hierarchy between the wealthy landowners at the top, the slave patrols separating the wealthy from the poor, and the slaves who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

To show that the history of policing as slave patrol is a known fact
A crowd of protesters advocating for the end of police brutality. One of the women in the crowd holds a that reads, “US police began as slave patrol.” Source: Yahoo Images

These slave patrols slowly morphed into policing units in charge of breaking up insurgencies that began to rise in the aftermath of the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, many colonists, especially Southerners, felt threatened by the population of freed African Americans, arguing that they would disrupt the social order. As a result, African American communities experienced an increase in violence committed against them in the form of police brutality. The Reconstruction Era, which came immediately after the Civil War,  was a racially charged environment, as the newly freed citizens attempted to live peacefully amongst their oppressors.

During the Reconstruction Era, cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labor, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labor of the newly freed populace, who were shortly enslaved again, this time through the prison system.

Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of legislations were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of color. In part due to the loophole in the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centered around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow Laws, denying them their fundamental rights as human beings. Racism was still rampant in the South and was especially tolerated under the prison system. Ironically, the loophole provided by the thirteenth amendment gave rise to today’s prison industrial complex.

These racist policies were further encouraged by the passing of the “separate but equal” verdict by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and they continued to target African Americans for simply existing. The Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that as long as both white communities and black communities were able to have access to the same resources, they could remain segregated. The verdict only emboldened and encouraged policing to incorporate racism into lawful practice. Unfortunately, this legal segregation lasted almost a hundred years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Continuing their roles of breaking up insurgencies, policing during the Civil Rights Movement centered around riot control. As the Civil Rights Movement took place, inspiring hundreds of people to come together to demand justice, police were on the frontline of the opposing end, protecting the economic interests of America at the expense of human beings. Police used water hoses, police dogs, tear gas, and other crowd control measures to break up protests and peaceful sit-ins. The police would also brutally beat up and bruise the peaceful protesters, while others were incarcerated for daring to protest for their civil rights.

Policing since then has evolved to incorporate discriminatory practices, such as the “stop and frisk” policy – which empowers police to stop and search someone without a warrant if they have a reason to believe that individuals are doing something wrong – or the practice of racial profiling individuals to “fit” the description of a suspect the police can then target. Along with these practices, the war on drugs further aggravated the situation, granting the police the power to detain drug users by racially targeting people of color, and further enabling discrimination and harassment of marginalized communities. Today, the discrimination that is present in policies like stop and frisk, and racial profiling; and the war on drugs upholds the social hierarchy created during the times of slavery. These unethical policies continue to bolster the wealth and income inequality between wealthy communities and marginalized communities.

Additionally, the Revolving Door Phenomenon continues the historical practice of sabotaging marginalized communities. The Revolving Door Phenomenon refers to the fact that even after prisoners have served their time and get released, many of them end up back in prison. This is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented, to name a few. They can also face homelessness, and as a result, become victims of police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is still rampant to this day with no accountability of the police. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which became a worldwide phenomenon during the summer of 2020, is attempting to bring an end to police brutality and the violent murders of unarmed African Americans committed by the police.

Police Brutality and Rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement

To show how popular the movement has become
Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles. July 1st, 2020; Source: Yahoo Images

The Black Lives Matter protests began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy that was murdered by a White man on Neighborhood Watch. The man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, facing no form of accountability for his actions. The hashtag movement gained further popularity when Michael Brown was murdered by a White officer, and yet again, no one faced any charges for the killing of a Black man. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to record and report any instances of police brutality they witness, and soon, hundreds of civilians reported such instances on social media.

The murder of George Floyd was caught on camera, and this recording enraged the public. As a result, the Black Lives Matter Movement expanded nationwide, and over the years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. This movement brought attention to the frequent instances in which innocent African Americans were brutally murdered by the police. An NPR investigation revealed that since 2015, there have been 135 instances in which the police have murdered unarmed African Americans. They also found that of these 135 instances, 75% of the time, the officers were White. Another source places the total number of people who have died at the hands of police as high as 1,126, and that’s just in 2020. They allege that 96% of those deaths were a result of being shot. Reprehensibly, these instances continue to occur, as people such as Tameer Rice, Bryanna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Jamarion Robinson, Ronald Greene, and too many more have continued to face cruelty at the hands of the police.

Especially jarring is the cruel way in which Ronald Greene was murdered. The brutal death of Ronald Greene, an African American man who was beaten and shocked to death by a group of police officers, has been under investigation since 2019. The police falsely testified that he had died in a car crash, but body camera videos show the extent to which the police viciously killed Greene as he begged them to stop. Additional reports came back on Greene’s autopsy that further discredit the claims of the police that Greene sustained fatal injuries due to a car crash. Heartbreakingly, this is yet another instance of police brutality that was allowed to occur.

To show just a few of the names of the people who have been victims to police brutality
Among a group of protesters, one activist holds a sign with the names of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, three of the well-known victims of police brutality. Source: Yahoo Images

Accountability

One of the main reasons why police brutality continues to take place is due to the fact that the police face no real consequences for their actions. As has been the case too many times, police are reported to be found in compromising situations, leading to the inhumane treatment and in many instances, death of innocent people. Following those reports of human rights violations, it has also become common-place to find that those officers accused of brutality rarely get charged or punished for their behavior. They are generally held accountable only due to public outcry. Unfortunately, even then, accountability comes in the form of simply getting transferred to a different department. Too many instances over the past decade have highlighted the dangers of a militant police force without proper policies in place that hold responsible those that abuse the law. Policing leads to a power dynamic between communities and authorities, and in the wrong hands, without the proper measures of liability in place, can lead to an abuse of powers and people alike. As a result of the racial history that plagues America, the relationship between the police and marginalized communities is one that is (understandably), very fragile and filled with distrust.

Reform or abolish?

Many people have proposed policies to reform the police system in America. This can get pretty complicated, as police departments all across the country follow different rules and regulations and are state-funded entities. This can mean that implementation and enforcement of regulations can be a difficult task, requiring different entities for each state. Furthermore, there is not much data collected on policing misconducts, and the available data can be biased or lacking details. Additionally, many of the acts of police brutality are explained away using legal powers vested in the police, such as the ability to use force while conducting an arrest. The vague language of the policy allows the police to use excessive force and justify their actions in court. Moreover, police unions hold a tremendous amount of political power and influence and protect their officers from facing any real accountability. Even the attempts at limiting qualified immunity, (which protects government officials from civil lawsuits) have gotten nowhere, as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has yet to be passed in the Senate.

An info graph that showcases some of the misuses of the police budget and supports calls to defund the police.
An info graph that depicts some of the data that supports defunding the police. Source: Yahoo Images

As a result, cries to abolish the police have increased since the Black Live Matter protests of summer 2020. While police may be effective in situations where a crime has occurred, the abolitionists of today argue that police only complicate things in some instances, including interactions with people of color or when approaching people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Without being educated on systemic racism and the role of the police or having the proper training to care for people with mental or physical disabilities respectively, the police can make things worse, even if they are attempting to de-escalate the situation. The abolitionist approach is to restructure the entire policing system in order to divide the undertaking of community safety and security into various different institutions that are tasked with protecting the human rights of individuals. This enables the option of having other agencies in place aimed at solving community issues and nurturing a relationship with people within the community, making it more accessible and reliable for the community members to ask for assistance. Doing so could eliminate the oppressive climate brought on by the social hierarchy that has been ever-present in policing throughout American history. By reshaping society and its structures, we can ensure that the needs of the people in society are met, while preserving their fundamental human rights.

 

 

The Re-Entry Simulation on Mass Incarceration and its Practical Applications in the Real World

This image is from the re-entry simulation event that took place at UAB
The coordinator of the re-entry simulation for mass incarceration explains the procedures. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock.

The University of Alabama in Birmingham hosted a re-entry simulation for mass incarceration on the 15th of October, 2021, partnered with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama. This simulation, which featured around a hundred participants, was designed to enlighten both students and community members about the difficulties surrounding re-entry into society for those who have been previously incarcerated. The event featured different booths to portray the various obligations, both legal and personal that had to be met by individuals exiting the prison system into the civilian society.

These booths included responsibilities such as securing identification cards, attending treatment appointments or drug screenings on time, or even being able to get employed, all while having to figure out transportation to be able to fulfill these requirements. Each participant was provided with a new identity, a few transportation tickets, some money (depending on the person’s identity), and a list of obligations that needed to be met each week. The “weeks” were timed to be fifteen minutes each, and the participants got four weeks to successfully re-enter society.

Getting your IDs

The identity I assumed had no IDs to their name, and only $30 when exiting the prison system. One of the most difficult components of this exercise was securing the three required IDs. Without the IDs, all the other booths refused to be of any help, and securing the IDs took well over a “week.” In the real world, this also means that people are unable to find employment, housing, or even apply for government aid like food stamps until they are able to secure these IDs. Furthermore, as Jeremy Sherer, the Assistant United States Attorney who helped organize this event discussed, there is a possibility of being re-imprisoned for outstanding warrants that might have been acquired while individuals were serving time in the prison system. Therefore, people who attempt to get their IDs at the DMV might end up being reincarcerated for these outstanding warrants. An easy solution to this problem would be to issue government IDs to people as they are exiting the prison system. This would dramatically decrease the mental and physical stress on individuals, as this one act would open up resources and opportunities they might not have without the proper government-issued IDs.

Transportation

An image depicting various forms of transportation on a highway. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Another enormous obstacle in the way of successfully re-entering civilian society can be transportation. Many people, upon entering the prison system have three options concerning their vehicles: they can sell their car and keep the cash, they can give the car to someone else, or if they are making payments on a car upon the time of their arrest, it can become repossessed by the time they exit the system. Even if your property was held by the police for “safeguarding” or for evidence purposes, if you cannot claim it within a certain time frame (which is impossible for people who are imprisoned), you face the risks of losing that property.

Transportation is a necessity, and if you live in an area where public transportation is unavailable, you will need to either purchase a car or rent one. In order to purchase any vehicle, you have to have an ID. Assuming you have your IDs, the next step is the background and credit checks. This can be a massive hurdle, as people who leave prison might not have the necessary credit history, nor have established employment history to purchase a car. They may not be able to afford the full price of the car, having just come out of jail or prison. For those who depend on public transportation in areas that offer the services, bus schedules can be very confusing and might not travel to the necessary destinations. Additionally, those who live in areas where public transportation is not an option have to figure out a way to find transportation for themselves. There are no agencies in place to provide any assistance to people in cases like these.

The Bail System

According to The Prison Policy Initiative, 74% of people in jail have not been convicted of any crime. If we were to follow the logic that people are “innocent until proven guilty,” 74% of the people held in jail are innocent. These individuals are only allowed to leave the jails by paying the set bail amounts for their particular case. These bail amounts are set based on the criminal charges and the complexities surrounding the crime in question. Although bail is not supposed to be a form of punishment, the bail system tends to punish the poor by setting a financial amount that has to be paid if the individual does not want to await their trial in jail. Most Americans are seldom prepared for a $400 emergency, and for people struggling with poverty, the set bail amount can be impossible to meet. This pretrial detention can also last months or even years before the trial date, meaning that innocent people might be held in jail for years simply for not being able to afford bail. The person’s identity I assumed at the re-entry simulation had $30 on their person, and their bail amount was the full $30, which ended up bankrupting them, leaving them with no money for food, transportation, or any other expenses.

Legal Responsibilities

This was another picture taken at the event itself
This image portrays the participants and the various booths involved in the simulation. These booths were set up to mimic real-life agencies, such as the courthouse, or the probation office, or even the pawnshop, to provide a realistic experience. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock

People exiting the prison system have to meet certain legal requirements upon their re-entry into civilization. These legal responsibilities include regular check-ins with the probation or parole officer, regular drug screens, and even clinical or treatment appointments that need to be attended. For one, as mentioned earlier, formerly incarcerated people need to be able to secure a stable form of transportation to get to these appointments. They also have to be able to provide their IDs, so not having one could result in a violation of the conditions of parole. The demands of parole or probation are different for each case, but conditions of release can include finding and holding stable employment, as well as showing up to take a urine analysis, blood tests, or a drug screening whenever requested of them. These drug screens can also interfere with the individual’s employment (if they do manage to secure one), as they would be required to leave their workplace to comply with this stipulation. People that are required to meet these conditions of release are also personally billed for these tests, something that they might not be able to afford. These stipulations can become even more complex based on the history of the person’s criminal offense. Those that have served time for sexual offenses are also required to register as a sex offender in their area, further complicating their ability to acquire employment or housing, and as a result, making it near impossible to meet their conditions of release.

Additionally, some people being released from prison might have to attend clinical appointments or treatment sessions. This may be a weekly obligation, and again, transportation and IDs are essential to meeting this condition. These treatment sessions, while helpful and certainly necessary in many cases, might only add stress to those who are financially compromised.

I wanted to include a picture of solitary confinement because it's a widely practiced form of punishment in the United States prisons and jails.
Solitary Confinement can place an individual in a dark, secluded place, depriving them of social interactions and stimulations, which can prove to be damaging to the mental health of the inmates who experience it. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Recent studies show that many people who enter the prison system without any mental illnesses can come out with serious issues related to their mental health. While there may be many factors that influence an individual’s mental stability inside the prison walls, research shows that solitary confinement, a practice that is used in most jails and prisons in the United States, can play a fundamental role in someone’s mental health. At times, placing an inmate in solitary confinement can exacerbate pre-existing conditions of mental illness. Solitary confinement can also lead to a number of mental health-related illnesses, including depression, paranoia, or even trigger hallucinations. As a result, many people who enter the prison system with no history of mental health issues can develop mental illnesses or acquire trauma while serving out their sentences. This inhumane practice can be suspended, which would dramatically affect the mental health of prisoners and lighten the load on some of their legal obligations.

Personal Responsibilities

Along with legal responsibilities that have to be met, people attempting to re-enter society also have personal obligations they may have to fulfill, including responsibilities regarding their children (if it applies), their own personal care (such as food, and shelter), and their attempts at professional success, including employment and education. Many individuals, upon re-entering society, regain custody of their children, meaning that they have to ensure both their needs as well as their children’s needs are met. This can prove to be very stressful and traumatic, both for the individual re-entering society and the children involved. As discussed previously, people exiting the prison system might not have the resources or the mental stability to be able to accept such a huge responsibility, often resulting in the parents neglecting their own needs for the needs of their children, and as a result, increasing the mental and physical strain they might place on themselves.

Even still, many parents that are not awarded custody of their children might be forced to pay child support upon their release. Unless they ask for a suspension or reduction of child support, the amount can continue to accumulate while the person is serving time, and upon release, the person is mandated to pay the full amount owed. Failing to pay the amount can be considered a violation of their conditions of release and can result in the reimprisonment of the individual.

Another personal responsibility that an individual re-entering society has to meet is self-care. An essential part of personal care includes food and water, yet many people might not be able to afford three square meals a day. As I learned from the re-entry simulation, contrary to popular belief, churches are not as forthcoming with assistance as many like to believe. This may be due to a variety of reasons, ranging from funding problems to religious or ideological reasons. Applying for food stamps is an option, but it can take weeks, requiring both transportation and IDs. Even when an individual is awarded food stamps, it might not cover all their nutrition expenses, leading many to become food insecure.

I wanted to showcase the quality of life that many people exiting the prison system are faced with.
An image depicting an unhoused individual’s dire situations, a risk that formerly incarcerated personnel face due to housing insecurities. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Additionally, many people re-entering society may face housing insecurities. Due to the social and sometimes cultural stigma around imprisonment, family members might refuse to provide adequate shelter for the individual. In order to qualify for an apartment, the applicant has to provide proof of employment as well as a security deposit. Many job applications require a background and criminal history check, at many times refusing to hire an individual if they have been convicted of a crime. Without a job and proper shelter, many risks facing the possibility of becoming homeless.

Expanding on the complexities of getting employed, many people re-entering society have to cross so many hurdles to be successful professionally. Depending on the age at which they were incarcerated, many individuals returning to society might not have the necessary education or skills to qualify for employment. Some might even have to train for and take their GEDs, a base requirement to get jobs, even low-wage ones. To add to the complexities, people with traditional High School Diplomas receive a higher pay rate than those who obtain GEDs.

Once they are able to acquire their GEDs if they choose to pursue higher education, formerly incarcerated people have to do so at a private university or college. This is due to the fact that most public universities and college applications include a section asking about the applicant’s criminal history. This can indirectly discriminate against those who are struggling with poverty, fundamentally impacting their ability to compete with the growing skilled and educated labor forces of society. Moreover, people who have been incarcerated face many challenges when applying for financial aid. Their ability to receive financial aid is very limited, as they can be denied student loans as well as Pell grants due to their criminal history. Consequently, this usually means that people coming out of prison are stuck with working labor-intensive, low-wage jobs without the prospect of advancement in their professional careers.

Conclusion

The coordinators of the re-entry simulation, the Assistant United States Attorney Jeremy Sherer, and Dr. Laurel Hitchcock. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock.

As part of his concluding remarks, Jeremy Sherer reminded the participants at the simulation that almost 60% of people who are released from prison can end up being incarcerated again. This is a sign that the current system is designed to fail these individuals who are just attempting to survive after their punishments have been served. The lives of these individuals are impacted forever by their criminal history through the taxing obligations they have to meet in order to lead a successful life. They are not provided any form of guidance yet punished constantly for the failures of the system. If the components of racial discrimination in the prison system are taken into consideration, (which will be covered in my next blog post), some might even believe that this injustice intentionally targets certain marginalized members of the community.

Everyone makes mistakes; this is a universally accepted concept. Yet, part of the process of learning and growing involves being provided with the necessary opportunities and resources to learn from the mistakes of our past and strive to become better individuals. Having participated in the re-entry simulation, I attempted to meet all my requirements as best as I could with the resources I was provided with, yet I was sent to “jail” for failing to visit my probation officer, and by week four, I was begging the “police officer” in the exercise to just send me to “jail.” I could not handle the mental, emotional, and physical stress that resulted from the realities this simulation strived to convey, and my participation was voluntary. Many individuals who have to deal with these systems on a regular basis do not have a choice.

The Forgotten and Overlooked: Refugees with Disabilities

Disabled refugee fleeing to find a new home
Source: Yahoo Images

Recently, I was able to witness the refugee camp conditions myself. In July 2017, I traveled to Amman, Jordan, where I volunteered at three refugee camps. Speaking to the refugees and listening to their stories was heartbreaking. Many did not have access to food, water, or medicine unless given to them by various organizations. I also met a few people who were physically disabled due to the conflict; they explained how the current condition of their camp did not help them at all. Many had to escape Syria by foot or crammed in the back of a truck. This is neither safe nor accessible to many disabled persons. Many individuals did not have access to essential resources that we use daily, especially disability-accessible resources. The effects of COVID-19 have only worsened the situation. Since the pandemic began, the UN refugee agency has reported that eighty-four percent of refugees with disabilities cited food insecurity as their biggest concern in Lebanon.

“Too often invisible, too often forgotten, too often overlooked,” is how Light for the World describes refugees with disabilities. With the population of refugees increasing, the concern for their protection and access to resources is left unknown. Refugees and displaced persons are individuals fleeing from war-torn countries, poverty, and hunger. They are often neglected and not provided with the proper care and resources, especially those with disabilities. Many have had disabilities on their way to escaping or were born with some form of disability. In the aftermath of the Syrian war and current conditions in Afghanistan and Haiti, many individuals attempt to flee to find protection and asylum. It’s essential to recognize that many displaced individuals, especially those with disabilities, cannot access the necessities they need to live adequately.

Disabilities within the Displaced Communities

Article one of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) classifies that “persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society.” It’s been noted that more than sixty percent of  Syrian refugee households contain at least one person with a disability. Additionally, it has also been reported that twenty-eight percent of persons with disabilities list illnesses or diseases as the primary cause of their disability. These illnesses are brought by the vulnerable conditions they are living in. Although there have been reports of disabilities from birth, most statements have been stated to have disabilities caused by conflict.

Disabled man in a refugee camp
Source: Yahoo Images

Individuals with disabilities are already a vulnerable group of people, and refugees with disabilities have even less access. Disabled women are the most vulnerable as they experience “psychological, sexual or physical abuse in natural disasters and conflicts.” Organizations such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) have urged world leaders providing aid to take more action in funding at-risk groups, such as individuals with disabilities. Emina Cerimmovic, a senior disability rights researcher at HRW, stated that even with all the commitments to better reach persons with disabilities, “displaced people with disabilities continue to struggle even to get basic services.” An international call for action is needed to ensure displaced persons with disabilities can access the necessities required to survive.

Conditions of Refugees with Disabilities 

It comes as no surprise when learning how fragile and inaccessible conditions in refugee camps are. Most of these camps are created by the displaced persons themselves. World leaders and governments have shown commitment to protecting refugees and displaced people by providing aid, asylum, and new areas to live. However, these support systems do not take the needs of people with disabilities into account.

Volunteers at a refugee camp in Lebanon assisting with a baby that has disabilities
Source: Yahoo Images

What’s Next? 

Assessing the conditions many refugees with disabilities live in and ensuring that their needs are met is imperative. As the situation grows more dire, what can the world do to better the conditions and resources for refugees and displaced persons with disabilities? The main problem is the lack of and slowness of implementation of aid from world leaders. The information of what is needed has been provided to countries around the world and NGOs, but resources are yet to be delivered. The international community needs to provide aid specifically for those with disabilities, accessible camps need to be built, and medical attention needs to be supplied more. NGOs currently operate only under donations, so provisions are limited by a lack of funding.

What Can You Do? 

As we have access to many daily necessities such as food, water, disability-accessible bathrooms, and resources, many worldwide do not. It is essential to learn and educate ourselves about the current situations that hinder many lives. Check the resources below to donate or learn about organizations providing aid to refugees and displaced persons with disabilities.

Resource Guide for Serving Refugees with Disabilities: United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Assisting Refugees with Disabilities

To Donate:

UNHCR Mercy Corps: UNICEF United In Humanity

Disability Rights under the Taliban

Pictured is the Bamyan Band Amir road in the Bamyan province of Afghanistan. It is a black, winding path in the middle of pale yellow hills.
Bamyan Band Amir road in the Bamyan province of Afghanistan. Source: Unsplash

Imagine being confined to your home. Imagine not being able to go to work or attend school or play sports. Over the course of the past year, individuals across the world have experienced such limitations. While many are inching closer towards glimpses of life before these restrictions, for Afghans with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, this is more likely to become an enduring reality.

Almost twenty years after their first regime, the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan, raising concerns that the same violations of the rights of women and other minorities will be committed again (for a brief history of Afghanistan and the Taliban, visit a previous article on the IHR blog linked here). While no longer a minority in terms of numbers, the 80% of adults in Afghanistan who are disabled are already seeing these concerns materialize. Disability rights advocates are being targeted, with many fleeing the country out of a fear for their lives and many more desperately trying to do the same. In light of these events, this article explores the status of individuals with disabilities in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban came into power, and how their future might look.

Disability in Afghanistan

The war in the 1990’s devastated health systems in Afghanistan, leading to individuals with disabilities being neglected. After the Taliban was overthrown by the U.S. in 2001, there was an influx of international funding to help rebuild the infrastructure of the country. NGOs and other international organizations attempted to fill the gap in the health system by offering medical services, although the demand did, and continues to, exceed the supply. Moreover, reconstruction efforts in the country were not inclusive of people with disabilities, as bus transports, buildings and bathrooms were inaccessible which made it difficult for individuals with disabilities to navigate their daily lives outside of their homes. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on Rights of People with Disability in 2012 and even passed legislation in 2013 that was meant to safeguard the rights of individuals with disabilities to be included in society. Although awareness regarding disability has increased over the past two decades, and disability rights have been named a priority by the former government, much of the work towards this end has been carried out by NGOs, international organizations, and dedicated activists.

In addition to systemic barriers, the societal attitudes and stigma pertaining to disability is also a significant factor impacting the lives of disabled individuals in Afghanistan. Different kinds of disability are viewed differently, receiving varying degrees of negative attitudes. Congenital disability, or developmental disability, is considered a punishment to the parents for their past deeds. This problematic perception leads to discrimination against the individual with the disability, as well as their family, to such an extent that the parents tell others that their child acquired the disability as a result of the war. Amputees, on the other hand, do not face the same discrimination because they are assumed to be war veterans. One individual with a physical disability described to the Human Rights Watch her experience of this stigma: “Some time ago, my friends and I decided to go to the market in our own wheelchairs and shop ourselves. But people called us ‘grasshoppers,’ which is why we decided to stay at home.” Such accounts depict how the freedom and independence of individuals with disabilities is being curtailed not only by structural barriers, but also by regressive attitudes.

Disability under the Taliban

Benafsha Yaqoobi, a blind disability rights advocate and a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), stated in multiple interviews that individuals with disabilities will be discriminated against under the Taliban rule, experiencing severe neglect and even death. She is concerned about their access to basic human rights like food and shelter. Yaqoobi had to flee Afghanistan when the Taliban takeover seemed imminent. She described her traumatic experience in attempting to escape, as she heard gun fire but could not see where the guns were pointed or who got shot – or if it was her husband who was wounded. Her experience also highlights just one way in which war can have a disproportionate psychological, and physical, impact on people with disabilities.

Isabella Hodge, executive director of the United States International Council on Disability (USICD), told The Nation that there is also concern that stipends will no longer be provided to individuals who were disabled in war and that rehabilitation centers will close. Hodge strongly believes that individuals with disabilities will not be valued by the Taliban, saying that the “Taliban wouldn’t think twice about killing someone with a disability.” These concerns are reflected in reality when considering that 80% of suicide bombers of the Taliban had either a physical or psychological disability of some kind. Dr.Yusef Yadgari of Kabul Medical University attributed this statistic to societal stigma, due to which people with disabilities struggle to find employment to support their family. Out of both necessity for money and resentment, according to Dr.Yadgari, they are more likely to become suicide bombers.  However, one cannot help but question how much value that the Taliban attributes to the lives of people with disabilities when they were willing to sacrifice so many for their cause.

With the Taliban’s rise to power, people with disabilities will likely have less opportunities to flourish. One stark example of this is that Tokyo 2020 Paralympic athletes from Afghanistan almost lost the opportunity to participate in the event because of the dearth of flight transport created by the turmoil in August. Fortunately, with the help of the international community, these athletes did manage to finally make it to Tokyo, although one athlete missed the event he was preparing for. Opportunities and freedom of people with disability does not seem to be a priority. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi echoed similar concerns in an interview with Reuters – that people with disabilities will be confined to their homes and isolated from the rest of society due to the loss of programs and initiatives like the Special Olympics (which works specifically with people with intellectual disabilities). Sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities is a great way to develop essential life skills like walking and eating. Zala Hashmi, a women’s coach in the country’s special Olympics organization, believes that the Taliban does not care enough for the success of these individuals to ensure the continuation of such programs. The grim situation is put best in Jawed’s own words: “we cannot support them, we lost them.”

A girl with a prosthetic limb, donning a black dress and a determined expression, walks through the ward of a rehabilitation center in Afghanistan. The ward has light blue walls, and there are other individuals with disabilities sitting on benches that line the wall. There is a support beam in between the girl and people sitting on the benches.
“Learning to walk again with support from UK aid” by DFID – UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Women with Disabilities

Women with disabilities experienced intersectional discrimination in Afghanistan long before the Taliban came into power. They are often considered a burden to the family and are considered not fit for marriage, consequently increasing their likelihood of being subject to violence both in and outside the household. Women with disability are also more likely to be sexually harassed when seeking government assistance or employment. One individual in an interview with the Human Rights Watch said, “the ministry employee told me that I can get this certificate only if I agree to be his girlfriend”. The status of education of girls with disabilities is not any more promising. In a Human Rights Watch report, a disability rights advocate describes the pushback from schools in accepting girls with disabilities: “The schools do not want girls [with disabilities] to go to the classes. Usually, they argue that they are not normal people so they cannot sit in the classrooms and learn like other students.” In addition to this stigma, public schools are not wheel-chair accessible, leaving some kids out of the classroom and other school related activities, while few private schools enroll people with disabilities at all. Moreover, schools are also often far and difficult to reach without dedicated transportation, which is often not available.

These inequities for women with disabilities are likely going to be exacerbated under the Taliban. While the Taliban promises that they will uphold the rights and freedom of women, their actions so far have not conveyed the same message. Women have been removed from their jobs, which has been particularly devastating in cases where they are the sole earners in the family. Women have already been told to stay at home for security reasons, an excuse that sounds eerily similar to the one they provided during their time in power in the late 1990s as they imposed oppressive restrictions on women. This confinement will be particularly detrimental for women with disabilities, compromising their access to rehabilitative services and other beneficial activities like sports. Nilofar Bayat, a women’s rights activist and captain of national wheelchair basketball team, expressed deep concern about girls with disabilities not being allowed to play sports, saying their disability will become more severe without the activity. In addition to this, the barriers to education for women with disabilities will also increase under the Taliban, who completely banned education for women during their previous regime.

Support for People with Disabilities

Disability rights activists in Afghanistan are being targeted due their association with the United States, leading to a decline in supportive services offered to individuals with disabilities. The United States International Council on Disability (USICD) reported that around 50 disability rights advocates are currently in danger of being attacked by the Taliban and are in urgent need of evacuation. Many of them participated in a conference on disability rights organized by USICD and the Afghanistan embassy in 2017 and received grant funding from the U.S., putting them in a precarious position. One advocate describes severe persecution, being forced to move from one house to another to avoid being captured after the Taliban launched a grenade into his house and attempted to find him at his organization’s office. He told The Nation that the Taliban believes advocates are spying for the US because they received grant funding from the U.S. The evacuation plan of the US did not account for the needs of people with disabilities either, as multiple disability rights advocates were unable to make their way around Kabul airport. One amputee had to return home due to extreme pain. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi believed the Taliban was searching for them as well, coming to their offices and damaging their property. All this points to the fact that disability advocates will find it increasingly difficult to play their crucial role in supporting the disabled community. For example, initiatives to make bathrooms more accessible, to provide rehabilitation, to conduct vocational training, and to provide trauma care service for land mine victims all are at risk of being lost. The champions of the rights of individuals with disability are being silenced.

Disability rights activists are not the only ones facing difficulties in continuing operations – humanitarian organizations too are struggling to continue providing their essential services. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that approximately three-quarters of organizations faced challenges in providing aide since August. The Taliban has a history of actively clamping down on organizations providing humanitarian aid and health services as well, banning the Red Cross and WHO in 2019 from operating in its territories after claiming they were carrying out “suspicious” activities and not sticking to their mission. They have since lifted the ban, and Red Cross is providing services currently, but this incident sets a chilling precedent to the relationship we can expect to see in the future between the Taliban and international aid organizations. In addition to this, a Human Rights Watch review reported that the increase in conflict since 2016 has led to increased difficulty in collecting data from rural areas. This is likely to be the case in Afghanistan’s current state of turmoil, making it difficult to assess the needs of people with disability and whether they are being addressed.

In a recent report, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that health systems in Afghanistan are on the brink of collapse, partly due to a decrease in funding. While the services provided by aide organizations and advocates are far from being able satisfying the immense demand, and by no means replace systemic efforts to rectify the situation, the role of advocates and aide organizations is undoubtedly more important than ever to ensure people with disabilities are not neglected.

The Taliban take-over might deconstruct the existing structures, but there is no guarantee that that they will build them back, let alone build them back better. It is disheartening to know that the violations minorities experienced under the Taliban occurred for more than five year and would have continued for longer if the US did not invade in 2001. My point is not to comment on the merit of the “war on terror” but to point out the more prolonged, devastating consequences that could have occurred in the past, and that very well may occur in the foreseeable future, due to insufficient action by the international community. The international community needs to mobilize resources to aid those who are disproportionately impacted by this transition. You and I can contribute to bettering the situation in Afghanistan as well. Consider donating to trusted humanitarian aid organizations, like the Red Cross, UNICEF, and UN Women, that are doing essential work on the ground. Humanitarian aide itself, however, is insufficient – foreign governments need to increase pressure on the Taliban to guarantee the rights and well-being of marginalized communities.

 

Prison Break Becomes Reality: The Escape of Six Palestinian Prisoners

On September 6th, 2021, six Palestinian prisoners escaped from what is known as Israel’s most secure and guarded prison, Gilboa Prison. An escape conducted only with a spoon has been heralded as a heroic victory for the Palestinian people and a major security breach to the Israeli government. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is nothing new. In fact, it’s known by many as a “100-year-old issue.” Since 1948, there have been continuous arguments and battles about land control, but it has now come to be much more. Today, Israel occupies most of the West Bank and has built settlements that are illegal under international law. Aside from speaking about which country controls what land, it is vital to recognize and understand the countless human rights violations happening—most of which were committed by Israel.

Zakaria Zubeidi pictured along side the hole which was used to escape and Israeli watch guards.
Yahoo Images

Israeli Prisons

Since 1967 over one million Palestinian people and supports have been arrested in Israel by the IDF. In June 2021 alone, a total of 4650 political prisoners were detained. 200 which were children, 40 women, and 544 serving life sentences. In 2020, there were 700 sick patients arrested and not receiving the proper care. It’s been noted that the Israeli police have targeted Palestinians with discriminatory arrests, torture, and unlawful force. The main targets of arrest are typically Palestinian activists, like the six prisoners who escaped. 

In Israeli prisons, Palestinian prisoners live in “appalling conditions that are subjected to harsh treatment.” The United Nations has noted that techniques used by the Israeli General Security Service during prison interrogations constitute torture. Once arrested, prisoners and detainees begin to endure physical abuse and humiliation—all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. When interrogated, they become exposed to “physical torture and psychological intimidation.” They are beaten, put into solitary confinement, inspected, deprived of medical and sanitary resources, and many more things. The report confirmed these conditions and the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons through multiple letters sent to the UN and posted. 

In addition to the illegal conditions of arrests and detention, Palestinian children have become increasingly targeted by Israeli detention. These children have been abducted and denied their fundamental human rights, sentenced, and convicted throughout the night. About 95% of the Palestinian children released from Israeli jails suffer from torture and ill-treatment during their time spent and throughout the interrogation process. Sick detainees have also been a massive problem within these prisons. More than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners—including those with disabilities—suffer from different physical and mental illnesses due to the poor conditions and no access to medical attention. Prisoners with cancer are denied any type of access to medical attention unless it is an emergency. Meaning chemotherapy is not an option. Routine doctor’s visits, medicine, anything a typical cancer prisoner should be provided, is not allowed. The condition of these prisons continues to worsen and violate human rights. 

The Re-Capturing of the Six Prisoners

The news of six prisoners escaping comes as a surprise to everyone. Not one person, Israeli or Palestinian, would have imagined that not one but six people could ever escape again. Once the world knew six people had escaped, the Israeli government began a search to find all six of them. The escape set off an uproar within the Israeli government as it was the biggest jailbreak seen in more than twenty years. Since the escape, Israeli prisoners have doubled down on their security, causing many Palestinian prisoners to protest and go on hunger strikes. With the current prison situation, it’s not imaginable what constitutes stronger security conditions. This is known as “collective punishment”, which is deemed illegal under humanitarian law. Posts around social media show the different forms of protests the prisoners have been doing. In addition, the manhunt included harassment of family members and violent raids across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The recapturing of the prisoners resulted in protests in the occupied West Bank and around the world. Thousands gathered to protest the rearrest and the reasons for the original arrests. Protesters in Palestine went out “in solidarity without prisoners in the occupier’s jails… it’s the least we can do for our heroic prisoners,” said Jihad Abu Adi. 

Palestinians Gathering to Protest the Rearrest of the six Palestinian Prisoners.
Yahoo Images

Since being captured, the escapees have all been tortured and beaten by the Israeli occupation forces. The worst being towards Zakaria Zubaidi. After he was rearrested, he was tortured so badly; he had to be sent to the ICU to receive urgent medical treatment. He was taken to Rambam Medical Center, located in Haifa, for treatment. It has been suspected that Zubeidi was tortured with electricity. His brother released a statement saying, “my brother is being subjected to the harshest form of torture.” Along with the electric form of punishment, it is noted that Zubeida’s leg was broken, and the Israeli prison forces did not allow him to sleep. Israeli security forces also did not allow lawyer visits for any of the recaptured. Palestinian human rights groups have asked the International Red Cross to get involved and facilitate interactions between their legal counsel and their families. 

What’s Next? 

Many Palestinians continue to live in fear of what is to come after the prison break. In the midst of fear, victory is sensed. Many journalists, Palestinians, and supporters have called this a momentous victory that showcases the strength and resilience of countless Palestinians. 

The six prisoners who escaped pictured on a poster with a woman standing with a spoon in support.
Yahoo Images

The most important thing one can do is learn the history, educate themselves, and read. Many individuals are being treated in an unfair manner which is deemed illegal under International Law. 

Check out these links, social media accounts, and books to learn more. @eye.on.palestine, an account on Instagram, posts daily updates on the occupation forces attacking Palestinians. Additionally, their accounts share pictures and post stories of what it’s like to live in an Israeli prison, access to medical care, and the food strikes conducted in protest. 

Books: 

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit 

In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story, Ghada Karmi

Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East, Abdel Monem Said Aly, Shai Feldman, Khalil Shikaki

The Future of Abortion Laws in the United States

The Texas Abortion Law, signed into law on May 19th, 2021, went into effect earlier this September, effectively banning abortions after the detection of fetal heartbeat. This law makes no exceptions even for victims of rape or incest. 

Previous abortion bills introduced the state government and authorities to enforce abortion laws, but unlike anything seen before, Texas’s law awards the power to the citizens. Any private citizen in the country now has every right to sue anyone they suspect has had an abortion, took part in helping with an abortion, or in any way assisted an individual seeking an abortion in Texas. If the suit succeeds, the citizen will receive monetary compensation of at least $10,000. The intricacies of this law make it difficult to legally interpret since technically, abortion has not been criminalized.

History of the Heartbeat Bill 

In 1973, the landmark Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade federally legalized abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy but allowed states to ban abortion in the 3rd trimester. Since then, several state legislatures have passed so-called “heartbeat bills,” which criminalize abortions after fetal cardiac activity has been detected—usually at 6 weeks. However, this is only a flutter of electricity, and the heart forms only after 17-18 weeks. Most individuals do not even know that they are pregnant at this point, because birth control, other forms of contraception, or not tracking menstrual cycles can mask pregnancies until the 8th week. 

Up until now, the Supreme Court has adamantly upheld Roe vs Wade, and every state abortion ban signed into law has been struck down in federal courts. In a historic decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled to let Texas temporarily implement its Abortion Law Although the decision was made in consideration of the difficulty interpreting the law by the Constitution, the hesitancy has been raising alarms all over the country. 

During the Former President’s term, 2 conservative justices replaced the deceased Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia—tipping the balance of opinion from liberal to conservativeThe new Supreme Court, with the power to influence landmark judicial decisions and history for the next century has many human rights and women’s rights activists seeing it as a threat to the well-being of the country. Reversing all or part of Roe vs. Wade will start an ethical slippery slope that some fear could lead to restrictions on contraception and women’s health services. 

Historic Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. pictured
Source: Unsplash; The Supreme Court Justices hear cases and make their decisions here at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Abortion as a Human Right 

The United Nations affirms that access to safe and legal abortions is a fundamental human right. It is not only crucial to ending discrimination against women but also to protect women’s health. The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHR) states that restriction abortion bans violate basic “right[s] to health, privacy, and in certain cases, the right to be free from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.” 

Despite the common misconception that abortion restrictions reduce abortions, they only increase unsafe abortions. Women and young girls use dangerous methods such as toxic chemicals, bodily harm, and relying on unlicensed abortion providers in their desperation to terminate a pregnancy. In fact, in the United States, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) found that over 1.2 million women had unsafe abortions which resulted in nearly 5000 deaths, not including tens of thousands more left with long-term injuries and complications.  

Depicts Abortion Rights protesters
Source Unsplash: Protestor holding up a placard stating “Protect Roe” in an October 2021 protest against Anti- Abortion Laws.

Women in Texas Now

The state has clearly indicated that the law is “not against women” but against abortion providers who are breaking the law. 

Already, women in Texas are traveling out to liberal states such as California or New York to get their abortions. The influx of cases has overburdened providers in other states, but even still, those who make it out of state to receive an abortion at least have the option. The majority of women, however, do not have the means or funds to obtain an abortion in another state, so they turn to abortion pills to self-induce abortions. This method has its own problems. The pills can get stuck in customs anywhere from 2 to 30 days which adds to the anxiety of pregnant individuals, because the pills must be taken before 10 weeks of gestation to avoid life-threatening complications such as massive hemorrhaging.  

Political Reaction 

The Texas Abortion Ban symbolizes the modern bodily autonomy movement on a precipice. Based on the Supreme Court’s current balance, it is possible that Roe vs. Wade could be struck down within the next two years. One thing must be made clear though: overturning Roe vs. Wade means that abortion will only become illegal within states that have chosen to do so—not across the country.  

However, another aspect to consider about the abortion rights debate is voice. Women and minorities are more empowered than four decades earlier and have the platform to fight for their beliefs. In fact, 77% of people want the Supreme Court to uphold Roe vs. Wade. If Roe vs. Wade is overturned, an unprecedented amount of public outcry will occur in every state to fight, once again, for the right to bodily autonomy that women have fought for decades. 

Billboard titled "Forward Together for Abortion Justice"
Source: Unsplash; An Abortion Rights billboard titled “Forward Together for Abortion Justice” at a protest in October 2021.

Future

Later this year, the Federal Courts will hear Mississippi’s case to let their heartbeat law stand for 15 weeks. More conservative states will likely use Texas’s law to support their legislations. Thus, the outcome of these hearings will give the country an understanding of how the federal judicial system will respond to future abortion and women’s health legislation. 

The Supreme Court’s ability to protect abortion rights is being tested, but according to the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, the responsibility may be passed to Congress instead of staying with the courts.  

In the Senate and House of Representatives sits a bill titled the Women’s Health Protection Act, which could provide universal abortion rights and remove the damaging restrictions women are subjected to for abortions. One of the goals of women’s rights activists is to see this bill passed in Congress, and the time has come for Congress and the Executive Branch to collaborate and alleviate any detrimental decision that the judicial system may make. The public can help with this goal by proactively voting for legislators that will turn bills into reality and supporting many nonprofit organizations and charities such as NARAL Pro-Choice American and Planned Parenthood through volunteer work or donations.  

The Missing Case of Gabby Petito and the Cases of Missing Indigenous Women

Missing flyer of Gabby Petito depicting a picture of Gabby with the hashtag of America's daughter
Yahoo Images

On September 11, Gabby Petito, a young white woman who was travelling in a van and recording videos about her life with her boyfriend, was reported missing by her family. Petito’s popularity on YouTube and Tik Tok helped the story circulate like wildfire with true crime podcasts , national news channels , and intense investigation from officials and the general public. The fervent public engagement and dedication of investigative officials lead to Petito’s remains being discovered in less than a month in Wyoming. Within the last nine years 710 indigenous people, mainly women, have disappeared in the same area where Petito was found, and most cases have remained unresolved. Where was their national media coverage? Currently, 64,000 Black women are declared missing within America, but where is their media attention and public outcry? The case of Gabby Petito is an unfortunate situation and deserves to have the proper investigative force behind it. However, we must ask ourselves why cases like Petito’s, usually young white women gain the most awareness, while women of color, like indigenous women are often ignored on a local and national level. The power of the media and public opinion is significant. The interest of the public has been able to reopen cases and even apprehend criminals. Public outcry has secured justice for victims and their families,  which is recognition and treatment that indigenous women often lack.

Indigenous women with red hand painted over the mouth, presenting the voiceless and missing indigenous women
Yahoo images

The Mary Johnson Case 

On November 25, 2020 Mary Johnson, an indigenous woman of the Tulalip Tribe, went missing while walking to a friend’s house in Washington state. Over the span of 10 months, the search for Johnson involved a billboard on the interstate and local media coverage, which resulted in little development towards finding or arresting the perpetrator behind her disappearance. Local tribal police efforts have not recovered Mary Johnson’s body and have not made any arrests, despite having identified multiple people of interest.  

Why has such little investigative action occurred over such a long period of time? Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board, states that investigation by law enforcement is often delayed due to the “maze of jurisdiction” in the local county. The boundaries among the authorities overseeing the case must be distinguished between the federal government, state government, and the tribal police, this process is often complicated by the complex procedures of bureaucracy. Additionally, tribal authorities often lack jurisdiction or are limited in their ability to prosecute non-Native people for crimes committed on tribal land. The federal government, which carries the authority of persecution, often does not offer its services. The competence and empathy that Mary Johnson and her family deserve was undercut by governmental and legislative administrations who focused on avoiding responsibility rather than seeking justice, for Mary Johnson. Cases such as Mary Johnson continue to emulate the numerous, and neglected cases of missing indigenous women.  

Banner with the words "No more Stolen Sisters" at a protest for missing indigenous women
Yahoo Images

The Disparities in Media Attention and Investigation 

The discrepancy in the media treatment and public awareness of missing white women compared to missing women of color, including indigenous women, is referred to as “missing white woman syndrome.” The Lucchesi Sovereign Bodies Institute reports that from 2000 to 2009 local and state media covered 18% of homicide cases related to indigenous women and 50% of homicide cases related to white victims. The reporting of cases between white and indigenous victims is even dependent on the status of the victim, whether they are dead or alive. The Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center reports that white people are more likely to have an article written about them while they are still alive. Approximately 76% of articles written about white victims are published while the victim is still alive, but 42% of articles written about indigenous victims are written after the indigenous victim is found dead. Indigenous people are more likely to have an article written on them if they were found dead with 57% of articles being on indigenous missing people, but no articles about white missing persons which displays that white missing persons receive media recognition in a timely manner, before the victim has been found dead. The underrepresentation of indigenous women within media is alarming considering how there have been 5,712 missing cases since 2016, .  

The lack of awareness and ignorance surrounding the numerous cases of missing  indigenous women is ironic considering how indigenous women are at higher risk for acts of violence and should receive more awareness and protections. In fact, American Indian and Alaskan Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at rates more than ten times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Publicity around these cases is crucial because these cases are not simply cases of missing people, but also cases of domestic violence, homicide, sexual assault, and sex trafficking which are rampant issues within indigenous communities. Compared to their white counterparts, indigenous women are 1.7 times more likely to experience violence, and 2 times more likely to be raped. More than half of indigenous women have experienced sexual violence (56.1%) and have been physically abused by their partners (55.5%). These acts of violence intrinsically violate and disregard the human right for indigenous women to exist in peace and security. Systematically, the safety and protection of indigenous women is neglected and allowed to continuously occur without intervention from the United States government.  

Why is there a Gap?  

Indigenous women’s rights advocates argue that indigenous women are often blamed for their own disappearances, thus resulting in a lack of empathy and effort from officials, media, and the public. 

Echo-Hawk, Seattle Indian Health Board chief research officer states that, “They’re [indigenous women] assumed to have run away, have substance abuse issues, or done something that justified them going missing or being murdered.”

Due to such prejudice and bias from authorities, the crucial initial period of search for a missing person is often lost because of the dismissal of families’ concern and refusal of investigative officers to report an indigenous woman is missing. Echo-Hawks details the common scenario as victim blaming where authorities ask questions like, “Did she run away? Was she out drinking?” and then dismiss family member concerns by saying their loved one will likely just come home in a couple of days. 

Beyond the biases of local authorities, such victim blaming can manifest into negative character framing within media coverage further leading to poor incentive for authorities and the public to display concern and initiative in resolving cases and serving justice for missing indigenous women. The Governor’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons reports that 16% of articles about indigenous people involves negative character framing, emphasizing negative aspects of the victim’s life, family, and community that are unrelated to the crime itself.   

founders and members of the Na’ah Illahee fund
Yahoo Images
How can you help? 

The negligence of authorities and lack of media attention isolates Indigenous families in their search for their missing family member. 

A Seattle Native-led nonprofit Na’ah Illahee (NIF) launched the “Red Blanket Fund,” to provide support for families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. You can donate to Na’ah Illahee and other organizations like it. Additional organizations include, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA and  National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center 

Bhutan: Persecution in Paradise

Bhutanese Landscape
Bhutanese Landscape. Source: Pxfuel

 Real Life Shangri-La

Bhutan is often referred to as an idyllic Himalayan nation, a land of peace and prosperity, happiness, and beauty. After visiting Bhutan in 2017, I was even more fascinated, and truly began to understand why the small, neutral country has been dubbed a “real-life Shangri-La”. It is the only nation in the world to measure annual success by Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product. It is also the only country to have a carbon-negative footprint, with extraordinary levels of hydropower and renewable energy production and a zero-tolerance policy for industrial development. Bhutan is rapidly decreasing poverty rates and increasing the middle-class population. Government programs have made education and trade school accessible to most citizens who desire it. Bhutan has managed to remain neutral for hundreds of years with a minimal military presence despite being nestled between two conflicting superpowers, India and China. Citizens of Bhutan enjoy the state’s extensive social welfare programs and are enamored with the royal family that abdicated power to allow a peaceful transition to a democratic system.

In short, the nation seems like a true paradise, where culture and tradition are preserved with love and care, where nature is respected and upheld, and where one can pursue life to the fullest in a land of prosperity and opportunity. When I had the opportunity to travel through Bhutan, I was stunned by the gorgeous landscape, nation, and culture. I was welcomed with clearer air than I thought possible, a colorful landscape filled with trees and prayer flags, and adorable buildings constructed in traditional Bhutanese fashion. The people were so happy, and talked passionately about their country, royal family, and culture. There is a strong sense of nationalistic pride, and from everything Bhutan boasts, it seemed to be entirely deserved. Our guide taught us about local customs, Bhutanese Buddhism, traditional dress and building style, and masterfully escorted us through the most beautiful aspects of Bhutan and its culture. 

It was only after leaving that I learned of human rights abuses Bhutan so carefully hides from tourists. Our state-sanctioned tour guide was an instrument in how this flawless reputation has been skillfully crafted, and the execution was so perfect that nothing felt staged while I was there. I enjoyed the country within an intricate veil of ignorance, unaware of the atrocities that no one is allowed to see.

Bhutanese children in traditional attire, leaning over a balcony
Bhutanese children. Source: World Bank Photo Collection

Violations Exposed

Bhutan may appear to be a nation without error, but the country has perpetrated major human rights violations since the 1980s. For four decades, the United Nations, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have consistently criticized and exposed Bhutan’s human rights violations. The nation is limited by strict libel laws and a culture that is unwilling to speak negatively on the king or his policies. While free speech is protected under Bhutan’s constitution, it is rarely practiced and this self-censorship is coupled with a flawed judicial system that harshly punishes those found to be committing the dangerously broad charge of libel. In 2016, a Bhutanese reporter faced libel fines of up to 10 years salary for critiquing a prominent businessman on Facebook. With penalties like this, it is no wonder that citizens of Bhutan do not dare criticize the crown, even though free speech is allegedly protected. Bhutan has been on a Human Rights Watch list since the 80s due to prolific persecution of ethnic minorities. While Bhutan has received credit for its positive changes since transitioning into a democracy in 2008, they still have a long way to go before they can be considered a free nation.

Bhutanese refugees sitting outside
Bhutanese refugees. Source: Creative Commons

Ethnic Cleansing Pre-Democracy

The horrific treatment of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan is the most atrocious human rights violation known to be committed by the Bhutanese government. The Lhotshampa people are Bhutanese residents with Nepali ethnic backgrounds, who have lived in Bhutan for generations but still speak a separate dialect and have a differing culture from the majority in Bhutan. In order to understand the current plight of Nepali migrants in Bhutan, we must understand a little bit of the once-neighboring nation, Sikkim. Sikkim was once an established monarchical state with most of its population being of Mongolian/Tibetan descent as Sikkimese, just like the ethnic Bhutanese. However, Sikkim faced a mass migration of ethnic Nepalis (of Hindu and Indo-Aryan descent) that caused the people of Sikkim to become a minority in their own nation. Sikkim fell as an independent state and was annexed by India in the 1950s, and the leaders of Bhutan have used the fall of Sikkim as a fear-inspiring example ever since. It is this nationalism and fear of losing sovereignty to one of the superpower neighbor states that has created such a widely supported systemic oppression of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan.

Bhutan faced its greatest human rights violations in the 1990s, as strong nationalism and resentment towards the Lhotshampa people came to a boiling point. The refugees crossed the border with tales of an ethnic cleansing occurring in Bhutan, stating they were given mere days to sell their homes and were marched from rural villages to Nepali refugee camps. The government’s forces accompanied the refugees across the border with loaded guns and photographers, and according to a Lhotshampa teen interviewed by the Human Rights Watch, “[They] told me to smile…He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave”.  It is estimated that the total number of refugees produced in the 1990s was just above 100,000, which is absolutely astounding when we look at Bhutan’s current national population of 780,000. While Bhutan is often portrayed as a modern “Shangri-La”, the seemingly idyllic Himalayan country created more refugees per capita  than any other nation in the world in our recent history. Of those 100,000 refugees, 85% have now been rehoused in the United States.

 Bhutanese man with child
Bhutanese man with child. Source: Creative Commons

Democratic Safeguards Fail

Despite the nation peacefully transitioning towards a democratic state in 2008, the new government has continued the systematic harassment of the minority group, even increasing certain anti-Lhotshampa policies. While the Lhotshampa are no longer persecuted as openly as they were in the early 1990s, they still face significant discrimination within the nation their families have called home for generations. Out of countless treaties currently in existence to protect and defend human rights, Bhutan has only signed two. Bhutan signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990, and many within the international community argue that Bhutan has violated the convention due to the large population of children within the persecuted Lhotshampa refugees.

Perhaps the most recent evidence proving such discrimination came with Bhutan’s new constitution in 2008, when Lhotshampa people discovered their citizenship was up for debate, and access to passports and documentation became determined by financial, marriage, or literacy status, which is very reminiscent of the second-class citizenship African Americans faced in the United States. Some of the limitations imposed upon Lhotshampas with these targeted passport systems are the inability to travel internationally, which is a blatant violation of both the right to Freedom from Discrimination and the Right to Movement established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the brilliantly cruel aspect of the passport stipulations is that while Lhotshampa people may freely leave the country, it is extremely unlikely that they will be allowed to return. For many, a trip to visit neighboring India or Nepal is the termination of calling Bhutan their home. Essentially, the Bhutanese government made it abundantly clear that Lhotshampas are not welcome in Bhutan. 

In addition, while there is no clear law preventing Lhotshampas from purchasing property or moving freely within Bhutan itself, it is extremely unlikely in practice that Lhotshampas will be able to secure property or livelihoods outside of specific regions that have become socially designated for them. Bordering nations like Nepal continue to host new refugees fleeing a land many consider to be peaceful, sacred, and free of worldly troubles. Lhotshampas have continued to cross the Nepali border to refugee camps since 2008 purely out of desperation from lack of work or freedoms in Bhutan. Websites like these provide some much needed insight into the current plight of the Lhotshampas, as well as what life is like for those still awaiting rehousing inside of their temporary refugee camps. 

Refugees outside of a small hut
Refugees outside of a hut. Source: United Nations

How to Help

In order for change to be made, Bhutan needs continual pushes from the outside world. By spreading the true story of the Lhotshampa people and looking for ways to get involved, you are directly contributing to decades old efforts to ease the horrors they face. Creating action on any level is an excellent way to assist the Lhotshampa people and refugees like them. If you would like to donate or volunteer to assist Lhotshampa refugees, there are countless local and international efforts that will put anything you can give to great use. Reputable non-profits like Sewa USA use funds to provide necessities, transportation and employment help for Bhutanese refugees in the United States, and the World Food Programme uses donations to provide food and resources to Lhotshampas still displaced in refugee camps. Ultimately, resource-based aid is an excellent way to assist those who have been cruelly displaced and discriminated against, but only international pressure for domestic changes within Bhutan will be able to stop the persecution and prevent any more Lhotshampas from becoming refugees.

An Ongoing Fight for Paid Parental Leave in America

Woman working on a laptop while holding a baby
Source: Yahoo Images

The United States is one of three countries in the world, and the only first world country, that does not provide paid time off upon the welcoming of a new child into the home. Today, eighty-two percent of U.S. voters, across party lines, support implementation of a national paid family and medical leave policy. However, only thirteen percent of American workers have access to such privileges. Much of the debate surrounding the topic involves who will pay for such policies, and who exactly should be eligible to receive the benefits. Whether you have personally been put at a disadvantage by this situation or have the privilege of merely learning about it from media outlets, such as Senator Bernie Sander’s audacious Instagram posts, it is quite difficult to ignore the prevalent issue of the lack of paid parental leave in America. 

Paid Parental Leave as a Human Right 

The scarcity of paid parental leave is a violation of various aspects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23 of the UDHR states that everyone has the right to “just and favorable conditions of work” and “remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” The definitions of adequate work conditions and social protections can and will obviously be interpreted by society in different ways over time; however, Article 25 goes on to state:  

  1. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. 
  2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to particular care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”

Regardless of not being stated specifically, it is a common belief that paid parental leave exists within the realms of the above stated rights and is an ethical standard to which society should be held. Pushing personal opinions aside, a recent article from The Guardian says “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends women take at least six weeks off work following childbirth. But with no federally mandated paid family leave, for many women maternity leave is an unaffordable luxury.” 

The Reality of a Working Mother without Parental Leave 

Mother holding her baby
Source: Unsplash

As the participation of women in the workforce has steadily increased since post-World War II, the modern era expects women to work full-time as if they are not raising children, yet also expects women to raise children as if they are not working full-time jobs. This concept is evident in many American women’s lives who push off having a career until their children are grown or wait to have children until they are settled in their career. With the knowledge that many women do not have access to parental leave, another question is evoked: what happens to working women when a child is born? Those who are lucky enough to have a planned pregnancy may opt to save as many sick days as possible before their delivery date to be used during their recovery. But unfortunately, in many cases women can be forced to leave their jobs because of choosing to give birth. 

Not all Families are Impacted the Same 

In addition to women being disproportionately affected on a large scale, there are various other societal groups which are put at a greater disadvantage. According to a June 2021 article on BBC, “workers in blue-collar jobs are less likely to get paid parental leave than those with corporate jobs.” This not only affects the lower-income spectrum of the working class, but therefore largely affects BIPOC women and families at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Specifically in the post-war years, resistance formed through the idea that granting universal leave to all workers would encourage the “wrong” families to have the ability to produce. The UDHR lays out in Article 2 that all persons should have access to such human rights without any distinction regarding not only sex and gender, but race and social status as well. 

What does the fight towards ensured parental leave in America look like today? 

map of maternity leave around the world
Source: Yahoo Images

The fight for paid parental leave is not new to the agenda of human rights crises. In November of 1919, The International Labor Organization was quoted by the International Congress for Working Women in stating 12 weeks of paid parental leave is a “medical necessity and social right.” 

Today, lawmakers across America’s political spectrum voice their support for paid parental leave. Regarding the public, advocating for paid parental leave should be accompanied by voting for politicians at a federal and state level that will bring action to further implementing this agenda into legislation. There are also various activist organizations nationwide that can be further magnified by volunteers or monetary donations, including the PL+US and the National Partnership for Women and Families.