Tragic Killing of a Corporal and the Urgent Need to End Female Genital Mutilation

by Grace Ndanu

The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011.
The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma on December 15, 2023, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya, has brought to light the deeply entrenched issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the urgent need for increased awareness and action to eliminate this harmful practice. The tragic incident, where Corporal Boma was stoned to death by a mob of young men after rescuing a group of girls who had been forced to undergo FGM, signifies a significant setback in the fight against this violation of human rights in Kenya.

Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is a harmful practice and a violation of the rights of girls and women. It can lead to severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, including but not limited to severe bleeding, infections, complications during childbirth, and long-term psychological trauma. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified FGM into four types, with type 3 being the most severe, involving the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening.

According to reports, the incident involving the Corporal occurred when the police were taking the rescued girls to the hospital after the illegal FGM procedure. It is a grim reminder of the challenges faced by law enforcement officers and activists in combating such deeply rooted harmful practices. Despite the ban on FGM in Kenya, the practice still persists in certain areas, often conducted during school holidays, using crude methods and tools by individuals who continue to defy the law.

It is essential to understand that the practice of FGM is not limited to Kenya but is prevalent in many African countries, as well as in some parts of Asia and the Middle East. The complexity of cultural, social, and traditional beliefs and practices surrounding FGM makes the fight against it particularly challenging.

An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images
An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, is practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images

In the wake of Corporal Boma’s tragic killing, there is an urgent need for heightened awareness and education about the dangers of FGM. The involvement of communities, religious leaders, and other stakeholders is crucial in effectively addressing and eliminating this harmful practice. There is a pressing need for community-based interventions focused on education, awareness, and empowering women and girls.

Furthermore, it is imperative for the Kenyan government and other relevant authorities to take decisive action and strengthen the enforcement of laws against FGM. Perpetrators of FGM must be brought to justice to send a clear message that this harmful practice will not be tolerated in any form. The government should collaborate closely with local organizations and international partners to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to combat FGM effectively.

The media can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about FGM and shaping public opinion on the issue. Media campaigns and educational programs can provide crucial information on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, dispel myths and misconceptions, and promote positive social norms around the issue. Additionally, the media can highlight success stories of communities that have abandoned the practice of FGM, inspiring others to follow suit.

At the global level, the international community plays a vital role in supporting efforts to combat FGM. International organizations, including the United Nations and its specialized agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, have been advocating for the elimination of FGM through various programs and initiatives. These efforts range from providing direct assistance to affected communities, conducting research and data collection, advocating for policy changes, and supporting grassroots organizations working at the local level.

Some resources laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM.
Some resources are laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma serves as a stark reminder of the urgent action needed to eliminate the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. It is crucial to work collectively to raise awareness, educate communities, and enforce laws to protect the rights of girls and women. This tragic incident must galvanize individuals, communities, and governments to address FGM comprehensively and put an end to this barbaric practice.

The world must unite to protect the rights and well-being of girls and women globally and ensure that no one else suffers the same fate as Corporal Mushote Boma. By fostering a culture of respect for human rights and gender equality and by promoting positive social norms and behaviors, we can strive to create a world where every girl and woman has the right to live free from the fear and trauma of female genital mutilation. Together, we can work towards a future where every girl and woman can fulfill her potential without being subjected to the physical and emotional pain of FGM.

The tragic killing of Corporal Boma is a solemn call to action, and it must be responded to with determination, compassion, and unwavering commitment to bringing an end to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation once and for all.

Haiti: How will this end?

Peace in Haiti is akin to a momentary breath of fresh air. Gripped by the terror of political and humanitarian crises since its founding as the world’s first Black republic, Haiti is constantly reeling from one cause of instability to the next.

Two children in tattered clothes walk through a trash dump
Source: Yahoo Images

Today’s maelstrom of political inaction, violence, and human rights disasters in Haiti is rooted in a story that reaches back to its colonial past. After liberating itself as a French colony, Haiti was forced to pay reparations for the descendants of their French slave masters and lost “slave” property. Haiti took loans from French and American banks, in turn, providing more economic growth for French Banks. France essentially controlled the main bank of Haiti so much that the country became one of France’s largest financial conglomerates. When Haiti was unable to pay back American loans with interest, then President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion of Haiti that lasted 19 years. On top of economic repression, Haiti continuously experiences natural disasters that it is not equipped to recover from. Located in the Caribbean, Haiti experiences earthquakes and hurricanes at alarming frequencies each reintroduces economic, political, and health crises that compound existing tensions.

Coupled with military invasions from the United States and other developed countries for the sake of democratic civility, Haiti’s fate has been taken away from Haitians and toyed with by other powers. Haitian officials were also notoriously corrupt and either capitalized off their role as figureheads for invading powers or stealing from an already poor populace.

How did Haiti arrive here?

On July 21st, 2021, former Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated following a presidential term riddled with election fraud and economic disasters, including increases in gas prices that left the Haitian public seething. In recent decades, Political corruption and mishandling of national resources have depleted Haiti of economic strength, continuing to repress the middle class and poor. In August 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people, from which Haiti is still trying to recover.

After Moise’s death, his successor, President Ariel Henry, took charge of Haiti’s administration. Still, Haiti has fallen farther down a black hole with worsening crime rates, gang violence, inflation, healthcare crises, and fuel shortages. Backed by the Core Group, a conglomerate of countries including the United States, Canada, France, UN Representatives, and the Organization of American States, Henry has done little to alleviate Haiti’s crises.

In September 2022, Henry eliminated federal fuel subsidies to increase government funding, which caused gas prices to spike immediately. The G9 Family and Allies, a coalition of the most powerful gangs in Haiti, blocked public and government access to Varreux, Haiti’s largest fuel terminal, in retaliation to Henry’s new policy. International travel slowed and goods transportation to outer markets halted leading down a spiral of fear, financial misplacement, and dwindling basic necessities such as food, healthcare, hygiene, and safety.

Political Instability

People flee a burning building
Source: Yahoo Images

The oil terminal, Varreux, holds almost 70% of Haiti’s fuel reserves; without it, every industry has taken a hit from this disruption. Local businesses, homes, hospitals, and schools shut down with no energy to serve the people. Many hospitals have already closed, and others are temporarily running on generators. Due to rising global inflation, the cost of flour, wheat, oil, shortening, and many other resources that the country imports on a deficit rose. To make matters worse, the G9 has also blocked Haiti’s ports, slowing the shipments of emergency fuel. Because of this, most Haitians cannot pay the difference inflation has burdened them with, and the government is also not in a position to help.

Gangs, either a part of G9 or not, control the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s economic hub and a major transportation route for resources and goods going in and out of the country. Violence blazes through every street of the capital city and beyond, so much so that businesses have shuttered, and people refuse to go out into the streets for fear of dying, being kidnapped, and becoming a victim of a massacre. Ultimately, food can’t be made and people can’t venture out to get food, leaving families starving. The U.N. has stated that Haiti is facing an acute hunger catastrophe, the worst the country has seen in decades, with over 4.7 million adults and children without adequate nutritional resources. Since gangs also control transport on the roadways, water tankers and other necessary resources are not reaching the communities where people have been desperately waiting, leading to water shortages.

Another emerging problem within Haiti is the current deadly cholera outbreak, an infectious disease carried by water-borne parasites that causes uncontrollable diarrhea and dehydration to the point of death, if left untreated. The depth of this crisis is exacerbated as Haiti was declared cholera-free after successfully controlling the disease for three years. But because access to clean water, hygiene, and healthcare is limited in the current civil unrest, the Haiti Ministry of Public Health and Population has reported 1,193 confirmed cases, 13,672 suspected cases, and 288 confirmed deaths. The most vulnerable are children 1 to 4 years of age. The first case was recorded in Cite Soleil, a coastal town overrun with gangs since Moise’s assassination last year, highlighting the impact of this untimely death on the health of those in Haiti.

Sexual Violence

In wartime, rape and sexual assault are employed by invading or territorial forces as tools for fear, power, and subjugation. Haitian gangs have perpetrated widespread rape and assault against all ages of women, children, and, less commonly, men. The United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) released a joint report detailing the above by conducting and analyzing over 90 interviews with incident victims and witnesses over the past two years to uncover information on the pervasiveness of collective rapes and public humiliation. Although this report is not exclusive to post-G9 control, the amount of sexual violence is unimaginable now.

Women and girls are afraid to cross the “frontlines,” the name ascribed to territories controlled by gangs, for necessities, because sex is viewed as a form of currency, voluntary or not. Families may encourage this form of “transactional behavior” to gain food, water, and other resources as their power lies in weapons, political power, geographical power, and fear. Another UN report describes women used as handles for high-ranking men in gangs. Victims can be raped and assaulted for hours in front of family or friends, and mutilation and executions are common afterward.

International Response

Over the past couple of weeks, United Nations Security Council members deliberated to formalize an action plan to weaken the gangs’ control of Haiti effectively. As a result, the Security Council adopted a targeted arms embargo, freezing assets and putting individuals, or those supporting the gangs in Haiti, on travel bans. These people include the leader of G9, Jean “Barbeque” Chezier, the perpetrator of much of the violence and humanitarian crisis that Haiti is experiencing.

Security Council member states cannot permit travel or weapons sales to these individuals within Haiti’s borders. As another aspect of the adopted plan, military equipment shipments have already been dispatched to Haiti’s police force to help quell unrest. Canada is confirmed to send in armored vehicles to the Haitian authorities in addition to officials to conduct a “needs assessment” of Haiti. The United States has imposed sanctions on Haiti for drug trafficking and gang violence; though tactically sound, the move further cripples Haiti by hacking off an economic power source.

Some Haitians remain uncomfortable with foreign intervention. Past interferences from the international community have shaped Haiti’s present, overcome with lawlessness and despair. Yet, despite the history, the West and some Haitians still believe their interference may be Haiti’s best bet. There is no objection that Haiti must be helped; its recent designation as an aid state, a nation at the mercy of foreign aid, further exacerbates the conditions of Haitian citizens. The question that the world and Haitians are pondering is: how can the world help without causing a chain reaction to an even worse fate than the present?

If you would like to learn more about Haiti’s history, here are some resources that provide great insight into aid services and current events: https://www.mic.com/impact/how-to-best-help-haiti-according-to-haitians-82850703. They include Hope for Haiti, Team Rubicon, the World Health Organization, and Haiti’s Emergency Relief Fund.

 

A Firsthand Perspective of the Humanitarian Needs of IDPs in Cameroon

Cameroon, once a bastion of peace and tranquility, is now a nation beset with a series of violent and armed conflicts. Since late 2016, an armed conflict between the state defense forces of Cameroon and the non-state armed groups (NSAGs) of Southern Cameroons’ has ravaged the country. In the last six years, there have been more than 6,000 deaths, 765,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), and 70,000 registered refugees in neighboring Nigeria, with approximately 2.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. The Norwegian Refugee Council has referred to the conflict as one of the most neglected in the world. The long-term human capital consequences of this conflict are enormous. 

A more comprehensive background of the armed conflict and humanitarian crisis in Southern Cameroons can be found in a previous IHR blog post, “Cameroon, a Nation Divided”. 

Map of Cameroon.
Source: via Yahoo Images

It is against this backdrop that the Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative (CHRI) in partnership with the Institute of Human Rights (IHR) co-hosted an international webinar, “Updates on the Humanitarian Crisis from the Ongoing Armed Conflict in the Southern Cameroons” on the 18th of October, 2022. The aim of this event was to discuss the current humanitarian crisis from a multi-perspective panel. The speaker biographies can be found at the bottom of this blog post. 

Excerpts from this webinar were edited and woven together for this blog post. The full recording of the webinar is available on request by contacting ihr@uab.edu. 

Image of Cameroonian IDPs.
Source: via Yahoo Images

Overview                                                                                                                     

What are the current humanitarian needs for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Southern Cameroons? 

Atim Evenye: The current context and the magnitude of the ongoing crisis in the Northwest and Southwest regions remain tense. There is continuous violence in targeted areas. We have the destruction of properties. We have abductions and kidnappings of both community people and administrators. We have killings and local arrests. We have continuous attacks on schools and students. Humanitarians face threats and direct [armed] attacks.  [These are carried out] by both parties, the non-state actors and the state defense forces.

The population [has] really [been] under duress and stress for over six years.

Food Security:                                                                                                                      Atim Evenye: When it comes to the current needs for IDPs, at the moment, I would say food security remains one of those outstanding needs. Especially in the rural areas, because these IDPs have fled their place of abort. They don’t have access to their farms. [As such,] they don’t have the economic capital [for even] daily subsistence. So, there is a lot of dependencies now on family members, [or] world food programs, and other humanitarian organizations bringing food assistance in the area. 

Education Accessibility:                                                                                                        Atim Evenye: There is a strict restriction around education. In [the rural areas] of the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have children who have not been able to go to school until date. In urban areas, there is a possibility of schools for those who can afford it. Currently, in our zone in the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have lost one month [of school this term], because we are only starting now. So, it becomes challenging on how to catch up. There’s a need for accelerated learning. [Additionally,] teachers have been abducted [and] schools have been burned. [To add to that,] there is a lot of psychological trauma, [as] many children have witnessed or experienced violence firsthand. Both the state and non-state actors [are] not conscious of the impact their actions are having on children. The government doesn’t want to hear about community schools as prescribed by the separatist. So, it’s really very challenging to access education. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: Education is one of the issues at the origin and at the core of the crisis, and formal education has been used by NSAGs, [the non-state armed groups], as a political instrument. NSAGs have advocated and enforced a “no school policy”, leading to public school closures for the past four years in many areas. More than fifty percent of threats against buildings in communities have been directed against schools, and many school buildings have been taken over by organized armed groups. Accessing education in emergency services, or going to school in such a volatile environment, is proven to be risky for children, as well as for teachers. Pupils who were in school in most rural areas have dropped out, some joining armed groups, others displaced, and some have outgrown their ages for the classes in which they were and cannot continue. Many parents have lost their means of livelihood and are unable to sponsor their children in school. Despite repeated calls from humanitarian and human rights organizations for education to be depoliticized, schools have been burnt, teachers and students intimidated, kidnapped, and even killed, and some have seen their hands chopped off by members of armed groups. 

Gender-based violence (trigger warning):                                                                          Atim Evenye: We see [a great deal] of gender-based violence. In certain assessments we have conducted, for example, [many of these] young girls in rural areas are not able to go to school. What are they left to do? There is a lot of harassment, rape, and [sexual assaults]. They’re looking for five hundred francs CFA, that’s like one dollar, to [be able to just buy] food to eat. So then, they depend on young men to give them that money. And at the end of the day, they [get pregnant and become] teenage mothers. The whole cycle is really detrimental, it’s a really difficult one. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: Sexual violence is rampant, as a direct consequence of the crisis but also due to decreasing livelihoods, negative coping mechanisms, and lack of protection structures. The boy child is an endangered species, at risk of accusation and arbitrary killing from GFs [state defense forces], and forced recruitment by the NSAGs. There are no specific programs by both UN agencies and Internal bodies that address the needs of the boys. 

Housing:                                                                                                                                      Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: If we look at where the IDPs in particular are, we have IDPs that are living in the rural areas, in the bushes. We have those living within host communities. We have some that have been able to rent. [But if] they are able to pay for accommodation, [there are] a lot of difficulties because they want them to pay upfront, and they cannot do it. In all three groups, they lack basic WaSH and health services, NFIs [non-food items], and protection from natural hazards. Those who fled to other regions face stigma and severe protection risks related to exploitation, and socio-economic vulnerabilities including extortion, sexual exploitation, and child labor. 

Healthcare:                                                                                                                            Atim Evenye: The next principal need I would say is around healthcare. In recent times we have [had] heath centers burned, and the staff attacked. So, it’s really challenging. Statement needs to be completed, even before the crisis, access to health care has been a serious challenge, especially in rural areas. And then, currently, with the crisis, it’s even more exacerbated. It becomes difficult now [for] humanitarians on the ground who are trying to meet the needs of these people. Take, for example, Doctors Without Borders. They have [had] to put their activities on the hold because they had issues around access [and safety] of their staff.

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: [There is a lot of] healthcare [needs] for the vulnerable. [Safe practices in regard to] water, sanitation, and hygiene are not being followed. People who live in rural areas don’t have a good source of water. But they could be educated on the fact that even though your source of water is doubtful, you could take it, you boil it, you purify it, or you do something to make it [potable]. That education, they don’t have, or the chemicals for water treatment. Additionally, there is a lack of emergency medical and psychological units, to provide emergency care to the wounded and psychosocial support to those traumatized by the violence. We can educate people on how to prevent simple infections. How can you prevent diarrhea infection? How can you prevent malaria? If this education is done, it could be [one] way to [improve basic healthcare].

Healthcare, which is supposed to be a protected area, unfortunately, has not been the case in this conflict.  We have had health centers closed; more than fifty percent of the health centers in rural communities have been closed. Not only the health centers, [but] the health workers do not feel comfortable staying there. So, a lot of them have abandoned [the centers]. The [people] left in these communities cannot access healthcare. Women cannot access antenatal clinics. Vaccinations [are] not being done, and thousands of children are at risk of contracting common vaccine-preventable infections. 

The population has been abandoned to themselves.

Health centers that are open in semi-urban and urban areas are overwhelmed by people who have [been forced by the conflict to flee]. And what’s worse is that most of those who have [fled] do not have the means to pay for the treatment. We have some health centers that have accumulated huge unpaid bills because those who access healthcare cannot afford to pay those bills. For the facilities that are open, IDPs cannot afford to pay for the treatment that is given to them. 

We have [also] had cases of drugs and other medical equipment [being] seized along the way by organized armed groups. So, it’s difficult to render care because the drugs and medical supplies do not reach the vulnerable in the hard-to-reach areas. Free supply of drugs and medical equipment is disturbed by locked downs, roadblocks, and/ or are seized at gunpoint. 

Then the last very worrying thing is that healthcare workers are being attacked or kidnapped for ransom. A lot of them have been attacked both by the non-state actors and by the state forces; [health workers are] kidnapped by the non-state actors and/or arrested by the [state forces]. So, it is not safe [from] either side. They see you as collaborating with the other, and [so the question is] whether you should treat wounded combatants or not. According to the healthcare regulation, we take any wounded persons as patients. But unfortunately, when these [combatants are] treated, we [the healthcare workers] are blamed. The non-state actors blame you for treating the state forces. The state forces blame you for treating the non-state actors. It’s really a dilemma in which we are in. 

Future Directions:                                                                                                     

Looking towards the future, are there any resolutions to the humanitarian crisis in Southern Cameroons that you can think of that can be implemented at this point?

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: I think the first thing we need to consider for the humanitarian crisis is that we need to speak the truth.

We need to make a truthful appraisal of what is happening on the field. Address the needs. For example, we are told that the crisis in Cameroon is one of the least funded in the world. Why? Because the data and the reposting are for some reason concealed. 

So, if we must be able to go forward with the humanitarian situation, we need to know how many people are living in the bushes, how many are living in host communities, in what conditions are they living, and be able to address it. [These] figures are often contested, they say the number is lower, or they want to sway the number for their gain. So, we must start with you right data. If we have the right data on needs, it will be possible to see where the solutions should come from. 

Possible resolution options, specifically for the humanitarian crisis, could consider the following:

-A community-based approach to raise awareness of protection risks in the community and identify and support community-based solutions. 

-Advocate for access to civil documentation, especially birth certificates, to avoid a stateless generation and mitigate protection risks associated with a lack of civil documentation. 

-Support community mediation of localized conflicts to reinforce the dialogue between host communities and IDPs and avoid tensions within the communities. 

-Advocate with parties to the conflict to respect the protection rights of communities, and respect International Humanitarian Laws. 

-Finding durable solutions for IDPs intending to stay in their host communities, like those who have established businesses in the new areas.

-Shelter support in rural areas as a high percentage of households live in tents or informal collective shelters 

Atim Evenye: When it comes to setting strategies that we can use to resolve this conflict, I would say it’s imperative, for the powers that be to consider the roles of different parties in the conflict. There is a need for parties in this conflict to come to the table and talk. There is a need for dialogue. There is a need for unity. We need to have a unity of purpose, to push our agenda in one voice. 

True is the fact that they have been the major national dialogue, [there] have been consultation meetings and other forms of dialogue in smaller circles. But the question is, during this dialogue are the needs of the different parties considered?

For example, we have women who have suffered a lot as a result of this conflict. But at the same time, we have that arm of women who are also seeking solutions on how to resolve the conflict. Women are now spearheading and speaking for themselves. And I think, there is a need to give a listening ear to what the women are saying because I think time in memorial, women have always demonstrated that ability to resolve conflict. So, one way to consider the proposals that women are giving here in Cameroon.

Secondly, there is a need to give academia and research a place. There are a lot of people in the academic who are gathering data, but the fear around it is the dissemination of this information. The administrative system is such that once you do a publication that is not supportive of what is happening, you get targeted. And by both sides. Thus, we try to be balanced in all information dissemination. There is a need for that deliberation and freedom of speech, especially in the area of academia. People should not be afraid to publicize or to make public the research and the results of what they have found in the field. So that’s another way that can be an added value to the approaches to conflict resolution. 

Also, there is a need to consider the root causes. The conflict did not just start like that, it degenerated along the line. So, there is a need to go back to the drawing board and understand what pushed the Southern Cameroonians to arrive at this point. What are the different trends that have been changing through the crisis?

When it comes to how to resolve the humanitarian crisis, I think the humanitarian needs are more than what the humanitarian organizations can do, funding is very limited. It’s obvious that humanitarians cannot meet all the needs. So where should we turn to? We should turn to other actors who can bring assistance. We have development actors who can bring resilient, [long-term, skills-building] projects so that the communities will not be too dependent. The people of the Northwest and Southwest have never been those who are dependent on handouts. 

They are people who are hard-working. We hear the aches of people wanting to be self-sustaining. They want to just be, to go back and be what they had been doing [before the conflict]. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: If we don’t put away falsehood, if we don’t speak the truth and have the right data and have the right information about what is going on, on the ground, we will continue for many more years doing much but with very little impact. 

The people of Northwest and Southwest can lead by themselves. These are hard-working people. They just need to be empowered, to go back to where they have lived before. There are many people who are longing to go back home, but the problem is that they go to homes that have been burnt. They go to farms that have been abandoned. They go to be reminded of the horror. So, we need psychological treatment and support. We need some form of equipping them to be able to cope with what they have lost. We should be able to end the hostilities and give people the opportunity to go back home.

So, we should rather empower them, than continue to give them aid. Let peace reign, [so that] we can empower them to reveal what they have lost and then see how they can bring up that life again. [Then] we can go forward. But hostilities should cease, and we should speak the truth; to face each other face-to-face and speak the truth. 

Speaker Biographies

Atim Evenye Niger-Thomas, received a Ph.D. in Student Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the International University of Applied sciences for Development (IUASD) Sao Tome in partnership with IPD Yaoundé.  Since 2016, Atim Evenye has worked and grown in different roles at the Authentique Memorial Empowerment Foundation (AMEF). Currently, she holds the position of Assistant Director and trainer for Humanitarian Negotiation. Under this supervision, AMEF has grown to be one of the leading humanitarian organizations in the Southwest Region. AMEF runs four core programs namely, Education and Child Protection (ECP), Economic Development and Livelihood (EDL), Gender, Protection and Peace (GPP), Health/Nutrition/ WASH (HNW).

Dr. Nfor Emmanuel Nfor, holds a PhD in Medical Parasitology from the University of Yaounde I, Cameroon. In February 2017, he joined the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS), as the Malaria Focal Point. While working with the CBCHS, he attended a Peer Review Workshop on Humanitarian Negotiation organized by the Centre for Competence in Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) Geneva. After many other online courses, and several National and International Conferences, he was appointed Trainer and Advisor of Humanitarian Projects within the CBCHS. In this capacity, he coordinated projects executed by the CBCHS with funding from WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA. He has been at the forefront of Humanitarian activities within the CBCHS during the ongoing sociopolitical crises in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon, working closely with the Cameroon Humanitarian Response Plan. 

 

This is the second in a series of blog posts that will look further into the conflict in Cameroon. Each month a humanitarian need and/or organization working in response to the humanitarian crisis will be featured on the UAB Institute for Human Rights’ blog. 

Eugenics: How the Remnants of a Bygone Theory Threaten Personal Liberty Over a Century Later

by Sumaira Quraishi 

Trigger warnings: rape, invasive medical procedures, and medical malpractice.

Often, the Supreme Court of the United States is seen as a paragon of the American legal system and the national values it strives to uphold. At least, it used to be. While trust in the sanctity of the Supreme Court has recently been broken over controversial political issues, the Supreme Court is no stranger to making unfavorable and borderline unconstitutional rulings in cases brought before the justices at the time. While this is to be expected, with the court switching from conservative to liberal-dominant every so often, some cases seem to concern unalienable human rights that have been denied by the court, as expected of a supposed higher authority that is ultimately, and always will be, a product of its time. In 1927, Carrie Buck learned just how fallible the highest court in the American legal system could be when infiltrated with an ideology eventually perpetuated by the Nazi party during World War I. 

Image shows Jewish prisoners in their barracks at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.
Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Birth of Eugenics

Surprisingly, and perhaps horrifyingly, eugenics was not the child of oppressive or violent regimes, but the culmination of centuries of scientific research and racism woven together and spread through communities worldwide during the early 20th century. Eugenics was a theory created to exterminate certain people who were not considered mentally fit, genetically clean, or conventionally attractive. The ones who decided the people that fit into these categories usually were ones in positions of power or influence in society: doctors, politicians, and scientists. Favored methods for perpetuating eugenics were forced sterilization, societal segregation, and social exclusion, all of which seem to be methods straight out of the time of slavery where eugenicists drew inspiration and justification for eugenics. 

In the modern age, there is a laser-like focus on women’s rights to not have a child, and while this pursuit of maintaining women’s rights is justified, for many vulnerable men and women today the fight for the right to have a child is just as in need of attention. An old theory about the superiority of white, able-bodied people may seem like one to be thrown into the history books and mentioned alongside other conventionally shunned snippets of history in the modern discourse, however, eugenics never truly went away. 

Eugenics Still Lingers

Overshadowing lives today as a phantom of the eugenics school of thought, a forgotten Supreme Court case in 1927 named Buck v. Bell led to the codification of sterilizing those deemed “feeble-minded” and genetically inferior by people in positions of power into law. Carrie Buck was a woman who resided in a mental institution and became pregnant after being raped, resulting in staff at the asylum taking acute notice of Buck. Doctors and directors at the asylum were firmly entrenched in the eugenics culture sweeping across America and firmly believed Buck should not be allowed to carry to term. These men took the stand that Buck should be forcibly sterilized to prevent her genes from being passed on, and the Supreme Court was in full agreement, with the justification for the ruling against Buck being that she had a history of mental illness back to one of her grandmothers and being sterilized would protect the goodness of society by keeping “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” people from reproducing. 

Image shows the Supreme Court building from the front.
The Supreme Court Building. Source: Yahoo Images.

Not only is Buck v. Bell an appalling ruling that trod on the constitutional rights of Buck, but it also opened the door for forced sterilization procedures to continue without secrecy and, chillingly, has never been overturned. An old legal case from the 1920s may seem like something to be stored away in textbooks and forgotten, yet, eugenics practices in the form of forced sterilizations are happening today

In California between 2006 and 2010, almost 150 women in two different prisons were given hysterectomies without their consent or legal documentation authorized by the state, with 100 suspected cases of sterilization dating back to 1997 uncovered as well. Furthermore, in 2017 a Tennessee judge offered to reduce prison sentences by 30 days for any inmate who signed up to receive a birth control implant or a vasectomy. The latest case of eugenics rearing its head in American practices was in 2020 when it was revealed that hysterectomies were being performed illegally on women in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. These cases are not the only ones concerning the continued use of forced sterilizations to prevent incarcerated or institutionalized individuals from having the right to choose to have a child, with many more subject to the archaic practice who have yet to have their story told. These practices are considered morally reprehensible by the general public but can trace their roots to eugenic procedures approved by the Supreme Court in a case that was challenged but never overturned, and some laws approving the use of sterilizations are still in existence in states such as Virginia. 

Image shows an empty cell area of a prison.
Prison. Source: Yahoo Images.

What Can Be Done

Fighting a system that has failed a large portion of the American population, and pushing for a Supreme Court ruling to be overturned when the nation’s political climate seems fit to burst with elections on the horizon can seem incredibly intimidating. These thoughts are not unfounded, but what government bodies forget is that their power comes from their people and constituents. Harmful practices can be challenged with public favor and fervor. Staying informed on what influences modern atrocities like Buck v. Bell and knowing that the majority of the population supports upholding the 14th Amendment protecting civil liberties keeps people motivated to improve the lives of their fellow Americans. Leaving Buck v. Bell as a precedent in U.S. law allows for unprotected groups of individuals who are incarcerated or institutionalized to be at heightened risk of human rights abuse, and while forced sterilization is morally reprehensible, the law does not currently outline sterilization as illegal since the Supreme Court ruling remains standing. Reaching out to local or state politicians is an option for those who want to appeal hurtful laws, and a less intimidating option is to join advocacy groups whose views align with your own. 

For more information on another situation involving eugenic practices ruining the lives of nonincarcerated individuals, the case of a fertility doctor who artificially inseminated dozens of his clients with his sperm and remains free from jail can be found here.

The Trafficking of Migrants by American Political Leaders

 

Picture of the famous Ellis Island, where many immigrants made their entrance to America
Source: Wikimedia commons found on Yahoo Images; An image of Ellis Island, the place of entry for many immigrants wishing to enter into America

The issue of immigration in America is one that is divided on so many fronts, and recognizing this division, political leaders have exploited the public’s conflicting views to push their own political agendas. Immigration has a rich history in this nation, and unfortunately, America has had a very unequal approach to how immigrants are treated. While some immigrants, (including many from Western nations) are treated with great respect and dignity, many of the immigrants that come from Central American nations, African nations, or Asian nations are portrayed by many political leaders in the United States as “criminal” or “coming to the US to steal our jobs.” This has been a tactic used historically since the founding of this nation, and it has led to the racial hierarchy that functions in America to this day. Even today, there have been comparisons drafted between Ukrainian refugees and how they are received versus how refugees from Palestine are treated. Ukrainian immigrants were accepted fully without any concern for space, funding, or any of the other arguments that come up in regard to immigration. Palestinian immigrants, who have been struggling with a similar situation as Ukraine, (where another nation has invaded their own nation, claiming property and lives in the process), continue to deal with political attacks and discrimination simply for being Palestinian immigrants. (For more on how countries value immigrants from different nations differently, read a recent post by my colleague Danah Dibb). This discrimination is also present in how immigrants from Central America are treated, including the fact that children are still being held at the border in inhumane conditions separated from their parents.

Additionally, immigrants have been a source of cheap labor for industries since the founding of America. At first, there were indentured servants and slaves that helped build the economic success of America early on. Yet, after slavery was abolished and indentured servitude was outlawed, industries faced a new challenge to find cheap sources of labor to maintain their profit margins without sacrificing their productivity levels. This has led to industries using the modern-day prison industrial complex, (which has evolved slavery and indentured servitude into a legal process), or outsourcing jobs to other poor nations to be able to exploit laborers for their own benefit. Yet, another way that industries have aimed to address their cheap labor needs is through the employment of immigrants, mainly undocumented immigrants who are not protected under American labor laws, and as such, industries can (and do) exploit their labor without any regulations or transparency in the process. Even the process for naturalization and legalization for immigrants is purposefully long and difficult, forcing immigrants to still pay taxes, without receiving any benefits that documented immigrants would receive. Despite the misconceptions of many Americans, immigrants do not take away jobs from the American public; they take on jobs that are generally avoided by most Americans. Also, contrary to the American myth that immigrants are “criminals,” the immigrant population is more rule-abiding than most U.S. citizens. All these facts are relevant to frame the political landscape for immigrants in America. This historical context is necessary for comprehending the full reality of the political stunts that occurred recently in regard to immigrants.

A Bit of Background on Human Trafficking

I wanted to include this image because it is inclusive of what human trafficking entails
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a person in distress made up of multiple words and phrases relating to human trafficking. These are just some of the realities people who are trafficked face

So, what is human trafficking, and what does it have anything to do with immigrants? Let’s begin with the first question, focusing on what it is, the federal laws on human trafficking as well as international and human rights laws that protect people from being trafficked. Human trafficking is the sale and purchase of human beings for the single reason of exploitation, whether it be for the victims’ labor, or for sexual manipulation. According to the human trafficking institute, over 24 million people worldwide are trafficked, of which 20 million are trafficked for labor-related issues, and another 4.8 million are exploited for the sex industry. These victims of trafficking are comprised of men, women, and children, from various nations, and from any and all age groups. Just looking at the numbers for America, it is estimated that around 14,000-17,000 people are trafficked into the United States. This does not even include the people that are trafficked within the borders, and this estimate is based on reported findings, which means that many people being exploited that have not been reported are not included in this statistic. Of course, as it is with any other issue, the more marginalized the group of people being targeted, the more vulnerable they are to being trafficked. Among other fields such as the sex industry, some of the most popular industries that employ people who are trafficked are the agricultural, manufacturing, domestic, and construction industries, which benefit from the cheap labor force. Victims are coerced into being trafficked through a variety of ways, including the threat of physical and psychological abuse to themselves or their family members (which can include sexual abuse, deprivation of food and sleep, as well as shaming and isolating victims from their family members). Traffickers also abuse the legal system to confuse or manipulate the victims, such as withholding their passports or documents and forcing them to comply with the trafficker’s rules. Immigrants and refugees are especially vulnerable, because they come from another nation, and most of the time, don’t speak the language of the country they are exploited to, are not familiar with that country’s laws, and are also threatened with deportation back to the country they escaped from fearing for their lives.

What protection do people have under the law against being trafficked?

I wanted to include this image to show that the UDHR protects people from being trafficked
Source: Yahoo Images; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights details in Article 4, that all persons are protected from being trafficked, forced into labor, or other forced actions.

Under most nations’ laws, human trafficking is a heinous crime that can result in serious punishment for those who participate in criminal activity. Protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 4,slavery and forced labor are prohibited. States that have ratified the UDHR are under a bounded obligation to protect the rights outlined in the UDHR. The United States has only selectively ratified the rights outlined by the UDHR, and as such, any issues of accountability they might face for any violations of the UDHR can become complicated. The United States does have its own laws against human trafficking, and according to the American state department, they have made it one of their policy priorities. One such legislation passed in 2000 to address this issue was the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which put into place an updated legal framework that focused on the protection, prevention, and prosecution of human trafficking. Additionally, to better define who falls under the victimhood of trafficked individuals, the A-M-P model was proposed, focusing on the Action, (how the trafficker approached the victims), Means, (what strategies the trafficker employed, mainly force, fraud, or coercion), and the Purpose (for sexual exploitation or labor exploitation) for the trafficking of individuals. This framework helped the legal system better understand not only how the people were trafficked, but also defined the why. With all this being said, let us now move on to the issue of two political leaders, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Gregg Abbot of Texas, who engaged in the trafficking of migrants across state borders to stage political stunts, in the process of uprooting the lives of many vulnerable immigrants.

Case of Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis Transporting Migrants Across States

I wanted to include this image because most humans who are trafficked are done so for two reasons: labor or sexual exploitation
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of migrant workers in the field. Many of the immigrants who were trafficked by Abbott and DeSantis were coerced, with false promises of new opportunities.

The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbot, in an attempt to make a political statement regarding the United States immigration policies, began loading up busses full of migrants he picked up at the US-Mexico border to then be transported to the houses of his party’s opponents, such as Vice President Kamala Harris. He also proceeded to send busses into cities that are led by Democrats, such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City, arguing that the borders were not secure enough and that the United States allowed too many immigrants into the country. While this argument is far from the actual truth, Abbot is not the only political leader spouting this hateful rhetoric. The cruel tactics that were used were originally made popular by former president Donald Trump in 2019, who envisioned a much more sinister approach to collect all the “rapists and criminals” and “bus and dump” them in blue states to stoke fears against immigrants. The trafficking of migrants has been put into practice many times since then, by political leaders from his own party acting on the former president’s ideas.

Similarly, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, also put into practice Trump’s “bus and dump” tactic but using a private plane this time, to fly migrants to Massachusetts, a state he claims is a “sanctuary state,” (which means these states or cities have an understood policy, whether written or unwritten, to protect the reporting of immigrants and their status to law enforcement, unless the individual is under investigation for a serious crime). In this latest stunt pulled by DeSantis, with the help of an individual identified as “Perla” (Perla Huerta, who is said to be a former counterintelligence agent for the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq), rounded up 48 migrants in San Antonio, Texas, mostly from Venezuela, and lured them under false pretenses of new opportunities of employment and survival, to board the flight that landed in Martha’s Vineyard. These migrants were handed brochures that came from the Massachusetts Refugee Benefits center (which was made up), and had presented information on the pamphlet which they had copied from the real office for immigration services, Massachusetts Office of Refugee and Immigrants (who had no idea about any of these events). This brochure included “benefits” that the migrants were wrongly led to believe they would be eligible to receive and were flown to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. These benefits included promises of eligibility to receive up to eight months of cash assistance, housing assistance, food, clothing, and transportation assistance, and even help with childcare and education. Not knowing that these were only eligible for documented immigrants that had already been granted asylum, many of the Venezuelan asylum seekers (who had not been granted asylum by the United States) were misinformed and manipulated.

So, what happened to the migrants in both these cases?

Although this is not an image from the recent trafficking incidents, I wanted to include an image of what it looks like when community members come together to help migrants out.
Source: Marty Graham via Yahoo Images; An image of a community coming together to help with the medical needs of the migrant population

Despite the belief by both Abbot and DeSantis that these migrants would not be well-received, the people from the cities where the migrants were dropped off took it upon themselves to ensure that the migrants had adequate food and shelter arrangements as the issues of what to do moving forward were being decided upon. Chicago, one of the cities which received the waves of migrants sent by Governor Abbot, went out of its way to ensure that the migrants’ needs are being met and that they receive the medical care and legal advice they need as they await their fates. Similarly, in Massachusetts, Governor DeSantis’s plan was to drop the migrants off at the foot of a community center and they were told to knock to receive help. No one knew what was happening, but the entire community around Martha’s Vineyard came together to help feed and clothe the migrants. The 48 migrants later ended up at the military base in Cape Cod, using the military’s empty barracks for places to sleep.

If the actions of governors DeSantis and Abbot are run through the A-M-P model discussed earlier, the purpose of these stunts would be the only aspect that might be hard to judge from a legal perspective. The actions the two governors took would clearly fall under the transporting criteria of the first step, and their means would include both fraudulence and coercion for the second step. Although their purpose was of a political nature, they still rounded up migrants through fraudulent means to be migrated forcefully out of their current residence, without a proper place to be sheltered and provided for. While DeSantis dropped the migrants off at Martha’s Vineyard and forced the people there to deal with the aftermath, Abbot transported the migrants to the doorstep of the houses of his party’s political opponents. These actions, if committed by someone, not in a position of political power, would have led to the person facing severe legal repercussions. Yet the two governors have doubled down on their actions, proudly taking responsibility for the stunts, and Abbot even promises that more migrants are on their way, implying that he is not yet finished.

Update: Migrants file lawsuit against DeSantis

United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Source: found via Yahoo Images Public Domain

Still, DeSantis might face some form of accountability for his actions, as the 48 migrants he flew to Martha’s Vineyard have filed a civil lawsuit against him, claiming that in the process, he violated the fourth and fourteenth amendments as well as many federal laws. The attorneys, on behalf of the migrants filing the lawsuit, are calling on DeSantis to be banned from repeating this political stunt again and are asking for DeSantis to pay for the damages caused to the migrants as a result of his actions. DeSantis came out protesting this accusation, claiming that his actions were legal because he had obtained signed consent forms from all the migrants who boarded that plane. He also alleged that this was not an act of coercion but that the migrants willingly took the journey to Martha’s Vineyard. However, most of the migrants claim they did not know where they were being taken to, only that they were promised good employment opportunities and a chance at a better lifestyle. Many of the migrants that were coerced into getting on the plane did not even speak or understand English. Additionally, there have been updates provided that the funds for these political stunts pulled by DeSantis came from public, tax-payer funds, meaning that this is also a case of misappropriation of state funds. Some legal experts are even proposing that these political stunts can be categorized as “kidnapping” because the victims were moved from one place to another without knowledge about where their destination was going to be. We will have to wait and see how this lawsuit plays out, mainly on the issue of whether there will be any accountability for people in positions of political power.

What now?

So, while we await the final verdict from the courts, what can be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again? For one, we could put immense public pressure on the two political leaders using a tactic known as “naming and shaming” to discourage them from pulling similar stunts in the future. However, many people that support these politicians, mainly the Republican base, have applauded the two governors’ behaviors, doubling down on their anti-immigration stances. In a society that continues to become more polarized, “naming and shaming” might have the opposite results than expected. Additionally, another step that can be considered is impeachment, or even banning the two politicians from holding office again. Some people might say this may be a drastic move, but if, as an elected official, you are irresponsible with so many human lives, including those of children, where you think it is okay to treat others with disrespect and ignominy, then you should not be allowed the opportunity to serve a position that would put you in charge of people’s well-being.

Another approach would have to come from the international community, mainly the international criminal courts, in an attempt to hold these individuals accountable for violation of human rights. This too, however, might not be as easy as it seems. For one, the federal courts would have jurisdiction before the international courts, and even still, in 2002, then President George W. Bush “unsigned” the Rome Statute, and a few months later, Congress passed the American Servicemembers Protection Act, which forbade the US from assisting or supporting the ICC or any member states that support the ICC. Further, it granted the president full power over securing the release of any US person, or allies that are held or imprisoned by the ICC. Although there has been renewed interest in revisiting this legislation, from an unlikely individual at that (Lindsey Graham), this support might not extend as far as investigating members of his own party. America has long struggled to hold its political leaders accountable, whether it be for war crimes committed by past presidents, or even for simply acknowledging historical atrocities that have occurred in the nation’s past. However, without proper accountability for these heinous political stunts, the two governors would set a precedent for the worse treatment of migrants in the future.

Pakistan’s Floods : A Humanitarian and Climate Crisis

Source: Abdul Majeed Goraya / IRIN | www.irinnews.org

One third of Pakistan is underwater following disaster-level floods that have ravaged the country since mid June of 2022. The flooding is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, bringing climate change and environmental justice into the focus of conversations about why the floods are so devastating. The record-breaking monsoon rains have affected 33 million citizens, leaving millions displaced and threatening the economy by washing away the fall harvest and essential farmland. Pakistan’s most vulnerable are struggling to access the scarce aid that is available, including the 19 million children affected by the floods. It is an unprecedented, once in a century crisis event exacerbated by climate change, poor infrastructure, and the damages of the recent economic crisis prior to the flooding.

Source: Oxfam International via Flickr

Direct Impact of the Floods: Hunger, Disease and Displacement.

The monsoon rains have killed over a thousand people, roughly 400 of which are children. However, hunger, thirst, disease, and shortages of essential supplies threaten the lives of even more; millions of Pakistani people have been displaced over the course of the floods since June. The United Nations Refugee Agency has estimated that 6.4 million people are in need of immediate support. 

Any discussion of rebuilding has been shelved in submerged regions as the flood waters may not recede for months, leaving the thousands of kilometers of roads, tens of thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of homes, thousands of essential healthcare facilities destroyed by floodwater, and prior residents stranded or displaced. In addition to the initial death toll from the floods, the Pakistani people are facing immediate dangers of water borne disease, lack of access to food, water and shelter, and risks of violence; especially for women, children, and minority groups.

The country’s health system has faced substantial blows, both from loss of structures and supplies caused by the flood and the overwhelming need of those affected. Dehydration, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and dengue fever are ravaging make-shift camps as the flood waters become stagnant and clean water and sanitary supplies become harder to come by. Sindh Province, the second-most populated province in Pakistan, and one of the hardest-hit by the floods, has seen over 300 deaths from water borne-diseases since July.  Early disease surveillance by the WHO has revealed that tens of thousands of cases of flood water-caused diseases are already present amongst those within reach of relief efforts. Countless villages remain stranded as roads and highways are underwater, so the true number of deaths, displaced persons, diseased, and persons otherwise impacted by these crises are expected to climb as more recovery efforts continue to search the flooded regions. 

Without international aid and intervention, an epidemic of disease caused by the floods will cause a second wave of deaths in Pakistan, of which the elderly, children, and pregnant women will be the largest groups facing losses. International aid, medical and humanitarian organizations have joined the Pakistani government and are regularly dropping medical supplies, malaria nets, food and provisional shelters, but the need continues to grow as more people find their way to temporary camps and the rate of disease climbs. 

Source: Oxfam International Via Flickr

Human Rights & The Most Vulnerable

A nation’s most vulnerable populations are often the ones who suffer the worst effects for the longest time after a natural disaster like these floods. For Pakistan, those vulnerable groups are women, children, the Khwaja Sira (transgender) community, those living in extreme poverty, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups. Typically, socially disadvantaged groups are living in regions with lesser infrastructure, facing the initial worst impacts of natural disasters, but marginalized status often leads to upwards battles to access humanitarian aid after the disaster as well. There are estimated to be 650,000 pregnant women displaced in Pakistan right now, in urgent need of maternal health care and safe, sterile facilities to give birth in, with many taking perilous journeys in hopes of reaching a hospital or safe places to give birth.

CARE, an international human rights and social justice organization, spoke on this concern. Pakistan Country Director for CARE, Adil Sheraz said, “With entire villages washed away, families broken up and many people sleeping under the sky, the usual social structures that keep people safe have fallen away, and this can be very dangerous for women and girls.” 

Following the 2010 floods in Pakistan, denial of aid and violence against minorities became a prevalent issue and large protests against law enforcement arose due to their failure to protect vulnerable groups. Preventative measures against recurrence of these issues have been few and far between since 2010, and international human rights communities are on high alert for rising reports of discrimination in relief distribution and crimes against minorities. Reports of sexual violence have already increased following the floods.

In addition to some of the most vulnerable Pakistanis are roughly 800,000 Afghani refugees who have been hosted by Pakistan in Sindh and Balochistan; two provinces faced with the worst of the flooding and submersion. Pakistan has a deep history of offering asylum and refuge for those fleeing across the border from conflict in Afghanistan, and is home to 1.4 million Afghani refugees currently in 2022. Following the August 2021 withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate government (also known as the Taliban), Pakistan became an even more essential haven for the influx of refugees fleeing a violent authoritarian regime. In the wake of this natural disaster, the loss of $30 billion dollars worth of infrastructure, homes and supplies, and facing an economic crisis, Afghani people with hopes of finding refuge in Pakistan must now find new routes to safety. 

Source: Ali Hyder Junejo

Environmental Justice & Climate Change

Though Pakistan faces annual flooding of the Indus river from heavy rains in monsoon season, record breaking rains preceded by an extended heatwave contributed to an unrivaled degree of flooding this summer. Heatwaves brought temperatures around 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit) to India and Pakistan between March and May of this year. Monsoon rains followed the spring heatwaves, and in the regions of Sindh and Balochistan rainfall reached 500% above average. The 2022 floods will leave a significant economic, infrastructural, and humanitarian impact on the country of roughly 220 million people. The reason for the dramatic influx in severity is complex, but simple at its core: climate change.

Pakistan is facing an unfair share of the consequences of climate change; while it was responsible for only .3% of global CO2 emissions in 2020, it is likely that this year’s heatwaves and floods will be on the less severe end of what is to come. The United Nations has deemed Pakistan a “climate change hotspot”, stating that people in South Asia are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts. As the global temperature rises and geohazards become more extreme, disaster-prone regions like Pakistan will face more and more devastation. The best prognosis for the region comes with prevention efforts like strengthening anti-disaster infrastructures. As the global north is responsible for 92% of excess emissions contributing to global warming and climate change, Pakistan, the United Nations, and other international agencies are calling for countries like the United States to make increased contributions to relief funds and infrastructure development overseas.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while visiting Pakistan in September 2022, said, “…the fact is that we are already living in a world where climate change is acting in such a devastating way. So, there must be massive support to what usually is called adaptation, which means to build resilient infrastructure and to support resilient communities and to create conditions for those that are in the hotspots of climate change. Pakistan is one of the hotspots of climate change. For those countries to be able to prepare for the next disaster and to be able to resist the next disaster, this needs a huge investment and this investment needs to be provided.”

Relief & Aid

Pakistan has faced an overwhelming series of calamities since the start of this year, and the impacts from these disasters are greatly exacerbated by food shortages and an economic crisis prior to the start of the disasters in March. There are millions of people in need of aid, and every bit of support helps. If you are unable to financially contribute, please consider sharing this or other articles about this crisis to increase international attention on those who need our help.

For donations of money, time, or other resources, we have compiled some reputable aid agencies below:

  • Pakistan’s Red Crescent Society is providing clean drinking water, medical treatments, temporary housing, and other essential aid across flood-hit regions. Donate or get involved with their flood response efforts here.
  • The United Nations Refugee Agency has provided millions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, and you can contribute here to support their continued relief efforts.
  • The International Medical Corps are on the ground in Pakistan, providing medical care and responses to both the floods and gender-based violence across the country. Find out more & how you can donate here.
  • Muslim Aid has reached over 29,000 people in three affected districts of Pakistan, providing hygiene kits, shelter, and essentials to those in need. Contribute to their fund here.

The Economic Status of Transgender People in India

Hijra communities in India form their own chosen families. Source: Yahoo! images

Imagine discovering that your internal identity does not align with the way that your body looks or the way that you are perceived by society. Because you recognize this internal dichotomy, the society you know and love treats you as an outcast. You are regarded as less than human. Your family abuses you for pursuing a physical body and social presentation that aligns with your internal identity. Society at large is structured in a way that makes it relatively impossible to get a formal job or make money in a safe way. Transgender people in India experience this every day.

A. Revathi is an activist for the rights of transgender people and other gender and sexual minorities in India. In her book, A Life in Trans Activism, she details many struggles she faced while navigating the economic system of India. Most transgender people in India work in the informal spheres of sex work and street begging, but a lucky few find low-salary jobs at LGBTQ+ Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or service places.

A picture of an Indian woman named Revathi wearing a maroon saree with gold jewelry. She has a gold stud in her nostril piercing and a red bindi between her eyebrows. White text reads, “A Life in Trans Activism, A. Revathi as told to Nandini Murali”
The cover of the aforementioned book. Source: Rēvati, and Nandini Murali. A Life in Trans Activism. Zubaan, 2016.

Because of the prejudices and stereotypes held by many employers within India, transgender people are often discriminated against in the formal sphere. If a man comes in for an interview, and his documentation still has an F sex marker, the employer will know that he is transgender and all prejudices and stereotypes that they hold will then apply to the man searching for a job. The process of changing one’s sex marker on official documents is a complicated and grueling process for transgender people, which makes it almost impossible to go stealth* in one’s workplace. It was this lack of economic mobility that lead Revathi, and many others like her to the streets for sex work.

*Stealth (adj.) – describing a transgender person who presents themself as a cisgender member of the gender they identify as, often to avoid discrimination. For example, a male-to-female (MTF) transwoman presents as a cisgender woman and keeps her trans identity a secret to avoid violence.

In India, self-employed sex work is legal, but many police officers will find other reasons to accuse sex workers of crimes like loitering or stealing, whether the accusations are true or not. The general public tends to accuse them of stealing in order to demonize them or try to get them off the streets, which often leads to violent confrontations with community members and the police. During sex work, Revathi, like many transgender women, was often put into dangerous situations with the public as a result of the deeply rooted stigma surrounding transgender people. She experienced sexual assault, public abuse, and was sometimes not paid for her services. Most transgender sex workers must be very careful to keep their identities as transgender silent because many face violence if they are outed.** On the other hand, when outed, some people receive dehumanization in the form of fetishization which results in more violence and less pay.

**To out someone (v.) – to reveal someone’s sexuality or gender identity without their permission or control, often leading to dangerous situations for them.

Economic Consequences

The few that find jobs, often at LGBTQ+ organizations, are often paid less and treated with disrespect by their colleagues and employers. While reading A Life in Trans Activism, a pattern stuck out to me. I would like to call this something like “The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality.”

  1. The formal work of a certain group of people is undervalued and/or ridiculed by society.
  2. The marginalized group then internalizes this as a reflection of their character and feels as though they have “something to prove” while working in the formal sphere.
  3. They then work harder and accept lower pay than their colleagues.
  4. Co-workers and employers take advantage of their willingness to work hard for lower salaries and disrespect their work-life boundaries.
  5. The disrespect becomes a foundational aspect of their workspace, and transgender people feel and live subserviently to society. The cycle repeats.

The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality can apply to any group of people whose work is undervalued. We see this in the American workforce with Black employees. There is a widely-held stereotype in America that Black people are “lazy workers” because of their lack of sufficient economic mobility. Employers internalize this and hold Black workers to a higher standard in which they must “prove themselves” as hard workers. It is often the case that Black employees work twice as hard as their White counterparts and are still undervalued by their employers and colleagues. They internalize this as a reflection of themselves and work harder and harder for less and less. This phenomenon is not only manifested in the salary gap between races, but also in the levels of worker burnout and unemployment rates.

A bar chart showing “Unemployment Rates by Race and Age, 2016”. On the y axis is 0-30% representing unemployment rates, and on the x axis is age groups from 16 to 70+. For each age range, there are two different bars representing Black and White workers. The highest unemployment rate is 16-19 year olds with Black youth at around 27% and White youth around 14%. Both statistics slowly fall before plateauing at around the 40-44 age range, with Black workers at around 6.5% and White workers at around 3.5%. These statistics stay pretty consistent for the rest of the chart, if not a slight dip around the age ranges 50-60.
Statistics show much higher unemployment rates for Black individuals in every age range. Source: Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics

A. Revathi experienced the Vicious Cycle herself while working as an openly transgender woman at an LGBTQ+ NGO in India called Sangama. Even while she was head director of multiple subsections of the NGO, she experienced disrespect from the staff she was directing. Here, Revathi reflects on her experience:

“[Sangama staff] were well behaved with [past directors] and respected boundaries. However, with me, they were very different. They would storm into my cabin and argue endlessly with me, often in very rude or offensive language. They demanded prompt promotions, increases in salaries, and crowded my working hours with endless demands and trivial things, which they could have handled themselves.” (Rēvati, 110) 

Revathi charitably credits this to her open-door policy and her show of belief that hierarchies in workplaces were solely for accounting purposes, and should not reflect upon the social interactions of the staff. I suspect that the main reason that she has these policies and beliefs is that her work has been consistently undervalued and she has internalized that she will never be seen as “above” anyone else in her workplace. By setting and enforcing certain boundaries with her staff, she would have to acknowledge that she is above them in the workplace. This would break the social contract that says that she is always on the base of the metaphorical pyramid because of her transgender identity.

Government Progress (or lack thereof)

A large group of mostly women in colorful saris, jewelry, and makeup gather together with black signs with white text. One reads, "Protect the Rights of Transgender Community".
Transgender Indian protesters gather to fight for the implementation of policies that protect their rights. Source: Yahoo! images

The Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2014 to create a third gender category called “hijra” which would be inclusive of gender nonconforming and transgender individuals. People in this category were legally categorized as an “other backward class” or OBC. Job reservations were made for people of OBCs in an attempt to improve the economic status of transgender people. Read more about this ruling here. 

In addition to this ruling, in 2019 the “Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill” was passed, which served as an anti-discrimination bill meant to improve the status of transgender people in education and the workforce. It was faced with backlash from the trans community because it required a person to submit proof of gender reassignment surgery to the government before being able to change their gender marker legally. This type of policy is called trans-medicalism*** and is exclusive and harshly binary. Read more about this bill here.

***Trans-medicalism (n.) – the idea that one must medically transition, in other words: go through gender reassignment surgery, in order to be a valid member of the transgender community. 

Although these actions were well-intended, neither the 2014 ruling nor the 2019 bill has been well enforced. They have been inefficient in changing the economic and educational statuses of transgender people. Employers still have room to discriminate against workers. Sex workers are still treated horrifically and inhumanely in the streets. Transgender employees are still disrespected in their workplaces and have low opportunities for economic mobility. One of the problems with these actions is that they are both “top-down” approaches, which start with government implementation and slowly trickle down into cultural changes and real-life improvements for transgender people. Many recommend a “bottom-up” approach, which begins with radical cultural shifts and builds its way up to government implementation. While both are valuable, the “bottom-up” approach is more efficient in creating quicker social change for people genuinely affected by the social issues at hand. 

Iranian Women Burn Hijabs in Response to Killing of Mahsa Amini

Imagine living in a world where a woman showing her hair is considered “immoral” but killing a woman for showing her hair is not. Unfortunately for Mahsa Amini, that is the world we live in. On September 14th 2022, the 22-year-old was visiting the Iranian capital of Tehran with her family when she was arrested by Iran’s police. The reason for her arrest was wearing an “improper” hijab that did not adhere to the strict Islamic dress code laws. While in custody, she was beaten within an inch of her life and was comatose before being pronounced dead the following day. Iranian officials claim she died of a heart attack while in custody.

A protestor holds up a photo of Masha Amini
Source: Flickr

 

Public outcry

The Iranian government is implying that a dress code carries more significance than a young woman’s life. However, many Iranians disagree. In fact, women across the country have started publicly removing and burning their hijabs in protest. Burning head scarves is a powerful display that highlights the demand to end mandatory hijab laws. It is a direct objection to the controlling state’s policing of women’s bodies. Many people have taken to the streets to protest this blatant violation of human rights. Article 3 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Iranian women’s liberty is in grave danger. Under Iran’s authoritarian regime, personal freedoms and the right to choose are in grave jeopardy. During the protests on September 21, Iran’s armed forces shot and killed more than 8 individuals. In the last 5 days, 15 protestors have died as a result of direct fire from government forces, with an additional 733 people injured and dozens imprisoned.

 

Morality Police History

Iranian authorities have a long history of violent and inhumane enforcement of dress codes, specifically, compulsory veiling. This can be traced back to the Islamic dress code, a strict dress code that requires women to conceal their hair and neck with a head scarf and to cover their body. This law has been in effect in Iran since 1979, after Iran’s Islamic Revolution. The “Gasht-e-Ershad,” which translates as “guidance patrols”, patrol the streets of Iran enforcing these laws. They arrest individuals they deem in violation of this law, including women who do not adhere to the strict concealment of their body. In 2017, dozens of women removed their hijabs in defiance of the dress code. They waved their white hijabs standing on utility boxes. Since then, the morality police have taken severe measures to prevent women from disobeying the dress code. The arrests often involve verbal abuse and physical violence, targeting women and girls as young as 9 years old. Violent videos have emerged on social media depicting the “morality” agents forcefully detaining women, dragging them by their hair, administering beating with batons, and even spraying them with pepper spray.

A woman cuts her hair
Source: Flickr

Protests Are Not Anti-Islamic

The presence of the morality police is a violation of freedom and dignity of the women in Iran. Western practitioners of Islam may misconceive these acts of protest as an attack on Islam. However, these individuals have the freedom to choose their religion; they are not forced to adhere to religiously influenced governmental action. It is important to make the distinction between burning symbols of the state and disrespecting religion. To many Iranian women, the mandatory hijab enforcement is not a religious symbol, but rather a symbol of their oppression. These protests are the result of religious trauma and not Islamophobia. This movement is not Anti-Islamic, but pro-liberty. Citizens across the nation are fighting against the unjust criminalization of women due to the strict, mandatory dress code. They are fighting against an authoritarian regime that weaponizes Islam as a tool of oppression.

What Can You Do

Protestors hold a sign that says "Say Her Name #MASHAAMINI"
Source: Flickr

The courage and solidarity these women are showing is quite moving. This may serve as a catalyst for the liberation of women around the world. As of now, Instagram is blocked in Iran. However, these activists’ valiant efforts will not be stifled. Now the baton passes to us. We must amplify their voices and raise awareness about the atrocities endured by these women by sharing hashtags and saying her name: Mahsa Amini. Follow these informative accounts and repost their posts:
@middleeastmatters
@masih.alineejad
@farnanak_amidi
@golfarahani
@negah_amirii
@duzenetekkal
Use this link to help people in Iran bypass the internet blockade Middle East Matters (mideastmatters.carrd.co). Donate to United for Iran and help fund the app Gershad that alerts woman the whereabouts of the morality police and protects women across Iran from unjust arrest. Everyone is entitled the most basic human right of choice. Women all around the world should be at liberty to wear what they want without fear of jeopardizing their lives.

A Bright Future – Recent Human Rights Victories

Source: Yahoo Images, Unknown Artist

In the midst of a pandemic and international unrest, it is vital to stay encouraged and optimistic as we continue our efforts to uphold and protect human rights internationally. That is why we at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB will be using this article to break up the negative news cycle and put a spotlight on a few of the amazing victories and progress the international community has made during the pandemic that you might not have heard about. Though positive human rights news may not always make headlines, it is important to recognize each success, just as it is vital we address each issue. 

Source: Quentin Meulepas via Flickr

The UN Declares Access to a Clean Environment is a Universal Human Right – July 2022

Of the 193 states in the United Nations general assembly, 161 voted in favor of a climate resolution that declares that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right; one that was not included in the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. While the resolution is not legally binding, it is expected that it will hugely impact international human rights law in the future and strengthen international efforts to protect our environment. Climate justice is now synonymous with upholding human rights for the citizens of member-states, and the United Nations goal is that this decision will encourage nations to prioritize environmental programs moving forwards.

Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea Abolish the Death Penalty- January 2022

Kazakhstan became the 109th country to remove the death penalty for all crimes, a major progress coming less than 20 years after life imprisonment was introduced within the country as an alternative punishment in 2004. In addition to the national abolition,  President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has signed the parliamentary ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the ICCPR declares that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of life”, but the Second Optional Protocol takes additional steps to hold countries accountable by banning the death penalty within their nation. Though the ICCPR has been ratified or acceded by 173 states, only 90 have elected to be internationally bound to the Second Optional Protocol (the total abolition of the death penalty), and Kazakhstan is the most recent nation to join the international movement to abolish the death penalty globally. 

Papua New Guinea also abolished their capital punishment, attributing the abolishment to the Christian beliefs of their nation and inability to perform executions in a humane way. The 40 people on death row at the time of the abolishment have had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. Papua New Guinea is yet to sign or ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, but by eliminating the death penalty nationwide the country has still taken a significant step towards preserving their citizens right to life. 

Source: Randeep Maddoke via Wikimedia

India Repeals Harmful Farm Plan – November 2021

Many of you will remember seeing international headlines of the violent protests following India’s decision to pass three harmful farming laws in 2020. The legislation, passed in the height of the pandemic, left small farmers extremely vulnerable and threatened the entire food chain of India. Among many other protections subject to elimination under the farm laws was the nations Minimum Support Price (MSP), which allowed farmers to sell their crops to government affiliated organizations for what policymakers determined to be the necessary minimum for them to support themselves from the harvest. Without the MSP, a choice few corporations would be able to place purchasing value of these crops at an unreasonably low price that would ruin the already meager profits small farmers glean from the staple crops, and families too far away from wholesalers would be unable to sell their crops at all. 

Any threats to small farms in India are a major issue because, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in India”. In addition, the FAO reported 70% of rural households depend on agriculture and 82% of farms in India are considered small; making these laws impact a significant amount of the nation’s population.  A year of protests from farmers unions followed that resulted in 600 deaths and international outcries to protect farmers pushed the Indian government to meet with unions and discuss their demands. An enormous human rights victory followed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in November of 2021 that they would rollback the laws, and on November 30 the Indian Parliament passed a bill to cancel the reforms. As the end of 2021 approached, farmers left the capital and returned home for the first time in months, having succeeded at protecting their families and their livelihoods.

Source: Sebastian Baryli via Flickr

Sudan Criminalizes Female Genital Mutilation – May 2020

Making history, Sudan became one of 28 African nations to criminalize female genital mutilation / Circumcision (FGM/C), an extremely dangerous practice that an estimated 200 million woman alive today have undergone. It is a multicultural practice that can be attributed to religion, sexual purity, social acceptance and misinformation about female hygiene that causes an onslaught of complications depending on the type of FGM/C performed and the conditions the operation is performed in. Among the consequences are infections, hemorrhage, chronic and severe pain, complications with childbirth, and immense psychological distress. It also causes many deaths from bleeding out during the operation or severe complications later in life. We have published a detailed article about female genital mutilations, gender inequality and the culture around FGM before, which you can find here

FGM/C is a prevalent women’s rights issue in Africa, and in Sudan 87% of women between the ages of 14 and 49 have experienced some form of “the cut”. While some Sudanese states have previously passed FGM/C bans, they were ignored by the general population without enforcement from a unified, national legislature. This new ban will target those performing the operations with a punishment of up to three years in jail in the hopes of protecting young women from the health and social risks that come from a cultural norm of genital mutilation and circumcision.

Where do we go from here?

While we have many incredible victories to celebrate today, local and international human rights groups will continue to expose injustices and fight for a safer and more equal future for all people. Our goal at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB is to educate; to inform readers about injustices and how they can get involved, and to celebrate with our incredible community when we have good news to share! While the past year has been marked with incredible hardships, it is always exciting when we have heart-warming international progress to share!

You can find more information about us, including free speaker events and our Social Justice Cafes on our Instagram page @uab_ihr! Share which of these positive stories you found most interesting in our comments, and feel free to DM us with human rights news you would like us to cover!

Rights of Women vs. Rights of the Unborn?

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect the official position of UAB or the Institute for Human Rights.

Woman holding her pregnant belly in B/W.
Source: Creative Commons.

On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that allowed women access to abortion. The majority opinion, supported by the Court’s 6 conservative justices, reads (p. 79 of the Opinion of the Court):

“The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority.  We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives.”

We talked about the history of legal access to abortion, Roe v. Wade, and the consequences of overturning the case in a blog post published a couple of weeks ago.

Obviously, what’s happening is directly related to human rights. Interestingly, both the “pro-life” movement, arguing in favor of restricting abortion access, and the “pro-choice” position, contending it’s a woman’s right to choose what’s happening to her body, use human rights language to justify their positions.

The question about abortion is, fundamentally, a question about the “right to life.” But whose right to life are we talking about? If you listen to anti-abortion activists, it’s about the life and rights of the unborn. If you follow the women’s rights argument, it’s about the life and rights of women and girls. What rights do women have according to human rights and what rights belong to unborn children, fetuses, embryos, and fertilized eggs? For the sake of this article, I will use “the unborn” to refer to the different statuses of gestation, recognizing that different gestation stages might have different legal implications regarding the termination of pregnancy. I also use the terms “women” or “woman” to refer to pregnant people, acknowledging that not all people who become pregnant identify as women. I chose to do so in line with language used in court decisions (domestic and international), legal and policy documents, and literature, which mostly use the term “women” when discussing abortion and reproductive rights. I also aim to disconnect my argument from the moral opinions of abortion and focus solely on what human rights law and policy have to say on the issue.

Let’s take a closer look.

Women’s rights and abortion

According to the UN, women’s rights include the rights to “equality, to dignity, autonomy, information and bodily integrity and respect for private life and the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health, without discrimination; as well as the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” This means that a girl or woman has the right to make her own decisions over her body, including in matters relating to her reproductive health, which lies at the very core of a woman’s right to equality, privacy, and physical and psychological integrity. Women’s rights have been well established internationally through a variety of documents and treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Sustainable Development Goals, and some of the basic human rights documents acknowledging the equality of men and women (e.g., Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the U.S. is a state party). Domestically, women’s rights are enshrined, among others, in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote, Title IX protections, and in court cases such as Roe v. Wade.

According to the WHO, unsafe abortion is the third leading cause of maternal mortality and morbidity. Unsafe abortion is defined  as a procedure for terminating an unwanted pregnancy either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking minimal medical standards or both. Every year, about 25 million or 45% of all abortions worldwide are performed in a hazardous environment and lead to close to 50,000 deaths and temporary or permanent disability of 5 million additional women. There is a high discrepancy in unsafe abortion rates depending on the legal environment guiding termination of pregnancy: in countries where abortion is completely banned or only allowed to save a woman’s life, over 75% of abortions were unsafe as opposed to 10% of unsafe abortions in countries where abortion is legal.

Many studies in the U.S. and around the world have shown that legal restrictions on abortions do not result in fewer abortions or increases in birth rates. Equally, countries legalizing abortions do not experience higher abortion numbers or increased abortion rates. What does happen when abortion is criminalized is an increase in unsafe abortions, which leads to higher maternal mortality and affects everyday life for women. Unmarried and economically disadvantaged women are especially affected by abortion bans, thereby further marginalizing them and putting them at risk of injury and death. In places where abortion is legal and can be performed on a woman’s request, and where safe services are available, unsafe abortion and abortion-related mortality are reduced

The figure below shows the impact of abortion bans on unsafe abortions:

Graphic showing deaths attributable to unsafe abortions
Deaths attributable to unsafe abortion per 100 000 live births, by legal grounds for abortion. From https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/70914/9789241548434_eng.pdf

The recent Supreme Court decision will have severe consequences on a woman’s right to life, physical and mental integrity, health, privacy, and inhuman and degrading treatment in states like Alabama that restrict access to abortion or outlaw it in any case. As the three dissenting Justices point out (p. 2 of the Dissent):

“[The Court] says that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of.”

Based on above evidence it is likely that the rate of unsafe abortions and deaths of women in the U.S. will increase.

Rights of the unborn

With the unborn, the question is not so much about life, but about personhood. There is no agreed definition of when personhood begins. Across history and different cultures and religions, it has been argued that fetuses acquire personhood at conception, at various stages of pregnancy, at birth, or even after birth following the completion of traditional rituals. Philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, and legal scholars tend to disagree widely on this subject, as does the general public. Particularly influential was Pope Pius IX’s declaration in 1869 that ensoulment occurs at conception as opposed to at “quickening”(when the mother detects the child moving for the first time), which was the Catholic teaching before that point.  This laid the groundwork for restrictive legislation on abortion and contraception that still exists in some countries today.

The question of when personhood begins also found its way into major human rights documents. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely recognized human rights document, states in Article 1:

“[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” (emphasis by author)

making it seemingly clear that human rights, including the right to life, begin at birth. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the legally binding human rights treaty based on the UDHR, however, states in Article 6 that

“[e]very human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

Similar wording is used in the European Convention on Human Rights (“[e]very person has the right to life” (Article 2)) and in the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights (“every human being shall be entitled to respect for his life” (Article 4). The word “born” is no longer mentioned in these cases.

Somewhat ambiguous is the Convention on the Rights of the Child: It states in its Preamble that “the child… needs… appropriate legal protection before as well as after birth.” However, this is later qualified by Article 24 (health), Article 6 (life), and Article 3 (best interest of the child), which puts the rights of a pregnant girl over that of its fetus. For explanation, preambles can only be used for contextual interpretation of a treaty and do not develop legal effect like articles do.

The only general international human rights instrument that explicitly extends the right to life to the unborn is the American Convention on Human Rights. It states in Article 4: “Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

This first look makes it, therefore, seem unclear what international human rights law actually has to say about the right of the unborn. Discussions over the wording of Article 6 (right to life) of the ICCPR in 1957 shed some light on the most common arguments both in favor and against a right to life for the unborn: to protect human life at maximum capacity, the right to life starts at conception, which is what Belgium, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, and Morocco argued for during the negotiation of the article. The majority of states, however, rejected this interpretation on the grounds that it would be scientifically impossible to determine the exact moment of most conceptions. In addition, some states argued that such an interpretation of the right to life at conception would impede on fundamental women’s rights, especially a woman’s right to life, health, and physical and psychological integrity. Most developed countries liberalized abortion laws between 1950 and 1985, citing women’s rights, equality, health, and safety, thereby embracing the idea that personhood is not established until birth.

Girl with pink hat
Source: Ciprian Silviu Ionescu, Creative Commons 

How do we solve this apparent tension between women’s rights and rights of the unborn?

To answer this question, we need to dig a little bit deeper and look at the interpretations of the right to life by international lawyers, case law, and reports issued by international human rights bodies. A clearer picture emerges when doing so: the right to life of born persons and fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination requires that rights of pregnant women supersede interests of protecting the life in formation.

The precedence of the rights of women over the rights of the unborn was reaffirmed most recently and very prominently by the Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts monitoring the implementation of the ICCPR, the most globally recognized and authoritative human rights treaty on the issue (the U.S. is a state party). After intense debate on the issue of the right to life of the unborn, women’s rights, and abortion, the Committee agreed that:

Although States parties may adopt measures designed to regulate voluntary terminations of pregnancy, such measures must not result in violation of the right to life of a pregnant woman or girl, or her other rights under the Covenant. Thus, restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering which violates article 7, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy. States parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, or where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable. In addition, States parties may not regulate pregnancy or abortion in all other cases in a manner that runs contrary to their duty to ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions, and they should revise their abortion laws accordingly. For example, they should not take measures such as criminalizing pregnancies by unmarried women or apply criminal sanctions against women and girls undergoing abortion or against medical service providers assisting them in doing so, since taking such measures compel women and girls to resort to unsafe abortion. States parties should not introduce new barriers and should remove existing barriers that deny effective access by women and girls to safe and legal abortion, including barriers caused as a result of the exercise of conscientious objection by individual medical providers. States parties should also effectively protect the lives of women and girls against the mental and physical health risks associated with unsafe abortions. In particular, they should ensure access for women and men, and, especially, girls and boys, to quality and evidence-based information and education about sexual and reproductive health and to a wide range of affordable contraceptive methods, and prevent the stigmatization of women and girls seeking abortion. States parties should ensure the availability of, and effective access to, quality prenatal and post-abortion health care for women and girls, in all circumstances, and on a confidential basis. (footnotes omitted)

To make it a little easier on you, let me summarize: overall, this is a strong affirmation of abortion as essential in ensuring the life of women and girls because of the above-mentioned impact on maternal mortality and morbidity. Unambiguously, the Human Rights Committee confirmed that:

  • Safe, legal, and effective access to abortion is a human right protected under the ICCPR.
  • Preventable deaths of women and girls constitute a violation of the right to life.
  • Restriction on access to abortion can amount to torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, discrimination, and violation of women’s privacy.
  • The right to life under the ICCPR begins at birth.

In addition, the Committee imposed strong obligations on states to protect women’s and girls’ right to life, including:

  • To ensure effective access to safe, legal abortion in cases in which the life or health (mental or physical) of the woman or girl is in danger, the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or the pregnancy is not viable.
  • To remove barriers that deny effective access to safe abortions and to protect the lives of women and girls against the physical and mental threats of unsafe abortion.
  • To discontinue the criminalization of pregnancies by unmarried women or of women undergoing an abortion or medical service providers assisting them in doing so.
  • To offer access to sexual and reproductive health education, contraception, and healthcare for women during pregnancy and post-abortion.
  • To revise their abortion laws to take above points into account.

This is affirmed by various other human rights mechanisms, such as the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which stated that “[u]nder international law, analyses of major international human rights treaties on the right to life confirm that it does not extend to foetuses.” In addition, different UN Committees and experts have argued that criminalization and lack of access to abortion is a violation of the right to lifea form of gender-based violence, a form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, a violation of the right to privacy, a breach of the principle of non-discrimination, and even a form of femicide. Consensus also exists on the need to legalize termination of pregnancy for children under the age of 18. All in all, these reports, decisions, and statements, among others[1],reaffirm the calls for decriminalization of abortion and legalization of abortion in cases in which the life or physical/mental health of the pregnant woman is threatened or in cases of rape, incest, or fatal or severe fetal impairment. Similarly, regional human rights courts have been reluctant to assign personhood to the unborn and even the Inter-American Court for Human Rights decided the protection of the right to life for the unborn should not be considered absolute.

So where does this leave us?

It seems that in the current political discourse, we assume a symmetrical balance between the right to life of two entities: the woman and the unborn. From the above considerations, it is pretty clear that in human rights law, this is not the case. In fact, the protection of the unborn in international human rights law is very thin, to say the least. By contrast, the right to life, health, physical and mental integrity, non-discrimination, and equality of women is well-established and comparatively clear cut. Interventions on behalf of future persons may not violate the rights of the born person, namely the pregnant woman in whose womb the gestation occurs. The rights of a born person trump the rights of the unborn person.

 

 

 

[1]See, among others, additional Human Rights Committee decisions (e.g., Whelan v. Ireland, Mellet v. Ireland, and VDA v. Argentina), CEDAW decisions (e.g,L.C. v. Peruand K.L. v. Peru), CEDAW General Comment 35 (gender-based violence), General Comment 22 (calling on states to decriminalize abortion and guarantee women equal rights, non-discrimination, and autonomy), reports by the Committee on Torture linking deaths of girls and women from unsafe abortion to right to life, or the 2016 and 2017 reports by the Special Rapporteur Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.