Women’s Education in Afghanistan

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, a bleak future dawned on girls and women across the country. Despite the Taliban’s promise to be supportive of women’s goals under Islamic law, the deadly crackdown on the progress of women’s rights has already begun.  

The Taliban regime, like the older one that ruled from 1990-2001, upon capturing the capital, shut down the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for Protection of Virtue and Vice. Later, they announced that women cannot go out in public without a male relative or without being fully covered, and female workers have been instructed to stay home. Education, politics, sports, freedom of expression, and whatever else requires women venturing outside with a voice has been banned by the government, punished by beatings or floggings.  

Afghan Women in Veils
Afghan women in veils with the words “Taliban vow to respect women We can still see We can still watch We can still notice We will no longer accept.” Source: Flickr

Education and Occupations 

Girls’ education in Afghanistan took a lot of effort to achieve, but many obstacles, specifically financial security and accessibility, still stand in the way. Knowledge gives individuals mobility and power to decide their future for themselves — a source of pride that Afghan women have fought for. In Afghan villages and cities alike, many women and girls would work for low wages in poor conditions to finance their education, and now these efforts and opportunities have been ripped away.  

Pride is now fear. After the fall of the Afghan cities Kabul and Herat, the Taliban prohibited girls over 6th grade from attending school and segregated universities between genders. Boys were allowed back weeks ago, but no indication was given to girls — a silence that told them to stay home. The regime previously stated that education will resume under the laws of Islam. Even if girls can go back to school, they may not learn certain subjects such as engineering, vocational education, cooking, and government studies.  

Dreams of becoming pilots, surgeons, activists, and lawmakers have evaporated for Afghan girls, and women already educated under a democratically controlled Afghanistan are seeing their lives turn on their heads. A university student who was supposed to graduate with two degrees from the American University of Afghanistan and Kabul University frustratedly remarked that she must hide any IDs, diplomas, and all evidence that she received a higher education, throwing away decades of work for her career. If she does not do so, she risks the lives of herself and her entire family. 

A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Source: Flickr

The Taliban is not their only issue, however. Many female political figures remaining in Afghanistan fear retaliation from men they jailed or sentenced. Despite the years of progress since the last Taliban occupation, women in powerful roles still made men in Afghanistan uncomfortable. The Taliban has not instituted strict restrictions on law and order  allowing incidents of physical and sexual violence against women to increase. 

Female Workers 

Women have taken to streets demanding their rights back as the Taliban prepares to deal with international questioning for their rise to power. Although once numerous after the fall of Kabul and Herat, protests are now few and far between. Organized protests were broken up by the Taliban’s gunshots, beatings, and killings in early September, effectively dampening the morale of activists. Now, the regime demands prior registration with a detailed account of the event and any slogans that are to be chanted, decreasing the right to assembly in the nation. 

Female journalists, teachers, activists, and especially judges are also being targeted by the oppressive regime. It is common practice for the Taliban to break into homes of instrumental feminist voices and threaten their families, and the United States’ promise to protect Afghan women activists from the Taliban has fallen flat.  

Former Afghan legislator Fawzia Koofi fled Afghanistan to Qatar after she was placed under house arrest and guarded day and night by the Taliban. Parliament members Shagufa Noorzai and Homa Ahmadi escaped to Athens, Greece, along with 177 other high profile female lawyers and judges with help from the Melissa Network and Human Rights 360. Even though activists like Koofiand Noorzai are far from their home country, they have already started networking to protect the rights of women and girls from where they are. 

In late August, 15 members of the inspiring 20-member Afghan Dreamers fled Afghanistan, with 10 arriving safely in Mexico City, Mexico, and 5 in Doha, Qatar. This all-girls robotics team made waves after winning multiple international robotics competitions in the United States and becoming a luminescent symbol of the potential of girls in science, mathematics, and engineering. These girls left with the hope of continuing their education and competing in robotics tournaments. Some girls voluntarily stayed behind to help education efforts in Afghanistan. They all hope that their achievements and stories will empower girls in their home country to fight for their education and convince the regime to adapt to a new generation of women. 

Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab.
Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab. Source: Flickr

Education as a Human Right 

The Taliban violated many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 26 proclaims that basic and fundamental education should be free, compulsory, and equally accessible. Education is stated as the driving force to foster respect for human rights and personal freedoms all over the world which is crucial for women to rise from societal restrictions. 

The head of the Afghan Women’s Network, Mahbouba Seraj, emphasizes that Afghanistan is not the same country that the Taliban left. Women will not sit and stand by while they try to take away their rights. Over 6 million women have established their presence in traditionally male-dominated fields such as media, medicine, law, and government. She believes that the gender equality movement in Afghanistan will prevail over the Taliban’s resistance.  

Earlier in October, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to approve a rapporteur on the grounds of Afghanistan to investigate and report civil and human rights violations. The European Union’s ambassador to the UN cited particular concern for the restrictive actions of the Taliban against women and girls. In addition to the UN, the public can offer donations to other international human rights organizations that are also working on the safety of female Afghanistan officials and girls seeking to continue their education such as Amnesty International, CARE, and Women for Afghan Women.

Afghanistan’s Deteriorating Healthcare System

Afghanistan’s healthcare infrastructure is crumbling after its foreign assets were frozen and donor organizations pulled funding after the Taliban takeover. The Taliban is a Pashtun Islamic extremist group that is known for imposing strict religious and conservative rule over their areas of operation including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The organization previously served as the government for southern Afghanistan in 1996-2001 during which the healthcare system had collapsed. The child mortality rate was 2x as high as it was in 2012 and polio was widespread. Safe drinking water and sanitation were also nonexistent.

Over the past two decades, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have historically provided 75% of the funding and supplies to support the healthcare systems in 31 out of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. As a result, the Middle Eastern country has seen enormous improvements in the healthcare system. As of 2018, with over 3,000 medical facilities staffed and supplied, about 87% of the population were able to receive services. Maternal and child mortality rates also plummeted and infectious disease treatment programs helped decrease mortality rates.  

International donor support started declining even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Health and other public health organizations were barely able to compensate. The economic decline at the onset of the pandemic made medical resources even more scarce. Hospitals began charging payment for supplies such as meals and scalpels previously free to patients, and patients were forced to use their own money to buy surgical equipment. In April 2021, President Biden announced that the United States would withdraw all of their 2,500 troops from the Afghanistan, triggering the entire NATO (North American Treaty Organization) alliance to withdraw a total of 7,000 troops. The process was completed in mid-September. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban rose to power once again in Afghanistan.

 A pile of international notes from the United States, Turkey, and Europe.
A pile of international notes from the United States, Turkey, and Europe. Source: Unsplash

The World Bank then froze $600 million in health care aid funded by the US Agency for International Development, the European Union, and others. The $600 million was part of the Sehatmandi project, a global initiative to increase health facilities in Afghanistan, which was a collaboration with the Afghanistan government. The withdrawal shut down 2000 of the 2800 facilities that the project previously funded, leaving healthcare workers and patients out in the wind. Currently, healthcare workers have not received payment in 6 months and do not know when they will receive payment. Many patients struggle to reach the remaining facilities because the trip there is either unaffordable, geographically dangerous, too far, or the route is lined with Taliban conflict. 

If provided now, donors feared that donations and allocations would be misused by the Taliban to generate income for the militant group instead of for healthcare problems. There is speculation that if the funds are released, wages will never reach workers and medical supplies will be bought then sold to the public at astronomical prices. All entities are waiting on instructions or action from other governments to search for a way to transfer donations in order to circumvent the regime’s administration.  

Healthcare for Children 

A toddler girl biting into her shirt sleeve next to her parent.
A toddler girl biting into her shirt sleeve next to her parent in Afghanistan. Source: Unsplash

Hunger is becoming more widespread as inflation rates climb and supply chains grow unsteady. The Integrated Food Insecurity Phase Classification (IPC) reported that half of Afghans will face acute food insecurity before winter arrives.  

Malnutrition and malnutrition-related illnesses are far more dangerous than any other disease for children. Specific types of malnutrition called acute severe malnutrition and child kwashiorkor, a severe protein deficiency, is prevalent in Afghanistan and are caused by eating too little food or not at all. It can be treated by administering Ready To Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) and oral hydration therapy. Over 2 million children under 5 years old do not have access to this life saving treatment in Afghanistan. At least half of the children in the country are victims of malnutrition and in light of the food scarcity, mothers unable to produce breastmilk have resorted to feeding infants water mixed with sugar. 

Staffing shortages are also insurmountable. Nurses and doctors fled the country fearing what the Taliban’s takeover could mean for their lives. In the main children’s hospital in Kabul, nurses previously caring for 4 babies now have to care for 24 babies each while hospital staff try to squeeze 3 infants into 1 incubator due to equipment shortages. Current staff are overworked and still have to take up jobs at other institutions to get by. Medicinal needs are also not being met for children and adults. Drug cabinets and storage closets become emptier every day as the influx of patients has depleted the resources faster than can be transported into the country. 

A hand holding a cluster of large, yellow tablets.
A hand holding a cluster of large, yellow tablets that are basic medications that Afghans need. Source: Unsplash

Women’s Health 

The aid cuts have also decreased access to essential healthcare resources for women and girls, including contraception and family planning. Many women carry out risky pregnancies and are subjected to unsafe reproductive procedures without modern medical equipment. Prenatal and postnatal care for infants is not provided, and postpartum care for new mothers is nonexistent. Despite the labor shortages, a great deal of responsibilities for maternal health clinics are on the backs of midwives. Midwives continue to perform complicated surgeries, dangerous deliveries, and other reproductive procedures.  

Expensive medicines and transportation to clinics for health problems are not feasible for the majority of Afghan women. Beginning in early 2017, extremist groups turned their sights on medical facilities in Afghanistan, which led to increase of attacks on aid workers, doctors, and hospitals. Mounting fear against staying in maternity clinics has also driven many women away from seeking help.  

Covid-19 Pandemic 

The lack of data and accountability in Afghanistan makes it difficult to comprehend the extent to which the virus has contributed to the death rate. Around the world, Covid cases are increasing, and the Afghan population is largely unvaccinated. According to the latest data from the United Nations, only 2.2 million of 39 million individuals have been vaccinated, while 1.8 million doses are waiting to be distributed.  

Public health experts worry that an impending 4th wave of the disease will render the healthcare infrastructure irreparable. Dead bodies line hospital morgues and overflow into the outside corridors as the lack of fuel has stopped ambulances from operating. Many sick patients suffering from Covid don’t bother coming to hospitals, because they know they would not be able to receive medical assistance. Hospitals, private practices, and clinics are resorting to hastily assembling makeshift wards outside hospitals to accommodate Covid patients.  

The healthcare situation in Afghanistan has been worsening for years, and in light of the looming public health disaster, much more support from the international community is needed. The snowball effect of international neglect will continue unless major monetary, political, economic, and healthcare interventions are considered. Nonprofit health organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have been tackling both maternal and child healthcare as well as managing Covid cases in 5 provinces, but people can help by donating to Doctors Without Borders, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and increasing awareness for the healthcare crisis in Afghanistan. 

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

clipart of women of various backgrounds lifting a megaphone
Source: UN Women

Today, November 25th, marks the 22nd Annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women as declared by the United Nation’s General Assembly in 1999; however, women living in Latin America and the Caribbean have honored the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women since 1981. The resolution, introduced by the Dominican Republic, marks the anniversary of the death of three sisters, Maria, Teresa and Minerva Mirabel, who were murdered on the island on November 25th, 1960, due to their involvement in a growing underground uprising against Dictator Trujillo’s dangerously misogynistic rule, according to this article from History. This day also represents the start of the 16 Days of Activism, where people are encouraged to fight against gender-based violence, concluding on December 10th, which is declared as International Human Rights Day. Activist organizations worldwide have utilized this period to shed a light on domestic affairs including sexual and physical violence, emotional abuse, and to draw attention to the dangers of human trafficking, all of which are issues that disproportionately affect women, transgender, and nonbinary individuals.  

Domestic Abuse in the Pandemic 

YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Source: UN Women

One of the major examples of threatening violence towards women is domestic abuse, especially regarding violence in romantic partnerships. Domestic abuse includes sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sexuality, or marital status. Fighting domestic abuse is especially prevalent in eliminating violence against women because unfortunately, eight out of 10 victims of sexual assault or rape knew their attacker, as was the case in my own story. For child victims and students on college campuses, the rate is even higher. Regarding the pandemic, the United Nations has recently stated that, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.” Referred to as the “Shadow Pandemic,” women and other marginalized groups have been especially susceptible to abuse and emotional neglect due to many countries’ lockdown and stay-at-home orders, in addition to people around the globe facing an increased level of financial hardships throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Sex Trafficking and Outside Threats 

This increased level of vulnerability has also translated outside of the home, where women face dangers in varying capacities, including the prevalent threat of sex trafficking. Over 70% of all sex trafficking victims are women and girls, and although there have been a growing number of legislative improvements as more countries criminalize trafficking, conviction rates for traffickers remain low. As Covid-19 news updates have held many people’s attention since the pandemic began, it is essential to remember the other human rights crises that have not paused or slowed down as law enforcement efforts had hoped. Outside threats of violence also disproportionately affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) women. Although many general sex trafficking statistics are difficult to find considering many cases go unreported, this article from Polaris did include numbers from specific jurisdictions stating that “In Louisiana, Black girls account for nearly 49 percent of child sex trafficking victims, though Black girls comprise approximately 19 percent of Louisiana’s youth population and in King County, Washington, 84 percent of child sex trafficking victims are Black while Black children and adults together only comprise 7% of the general population.” Polaris went on to add, “Latinos are disproportionately represented among human trafficking victims and survivors in general, and labor trafficking survivors in particular.” 

Eliminating Violence Against Women 

STOP Victim Blaming
Source: UN Women

Women’s organizations around the world have come together in efforts to eliminate misogynistic acts of violence with advocacy that anyone can participate in, such as protesting for legal action to be taken and supporting the #MeToo social media movement, which began in 2006. The #MeToo movement encourages survivors of sexual assault and rape to share their stories in a safe environment of other survivors. The hashtag has been used by millions of people around the world and has been translated into dozens of languages. 

Considering this, there are many ways to help support survivors, even during a pandemic. UN Women lays out ten important steps: 

    1. Listen to and believe survivors 
    2. Teach the next generation and learn from them
    3. Call for responses and services fit for purpose 
    4. Understand consent 
    5. Learn the signs of abuse and how you can help 
    6. Start a conversation 
    7. Stand against rape culture 
    8. Fund women’s organizations 
    9. Hold each other accountable
    10. Know the data and demand more of it

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, click here to speak with trained advocates worldwide. 

Our Lost Indigenous Women

A protest, with placards displaying the faces and information of missing women
Source: Obert Madondo Via: Flikr/cc

The Problem

Indigenous women face overwhelming rates of violent crime, more than twice the amount of their non-Indigenous counterparts in the United States and 3.5 times in Canada. A 2016 study published by the National Institute of Justice revealed that approximately 84.3% of American Indigenous women have experienced violence against them in their lifetime and 56% of these women would become victims of sexual violence as well. In Canada, only 53% of Indigenous women’s homicides have been solved; drastically less than Canada’s national solve rate of 84%. That statistic becomes even more damning when we take into account that Indigenous females only make up 4% of Canada’s population, yet account for nearly one quarter of all homicide victims in Canada. For decades, Indigenous leaders, tribal governments and human rights organizations alike have called for national reviews in both Canada and the United States into the treatment of cases regarding Indigenous women. A publication from the US Department of Justice states that Indigenous female victims in the United States are far more likely to need services that aid survivors of such violence, but are the least likely group to have access to these services. The majority of Native American women will face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and more than a third will be unable to access necessary services after the event due to drastic disparities in access to healthcare and treatment by law enforcement. With each new set of data we have re-confirmed the existence of a plight sweeping through native communities, robbing women within them of their security, safety, and visibility. 

Marchers holding a banner that says "No more stolen sisters"
Source: Yahoo Images

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW)

In recent years, social media pushes have been made to raise attention for what is now known as “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”, a simple catchphrase encompassing decades of neglect from all channels that is now spearheading a movement for justice. This hashtag and social media campaign generates hundreds of thousands of interactions and impressions on social media every day, and brings attention to the individual stories of missing indigenous women or families of women lost to homicides that are still unsolved. However, indigenous women rarely get the national media attention that white women experience when they go missing; and when every minute and resource makes an empirical difference in the likelihood of that woman being found alive. A prior article from the Institute of Human Rights speaks specifically about the recent Gabby Petito case, and the disproportionate response of the American public for missing white women in comparison to women of color and indigenous women here. These drastically different responses only amplify the vulnerability of indigenous women.

It is horrific to think about a situation in which no one will come looking for you if you go missing. That nightmare has become an internalized reality in so many indigenous communities, where young women are being raised with impressive levels of advocacy for their missing sisters, but are witnessing first hand how much of a struggle that advocacy is. Social media is beginning to catch up to decades of research that has been waiting for a time like now, where the general public may be ready to listen and push for change. The Murder Accountability Project (MAP) has tirelessly collected data on unsolved homicides in the United States to apply pressure on law enforcement in communities with disproportionately high unsolved homicide rates, and put a spotlight on communities that fail to report important information to federal databases. The Indigenous community is heavily reflected in both of those categories.

A broken chain of command and lack of communication is often cited for why so few of these reported cases are ever investigated, as local, state and federal law enforcement agencies struggle to find a balance of working with native land and sovereign tribes through the reporting process. Many violent crimes against indigenous women occur on sovereign native land, however, 96% of the perpetrators are non-indigenous. This causes major confusion as tribal governments are unable to prosecute non-indigenous persons, and most standard law enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on native land. This complicated mess of jurisdiction and authority confuses law enforcement, tribal governments, and victims alike. 

Unfortunately, law enforcement has repeatedly made glaring errors that are impossible to ignore; tribal organizations have found that the United States National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016, but the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database shows that only 116 of those 5,712 cases were never logged. Essentially, this information means that only 2% of all cases of missing indigenous women were properly reported. This cannot be ignored; many families, friends and loved ones are left wondering why our government has forgotten and neglected their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters. While the answer may not always be clear, movements like #MMIW are bringing this conversation to the forefront of politics and media. In order to provide justice for these women, we must demand increased preventative and investigative efforts to protect these women when they need it the most.

An infographic displaying data on missing indigenous women
Source: Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into MMIWG VIA: Yahoo Images

Truths of Targeting

The vast majority of homicides of indigenous females go unsolved for years, and even the solved cases display how this systemic neglect has been repeatedly exploited. As determined by the FBI, “vulnerability” is a key factor in a killer’s process of victim selection; a category most indigenous women have been forced into by countless factors beyond their control. Prolific serial killers like Robert Pickton (Canada) and Robert Hansen (United States) specifically targeted indigenous women and sex workers during their killing sprees, and doing so allowed them to murder dozens of women completely undetected by law enforcement for decades. More than half of Pickton’s victims were thought to be aboriginal women, though many were never identified, and Hansen’s victims were often young indigenous women who had turned to survival sex work out of financial desperation. While describing research confirming how killers have manipulated vulnerabilities to their benefit, Co-director of MAP and criminologist Michael Arntfield determined that “Serial killers prey on marginalized populations, and indigenous women make up a disproportionate number in the victim pool”.

Sign stating "You are not forgotten" at a march for missing indigenous women
Source: Pressbooks Open Library Via: Yahoo Images

How to Help

There are many exceptional campaigns, research organizations and nonprofits to get involved that are currently on the forefront of the fight to end violence against indigenous women. If you wish to learn more about the topic, you can explore other Institute of Human Rights articles promoting Indigenous rights here, or click here to find an excellent resource sheet with educational sources and ways to get involved with MMIW. There are countless petitions for reform in both the US and Canada as well; this petition calls for the passing of Savanna’s Act, which will require the Department of Justice to update their missing persons database to better help identify missing and murdered Indigenous women and prevent further discrepancies in reported cases. This petition is a plea to the US Senate, calling for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to be re-authorized and receive greater funding as VAWA increases abilities for tribal nations to prosecute non-native offenders as well as providing resources for responses from law enforcement on all levels when cases of violent crimes or missing women are reported. The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women offers ways to donate, volunteer, attend community training, and other incredible opportunities to get involved in the movement. The Sovereign Bodies Institute utilizes donations to collect culturally-informed research on gender and sexual violence against indigenous peoples.

The only way to protect these women is to take drastic steps towards change. We can no longer ignore, deny or neglect the truths of everything both systemic and societal that has consistently failed the indigenous community, and the women within it. Please research, donate, volunteer, and find a way to become an advocate for the missing and murdered. We can have no more stolen sisters.

The Future of Abortion Laws in the United States

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

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

History of the Heartbeat Bill 

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

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

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

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

Abortion as a Human Right 

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

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

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

Women in Texas Now

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

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

Political Reaction 

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

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

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

Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mary Johnson Case 

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

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

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

The Disparities in Media Attention and Investigation 

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

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

Why is there a Gap?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Ongoing Fight for Paid Parental Leave in America

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

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

Paid Parental Leave as a Human Right 

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

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

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

The Reality of a Working Mother without Parental Leave 

Mother holding her baby
Source: Unsplash

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

Not all Families are Impacted the Same 

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

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

map of maternity leave around the world
Source: Yahoo Images

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

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

 

The Impact of Machismo on Women

by April Alvarez

The country of Nicaragua is rich in agriculture yet still suffers when it comes to the meeting the basic needs of the Nicaraguan people. However, women are the most severely affected by this as they are the primary bread winners of their homes, yet they do not have access to the same job opportunities that men do, and they are also fighting for their healthcare rights. The structure and dynamic of families vary from culture to culture–in Latin cultures, for instance, men have been taught to be the head of the household, provide, protect, and lay a solid foundation for the family, and the role of women usually consists of tending to the responsibilities of the home and caring for the children. Most of these roles are shaped by the behavior and values of the family as well as by society, which persuades or enforces the presence of certain behaviors and norms. Men are portrayed as dominate figures while the women are docile. Men take pride in their dominate role to an extent that may not be frequently seen in other cultures. This heavy presence of men dominating women is known as the machismo culture, and it has inevitably affected the way that women are portrayed in society and has negatively impacted their access to healthcare.

Photo of Nicaraguan mother and daughters fishing with net in river
Source: The author

Machismo is learned through social interactions and is instilled in boys from the moment of birth through adulthood. “Boys quickly learn that they are not supposed to cry, that they have far greater freedom than their sisters and that adaptation, submissiveness and responsibility for children and domestic work are for girls” (Berglund, Liljestrand, Marín, Salgado, & Zelaya, 2000). Boys are taught that crying is a sign of weakness and that deprives them of the ability to express all their emotions and by developing a nature of pride and coldness, they are forced to swallow emotional burdens rather than voice them. Consequently, this process affects how they treat and view the women in their lives. Women, therefore, never escape the cycle of being viewed as docile creatures who’s only value comes from how well they can perform household chores and care for children.

Because the unemployment and poverty rate are so high in Nicaragua, women are often taught that they need to depend on a man for economic support. However, the high pregnancy rate is also a consequence from the lack of sexual education in schools and in homes by parents. The country is heavily influenced by Christianity, which emphasizes the importance of purity before marriage; however, many homes fail to educate or emphasize the role that men play in this as well. The nature of machismo emphasizes or rewards men who are womanizers, which inevitably leads to amounted responsibility if they get a woman pregnant. It is common for men to have a wife and children but also have a few girlfriends that they see from time to time to “destress” from their home or work life. While the man can go out and have fun with other women and have unlimited liberties, if a woman is even suspected as being unfaithful her husband may beat her. While an outsider may easily suggest that the women in the relationship should leave if they find themselves under these circumstances, it is not that easy, especially when the man is considered the family’s stability and support. However, other family members have a heavy influence on why a woman stays with her husband. Adriana, a young lady in her twenties who participated in a study about adolescent pregnancies in Nicaragua said that “they teach us that you have to endure, to suffer, because that is our obligation. Maybe it’s because their mothers treated them like that…. Consequently, they teach us to be only mothers and housewives” (Berglund, Liljestrand, Marín, Salgado, & Zelaya, 2000). This tradition is so deeply rooted in the culture that it has ingrained the idea that a women’s value is lost if they leave their husbands. Their first husband shall be their last and if they leave, no one else will love them. Women often question every decision they make for this same reason and if they are abused by their husbands then they have been psychologically conditioned to think they are the ones to blame.

Photo of Nicaraguan women and child holding up woven baskets
Source: The author

One of the characteristics of machismo is respect and to challenge a decision made by one’s husband, who is seen as a superior, is like challenging their masculinity and it is a symbol of disrespect too. Men submerged in the machismo culture are also evaluated as a man based on their ability to have children therefore, more is better. Men have been able to justify this view is by finding ways to manipulate women so that they maintain their power. A study conducted in the cities of Managua and Leon evaluated how men viewed reproductive health and their responses to participating in gender training programs. One of the men stated that “He aims to help other young people avoid the negative consequences of unsafe sexual behavior, such as unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV” (Torres, Goicolea, Edin & Öhman, 2012). This is an important finding as it successfully communicated how the behaviors of men were affecting not only the women but also their own health. The men take immense pride in having intercourse with women without using protection because it was another way of asserting their dominance. However, many were not aware of how those habits were exposing them to health dangers.

Despite the raise in awareness, men in Nicaragua still fail to break the cycle of violence and take any real initiative. In fact, in many areas the problem has worsened which affects women and children living in the home as they become exposed to situations that they begin to perceive as normal. “The fact that children are so often witnesses to violence against their mothers is of particular concern, not only because it exposes them to the risk of abuse themselves but also, in the case of boys, to the risk of becoming battering husbands as adults” (Ellsberg, Peña, Herrera, Liljestrand & Winkvist, 2000). The violence that women and even children are exposed to has more than physical consequences, it can also lead to a higher risk of illness further along in their lives. There is only so much stress that the body can take without releasing it, therefore, the body can become ill from all the intensity and constant fight for survival. The main reason men may have not been compelled to change their behavior is due to their social circles, especially other men. Most men have the “fear of rejection and discrimination” because of the “peer and family pressure to conform to traditional norms and values” (Torres, Goicolea, Edin & Öhman, 2012). Without the support of the people closest to them, they are less likely to step out of their comfort zone. They would also have to battle with being perceived as crazy because advocating for women’s rights is wrong or does not matter. No one likes to be rejected, especially if your masculinity is in question. A male who begins to speak out against domestic violence and the cultural norms would be deemed unworthy of respect because they have become soft and weak.

Women’s centers known as Casas de Mujer in Nicaragua have been successful in holding men to a high behavioral standard by equipping women with the knowledge of their rights by laws of the countries. Overall, the houses have provided a safe space for women where they can feel reassured, unashamed, or guilty, and be educated on their legal options, as well as on their value as a human being. The houses also help women unravel how machismo has affected their lives, make self-defense available, and teach women how they can play a role in breaking machismo norms with their sons. However, while there are great NGOs that have parted the way for women, the few that are present may struggle to remain open due to funding and support. Women around the country still battle with violence in their homes, especially in rural areas. The country must provide women with equality in the work force so that they do not have to be dependent on males, and so that they have access to healthcare. The women should also be allowed to follow their dreams, aspirations, and seek a life worthy of respect and dignity without being forced to confide to a life that is hidden in the dark. There is still an abundance of work to be done.

 

 

The Texas Social Worker’s Code

social work student listening to lecture
Social Work Students’ Accreditation Visit 3.26.13. Source: Southern Arkansas University, Creative Commons

Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe.  However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered.  A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.”  During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out.  They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code. 

This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.   

This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk.  There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do. 

The Human Rights Connection 

It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved.  Consider some of the jobs of social workers.  They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more.  In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former.  Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.   

Sign that reads "Social Workers change the world"
Source: Yahoo Images

One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce.  Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need.  Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and, All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” 

 The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations 

Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities).   According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics, The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”  vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.” 

Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence.  It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need.  Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.   

The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.” 

There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct.  It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause. 

Prisoners of Conscience

Recently, upon landing at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, avowed critic of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny, was arrested for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 embezzlement charge. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that that trial had been politically motivated and resulted in an unfair conviction. The arrest came as no surprise; Navalny had made clear that he expected to be arrested when he returned home to Russia. Still, the Russian government’s blatant repression of one of their loudest critics inspired outrage and disappointment from around the world.

Photo of Alexei Navalny
Navalny in 2014. Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta. Wikimedia commons.

Navalny had been taken to hospital in Germany in after he became very ill aboard a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20th and nearly died. He was in a coma for over two weeks before making a remarkable recovery. The German government in September determined with “unequivocal proof” from toxicology tests that Navalny had been poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. In December, investigations by The Insider and Bellingcat with CNN and Der Spiegel implicated Russia’s Federal Security Service in the attempt on Navalny’s life. Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been a target for criticism by Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation for years, called media reports that he had ordered Navalny’s poisoning a U.S. backed plot to discredit him. Putin suggested that Navalny was not important enough to be poisoned, adding “[i]f someone had wanted to poison him, they would have finished him off.”

Amnesty International last week added Navalny to its list of prisoners of conscience as a result of his arrest. Commenting on his detention, Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office director, said, “Aleksei Navalny’s arrest is further evidence that Russian authorities are seeking to silence him. His detention only highlights the need to investigate his allegations that he was poisoned by state agents acting on orders from the highest levels.”

Protests in response to Navalny’s arrest and the widespread corruption amongst Russian political leaders erupted January 22nd. As of when this was written, over three-thousand our-hundred protestors had been arrested, including Navalny’s wife, lawyers, and more than twenty-five known associates. Most are being held without charge. In Moscow, more than fifteen-thousand protestors gathered and endured temperatures as low as negative fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.

Protestors in St. Petersburg, Russia
Protestors in St. Petersburg, Russia. Associated Press / AP Photo / Dmitri Lovetsky. Fair use.

Prisoners of conscience are those who are imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views, as well as those under persecution for the nonviolent expression of conscientiously held beliefs. The term was coined in 1961 in an article The Forgotten Prisoners by Peter Benenson, a lawyer and activist who founded Amnesty International. Today, Amnesty International is actively campaigning for the release of around one-hundred fifty documented prisoners of conscience, although the number of people who meet the definition is certainly much higher than that. Amnesty International figures that there are “likely thousands more”. Currently, Russia, Saudia Arabia, Iran, and Belarus have the highest number of known, documented prisoners of conscience, although information about political prisoners is sometimes heavily restricted, particularly in China and North Korea. It is likely that there are dozens, if not hundreds more prisoners of conscience in these countries alone.

Last year, Amnesty prisoner of conscience Rubén González was released after being held since 2018 on charges that he had “insulted” the armed forces in Venezuela. González had been acquitted in 2014 after a five year trial for organizing a strike. While he was imprisoned, he was the only civilian prisoner in the military wing of the La Pica prison in Monagas. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, criticized González’ conviction and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention characterized his imprisonment as arbitrary. Amnesty International’s campaign for González’ release is representative of their work across the globe, showing that international condemnation is an effective tool against the incarceration of prisoners of conscience.

In Iran, Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human rights lawyer who has twice been arrested for her campaigns both for opposition candidates and for women’s rights. In 2010, Sotoudeh was charged with spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. The Washington Post characterized the arrest as emblematic of “an intensifying crackdown on lawyers who defend influential opposition politicians, activists, and journalists.” During her first imprisonment, Sotoudeh staged three hunger strikes, with two of them lasting four weeks and seven weeks respectively. In 2018, Nasrin was arrested again, and charged with espionage, dissemination of propaganda, and disparaging the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. For this, she was sentenced to five years.

Accurate information about prisoners of conscience can be hard to come by, because the states that are more commonly imprisoning people for ‘thought crimes’ are also the states more likely to be highly suppressive of reports about their human rights abuses. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience range from absolutely none, reported by the Ministry of Interior, to thirty-thousand reported by the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the BBC. In addition to their arbitrary detention of political activists, Saudi Arabia has also been heavily criticized by human rights bodies for their prolific use of capital punishment, including against people who were children when they were accused of crimes. In 2016, Ali Sa’eed al-Ribh was executed, despite the government admitting during trial that he was under the age of eighteen at the time of his alleged crimes. Because Saudi Arabia is party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, they are legally required to ensure that no one under the age of eighteen at the time of a crime is sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of release. Currently, several young Saudis are awaiting execution, including Ali al-Nimr, who was seventeen, Abdullah al-Zaher, who was sixteen, and Dawood al-Marhoon, who was seventeen when they were arrested. In addition, in 2017, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj’s death sentence was upheld on appeal for crimes committed when he was sixteen. All of their crimes relate to anti-government protests.

Photo of Loujain al-Hathloul
Loujain al-Hathloul. Creative Commons.

In 2018 and 2019, Saudi Arabia came down heavily on feminist activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been imprisoned since May 2018. al-Hathloul is known for her campaigns against the driving ban, and has been detained many times previously for offenses such as driving a car and appearing on camera with her face and hair uncovered. For the first several months of her detention, she was not allowed to contact her family or lawyer. al-Hathloul was subjected to beatings, waterboarding, electric shocks, and sexual abuse. During her first trial in March of 2019, she was charged with “promoting women’s rights, calling for the end of the male guardianship system, and contacting international organizations and foreign media.” Saudi Arabia has, over the last decade or so, made some purely performative and milquetoast changes to their repressive policies. In 2017, King Salman decreed that women be allowed access to some government services without the consent of a male guardian. The case of al-Hathloul and others show without a doubt that nothing substantive has changed. Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most repressive powers in the world — for women, for activists, for critics of the regime. All of this from a country that we, in the United States, continue to support economically and diplomatically. And, for the last four years, have only become closer with.

The plight of prisoners of conscience around the world should be a priority for any freedom loving people and all freedom loving states. Amnesty International continues to do important work to bring awareness to and win freedom for political and ideological prisoners. Hopefully, governments that believe in liberty will start to hold each other accountable and unite against states who do not. Until the last prisoner of conscience is freed.

Further reading:

Who Are Prisoners of Conscience?

List of Designated Prisoners of Conscience