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This Saturday, Article 25 - a new global movement of people who believe health is a human right – will be launching the first-ever Global Day of Action for the Right to Health. This is incredibly exciting, as health activists and everyday people in 58 countries will be coming together to launch a rising global, grassroots movement to combat global health inequity.

The Day of Action is being coordinated by Article 25, a nonprofit advocacy group working with more than 50 partners to build a global movement for the right to health. On Saturday, public health and social justice activists will hold teach-ins, rallies, workshops, and candlelight vigils to raise awareness of health disparities across the globe and demand political action to address them.

The day of action is particularly important to highlight how stark global health inequity is, and to begin building and mobilizing communities around the world to demand political action to change the status quo.  Only political action will pressure states, governments, and intergovernmental actors to make the right to health a reality. I think this quote by one of Article 25’s activists sums it up perfectly:

 Collective action is change in itself. A social movement for the right to health can change everything by incorporating grassroots organizations that really work closely with their communities and have passion for change and transformation. We have to show that this is a health crisis to our leaders and make them know that health is is not a privilege — health is a right. And citizens or communities can demand it any time they it has been deprived from them. — Chacha Baru Peter, Kenya, U-Terna

Check out Article 25’s website to find an action near you, and participate! Join in on October 25th to show your support and solidarity for a movement for the right to health.

If you’re in Boston this weekend, I’ll be attending the Rally for the Right to Health, held on Sunday October 26th. Come and join the movement!
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As someone who works on issues of domestic violence, one question I frequently ask is: how can we rely on the state’s violent, coercive power to counter and resolve another issue of ‘private’ violence? The criminal justice system and prosecution of domestic abusers is a solution often put forth when it comes to providing accountability and promoting deterrence in cases of gender-based and domestic violence. Perhaps if we prosecute more often (considering the rate of prosecution is incredibly low for a variety of reasons — patriarchal beliefs among police and the justice system, the intimate relationships between abusers and survivors, the mistrust of many communities of the police and criminal justice system, etc) we can drive down the rate of violence by sending a clear message that this kind of behavior is not tolerated in our society, that we are on the side of victims and survivors.

But I often question our ability to turn, automatically, to the criminal justice system to resolve GBV and DV cases. This system is in itself incredibly violent, unjust, and racist, at least in the United States. Here, the criminal justice system is in essence mass incarceration of minorities, especially African American men, as expounded so perfectly by Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow.” There is a disproportionate incarceration and conviction of black men, so the justice system is not enforced equally on all racial and ethnic groups that may be engaging in violence against women at equal/similar rates. Beyond this, the prison system is incredibly flawed. The conditions can be horrific — not just in the U.S. but around the world. In the U.S., prison rape is incredibly common, frightfully so. There are gendered dynamics and hierarchies within prisons, and prisons can be incredibly violent places that create more trauma.  Can a system that produces more injustice, including violent rape, be used to help solve patriarchy? I simply don’t think so, and I am deeply disturbed by these dynamics.

My question is — can we really rely on one inequitable, incredibly unjust system to fix another problem of injustice? In my mind, the criminal justice system involves deep inequity and oppression; and so does patriarchy. We cannot really depend on criminal justice until this system is fair and equitable, in itself.

This excellent article by Victoria Law speaks to this problem in a more eloquent way. She writes,

Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing…..

As these examples demonstrate, strategies to stop domestic violence frequently require more than a single action. They often require a long-term commitment from friends and community to keep a person safe, as in Piepnza-Samarasinha’s case. For those involved in devising alternatives, like the women in Halifax, it may require not only creating immediate safety tactics, but long-term organizing that addresses the underlying inequalities that exacerbate domestic violence.

By relying solely on a criminalized response, carceral feminism fails to address these social and economic inequities, let alone advocate for policies that ensure women are not economically dependent on abusive partners. Carceral feminism fails to address the myriad forms of violence faced by women, including police violence and mass incarceration. It fails to address factors that exacerbate abuse, such as male entitlement, economic inequality, the lack of safe and affordable housing, and the absence of other resources.

I would agree that a sole focus on criminalization is not necessarily productive. We need a more holistic, deeper look at the origin of violence against women and patriarchy, and the social determinants and results of this problem. Moving to criminalization means we are relying on one unjust and patriarchal system (which too often fails survivors and even imprisons them, as the article talks about) that fails to empower anyone or attack the root causes of violence. Until we fix the criminal justice system, in the U.S. and internationally, I don’t think we should feel too comfortable pushing for criminalization as a solution to gendered violence.

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Today (after a long pause between ‘Feature Fridays!’) I’d like to highlight an exciting new community-based lawyering organization in Nigeria, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives.  I’m truly excited about their approach, which truly aims to be far more community-based and involves not just litigation but community paralegalism, advocacy, and mobilization/movement-building.

JEI’s three prongs of work are: training community-based paralegals, engaging in movement building, and finally – strategic advocacy. JEI trains, monitors, and supports networks of individuals providing community-based paralegal services in rural and urban poor communities in Nigeria. A particularly exciting aspect of their model is their community-owned initiatives in Nigera. JEI helps to set up a membership association called the Community Legal Support Initiative (CLSI).  Before joining CLSI, communities set up  ‘community legal support committees’, which join the membership of CLSI and take an active role in overseeing and implementing activities to support paralegal services. CLSI subcommittees work closely with JEI to train, supervise, and mentor paralegals who show capacity and commitment to justice.

Second, through the paralegal network and more broadly, JEI supports movement-building and inter-community solidarity within and between poor and marginalized communities. Finally, when necessary, JEI undertakes strategic advocacy or litigation to backstop the work of paralegals and the activities of the broader community-based movement.  JEI provides direct litigation and advocacy support to individuals and communities in need. Priorities for strategic litigation and advocacy are identified by communities. JEI undertakes litigation before Nigerian courts, regional/international human rights bodies (e.g. ECOWAS Court or the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights), and advocacy before the National Human Rights Commission or the World Bank Inspection Panel. JEI works to make this sustainable through the Community Legal Services Initiative, where member communities establish community-managed funds for litigation and advocacy.

Check out this video highlighting JEI’s work in the Otto Ilogbo community in Lagos, Nigeria, which has been sacked by fire and violence that has chased hundreds of innocent residents from their homes.

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A great post on OpenDemocracy recently by Chris Jochnick discussed human rights tools of litigation, and how the law can be harnessed to address some of the root causes of poverty. I especially liked the following questions he asks at the end, which I think are absolutely spot on:

  1. Can resources be mobilized at scale to support human rights work that directly confronts poverty, inequities and vested interests? The longstanding bias of human rights funders against ESR continues to limit this work.

  2. Can lawyers and litigation be incorporated into grassroots struggles without co-opting them? The legal training, the proximity to power, the allure of lawsuits, the mythologies of legal expertise all conspire against good faith efforts of lawyers to serve rather than lead campaigns.

  3. Can transnational human rights advocates find a way to work closely and collaboratively enough with those living in poverty, while retaining a strategic focus on broader structural issues? The rise of stronger human rights groups in the global south, connected to social movements and networked to international platforms (with a helpful infusion from the Ford Foundation) represents a promising, if fragile, step in this direction.

These questions often pique my interest when working in the human rights field. I often question: how can we mobilize individual struggles and direct legal services into broader change, and at the same time how can human rights advocates engaging in high-level litigation or “impact” cases while still maintaining a close connection to communities?  Especially, as he writes above, the “legal training, the proximity to power…” often make it appealing for lawyers to take leading roles in campaigns rather than a backseat. At the same time, often working to provide legal services or working with clients on an individual, one-on-one basis can be particularly difficult, not to mention can be challenging to make any systemic reform.

A great post summing up some of the debates in human rights/transnational lawyering and advocacy work, and absolutely worth checking out.

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Hello, friends! I am excited to announce that I’m organizing an online symposium for the Harvard Human Rights Journal on a topic I am deeply passionate about:  assessing barriers to and successes in promoting access to justice to the poor, both via formal and informal justice systems and mechanisms.  We’ve already got a couple of fantastic pieces, but I also wanted to post here to spread the word to those of you who might be interested.

TOPIC: From the Informal to the Formal: Barriers and Successes in Promoting Access to Justice to the Poor

This year, we are excited to publish an online symposium focusing on issues of access to justice to the poor around the world. We invite submissions focused around the challenges of expanding access to justice to grassroots communities around the world, both through the formal justice system, customary and traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution, and through civil society and non-profit organizations.

In many countries, the formal state-governed justice system exists alongside various informal methods of justice delivery and dispute resolution, often termed “informal,” “non-state,” “traditional,” or “customary” mechanisms. Due to the barriers faced by litigants attempting to access the formal justice system, many have began to shift a focus to informal methods of dispute resolution in a range of cases – such as family law, land and property disputes, and issues of economic and social rights. There has been an increased emphasis on mediations and on engaging with informal justice mechanisms that already exist at the grassroots level, such as the shalish in Bangladesh, the bashingantahe in Burundi, or the shura jirga in Afghanistan. Although informal systems of dispute resolution are often more accessible and familiar to communities, they come with their own challenges and considerations, particularly in relation to gender and human rights norms.

We invite submissions discussing the challenges of strengthening access to justice through either informal, formal, or civil society mechanisms as well as case studies of successful approaches and new insights on the methods of navigating the complex informal and formal systems that exist around the world.

Style and Length: Our Online Symposium will be published on our website, at http://harvardhrj.com/symposia/ (see for examples of the type of content we publish). We welcome pieces that are more academic in nature as well as personal reflections from experience in the field. We seek pieces that are between 2,000 and 3,500 words. We welcome submissions from academics, practitioners, and students.

How to Submit: Email the Online Editors at hhrjonlinesubmissions@gmail.com with your piece, or with any questions or concerns.

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Fantastic post on women’s rights and human rights by Keshet Bachan. This portion sticks out to me as especially key:

There is no doubt legislation is an important first step in promoting human rights. However, most countries don’t have strong democratic traditions that uphold the rule of law, meaning legislation remains formal and fails to become substantive. And when legislation encounters social norms and traditions that contradict it, most of the time it will come out on the losing end. Without strong law enforcement forces and functioning judicial systems, with high levels of illiteracy and in many cases parallel legal systems (Customary Law), ensuring human rights laws are actually protecting people in a given country is an ongoing struggle. And no less importantly, when working in international development, the Rights Based Approach, which provides the framework in which all programming is conducted, often fails to engage communities because of this basic mismatch between formal and substantive legislation. That is, the formal recognition of human rights has yet to be translated into norms, traditions and practices, and therefore doesn’t provide a productive basis for change.

This to me, is truly a key challenge, and one that is not being addressed by the major human rights organizations and NGOs. Pushing forward legislation means little when it is not enforced and when it has not been translated into social norms at the lowest level. How can we begin to make this shift?  This is the question I keep asking, and keep pondering.

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The crisis in #Gaza is truly heartbreaking; stories of children in Gaza who have been killed in the conflict, and the pictures of dead civilians are truly heart rendering. Regardless of your views on this conflict, the fact that innocent civilians are dying should give you reason to pause. Although this is a few days late, I wanted to point out some of the arguments being used to justify civilian deaths in Gaza — and why Israel’s actions still cannot be justified under international humanitarian law.

First of all, the news media and Israel’s government has essentially been blaming Gazan civilians for their own deaths due to the actions of Hamas.  By accusing Hamas of using civilians as ‘human shields’ (by storing weapons among civilian locations and targets such as in schools and communities) Israel is legitimizing the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians and blaming them for their own demise — thus absolving Israel itself of any responsibility for so many deaths. The media has conveniently picked up this narrative, too.

As Noura Erakat more aptly writes, this type of narrative deprives Palestinians of the right to even be victims. 

Israel’s propaganda machine, however, insists that these Palestinians wanted to die (“culture of martyrdom”), staged their own death (“telegenically dead”) or were the tragic victims of Hamas’s use of civilian infrastructure for military purposes (“human shielding”). In all instances, the military power is blaming the victims for their own deaths, accusing them of devaluing life and attributing this disregard to cultural bankruptcy. In effect, Israel—along with uncritical mainstream media that unquestionably accept this discourse—dehumanizes Palestinians, deprives them even of their victimhood and legitimizes egregious human rights and legal violations.

But even if Hamas is hiding its weapons in civilian targets – like homes, schools and mosques – this does not actually absolve Israel of its responsibilities under humanitarian law.

Under the laws of war, there are a few key protections for civilians. Primarily is the principle of distinctionwhere civilians are supposed to be protected from military operations.  Parties in an armed conflict must distinguish at all times between combatants and military objectives & civilians and civilian objects.  Armed actors are only allowed to target military objectives/objects. This means that civilian objects – like homes, or schools – are simply not acceptable targets by a party to the conflict.  The presence in the civilian population of combatants does not deprive the population of its civilian character, and indiscriminate attacks which do not adequately distinguish between civilian & military targets are not allowed.

True, what Hamas is doing is not good and does not protect the lives of civilians.  Hamas has also been violating humanitarian law by indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel without specifically targeting military objects, and the use of human shields is also prohibited (some would dispute that Hamas is doing this, even).  But regardless of Hamas’s actions, Israel still has a responsibility to respect the principles of distinction and to protect civilian lives.

Ultimately, as Brad Parker sums up in this excellent article,

A civilian home, school, or hospital that is in some way deemed by Israeli forces to be “affiliated” with Hamas or another Palestinian armed group does not in itself provide legal justification under international humanitarian law to direct an attack at that object. The standard demands much more, and requires an exacting calculation. Precision is necessary because imprecision leads to war crimes.

Palestinian civilians must not be blamed for their own deaths. Even if Hamas or another Palestinian armed group may have violated the laws of war and used civilians as human shields, this does not relieve Israel from its obligations under international law nor does it justify an attack on civilians or civilian structures.

Now, if only humanitarian law had some weight in the world — and had the power to really constrain these countries’ actions; if only, a great deal of bloodshed would have been prevented in this conflict.

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This summer, I have spent the bulk of my time working on issues of gender, women’s rights, and access to justice.  The first half of my summer focused on providing direct legal services to survivors of domestic violence in family and immigration law matters.  The second half — which I am immersed in at the moment — involves policy research on issues of sexual assault across the U.S.

In doing this work, I’ve often thought back to some of the assumptions I myself had about gender – and which were broken down – in particular through a course I took this past semester at Harvard.  A few key realizations from the course really stuck out to me.

First, having worked before the previous semester and last summer with survivors of domestic violence, I saw the same cycle over and over again and felt that the current system could not adequately address and eradicate the violence and fear felt by the women I worked with. Yet, I was not able to fully articulate why the system was not working.  Prior to the course, my immediate inclination had been (and often still is) to improve and expand shelters for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and to ensure that survivors have a safe place/space to go.  When working directly with survivors, I always sought – in safety planning – to inform them of shelters that they could go to in an emergency situation.  In our discussions, however, we completely rethought this assumption and discussed how the current system places the entire burden on those who are abused to flee their residence and disappear.  We are forcing women (by and large) to go underground, to go into hiding, just to escape their abuser.  Why are we not circumscribing the freedom of movement of the perpetrator by forcing him/her to go to a shelter or a space where they cannot intimidate the survivor?  Instead, alternatives — such as temporary, rehabilitative spaces such as batterer’s detention facilities or shelters could truly shift mindsets.  By requiring batterers to leave, we would turn the system upside down.

Another example further illustrates this: when you look at an order of protection, you see that a survivor can tick off certain zones where she would like to be safe.  Home.  Work.  School.  But should we be thinking of the survivor’s safety in such a limited manner?  Shouldn’t survivors of domestic violence be able to feel safe wherever they are – not just at home or work, but on the streets, in public – everywhere?  Shouldn’t we instead be preventing abusers from being able to go anywhere, circumscribing their movements instead of locking survivors of violence into certain areas where they can be assured of their safety? Shouldn’t survivors be free and safe no matter where they are?

How many more assumptions do we have, despite being activists in this field?  How many policies, and programs, and laws do we take for granted because this is the status quo, the way things have always been done?  How often do we blame the victim, or place the pressure on him/her to leave rather than urging the perpetrator to leave?   These considerations are important because they force us to question our assumptions time and time again.  And to truly improve our world’s response to gender-violence we must question every assumption that we encounter about gender, about violence, and about abuse.

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My heart is breaking for Gaza; amidst all the destruction and pain, this Gaza-based writer seems to capture this well through her words.

All the writing rituals escaped. I possess nothing except a lead pencil and a piece of white paper, even though I am wary of the word lead. I want a pencil of life because life is now so dear in Gaza, and there were so many who insisted on plucking it like a flower whose infanticide they hastened. Especially those small flowers because they are beautiful; the hands snatch them and do not let them live. Our children became flowers stripped of their leaves, colors, and nectar. I feel anguish.

All the rituals of writing escaped after the soul slipped out of the body. It was so simple. While she was preparing her family’s breakfast she and they were all buried under the rubble of their home, without any warning. In this way the nymphs and their families depart the earth. In Gaza everything happens suddenly. She runs and runs all of the time looking for something lost; you always feel that you are being pursued and that eyes are watching you.

All the rituals of writing escaped. Sometimes they love you to death and other times they hate to death. The only sin you have is that you are a Palestinian man or woman expelled from her land in the villages of occupied Palestine to become a refugee in the Gaza Strip. Gaza is a mixture of life of all refugees; it is the taste and the scent of Palestine. Now they grill their flesh. They cut their hands and sometimes their heads before they shut their eyes. Talking has exhausted me. I do not wish for you to see Gaza as anything but a rose. A rose maintains her head and her leg and her roots and, most importantly, she still has her fragrance. Talk has exhausted me, and I have forgotten the rites of writing.

But she is a rose whose delightful fragrance wafted with the sea of blood that restored your senses and your love and perhaps your hatred.

— Hedaya Shamun

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This piece in Politico by Sarah Kendzior is spot on, decrying the state of media representation of powerful women in politics:

Read these women’s magazines today—particularly those articles focusing on the “power women” of the Obama era, and there is a full shelf of them by now, from Mastromonaco to Michelle Obama, Samantha Power to Susan Rice—and you will find a familiar pattern. There are still only two main tracks for the female politico: intimidating and powerful or submissive and charming. When combined, these qualities translate into “having it all,” although “all” must be tempered with notes of humility, lest the women vault back into the “intimidating” category. As pundits debate the virtues of female confidence, it is the confidante who is still made to appear the ideal female type: the yes-woman, capable yet culpable, assertive in her lack of assertions.

 

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