Earlier this month I went to a panel organized by Human Rights Watch Canada and the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. I wanted to share some key points that were discussed that evening and what I found most interesting. Women and children are often the most disadvantaged or vulnerable demographic in areas of conflict but the panel revealed the urgency and importance of access to services that I had not considered. Each panelist was given an opportunity to introduce themselves and their specific expertise in the field.
First up was Liesl Gerntholtz, Executive Director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, who I have had the pleasure of meeting before. (Which led to an interview about the incredible work her and her team of researchers do at HRW.) This evening, Liesl highlighted the issue of access to abortion for displaced women that have experienced sexual violence in Kenya. Foreign aid that comes from the US does not fund abortion and there has been much controversy about this (you can read more here). Women and girls living in conflict regions are targeted victims of sexual violence and that often leads to pregnancy. Forcing them to have these babies results in conflicted feelings because the baby is a reminder of their trauma. And quite practically, these babies are marginalized from the start. They are shunned by their families and communities. Legally, they don’t even get birth certificates because of an absent father. Access to safe abortion in the US has come under fire over the last few years and many bills have been put forth to restrict access. It is of no surprise that their foreign aid does not fund this health care service but it’s time to reconsider (like Canada did!).
Second panelist, Rothna Begum is a women’s rights researcher who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa. The focus of her recent research has been Yezidi girls and women who have survived sexual violence at the hands of ISIS soldiers. These soldiers created an organized system of rape, the girls and women were forced into marriage, domestic slavery and worst of all bought and sold in sexual slavery markets. Some women have escaped these horrifying situations but support is lacking. Access to abortion, post-rape forensic and trauma counseling is mostly unavailable. There is stigma attached to being a survivor of sexual violence and reintegration can be very difficult. Some survivors are subjected to virginity testing and the courts will accept this type of testing as evidence in rape cases (wildly problematic). These girls and women are being failed on multiple levels and unfortunately local politics has an impact on availability of services.
Next up was M.P. Parkdale-High Park and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Arif Virani who spoke mostly about Canada’s role in bringing refugees into the country. He pointed out that Yezidi people are not officially refugees, they are considered internally displaced and they must leave country of origin before they are legally labeled and can be helped. I didn’t know that the Canadian government differentiated between the two groups and that we don’t have any obligation to help internally displaced people, only people who are officially refugees. All the Syrian refugees being resettled in Canada are coming from Lebanon, Turkey and other neighbouring countries. He then spoke about the Women at Risk Program and how isolated women are easier to identify and target for an expedited settlement process.
And the final panelist was Georgette Gagnon, an international human rights lawyer and former director of human rights for the UN in Afghanistan. The focus of her talk was the drop in engagement for people in Afghanistan and South Sudan. She spoke first about internally displaced widows in Afghanistan. They are the most marginalized and vulnerable group who receive very little support from the government and their community. She told us a story about a widow who was illiterate and not allowed to work outside of the home. She has 3 kids who dropped out of school and had to work as shepherds to support the family. When a woman in Afghanistan becomes a widow, they are given over to male relatives and are considered an economic burden. They are often abused and young girls are married off as soon as possible. Inside Afghanistan there are many displaced people that suffer severe human rights violations. In Sudan, since separation there has been insider fighting of politicians. There are civilian sites for women and children escaping violence that are guarded by UN peacekeepers. These sites are attacked by the government for the purpose of ethnic cleansing. And they are heavy populated, with up to 37,000 people in one site.
So what do we do now? The panel was asked to summarize for attendees how they can take action. Here are their suggestions:
- Call out racist rhetoric.
- Take a global view (this works for all human rights issues).
- Focus on holding governments accountable to human rights conventions they have signed. They are legally liable.
- Get locally involved and support newcomers.
- Connect with people on the individual level in your neighborhood.
- Facilitate criminal justice system in Iraq.
- Support funding for education.
- Amplify voices against the anti-immigration discourse.
- Afghanistan is the second largest refugee producing country in the world. Ask Canadian government to step up more in protection of civilians in conflict.
It was an informative evening and I hope that you’ve learned something from this summary. For additional resources, please visit the HRW site.
I am hoping to do a more in depth interview with one of the researchers that I met at this event. Stay tuned!