President Obama signs Tribal Law and Order Act

I am thrilled to share with you a deeply moving moment in a long-awaited, hard-fought, and historic victory for Native American and Alaska Native peoples in the United States.  Last Thursday afternoon, I had the privilege of attending a special ceremony at the White House where President Obama signed into law H.R. 725 – the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. This law entering into force marked an important step forward in beginning to address some of the many continuing injustices that Native American and Alaska Native communities – particularly women – face in this country.  It was especially meaningful to stand not just along aside my Amnesty International colleagues but with our Native partners who for so long have fought to stop the horrific violence and human rights violations inflicted on Native American and Alaska Native women.  It is their courage and determination that made this historic advance possible.

The Tribal Law and Order Act is a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation that tackles the complex jurisdictional maze that allows violent crime against Native American and Alaska Native peoples to flourish.  In particular, it seeks to put an end to the epidemic rates of rape and sexual assault perpetrated against Indigenous women in the US.  As many of you know from your years of activism and support for AIUSA’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign, the situation we found Native women facing in this country when began our research in 2005 was truly appalling.  As detailed in our 2007 reported entitled Maze of Injustice, Native women are 2.5 times more likely than other women in this country to be raped. Women from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas told us that they couldn’t think of a single woman who hadn’t been sexually assaulted.  More than one in three Native women will be raped at some point in their lives, 86 percent of them by non-Native perpetrators. The fact that the majority of these crimes occur with total impunity points clearly to the legacy of discrimination that Native communities had faced for many generations.

Among other things, this legislation means that every Native American and Alaska Native woman now finally has the chance to get a police response, have access to a rape kit, the opportunity to see her case prosecuted and see justice served for crimes committed against her. It standardizes the much needed sexual assault protocols within the Indian Health Service to ensure that survivors of sexual assault will receive proper treatment and care and that crucial forensic evidence will be collected.  The Act also clarifies who is responsible for prosecuting crimes in tribal communities and restores authority, resources, and information to tribal governments.  While taking initial steps to restore power to tribal governments to take more direct action in cases of violent crime, it will also hold federal authorities accountable for failure to prosecute.

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Women: The Smartest Investment

In an empowering speech on Friday, January 8, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her commitment to women’s rights as human rights. Exactly 15 years since the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development was held in Cairo, Secretary Clinton praised the progress made in improving the health and lives of women and children around the world since this groundbreaking gathering.

This progress has included a marked increase in the use of modern contraceptives from less than 10% in the 1960s to 43% today; an encouraging increase in child survival rates; and an increase in female enrollment in schools. Despite this progress, Secretary Clinton rightly emphasized the crucial need for a continued commitment toward reaching the Conference’s goals by the target year, 2015.

Secretary Clinton cited alarming statistics: half the women in the developing world deliver their babies without access to crucial medical care and 215 million women worldwide lack access to modern forms of contraception – as Clinton put it, the “numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable.” Vast gendered inequities remain; and women continue to represent the majority of the world’s “poor, unhealthy, and under-fed.”

Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration’s recognition that investing in women is “the smartest investment to be made…” shows that they’re on the right track. Earlier this year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton demonstrated their support for these issues by appointing Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.  The creation of this position sends a strong message to the world that the United States, in its deliberations on foreign policy and foreign aid, will give top priority to issues that affect women. Ambassador Verveer has since been a strong advocate on behalf of women around the world.  In October, she testified before Congress in hearings in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on violence against women.

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Get UN-ited Behind a New UN Women's Agency!

The stats are in: according to Amnesty International’s recent report, The Gender Trap: Women, Violence and Poverty, women comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor and 75 percent of the world’s illiterate. One in three women – nearly one billion women – will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.  In Chad’s refugee camps, female survivors of war face sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of oppression on a daily basis. In the Middle East and in immigrant communities around the world, an estimated 5,000 women are victims of “honor” killings every year. And sadly, the list goes on.

The marginalization and disempowerment of women is an international problem of truly epidemic proportions. In every corner of the globe, from isolated rural villages to bustling modern cities, women face harassment, discrimination, extreme poverty, sexual assault and domestic violence, fatal preventable health complications, and innumerable other affronts to their dignity and livelihoods.

The United Nations (UN), with its vast membership, access to resources, and international status, is one of the few institutions capable of undertaking measures to empower women globally. Currently, four separate U.N. entities exist to address women’s issues, but for years, the lack of coordination, country presence, and funding have prevented these entities from effectively promoting gender equality and from holding member countries accountable to their treaty obligations.

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Zimbabwe Justice: No Dancing Babies

The legal system in Zimbabwe isn’t comprised of lawyers in skimpy clothing sharing a unisex bathroom while litigating bizarre and yet fascinating cases. Instead, there is a politicized judiciary, draconian laws designed to stifle dissent and a prison system that would give Auschwitz a run for its money. Amnesty International is monitoring the legal cases of human rights defenders and political activists. Below is an update on some of these cases.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA)-
The leaders of WOZA were arrested and jailed in October 2008 for disturbing the peace during a protest over food aid distribution. Their trial has been continually delayed by both the prosecution and due to a petition the women filed before the Supreme Court asking the charges be dismissed as unconstitutional as Zimbabwe’s Constitution guarantees the right of assembly. The leaders, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu appeared in court yesterday where the magistrate wanted to proceed to trial despite this pending petition. The Supreme Court verbally ruled on June 4th that the arrest was unlawful but a written decision has not yet been produced. The case was finally postponed again until August 17th to wait for the ruling from the Court.

On June 18th, four members of WOZA were viciously beaten by police during a protest to call attention to the plight of informal traders struggling to make a living in Zimbabwe. Yesterday, a court in Harare ruled that the police officers responsible will be charged with assault. The case was postponed to July 13th to allow the officers time to prepare their case. The charges against the four WOZA members of disturbing the peace were dropped the day before.

Jestina Mukoko et al-
Late last year, Jestina Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was abducted from her home, illegally detained, tortured and charged with recruiting persons to participate in alleged militia camps in Botswana. She is one of 18 persons abducted and tortured around this same time and charged with variations of the same crime. On June 25th, the Supreme Court heard a petition from Ms. Mukoko and her co-defendants claiming their arrest was unconstitutional because they were illegally abducted and tortured. The Attorney General’s office admitted that Ms. Mukoko was illegally detained by state security agents but asserted that this should have no bearing on the case. A decision by the Court is still pending.

MDC activists and an independent journalist also on trial filed a petition before the Supreme Court asserting the same claim of unconstitutionality. At the hearing before the High Court, however, the State Security Minister took the opportunity to deny that the defendants, including Mukoko, were illegally detained. The petition was referred on to the Supreme Court. It is assumed that the remaining abductees will file similar complaints and their cases will be remanded until such time as the Supreme Court rules on the pending petitions.

Congolese Women Fight Sexual Violence

In a powerful new video Oxfam America shows the fight of Congolese women against sexual violence (thanks to change.org for bringing this to the attention of a wider audience). It features the courageous story of Justine Masika Bihamba, a women’s human rights defender for who we are actively campaigning for. Justine is coordinator for Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence (Synergie des femmes contre les violence sexuelles), an organization that helps survivors of sexual violence. In the context of the Democratic Republic of Congo, her story is truly impressive, to say the least.

One in Three

Native American and Alaska Native women face a 1 in 3 chance of being raped in their lifetime. The numbers are shocking. In our report, Maze of Injustice, Amnesty uncovered the staggering statistic that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than two and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in general. This has to change!

Non-Native men who rape Native American and Alaska Native women can often do so with impunity, because of a lack of tribal authority to prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes of sexual violence on tribal lands. Most perpetrators are never punished because of a complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that is so confusing that officials are often not clear on who is responsible for responding.

Thankfully, the Senate is considering re-introducing the Tribal Law and Order Act, a bill that would help fix this broken system of justice.

In honor of International Women’s Day, which was this past Sunday, AIUSA is holding a call-in week for people to let their senators know that they want them to support initiatives that will help stop violence against women and to urge them to cosponsor the Tribal Law and Order Act after it has been re-introduced. Please try to call today (Thursday) or tomorrow (Friday), but if you can’t, then please call early next week.

The Difference Between Justice and Impunity is Action

Amnesty International and other activists rally outside the Mexican Consulate in Chicago on March 6, 2006.

Amnesty International and other activists rally outside the Mexican Consulate in Chicago on March 6, 2006.

I just got back from an amazing week in Chicago, and I was trying to decide whether I should use the above as the title for this post, or if I should call it “Solidarity Means Hope,” because those were really the two main themes of the past week.

I was there to take part in a series of events in support of the Women of Atenco, including a forum at DePaul University, a rally outside the Mexican consulate, and a meeting with the Consul General. The events, planned by Amnesty International in conjunction with a wonderful coalition of Chicago-area organizations, were a great success. The forum was well-attended by both general public and the media, the rally had over 200 people filling up the whole street outside the consulate and attracting the attention of everyone inside and outside the building, and the meeting with the Consul was a great opportunity to communicate powerfully and directly the intense need for real justice in this case.

With me and my colleagues throughout all of these events was Claudia Hernandez, one of the survivors of the sexual and physical assaults that occurred during the police crackdown on protests in San Salvador Atenco, Mexico, in May 2006. Claudia is an amazing woman, and everyone who met her this past week was blown away by her insight, energy, hope and strength. It was an intense week for her, being asked so many times to relive the trauma she suffered in Atenco, but she told me over and over again that what got her through it, and the message she is taking back to her sisters in the struggle for justice, is the knowledge that they are not alone. She saw with her own eyes that people here not only know about the women of Atenco, but are also 100% committed to ensuring that justice is done.

That commitment was clear in the numbers of people who turned out for the events, the numbers of letters and petitions they signed, and the thoughtful and passionate questions they asked about the best ways to continue to support the women in their fight for justice. Take it from me: the people of Chicago don’t just talk about human rights, they put words into action!

International Women's Day Rally and Forum for the Women of Atenco

© Private

© Private

The women of Atenco, Mexico, have been waiting more than two years for justice. On May 3-4, 2006, nearly 3,000 federal, state, and municipal police responded to protests by a local peasant organization. They arrested over 200 people – more than 45 of them women – without explanation. En route to the Santiaguito prison, many of the women were beaten and raped by the officers who arrested them. At least 26 women filed complaints, yet they still wait for an adequate response from the Mexican authorities.

On Thursday, March 5, from 4-6pm, Claudia Hernández, a survivor of the events at Atenco, will speak at an open forum at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. The following day, on Friday, March 6, Amnesty International activists will join coalition partners from Chicago area organizations from noon to 1pm, for a rally in front of the Mexican Consulate at 204 S Ashland St, Chicago, Illinois, to demand justice for the women of Atenco. Everyone will wear red in support of International Women’s Day on March 8 and to show our passion for justice.

Even if you can’t join the Chicago rally, you can still learn more about the case and other ways to take action.

Iranian Women Fight for their Rights

Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8th, it’s time to recognize the struggles and achievements of women’s rights activists around the world.  One of the most vibrant women’s rights movements is in Iran, where every day courageous women risk their freedom and safety to fight for their rights.  While most use peaceful means to end discriminatory treatment of women in Iranian family law, they face increasing persecution from the Iranian government: Women are routinely arrested, imprisoned, threatened and banned from traveling abroad.

Even the most prominent women’s rights activist in Iran, lawyer and 2003 Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, is not immune to this mistreatment.  She has been repeatedly threatened in government-controlled media in recent months and the Defenders of Human Rights Center, that she operates to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, was forcibly shut down by the government last December and her papers and computers seized.

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of its own women citizens calling for equal rights? The government trots out preposterous charges against them such as “acting against national security through propaganda against the state.” How can women walking around a mountainous area north of Tehran to collect petition signatures possibly undermine the state?  How could Alieh Eghdamdoust, recently taken into custody and forced to start serving a three-year prison sentence for participating in a peaceful demonstration in June 2006, possibly be a threat to the security of Iran?

As the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International USA I am constantly challenged on how to craft actions and mobilize activist to combat this disproportionate and seemingly irrational repression of non-violent human rights defenders. And like many human rights activists, I am often frustrated and confounded.  But I am also always inspired by the unrelenting courage and pluckiness of women activists in Iran.  When asked by the judge at her trial why she participated in the demonstration, Alieh Eghdamdoust replied to the judge, “You should participate as well.  Why didn’t you defend your daughters and wife’s rights by attending the legal peaceful gathering?”

I think of Ms. Eghdamdoust’s spirited response as International Women’s Day approaches and I ask you to take action to support our sister activists in Iran.  Please write to the Iranian government and call for an end to the harassment of peaceful women’s rights activists in Iran.  Thank you all and please let us know what actions you have taken and any suggestions you have.

Honduras: Two Transgender Women Killed, Another Threatened

Tegucigalpa is quite a dangerous place these days for transgender people. As if being marginalized by the larger society and frequently harrassed by police weren’t enough, the transgender community in the Honduran capital now faces a much graver threat. With two transgender women killed in the area in the last three months, and another who is an HIV/AIDS activist severely beaten by police (who had initially tried to rob her), fear is surely in the air. The HIV/AIDS activist, who was beaten in late December, was so afraid that she specifically asked Amnesty not to make her name public. It’s high time the Honduran government fulfills its obligation to protect all its citizens. You can take action online, or write your own letter.

Has anyone ever faced violence or harrassment because of sexual orientation or gender identity? What did you do about it? Did anyone help you?