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Every fall as the trees shed their colorful leaves I get a little nostalgic. When I see the children in my neighborhood setting pumpkins on their doorsteps and frolicking in leaves, I feel a pang of jealousy. With all the stresses of ‘adult life’ and grad school, I miss the carefree days of my childhood. Then I think about how lucky I was to have that experience, when so many children across the globe have their childhood cut short because of poverty, cultural expectations, and shockingly, as they are forced into marriage.

Think of a young girl in your life.  Think of your sibling, niece, cousin, neighbor, daughter or even a memory of yourself as a child. Now think of 60 million girls just like her married across the globe. Imagine them pressured by families and communities to enter into adulthood at the age of 16, 12 or even 7. Imagine them being forced to marry, often a much older man, and assume the role of a wife and mother.

The emotional, social, and health consequences of this are enormous. These girls are often forced to move far away from their families to be with their husbands. Once they are married they can no longer pursue their education. Since they are so young, they have no say within the family. They are expected to immediately fulfill their roles as wives by becoming sexually active. Most have no sexual and reproductive health education, and no idea of how to protect themselves from STIs or unwanted pregnancies. Furthermore, the girls face pressure to prove their fertility as soon as they are married.

Sexual activity and pregnancy at a young age both bear dangerous health consequences. A young, undeveloped body is often not ready for the physical strain of pregnancy and childbirth. In many of the countries in which child marriage is prevalent, Read the rest of this entry »

The governments of Belgium, France and Denmark have now forbid (or are in the process of forbidding) Muslim women to wear the burqa in the public sphere. Brendan O’Neill, journalist with Spiked Online, writes that these bans are alienating Europe from the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, the very ideas that have laid the foundation for tolerance in Europe. France has presented this ban as a continuation of the ideas of the Enlightenment, in a way to protect its own values instead of the old fashioned religious ones, when in reality, this ban will only hinder the human right to express one’s religious beliefs, which is contradictory to what the Enlightenment was all about.

The problem with this ban is that it is a ban against the symbol of oppression, not the oppression itself. The oppression lies within cultural differences that will not disappear with the banning of the veil. If the European governments want to integrate the very small number of women wearing the burqa or niqab, there are other more efficient ways to do so, rather than to risk that these women will never leave their house again. Proper education, training and suitable jobs are a way to go, but this will require strong political will amongst politicians to achieve, as well as an effort made by the different ethnic communities around Europe. In this case, it may seem easier to just ban the burqa.

A discussion has arisen about whether Europe has lost its tolerance. There is a fear that this ban might increase intolerance towards Muslims, and that the fact that these liberal democracies are legislating what persons can or cannot wear might be a sign that the open and free values of Europe are declining. You do not have to respect the burqa or what it symbolizes, but forbidding people to wear different clothes than you is a far step away from the values of the Age of Enlightenment, which secured the freedom to express oneself for all living in liberal democracies.

By Elizabeth Con
Elizabeth is one of AIDemocracy’s 2010-2011 Issue Analysts. Find out more about Elizabeth below or take a look at the  Student Issue Analysts.

Doesn’t everyone support human rights?  Sure they do.  But does the average person actually do anything to promote and protect our rights?  Not really.  And you especially wouldn’t think that a young person, a person possibly still in their teens, would actually care about improving human rights around the world.  We’re just too busy pulling all-nighters in the library or spending our life savings on Bonnaroo tickets and the road trip it will take to get there.  But I beg to differ.  Young people actually play a pivotal role in the human rights movement today for many reasons.  The key word here is young, which means they’re energetic, passionate, excited, and creative.  They’re not afraid to make mistakes and to explore the world in which we live.  Historically, young people have been in the forefront of revolution and change.  Consider the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.  Young people came together to protest and make their voices heard.  They worked together to ask for change in our world and to make it a little better for the people who came after them.  I know a woman who sent her first allowance (at 10 years old, I might add) to Amnesty International.  That’s pretty impressive.  And it just proves that young people actually do care about things other than what celebrities are wearing these days.  Although it may sound so cliché, young people really are the leaders of tomorrow.  They are the ones who will be educating your children, working for the UN, and running for election.  They have the power to call for a change to the way we look at human rights today.  So don’t underestimate the power of young people and their influence on human rights just yet.

Elizabeth Con is a junior at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina.  She is double majoring in Political Science and International Studies (concentration in Latin America and the Caribbean) and double minoring in Spanish and Film Studies.  Elizabeth has been the treasurer of CofC´s campus chapter of AID for the past two years and has enjoyed working with other AID members in spreading awareness of global issues on campus.  In the future, Elizabeth hopes to join the Peace Corps before going to graduate school to study International Relations.

By Ashley Binetti
Ashley is one of AIDemocracy’s 2010-2011 Issue Analysts. Find out more about Ashley below or take a look at the  Student Issue Analysts.

I became wrapped up in human rights (HR) issues in college; I filled my schedule with classes on global poverty, cultural rights, international law, etc.  It is incredibly daunting to learn about the world’s human rights abuses—each problem is linked to the next, and a viable solution appears to be light-years away.  However, we don’t have to solve every problem to have an impact.  As students, we have the ability to garner support for these issues.  Advocacy is our most powerful tool—by writing op-eds, blogs and letters to congress, or by inspiring a new group of passionate citizens.

A few years ago, I interned for Amnesty International, USA (AIUSA) and had the pleasure of meeting 25 college students who volunteered for the Human Rights Education Service Corps Program.  These students taught an introductory HR course in low-performing D.C. public high schools.  I taught my own course as well, and was consistently amazed by my students.  After discussing questions such as, “What do you need to survive, day to day?” and “What do you need to live a happy life?,” we penned a list that paralleled the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948).  Learning occurred through this type of exchange, where the concept of rights was instinctive, and students could understand the universal and interdependent nature of rights.   

As Columbia University Professor Betty Reardon notes, “Intentional cultural change can result only from education.”  It doesn’t have to be in a classroom using the AIUSA curriculum; it could be creating a teach-in of your own, holding a town-meeting on campus, or participating in a national HR conference.  If we seek to live in a world where human rights are respected, the best place to start is by educating ourselves and our peers—encouraging action and compassion.

Ashley Binetti recently graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University with a BA in Government and International Relations.  She has advocated for human rights through internships with The United Nations Foundation and Amnesty International USA, and by participating in Care USA’s National Conferences.  Ashley is particularly interested in social, economic, and cultural rights, as well as the expansion of human rights education in the United States and abroad.  In her free time, Ashley enjoys yoga and salsa dancing.

As the international community views all Israel settlements as illegal, Israelis moved in to 4 new villages only hours after the 10 month building moratorium was over. The political goal of the settlers is to occupy so much land that a shared state between Israel and Palestine will be impossible. What will happen to the peace talks between Israel and Palestine now is uncertain. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said this Saturday that Israel now will have to choose between “peace or settlements”. Abbas now is in a tight spot, as he risks losing support with both the Palestinians and members of his own Fatah party if he continues the peace talks even though the Israelis are restarting their settlements processes. At the same time, Fatah has started a reappeasement process with Hamas, and they have appearantly agreed upon the procedures for new elections. As Israel sees Hamas as a terrorist group, and so does the EU and the U.S., it might be difficult for Abbas to have a normalized relationship with Hamas, and still negotiate peace talks with Israel.

Abbas has said that the peace talks will end if Israel restarts the building of the settlements, but the Palestinian president has called a meeting with the Arab League on October 4th to discuss the situation, and review his options. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that his intentions for peace are genuine. The big issue still remains that as long as the Israelis are building settlements in the middle of the West Bank, the more unlikely will we see a two-state solution to this conflict. And even if the peace talks will be somewhat successful, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip will still be in conflict with Israel, as Israel only recognizes Hamas as a terrorist organization.

However, the U.S. pressure to keep the peace talks going might be the extra push to the backs of both the Palestinians and the Israelis (at least to get back on track). The U.S., in the long run, is hoping that the parties will go back to negotiate the Arabian Initiative from 2001/02 that said that if Israel will withdraw from the occupied areas, there will be a total peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a meeting with the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. Syria is essential in this, considering that Israel still occupies the Golan Heights. Even though such an agreement may seem long ahead in the future, it is a beginning.

Well, last Thursday, we officially launched the Hope Not Hate/20,000 Dialogues Film Series that has been months in the making, and is only just getting started! Oh, and by “we” I mean not just AIDemocracy, but also our invaluable partner, Unity Productions Foundation (UPF).

Our first screening took place at Busboys and Poets and we screened Prince Among Slaves, a documentary about an African Muslim prince that was enslaved in the American south. It was actually my first time seeing the film, so I was just as anxious as the audience was, and at the conclusion of the screening, the film did not disappoint. I encourage everyone to see it if you haven’t already. Contact UPF for more details about acquiring a copy. Afterward, we then conducted a dialogue session about the film, the issues it raises, and how it relates to contemporary society and our relationship with Muslims and Islam today. UPF, through their 20,000 Dialogues program, has conducted approximately 300 dialogues so far, and we look forward to working with them to continue increasing that number.

Read the rest of this entry »

Good news!!!  Just yesterday, the UN passes a resolution to make the right to water and sanitation a human right.  As I mentioned in my last post on the subject, this means that not having access to clean water and/or sanitation can be considered to be a violation of human rights — something that requires international action according to the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

According to Food and Water Watch, 122 states in the UN voted in favor of the resolution, and 41 abstained from voting on it.

The bad news in this, is that the US abstained from the vote.  Water rights are still not a priority issue for the US, perhaps because it is something so removed from our experience.  Whatever the reason is, there needs to be more work done on this issue to ensure that the next time water rights come up in the UN, the US does not abstain from the vote.

This resolution is non-binding, meaning that states are not required to take action yet.  However, this movement is an important first step in making a binding resolution concerning the right to water and sanitation.  9 states have already included the right to water in their constitution.  This is a growing movement, one that is essential to development, to human rights, to the environment, and to creating a more just and sustainable world.  So while the passing of this resolution is just a small step in the long run, it is a tremendous small step that can lead to so much more!

Here’s a link from a BBC article that tells a little bit more about the resolution.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I love water.  My master’s thesis is centering around women and water, and I could talk about the benefits of keeping water public for days.  For these reason, I am truly excited about the fact that the right to water and sanitation is being considered by the UN as an addition to the Declaration of Human Rights.

Water is necessary for life — not only for the physical necessity of keeping hydrated, but also for the the daily tasks like cooking, cleaning, and sanitation.   Access to clean water and sanitation can prevent fatal diseases that have plagued the developing world for years and survive only in memory in the developed world.

In the recent decades, water has been increasingly privatized, making it difficult for those not in power to have access to clean water.  In South Africa, the private companies charge way about the income level of the poor; in other countries the water systems are not maintained, leaving broken pipes and pumps that don’t work.  These situations force the people to go back to drinking the dirty water that causes diseases like dysentery or cholera.  Even in the US, our water systems are in danger of being privatized by corporations looking to make a profit (or take the bottled water industry…selling our water back to us in little plastic bottles).

Read the rest of this entry »

“It’s only by God’s grace that you survive pregnancy.” This statement, made by a 19-year-old girl in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), illustrates the incredible situation of women in sub-Saharan Africa with little or no access to reproductive health care. The statistics are staggering: every year, approximately half a million women around the world die from pregnancy related causes. More than half are in sub-Saharan Africa, almost all are in impoverished countries, and most deaths are avoidable. Think about the women in your life – how many people do you know who have needed an emergency C-section because the baby was breach or the labor was taking too long? Issues like obstructed labor and post-partum hemorrhage occur with women everywhere. In developed countries, they lead to scary moments and extra medical care.  In the developing world, they often lead to death.

Dire as this situation is throughout the developing world, it is much worse in areas of conflict. Here, women are subjected to the additional burdens of violence and displacement. Emergency response to conflict areas usually consists of extremely basic supplies – food, clean water, sometimes first aid and shelter. But reproductive health services are just as important.

Yesterday I went to a film screening in DC to watch BBC Documentary “Grace Under Fire”, which focuses on Dr. Grace Kodindo, a Chadian Ob/Gyn who travels to the DRC to observe the special needs of women in conflict areas. The film was followed by a panel and Q&A featuring Dr. Kodindo, Mr. Clarence Massaquoi of Liberia, and Dr. Bouba Touré of the DRC. The film was fantastic and the information I learned was staggering. You can watch an excerpt of the film on YouTube, as it was televised on BBC. Read the rest of this entry »

Yesterday I wrote about the Global Gag Rule and its effects on abortion rights and services around the world. What I didn’t write about was the Helms Amendment,  which has been in effect since 1973 – it followed right on the heels of Roe v. Wade as a conservative backlash to the legalization of abortion in the US.  The Helms Amendment prohibits the use of US foreign assistance funds to pay for “abortion as a method of family planning, or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortion.” Although this amendment is slightly less far-reaching than the Gag Rule, it also has a huge detrimental effect on the availability of safe abortion services to women around the world. Currently, approximately 67,000 women worldwide die each year as a result of unsafe abortions, and millions more are seriously injured. Check out this article by IPAS to get a better idea of how the Helms Amendment violates human rights and inhibits other nations’ efforts to provide abortion services in their own countries.

The Helms Amendment is the Foreign Policy equivalent of the Hyde Amendment,  a domestic policy which prohibits federal funding from being used to pay for abortion. Read the rest of this entry »

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