Friday, September 12, 2014

Navigating India: Reconciling Law and Culture

On the Delhi Metro, there is always one carriage that is designated for women only.  A cheerful, pink sign, reading “Women Only,” helpfully corrals the female lot to one-quarter length of the platform.  To my cynical mind, the purpose of the segregation is to protect women from the wayward hands, if not gazes, of men.  And so, when traveling alone, I always found myself standing obediently under the “Women Only” sign -- but not without a certain level of self-consciousness.  Yes, I am a woman, and therefore I will relegate myself to the confinement of a gender-specific train carriage.

I frequently observed university-aged girls in the female car chatting away with their male counterparts standing in the accordion tube shaped train divider (technically still in between cars, so as to not trespass the invisible barrier), and I would wonder whether the two were strangers who happened to strike up a conversation or, the more likely scenario, the two were in fact acquainted but still entered separate cars out of the need to be separated by some imperceptible force field, and then reunited in a mutual safe space where they would be chaperoned by the probing gazes of their respective carriage mates.  

Later, some of my Indian colleagues would explain that the segregated cars were as much for the protection of the male passengers as the female passengers.  Reserving one train car for the exclusive use of women, and leaving the remaining four or five cars to men, was a necessity, lest in the hustle and bustle of the congested train cars the men should feel intimidated or embarrassed by the presence of women, who they might accidentally touch --- or worse.

In other words, women must be isolated from men on public transportation, as much to preserve the dignity and modesty of men -- should women be unleashed into their private space -- as it is for their own protection.

I suppose that's one way to look at it.

I worked this past summer at the Delhi office of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), home to a cadre of lawyers, activists, community organizers, and nuns who work on public interest initiatives as varied as prisoner's rights, environmental justice, and communal violence.  My first assignment was to examine the tensions between two recent Supreme Court decisions affecting the country’s sexual minorities.  Later, I would be dispatched to the state of Uttar Pradesh – home of the Taj Mahal, the great holy city of Varanasi and, as it turned out, a relatively sizeable transgender and transsexual population – to investigate the impact of the rulings on the affected members of society.

In April, the Supreme Court of India had passed a landmark decision giving third gender status to the country’s transgender citizenry, known in some areas as hijras and others as kinnars.  The Court noted that gender identity was a matter of self-determination, independent of doctors and psychiatrists, and declared that transgender individuals belonged to a so-called “backward class,” which entitles socioeconomically disadvantaged groups to affirmative action programs in state education and employment.  

Even as the transgender community made seemingly landmark strides toward achieving greater human rights, however, just four months earlier the Supreme Court had upheld a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality.  That same law, Section 377, was later cited by the Court in the April decision as an instrument of discrimination against transgender people. 

The contradiction is stark: even as the highest court gave recognition to the fundamental human rights of the transgender community, it also denied the right of that same population to engage in “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” by upholding Section 377. 

Looking down into the atrium of the Delhi High Court.

I grappled with these fundamental gaps and inconsistencies in logic, not only as a law student but also from the na├»ve eyes of a novice tourist in India.  Why is my rickshaw driver pedaling against the flow of traffic, intentionally subjecting us to the onslaught of Tata trucks and auto rickshaws?  Why is the Supreme Court hearing over 30 cases a week a measure of its success, rather than an indication of the failures of the legal system?  How can the nuns working at HRLN advocate for women’s justice even while maintaining a staunch opposition to reproductive rights – both vibrant initiatives of the organization? 

I still don’t know.  I can’t wait to go back and find out more. 

Ghana: Forever Indebted, Forever an Advocate of Human Rights, Forever African by blood, American by birth

I was so excited for my summer in Ghana, I had packed a week in advance for my trip, leaving the toiletries on my dresser out until the very last morning. Saying goodbye to everyone was easier than I thought, don't get me wrong I was going to miss my family and friends a lot, but Ghana was awaiting my arrival. I was eager to see the motherland, the country that so many of my ancestors were taken from. I had fantasized visiting Ghana for so many years, it was a different feeling than what came over me when I had first visited my direct ancestral home, Jamaica. Both of my parents were Jamaican, and as a first generation American I was very aware of my roots as a Jamaican and very intune to the culture. In fact I traveled back and forth throughout my life, enjoying the beach, the food, the sweet reggae melody tunes playing for the speakers at a nice day party and the beautiful island people. Jamaica was always a great time, a time where I would visit my relatives and see where my parents grew up. But, Ghana was going to be epic, it was going to be my first time going to the country where Africans were literally captured, traded, and sold into slavery before coming to the NewWorld. I was actually going to touch down on a land that was a big piece of my history and my story as a African American whose descendants came from Jamaica prior to be taken from Ghana.

I was going to Ghana to learn about my history, to see my foreign relatives who I had only read about in history books. I was going to Ghana to become a proactive member of the community, one who was eager to learn about human rights and to see what role I could play. When I arrived in Ghana, it was more than I had ever hoped it would be. It was beautiful, the red dirt on the ground reminded me of the countryside in Jamaica. The people were beautiful and very friendly. There were even times I was mistaken for Ghanaian, and I would say I was born in the States but I too was African. In my first two weeks in Ghana I partiipated in a Fordham Law class, International Human Rights, it was my way of introducing myself formally to a topic that I was deeply interested in. Those two weeks of classes were a great segway into the work that I would be doing.

I began my real work interning at the Commission of Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ). It was mandated by the Constitution of Ghana. It is the national institution for the protection and promotion of fundamental rights and freedoms and administrative justice in Ghana.  It investigates complaints of violations of human rights and injustices.

Working at CHRAJ was an amazing experience. I spoke with everyone and I learned from everyone. I was open to listening to everyone's story, to everyones experience working with an organization like CHRAJ and what drew them to work in human rights. CHRAJ was completely different from my International Human Rights class. I took that class with Ghanaian students as well as with students from all over the States. However, most of the Ghanaian students weren't interested in practicing human rights law, most were interested in corporate law. So, to intern at CHRAJ with people who were genuinely interested in fighting against corruption, against human rights abuses, against ones freedom being taken away, was really a breath of fresh air.

At CHRAJ, I was able to understand the day to day functions of a national institution with a huge responsibility of tackling a multitude of complaints of human rights abuses. I was able to meet with the Commissioner on many occasions and speak with her about everything, from her take on being the first woman Commissioner, the challenges she faced as a woman in a high position amongst a majority male dominated Commission, and Government and to her mission and goal of working as a Commissioner for a national institution as CHAJ. She invited me to sit in on high-level meetings where I saw firsthand the talks behind the doors of 'big weights' discussing the next steps of the Commission, their strategies to tackling serious human rights issues and developing programming to educate organizations and people outside of the main city of Accra.  I sat in on the Directors meeting to see which cases they would accept and which cases they rejected. I was able to hear and understand the process and reasoning for accepting cases. I was allowed to offer my opinion and give feedback to the Directors. I attended the Conference on Torture and most interesting to me the Conference on Business and Human rights. The conference addressed the role of NGO's, businesses and government entities in addressing how their operations and practices may be violating peoples human rights and individual freedoms.  That conference in particular was divided into three separate day sessions. It was deliberately done that way to speak with each individual group--NGO's, Businesses and Government entities to see what their take on the matter of business and human rights was and to see what role they could play in decreasing their role in contributing to human rights abuses. It was an amazing experience to meet people from completely different industries and hear their take and to see the power in human rights becoming a growing topic that was not only being spoken about, but addressed head on.

My time at CHRAJ allowed me the opportunity to learn about the structure and function of a human rights agency. I was able to see a possible glimpse into my future as a potential international human rights lawyer. I attended court hearings and saw the impact and role that lawyers and judges played in the legal system. But, the most rewarding part of my experience at CHRAJ was engaging in conversation with CHRAJ employees about their experiences working at CHRAJ, hearing about their commitment and dedication to working in the field of human rights.

My time in Ghana was spent immersing myself in a culture that was all to familiar to me. I was able to see how Ghanians described human rights. Human rights was described by the injustices faced by communities living in the same areas that mining was prevalent in; human rights were injustices community members whose communities were taken over by businesses from, without permission from the people who lived there, to operate and conduct business. In the midst of doing businesses communities were broken down, the members were disrespected and belittled, their livelihood was taken away from them, and there was little relief and resources for those same community members.  I ultimately learned how connected I felt to a country that I had never visited and to a group of people I had never met.

Outside of my work experience, I was able to visit towns and villages outside of the capital in Accra. One of the most memorable places that will stick in the mind for the rest of my life was my visit to the slave castles. I was always a fan of watching movies and documentaries that spoke of my history as a descendent of slavery. I would often cringe at the sight of the slave master beating a slave; seeing the inhuman treatment of a race of people that I belonged to; and seeing how helpless yet resistant we were during those trying times. But, I must say being in a slave castle, being inside a dungeon in darkness, being on the literal grounds of my ancestors was overwhelmingly difficult. It was almost unbearable as those dungeons had retained a smell of those who died, shed blood, and were held in captivity there. As they conducted a tour and showed me where the slaves were beat, where they were held if they resisted slavery, where the woman were raped if they resisted in any form, I couldn't help but to cry. My tears were for the pain and torture my ancestors had suffered. My tears were for my ancestors who had survived and fought against the institution of slavery and bred life into me. Being at the slave castle was  one of the most moving and difficult experiences of my life. Ghana gave me purpose, it gave me a drive to not give up against injustices and abuses experienced by disenfranchised and underserved populations, it led me to futher understand how deep rooted and how much work was needed to relieve people who were still subjugated to being deprived of fundamental human rights.

Ghanaian culture epitomized the essence of my identity as an African woman. I now understand my roots on a completely different note, I understand that I am an African empress because they sacrificed for me. I am American by birth, African by blood and extremely proud of my ancestry. As a woman with so many identities, I am forever indebted to Ghana and as I continue to step into my future, I will continue to fight against human rights abuses. I will continue to stand up for what is right and what is wrong. As a direct decedent of slavery, of those who were taken from Ghana, I feel a responsibility to stand up tall as an advocate for HUMAN RIGHTS.

Ghana could not have treated me better, could not have taught me more as an African born in America.

Bangladesh Beyond the Rana Factory Collapse

Generally, Bangladesh does not appear to receive as much attention as its neighboring countries such as India, Nepal, and Burma.  Maybe because it is not as much a travel destination as the other countries or because it is still a relatively new state created in 1971, although the Bengali people date back thousands of years.  Whatever the reasons, it deserves more attention both positive and negative.  Bangladesh is a dynamic place. It is among the top ten most populated states with a population of 170 million people in a country the size of New York State. The capital, Dhaka, is one of the most densely populated cities with hundreds of thousands of bike rickshaws, getting paid about a dime a kilometer, clogging up the streets along with the three wheeled taxis, cars, and seventeen million people.  Although I lived in Hong Kong for many years, it was still a bit of an adjustment getting used to the environment in Dhaka, which included two to three hour commutes to work for a drive that should take twenty minutes. During those long commutes, my foreign colleagues and I would complain about the traffic, a severe source of distress for the locals, and speculate on curious issues such as why people don’t seem to walk in Bangladesh, was it because the rickshaws were so cheap or because there are no sidewalks to walk on or just a cultural thing.

Recently, Bangladesh is probably most well known because of one of the worst industrial disasters in the garment industry - the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza that killed over 1,000 garment workers and injured many more. As I have an interest in business and human rights, it drew me to Bangladesh because it is the second largest exporter of ready made garments at China and has poor working conditions not only exemplified by Rana Plaza but other collapses and fires dating back many years. But it was not only that issue which drew me to Bangladesh, I wanted to discover a country that does not receive as much attention beyond the negative headlines. 

What I found were people working hard to make their country that is one of the poorest outside of sub-Saharan Africa a better place in face of an environment of impunity and struggle. The organization I worked with is one of the leading legal aid organizations in Bangladesh. Headed by a dynamic and eloquent leader and dedicated staff, the organization has many projects and services to help a wide range of people, including females, workers, prisoners, the poor, and minorities.  The organization has also filed many public interest litigation cases to hold the government and other responsible parties accountable for their actions on many different issues.

In the case of Rana Plaza, the organization filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court asking for an investigation and prosecution of those responsible, and helped victims file claims for compensation. I interviewed different stakeholders to understand what justice would entail in response to a disaster like Rana Plaza.  Especially for the workers, it was about dignity, being treated like a human being rather than an expendable commodity.  All too often, especially in a nation with such a big and overcrowded population, the lives of people, usually the poor and marginalized are devalued. The law only requires the payment of a little over USD1,200 to the family of victims of work related deaths. Why should their lives be valued less than others?  Accountability of those responsible was also important to the victims and other stakeholders such as labour lawyers and trade union activists.  But the close ties between the garment industry and government hinders accountability. Also when the government itself has failed to execute its role of regulation and enforcement, accountability is even more illusory. There are improvements, however, as the building owner of Rana Plaza and others have been arrested. But with such worldwide attention, the government probably had little choice. But up to this point no one in the past few decades has been convicted for work related disasters, even though more than five thousand workers have died in the past decade in the garment industry.

Being in Bangladesh, an Islamic country, was also eye opening from a gender perspective.  As my fellow female foreign colleagues would point out they felt at times uncomfortable because of what they had to wear and the stares and attitudes of men.  I often would notice that when meeting men they would only shake my hand and not those of my female colleagues.  Not only did those gender difference manifest socially, personal laws also favor males especially when it comes to marriage and inheritances. 

I very much valued my experience working and living in Bangladesh as it helped me understand and learn a bit more on how to work in an environment that is very different, where the formal legal system often may not work and cultural differences may require navigating a different approach to advocacy and work.  What will always remain with me is the hard work of my local colleagues and their energy and integrity to continue working in such a challenging environment.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Unaccompanied Children, Choice, and Limitations of Legal Relief in the United States Border

The city of New York’s defiantly high Trump Tower in Columbus Circle was the epilogue to my daily underground train ride, to my internship at the Feerick Center for Social Justice, in a car too full of people. Oftentimes, the struggle for train space would flare into a protracted argument spectated by many who are too squished in to be able to do much about it. I walk from the train to the Feerick Center office through a street with a few merchants. That street seemed to find a way to fill itself with people, however. People on the streets optimistically look for a friend to hand them fifty cents to ride the train.

My work with unaccompanied children and the media-proclaimed “surge” took me to San Antonio, Texas. Over there, the streets and the skyline were nearly empty. Most people were privileged to spend some of their fossil fuel reserves on transportation. The people were so friendly that the most oppressive feature about the city was the humid heat. San Antonio is home to The Alamo, a former mission, hospital, and military post that now serves as a reminder of the absurd and horrific outcomes that could come from disputes over land. In the Battle of Alamo, defending Texan settlers suffered a horrific loss in the face of a Mexican government that so brutally asserted its power on lands over which it had claimed prior ownership. Mexico had occupied a large portion of the Western United States for years and Mexico wanted to keep its claim. It is exactly the sentiment of “I was here first and I get to control what happens,” including violent action and depravation, that has later set the stage for children to be confronted with a loss of control over their own choices.

The basic questions of “who owns the country” or “who is a national” is the question that underlies immigration law and policy. Countries answer this question in different ways. In the United States, the question often gets answered by the sentiment of “I was here first.” The notion of being “here first” grants the citizens extensive powers and privileges including the very basic presumption that they have the right to stay. Having the right to stay necessarily extends to having the right to have amenities to be able to live their lives – basically they have the privilege of human rights.

Because the hierarchical racial structure in the United States is so clearly rooted in American culture, it affects the logic and reasoning of state policy, including immigration. The idea that the American national is a descendant of a white, male, landowning ancestor causes a powerful presumption of who was or was not “here first.” Although the sentiment of prior ownership is what is asserted as a justification for citizenship, it is a claim that comes from the presumption that historically only one particular “race of people” was “here first.” Yet, it does not survive scrutiny when history is actually examined. When I walk down the street and meet my fellow Filipinos in New York, it may be with a tacit understanding that most of our families made the migration journey from the Philippines to the United States recently. However, down in Louisiana, a Philippine-descended American may have had Filipino ancestors in that area since before the conception of the United States. Since the galleon trade involved the Philippines and Mexico in 1565, Philippine sailors had frequently jumped ship and stayed in America. The earliest Louisiana settlement of Filipinos is said to have been around since 1763. For some unaccompanied children, their claim to being “here first,” or having an ancestor who had been so may be even stronger.

The justifications that are “acceptable” and the forms of legal relief available are so limited that it can inhibit the freedom to choose and deemphasize the agency of the migrant. In reading their stories, I found that many of the children were brave agents of their own path. They dared to follow a guide or journey on their own in pursuit of a goal and in pursuit of a choice. However, those goals and choices are not the focal point of our immigration law, which concerns itself with the justification or excuse of why someone who is not “here first” should be “allowed” to stay. For example, a person may be “allowed” to stay because they would endanger their life otherwise. Similarly, a child may be “allowed” to stay because he or she would otherwise not have a “proper” home or family. When forms of relief and the child’s choice intertwine, there is no problem. In many other instances, an opportunity for development in the law arises.

I questioned whether to devalue the primacy of the child’s choice due solely to the type of legal relief available to them. For example, I witnessed many cases where the child had a case for a grant of legal relief on the basis of neglect and abandonment or abuse. The way the story goes is that the father abandons or abuses child, often due to alcoholism or death from gang violence, and the mother who does not work may be considered “neglectful” because mother does not work and child is left to earn money for the family by farming at age 12. However, this point of view obscures the role of the child’s choice. Equally often, I witnessed those same cases with the children declaring that they started working because they had a strong desire to support their families – a brave choice that should be respected.

As the person helping to write the case summaries, I felt a palpable tension between doing my best to explain the facts in a way that aligns neatly with the form of relief available and feeling like the factual narrative I was weaving was actively taking away pieces of the child’s life that they themselves had deemed important. Of course, I am not saying that there is necessarily a willful attempt at depressing the choices of the children. In fact, a practitioner with whom I spoke specifically told me about how they made a decision to pursue a strong asylum claim for the child instead of SIJS. The reason for that was the child did not want to rule out his ability to petition for his parents, despite any abuse, neglect, or abandonment they may have inflicted upon him.

Nevertheless, some tension continues to exist because of the framework of the law – focusing less on the choice to migrate and more on what justifiable reason they have for being “allowed” to stay. As the United States struggles to discard its former racial hierarchy, it still needs to find answers to the question of who we are and who we should respect. A good place to start is to respect all humans, who, whether adult or children and from any part of the world, deserve and have inalienable and unassailable rights. All humans have a choice that should be respected. All humans have the right to migrate.

I came out of my experience in San Antonio and New York City with a lot more questions than answers. I return to Fordham with a better sense of the tensions that underlie American culture and society, and a plan to do more about it. Hopefully, the different perspective I bring as a resident Filipino national can help guide their path towards a more racially equal society.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Men As Domestic Violence Victims

The experience I gained this summer working at the Pace Women's Justice Center's Family Court Legal Program is invaluable and extremely rewarding. The Family Court legal program is designed to help victims of domestic violence obtain same day orders of protection through ex parte proceedings. As interns we performed client interviews, drafted family offense, custody and child support petitions and represented clients during the initial proceeding under the supervision of a staff attorney. Through this experience, I learned that a lot of myths about domestic violence are untrue, one of them being that men are not victims.

I will admit, I was suspicious when I talked to my first male client however, as the summer went by and more men came in, I realized that men are as affected by domestic violence as women. One of my male clients was a depressed father of a 3 year old girl who was doing all he could to save his marriage and provide a safe and healthy home for his child. His wife was physically, psychologically and emotionally abusive. He was the most broken and defeated client I had all summer. That day I realized that we did not have a lot of male clients not because they don't exist but because due to societal stigma, male victims do not report abuse from fear that they failed to conform to the social macho stereotype, I also learned that male victims usually lack support from friends and family and most of them deny their victim status.

I shared my sentiments with a few friends and one of them told me "it is never okay for a man to hit a women but it is okay for a woman to hit a man". After noting that  domestic abuse could be psychological, emotional, sexual and financial.  My first question was WHY? Why should we overlook a women hitting a man but persecute a man for hitting a woman? It should never be okay for an individual to hit another. Women hit men in self defense however, there are women out there who get away with physically abusing their male partners on claims of self defense. Men are hardly recognized as victims of domestic violence because they are considered strong but, physical injuries are not the only effects of domestic abuse. They too, feel extremely shamed, frightened, guilty, and experience loss of self worth and confidence. 

The most important thing I've learned from Pace is that, anyone could be a victim of domestic violence. Victims span across every sex, race, social status or sexual orientation. As a society we can do our part by getting rid of our narrow perceptions. It takes a lot of courage and strength for victims to admit that they need help and when that happens we need to help them figure out positive ways to move on with their lives. Men might be most common abusers but we should never downplay the seriousness of the abuse experienced by male victims.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fighting Impunity in Nepal

Stella Gilliland
July 25, 2014

Advocacy Forum
Kathmandu, Nepal

             Pooja welcomes me each morning with a quiet greeting, hands pressed in a prayer position. She hands me my morning milk chai. Mornings in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, are raucous occasions of barking, construction, and street hawkers advertising their wares.  The mountains ringing the valley are sometimes visible at sunrise, before the haze descends.  Later, just as the afternoon heat is becoming unbearable, the monsoon rains come.
            Pooja is Advocacy Forum’s “didi” (literally: sister), or caretaker.  She cooks Nepali staples for lunch, dhal bhat or maybe mo: mos, the office staff crowded around the plastic table in her small kitchen.  The still afternoons, punctuated with cups of sweet black tea, seem worlds away from the violent conflict that marred the country less than a decade ago and continues to define the Nepali justice system.           

            The decade-long conflict between Maoist insurgents and the Nepali government ended with a ceasefire agreement in 2006.  An estimated 13,000 Nepalis were killed, many of them civilians, women, and children.  The country has struggled to heal and rebuild, hindered by corruption, a bickering and fractious civil society, and entrenched impunity for even the grossest human rights violators.   Despite recent strides in infrastructure and education, Nepal remains one of the poorest, most corrupt, and least developed nations in the world.
            The legal system, especially, continues to feel the growing pains inherent in a post-conflict democracy.  Various committees struggle to replace the 2007 interim Constitution.  The much-anticipated Truth and Reconciliation Commission was finally passed in April, only to be met with domestic criticism and much pooh-poohing by the international community. Cases languish in dilapidated court halls, often postponed dozens of times, over multiple years, or else are dropped after petitioners succumb to bribery and threats.  Judges, in their distinct black caps, write their opinions by hand and verdicts are delivered on traditional Nepali parchment. 

            My work here with Advocacy Forum has centered around litigation for victims of extrajudicial killings and torture.  Advocacy Forum is a national NGO that advocated strongly for victims and their families during and after the conflict.  However, many extrajudicial killing cases stalled after local authorities refused or simply ignored court orders to begin investigations.  Despite continuous pressure from the government and military (frequent threats, onerous compliance laws), Advocacy Forum continues to represent victims and seek new strategies to end impunity for human rights violators and to compensate victims.
            Conducting research in a developing country is an exercise in patience.  Court visits consist of long hours spent waiting, only to hear that the case has been postponed yet again.  Power cuts occur daily, sometimes for up to 14 hours a day.  Generators fall victim to the ubiquitous gas shortages. 

            Despite the frustrations, my experience here has been transformative.  To live in Nepal is to confront daily the scars and challenges of a post-conflict society.  People speak openly of their wartime experiences, of torture and loss but also optimism and national pride.
            I will return to the U.S. with a deeper understanding of how cultural and historic idiosyncrasies can shape a legal system, how international attention can drive domestic litigation, and the importance of a functioning civil society.  When I return to Nepal, as I surely will, I will be excited to see progress towards the pluralist democracy envisioned by the Nepali people.