Standing with Syrian Women and Girls

Last year on the anniversary of the Syrian Civil War, I wrote about the disappearing girls in Syria.

A year later, the whereabouts of many women and girls are still unknown. There are an estimated 3,000 missing Yazidi and likely as many missing Christian women and girls. We don’t know exactly how many women and girls are missing because their disappearance isn’t always reported. This can be due to fear, stigma around trafficking, and forced marriages.

Girls and women have been abducted by various forces throughout Syria, but sexual slavery and forced marriage are a key part of ISIS ideology.

In December 2014, ISIS publicly released guidelines – even putting them in a pamphlet for mass distribution – on keeping slaves. In 2015, they followed up with more detailed guidelines on when and how they could sexually assault and rape enslaved women.

That same year, they systematically attacked Assyrian villages, capturing Christian women and girls as young as nine. Women from Bangladesh and other countries have also been trafficked into Syria. In 2016, the group trafficked thousands of Yazidi women and girls from Iraq to Syria.

Women and girls in Syria, like women and girls in all conflicts, suffer disproportionately. Meanwhile, the world largely ignores them.

This week, Nadia Murad wrote an article: Prioritizing ISIS over Survivors. She asked why the global community spends so little “on the survivors, on healing their wounds and communities, on freeing them to live again?”

But women have mobilized themselves. Many fought to escape ISIS, some losing their lives in their battle. Survivors tell stories of enslaved women supporting each other to find subversive forms of resistance.

Women created spaces and even villages, like Jinwar, for women and children only to ensure their freedom and protection. One third of Kurdish combatants are women who engaged in direct battle with ISIS and are responsible for liberating ISIS-held areas of Syria like Raqqa. If one positive thing emerges from this this relentless and brutal war, it is women liberating women.

As the last ISIS stronghold breaks down, ISIS fighters are being forced to release hundreds of enslaved women and girls. Yet many will never be free.

As I know from working in conflicts, when a power is defeated the people who practice its ideology don’t go away. They simply go underground.

As ISIS loses political control, men with enslaved women and girls can keep them by false claims of marriage, including “short contract marriages.” These “marriages” are a type of trafficking, where girls and women endure systematic rape by one temporary “husband” after another.

Still, sometimes what is happening in Syria bleeds into our own communities. A Google search of “Syrian girls for sale” shows that the distance between injustice in Syria and in our communities may not be that far after all.

It hurts to feel that we can do very little to stop the widespread sexual violence in Syria and support released survivors. Yet disconnection and powerlessness are illusions. We can have an impact on human trafficking in our corner of the world, and the shared struggle, shared purpose and shared values link us with women and girls a world away.

Here are a few ways that we can all fight against human trafficking:   

– Learn the signs of human trafficking, and know local reporting protocols.

– Volunteer and support anti-trafficking organizations in your community.

– Buy products from organizations that employ and support survivors, like my personal favorite survivor-focused enterprise, White Field Farm.

– Let your local and national government know that you care about the freedom, safety and dignity of girls and women. Choosing which pressing social justice issue to fight for can be overwhelming, but speaking out about other issues does not preclude speaking out against trafficking.

– Remember that sex trafficking is one type of trafficking. Others being forced labor, domestic servitude, debt bondage, and use of child soldiers. Learn your slavery footprint, and work to reduce it.

As some Syrian women and girls are being released and as others remain enslaved, we have to be careful not to link this type of mass exploitation with the Syrian war.

Trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls exists everywhere.

To end it globally, we must expose and fight its local forms. In doing so, we are participating in the global struggle for freedom and dignity of women and girls. By standing with survivors right where we are, we stand with them everywhere – including in Syria.

The Untold Story of Violence Against Female Migrants

In a time of global upheaval, from economic catastrophes to devastating civil wars, the issue of immigration is gaining importance the world over. The UN reports that last year, there were an estimated 232 million migrants worldwide, a sharp increase from previous years.

Additionally, the face of migration has morphed. While the typical image of a migrant was once a male worker, in some regions, women now make up more than half the number of immigrants coming into countries. In addition to the harrowing journeys they must make, these women face increased risk of sexual assault, trafficking, exploitation and abuse.

Immigration March in Washington, DC | c/o SEIU
Immigration March in Washington, DC | c/o SEIU

The United States has absorbed the highest number of immigrants in recent years, and thus has a high rate of trafficking and human rights violations in immigrant populations to contend with, especially along the US-Mexican border.

A rarely told story is that of female migrants who endure sexual assault from employers in foreign countries, smugglers across borders and even male migrants travelling with them. Jude Joffe-Block, a reporter working with border and immigration issues, shared with NPR that some migrant women are told to start birth control when travelling. She related the story of 43 year-old Maria Salinas, who attempted to cross the border into the USA, stating:

“Salinas says at first, she was confused why a coyote at the start of the trip would offer her and other women birth control. Later on, it made sense because the coyotes know what they’re going to do in the middle of the desert…Once Salinas started walking with the group, she couldn’t keep up. One of the coyotes said he’d wait for her, but only if he could have sex with her daughter. They refused, and he abandoned them. They only survived because they found Border Patrol.”

Salinas’ situation is not unique, and she escaped the eventual fate of many who cross borders only to be exploited. Isolation, low literacy rates, language barriers, gender bias, poverty, few job opportunities and lack of resources or knowledge of rights contribute to women’s vulnerability.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that the average age of victims is as young as 20, and they are often forced into labor or servitude by coercion or physical force. The ACLU describes the physically and psychologically abusive tactics used to control women once they arrive in a new country:

“Trafficked victims are often beaten and brutalized, raped and sexually abused. Victims also frequently are deprived of adequate food, shelter and sleep…Traffickers commonly subject their victims to psychological abuse through threats, deprivation and isolation. Traffickers may threaten to kill or harm victims or their family members if they do not do as they are told. Very often traffickers deprive victims of freedom of movement by isolating them in the workplace and cutting off their contact with the outside world.”

Women immigrants have little agency and often limited options in seeking help.  There have been heartening moves to address this, such as the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women act, and agencies established to educate and aid immigrant women. Advocates have begun spreading awareness of the issue, with influential voices like Gloria Steinem chiming in. However, an unacceptable percentage of the immigrant population is still at risk for or currently trapped in slavery and sexual exploitation. Much more attention needs to be paid in ensuring the rights of these women are upheld and that they are provided some form of protection, regardless of their legal status.

To learn more about this issue, you can visit:

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

 

Takeaways from the Somaly Mam Scandal

Image courtesy of Flickr user MyVanillaWorld
Image courtesy of Flickr user MyVanillaWorld

I remember reading Somaly Mam’s stories in Half the Sky and The Road of Lost Innocence as a sophomore in high school. I remember feeling horrified and heartbroken by the traumatic experiences that she shared – experiences that reflected an egregious reality of ongoing sex trafficking and forced prostitution in Cambodia. I remember being inspired by her unfailing commitments to end modern slavery as the CEO of AFESIP Cambodia and the Somaly Mam Foundation, and remember expressing unchecked admiration as she “rescued” trafficked women and girls in brothel raids. I remember voicing my enthusiasm when a friend of mine said that she spent her summer volunteering with AFESIP Cambodia; recall showering compliments on my peers as they organized a local fashion show last April with all proceeds going to AFESIP.

And I remember all too well the incredible shock I felt when I read the Newsweek exposé two months ago, which revealed that her stories were fabricated; remember being unable to conceal my disappointment when the article mentioned that Somaly Mam encouraged girls to lie about their experiences and be depicted as victims of child prostitution.

For me, the Somaly Mam scandal has unveiled more than carefully cultivated untruths and exaggerations; it has also revealed a regrettable fall in journalistic standards. In addition to the fact that journalistic platforms like The New York Times, CNN, and TIME have failed to validate claims and conduct necessary background checks before presenting reports, this incident has shown that issues affecting women and girls – namely prostitution and sex slavery – often elude appropriate media attention. Simple, yet honest, testimonials from survivors of trafficking always fail to make newspaper headlines. Unfortunately, only when overblown tales of exploitation and abuse bedecked with images and video clips of gouged eyes and crying children are presented to reporters, can these highly relevant issues finally come to the fore and be recognized by our society.

Sensationalist and overdone, embellished and eye-catching, but at what cost? For one, false reporting has elevated Somaly Mam, allowing her to sit alongside a pantheon of anti-trafficking heroes. In the aftermath of these allegations, these well-intentioned anti-trafficking heroes have also been cast into a web of suspicion, simply because of their association with Somaly Mam. Somaly Mam’s deception has the potential to foster a “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” mentality and drive donors away from anti-trafficking initiatives due to justifiably overwhelming doubts about the integrity of the movement.

I will stress that Somaly Mam’s lies and exaggerations must not tarnish the good work or divert attention from the positive impacts that other anti-trafficking organizations and their leaders have achieved. Hundreds of organizations like Nepal’s Freedom Matters, Cambodia’s Agape International Missions, and the International Justice Mission, have ineffably exposed the horrors of the sex industry and helped women and girls who have been trafficked reintegrate into society. For their efforts to be sullied by one isolated scandal would be lamentable – to say the least.

An even more serious corollary of the need for sensationalist stories, however, is that attention is drawn away from the larger issues at hand: Sex trafficking and forced prostitution. I would like to emphasize that this debacle should encourage journalists to maintain a standard of ethics when reporting – just because someone claims to be a victim of human trafficking, does not mean that he or she is one.

In foregrounding falsified stories of Somaly Mam and the girls that she “rescued”, reporters inadvertently fail to spotlight the experiences of millions of women and girls across the world, who face the brunt of forced prostitution and slavery every day. When journalists stick to the over-hyped statistics, funds, and figure-heads, they stop women and girls who have survived trafficking from accessing the help, resources and funding that they genuinely need.

We must never stop believing that the sex trade can and will be uprooted — but for this eradication to take place, women’s voices must be amplified and valued. Even now, it is so difficult for a woman who has survived physical or sexual violence to be heard. Together, we must send the message that speaking out about abuse is not something to be ashamed of, and that having been abused in the past is not something to be ashamed of. The people who should be ashamed of themselves are the loathsome human traffickers and sex offenders – not the courageous, resilient survivors of slavery.

It’s also imperative that journalists take a departure from sensationalist tales, and not only report straight from unbiased, unfabricated data and testimonials, but also call for positive change in their writing without relying on the obligatory “blown out of proportion” statistics and overdone images.

I know there will be a day when writers do not silence the experiences of women who have been trafficked, simply because of the taboos attached to sex trafficking, or because the monetary profits of writing an unadorned, unexaggerated piece on forced prostitution are not high. Because the profits that arise when women and girls are empowered to raise their voices in the name of social change, I assure you, are far greater than profits borne out of deceptive writing, when one considers the bigger picture. I hope that that such a time will come sooner than later. Until then, we must keep making small steps towards positive change, and continue clamoring for these women’s voices to be heard.

Featured Image courtesy of Fortune Live Media on Flickr.

#BringBackOurGirls

Photo Credit: Naijamayor, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Naijamayor, Flickr Creative Commons

The world was shocked when on April 14, Boko Haram Islamic militants burst into a school in the Chibok community in Borno state, Nigeria. The militants kidnapped 276 girls from their beds. Only 53 girls managed to escape, and 223 girls are still missing.

Schools should be places students can learn without fear.

In Northern Nigeria, girls endure violence to receive an education. In 2008, the net enrollment of girls in secondary school was 22%, which is less than a quarter of girls receiving a secondary education. Child marriage is rife, with 78% of girls marrying by age 18. The region also has the highest rate of fistula in the country.

Boko Haram has led a murderous campaign against education in Nigeria. In Borno state alone, more than 800 classrooms have been destroyed. Boko Haram, which translates to ‘Western education is a sin’, does not want to see girls attend school in Nigeria. The story of Boko Haram is not new. Like the Taliban, and various other terrorist groups that have attacked girls’ education, they are afraid of the power of an educated girl. They are afraid of the power of education. The independence and freedom of women and girls terrifies them. It is their fear that leads to them suppressing the power of girls.

Educating girls has been proven to be the highest return investment for solving poverty. An extra year of primary school boosts a girl’s income by ten to twenty percent. An extra year of secondary school boosts a girl’s income by fifteen to twenty-five percent. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. Children born to educated mothers are twice as likely to survive past age five. Educated girls are more likely to change the world.

Why would Boko Haram be afraid of girls’ education, when there are countless benefits?

It is believed that the Islamic militants have had mass wedding ceremonies where they forced the girls into marriage. It is also believed that they have sold some of the kidnapped girls for 2000 naira, or $12. Not only have these girls been denied their right to an education, but they have been forced into a marriage, against their will and have been trafficked.

No girl should be denied access to a quality education.

No girls should be forced into a marriage.

No girl should be trafficked.

The world needs to wake up to the severity of this issue. The voices of the 276 girls kidnapped can not and should not be silenced. The voices of the 276 girls kidnapped can not and should not go unnoticed. The voices of the 276 girls kidnapped and should not be ignored.

The kidnapping of the Chibok girls could have happened anywhere. It could have been your daughter, sister or even your niece. Recently, eight other girls have been kidnapped by the militants, highlighting how serious of an issue this is and why the International Community must get involved. We need to stand up for the Chibok girls so that this mass abduction will not inhibit the school attendance of other girls.

Stand up for the Chibok girls so their voices can be heard.

Stand up for the Chibok girls so they can return to school.

Stand up for the Chibok girls so they can be freed.

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Cover Photo Credit: Rosemary Lodge, Flickr Creative Commons

More Than Just a Cover Story

Child marriage. Labor and sexual exploitation. Human trafficking.

Society ignores these topics all too often. Major news outlets may occasionally touch on the issues one day, only to forget they exist the next. And the next. And the next.

After all, why should we discuss complex global dilemmas that lack a quick fix when we can gossip about Miley Cyrus’ newest fashion statement?

What are we, as a society, actually doing to end these human rights violations?

Enough with the feigned interest. It’s time to take action.

Today, Catapult launched its new ad campaign appropriately titled Cover Stories. This incredibly powerful campaign markedly sends the message that global issues are more than ‘just a cover story.’ We need global action and we need it now.

I’ll let these Cover Stories speak for themselves.

Image c/o Catapult
Image c/o Catapult

TAKE ACTION AGAINST CHILD MARRIAGE

Image c/o Catapult
Image c/o Catapult

TAKE ACTION AGAINST LABOR EXPLOITATION

Image c/o Catapult
Image c/o Catapult

TAKE ACTION AGAINST HUMAN TRAFFICKING

This International Women’s Day (March 8th), join Catapult in supporting efforts to empower women and girls around the world.

Real change comes from the ground up. Let’s work together and change the world.

Click here for a full list of Catapult projects.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Shine a Light on Slavery!

Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to attend Passion 2013 and be a part of the End It Movement launch. I attended the conference on behalf of She Is Safe who was a 2013 Freedom Partner.

The End It Campaign was birthed from a movement of 60,000 college students who chose to shine a light on injustice and slavery. The mission of the movement is to ignite this generation to take a stand for the 27 million women, children and men who are currently enslaved in bonded labor, forced prostitution and domestic slavery. The End it Movement supports several coalition partners, including one of our featured organizations the International Justice Mission.

The crowd fell silent as 60,000 lights illuminated the night. It was powerful to experience such a large number of young people shining a light and taking a stand against one of the most pervasive injustice issues of our time.

This year I continue to take a stand against injustice, shine a light and raise my voice for those that are enslaved. As I wrote in a recent post, I believe that empowering women and grassroots initiatives is essential to combating modern day slavery in India and around the world. I am happy to join fellow Girls’ Globe bloggers as we continue the conversation and declare that we are in it to END IT!

Diane Fender, USA: Believes in freedom for those enslaved.

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Blogger Diane Fender #enditmovement #shinealight

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Justine Stacey, Canada: Shines a light on slavery!

Julia Wiklander, Sweden: Rise Up. End It.

Emma Saloranta, Finland: Supports the End It Movement!

Want to Shine a Light on Slavery?

Follow @enditmovement on Twitter and Instagram!

Visit their website to learn more!