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.

Where are the Adolescent Girls?

Amid the recent outcry over the separation of children and their families at the US border, the Trump administration has released photo after photo of detained adolescent boys. At first, however, there were no images released of adolescent girls.

After reporters, elected officials and the public began asking #wherearethegirls, the administration released a few carefully cropped images of detained girls. Wishing to avoid further outcry, they selected photos of girls who appear healthy and well. First Lady Melania Trump might even describe them as “very happy”, as she described the detained children she visited last week.    

Despite the pretty pictures and First Lady’s eyewitness account, I do not believe that all, or even most, of the detained adolescent girls are healthy and well. I’ve worked in enough humanitarian emergencies to know that adolescent girls – especially those who are separated from their families – are at risk of sexual abuse, trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence. Although we would like to pretend otherwise, the humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border is no different. All of the same risks are thrown into the cauldron, and adolescent girls feel the heat more acutely than anyone else.   

As in every humanitarian emergency, in this border crisis girls between the ages of 10 and 17 seemed to have vanished under our nation’s radar. The US Government lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children last year, so it is not a huge jump to worry that the few pictures and scant information on the girls that have been released might be all of the information that exists.

The Department of Health and Human Services revealed that some girls have been sent to shelters with boys in Homestead, Florida and Bristow, Virginia. Other reports indicate that some are being sent to foster care in New York City. Those places seem random to me, but perhaps they are selected precisely because they are random. They are a long, long way from the border and a long, long way from where their parents are detained – if these girls even are in Florida, Virginia and New York.  

At the risk of being accused of focusing on the extreme, I worry about trafficking. Each year, over 300,000 children are trafficked in the US. Although these children come from different backgrounds and include boys, I’ve never seen a refugee crisis in which girl children weren’t trafficked.

In the US, the networks and demand to enable trafficking already exist, and here we have a population of girls taken from their parents and placed in a system that criminalizes their existence. The Trump administration has also created a narrative that these asylum seekers are subhuman, which heightens their risk of abuse and exploitation.  

We call out the unjust and inhumane treatment of babies and toddlers, using what we know about early childhood development to understand the trauma being inflicted upon these young children. But we stop short of using what we know about gender-based violence to understand what’s going on with the absent girls. We ask the questions, but stop short of stating the obvious: many of these girls are being assaulted, abused and exploited. We recently learned that a facility in Houston is accused of medicating children, and yet there is no outcry about what that means for girls. Men, drugs and power have never resulted in anything positive for women and girls.

This administration has consistently undermined and dehumanized women and girls, and women and girls of color and migrant women and girls have taken the worst of it. Although I often feel helpless amidst the tides of violations carried out by this administration, I know helplessness gives space for continued human rights abuses.

Ultimately, it is our right to be seen and heard regardless of our race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status or ability, and this applies to girls as well as to those who care about what’s happening to them. ‘We the people’ includes all of us, and I believe that ‘we the people’ includes those girls who are out there, somewhere, depending on other people’s voices until they are in a space to raise their own.

As much as we are able, we should support organizations working specifically with women and girls, like the Women’s Refugee Committee and the Tahirih Justice Center.

Continue to follow Girls’ Globe for more coverage on this and other issues pertaining to the rights of women and girls globally.  

France’s Prostitution Ban: One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?

The French have a long history with prostitution. From Madame du Barry to the paintings of Degas and Picasso, prostitution has been celebrated as an inherent, and even glamorous, part of French culture.

But in 2016, the reality of the practice is starkly different. Now, the majority of prostitutes are trafficked, often immigrants fleeing political or economic hardships only to find themselves at the mercy of an often abusive sex trade.

In response, France has criminalized sex work. The law takes a more modern approach: the guilty are no longer the workers, but the clients. Someone caught buying sex can now be fined a whopping $1,500 euros (USD $1,700) and repeat offenders can be slapped with a $3,750 (USD $4,260), according to Vocativ.

Criminalizing the sale of sex is a moral minefield. On the one hand, the women’s empowerment movement advocates a woman’s right to do whatever she wants with her body; that means the right to say no as well as the right to say yes, for compensation or not.

Sex workers are protesting the decision, publicly rallying with signs declaring that their work is legitimate, and the new law will have negative consequences for their safety and social standing. Indeed, in other countries, criminalizing sex work has pushed it to the darker underground, and legally working prostitutes now face a hard decision about staying or continuing in their field.

At the same time, the problem of human trafficking is so widespread and devastating that it is difficult to oppose efforts to cripple the market that drives it. Lawmakers have been clear that the main motivation behind the bill is to curb the sexual exploitation of women. France’s thriving sex trade has increased demand for a steady stream of sex workers: willing and unwilling.

Sex trafficking is one of the most degrading forms of modern slavery. Rachel Lloyd, the founder and CEO of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York City, wrote in The New York Times:

There are an estimated30,000-37,000 sex workers in france.“As a teenager, I worked in Germany’s legal sex industry. I was, like many girls in the club, underage; most of us were immigrants, nearly all of us had histories of trauma and abuse prior to our entry into commercial sex. Several of us had pimps despite working in a legal establishment; all of us used copious amounts of drugs and alcohol to get through each night.

Violence is inherent in the sex industry. Numerous studies show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of children and women who end up in commercial sex were sexually abused prior to entry. No other industry is dependent upon a regular supply of victims of trauma and abuse.”

There are no easy answers to problems of violence against women, and no one way to empower women. France is taking a holistic approach, not stopping at punitive measures, according to Thomson Reuters. Those caught soliciting prostitutes will be required to take a course which raises awareness of the sex trade. Additionally, prostitutes who want to leave the profession will be given temporary residence status and financial support.

At a time when Europe is struggling with the moral and financial implications of taking in refugees and citizens are increasingly hostile, it is heartening to see France embrace not only the rights of its women, but every woman.

Feature photo: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso

Equal Nationality Laws Are Vital to Realizing Girls’ Rights and Security

This post was written by Catherine Harrington, Campaign Manager for the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, on behalf of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls.

At first glance, laws governing nationality rights might seem irrelevant to securing the rights and security of girls across the globe. But, in reality, when countries deny women and men equal nationality rights, it can result in serious violations of girls’ most basic human rights.

Nationality laws dictate one’s ability to acquire, change, retain and confer nationality. Today, 27 countries deny women equal rights to pass their nationality to their own children. Over 50 countries maintain some form of gender discrimination in their nationality law, including denying women the right to pass nationality to foreign spouses.

When women are denied equal rights to confer nationality to their children, children with foreign fathers are at risk of being left stateless – a status whereby no state recognizes the child as a citizen. Children may be unable to access their father’s nationality for a variety of reasons. In Nepal, a country where roughly one in four persons lack entity documents, if the mother cannot prove the father’s Nepali nationality, the child is denied citizenship by descent. Similarly, Syrian women who give birth inside the country do not have the right to pass citizenship to children unless the father is stateless or does not legally recognize the child. Syrian women who give birth outside the country do not have the right to pass citizenship to their children under any circumstance.

With countless Syrian refugee women separated from their husbands and giving birth abroad, a new generation of stateless children born to displaced Syrian women emerges. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these discriminatory laws discriminate against women, though a small number of countries deny unmarried fathers equal rights to confer to children due to outdated notions of gender and parenthood.

While discriminatory nationality laws can result in significant hardships for all members of a family – and ultimately hurt society as a whole – the impact on girls is especially damaging because of compounding discrimination faced by girls, their resulting lack of voice and overall inattention to girls’ needs.

  • Children without nationality often lack access to education, are denied entrance to university and are prevented from acquiring professional licenses upon adulthood. If they are allowed to attend school, they may be forced to pay higher fees. Because of persisting gender stereotypes, families with limited resources often prioritize boys’ education over girls’.
  • Children without nationality are often denied access to healthcare systems and social services. This means that adolescent girls who lack citizenship are denied access to essential sexual and reproductive healthcare.
  • Gender discrimination in nationality laws is linked with child marriage. Due to the lack of opportunity and insecurity experienced by stateless girls, some families view early marriage as a route to greater security for their daughters, who can access citizenship through their husbands.
  • Stateless girls are at a higher risk of being trafficked.
  • Already marginalized girls without citizenship know that as adults they will lack a political voice and be banned from running for office.

At a time when the international community is increasingly recognizing the vital role girls play in achieving peaceful, prosperous societies, gender discrimination in nationality laws prevents girls across the globe from realizing their dreams, securing their rights and fully contributing to society.

Gender equal nationality laws are critical to realizing a world where girls’ rights and security are protected. The good news is, with all of the complicated challenges facing the world today, ending gender discrimination in nationality laws is relatively simple with the political will.

In the past decade, over a dozen countries removed gender discrimination from their nationality laws. In some instances the addition of just two words to the law, “man or woman,”* can fix this unnecessary problem. The Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights is part of a growing movement of organizations – including multiple members of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls – activists and political leaders working to ensure that nationality rights are based on citizenship, not gender. We invite you to join us in this important effort. Gender discrimination, like statelessness, has no place in the 21st century. Girls deserve a future where neither exists.

*Countries have amended their laws in the following manner to eliminate gender discrimination in the law: “The child of a [nationality] man or woman is a citizen; the spouse of a [nationality] man or woman may acquire citizenship.”
Photo credit: UNHCR Photo Unit


What’s Missing In the News

This past year, so much has happened in our world. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced due to wars and conflict. In the United States, the news is dominated by interesting political debates and the increase in mass violence. After a quick scan through news feeds, it’s difficult not to feel jaded. Thankfully, globally, we have seen some positive stories of change, specifically for women and girls. We’ve seen strides to combat child marriage, movements in Gambia to make FGM/C illegal and the one-child policy in China repealed.

While these are incredible strides for women, girls and communities when reviewing your latest news feed do you ever wonder,  “Is there something missing?” Everyday, I pour over articles and blog posts and think, “What are the stories I am not hearing about?” What stories are being underreported or simply not talked about? This year, I want to highlight topics related to women and girls that often get lost or aren’t included as frequently as other stories in the headlines and mainstream news.

So what’s missing from the news, this month?

Human Trafficking Awareness

Wherever there is movement of people, war, conflict and economic distress there are individuals, mainly women and young girls who risks of being trafficked and sold into slavery. Sex trafficking  along with forced labor are two of the most common forms of trafficking affecting millions of young women and girls each year. The month of January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. While much is being done to raise awareness and combat this issue, I have not seen it mentioned this month in mainstream media news headlines. Let’s not allow this issue to become a forgotten topic or something trendy that fades. This is a real issue that effects countless young women and girls every single day. To shine a light on slavery check out the End It Movement or watch The True Cost film.

Funding Bill provides needed increase for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault programs in the United States

One in three women have been victims of some form of physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. ONE in THREE. These are our sisters, friends, mothers, and neighbors. One in fifteen children experience family violence every year. A new funding bill, addressing domestic violence and sexual assault was recently passed in the United States. This bill brings much rejoicing to those who are advocates for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The bill specifically provides 15 million dollars in funding to support women and their children seeking safety at crisis shelters. With this level of funding, more services can be offered and crisis shelters supported.

What issues or inspiring stories do you think are missing from the news?

Share your suggestions with us in the comments or on Twitter!

Cover Photo Credit: Got Credit, Flickr Creative Commons

Amnesty’s Policy Decision Makes Their Human Rights Stance Questionable

In August, Amnesty International made a u-turn in terms of protecting the rights of women and girls around the world with their policy decision to endorse the decriminalization of prostitution and all aspects of the sex trade – despite the global outcry of women’s rights organizations.

Along with several survivors, organizations, and the European Women’s Lobby, the Swedish Women’s Lobby calls out Amnesty International to no longer stand for human rights as the global organization now stands behind the trade of humans.

Julie Bindel, who exposed the internal plan of Amnesty to campaign for the decriminalization of the sex trade and forced the organization to oversee their decision, writes that some women inside the organization were unable to convince men within Amnesty that decriminalization of the sex trade would harm women in prostitution. She writes,

“The right of men to buy sex appears to be paramount according to Amnesty.”

Amnesty International has addressed the critique by stating that through decriminalizing the sex trade, they will be able to support the health and rights of sex workers who no longer would be forced to go under ground to do their work.

There are several serious concerns about Amnesty’s approach to the sex trade. Amnesty’s policy to decriminalize the sex trade…

  • promotes impunity for those who financially and sexually exploit women, making it close to impossible to hold any traffickers, pimps or purchasers accountable.
  • leads to an increase in trafficking of human beings. This has already happened in states that decriminalized procuring of prostitution (Germany and Netherlands).
  • legitimizes a patriarchal structure that makes women’s bodies available for men’s sexual use.

Furthermore, this decision by Amnesty International takes a strong turn against many existing and established women’s groups and human rights organizations at the local and international levels that work against all forms of sexual violence, including rape, trafficking, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Here are a few things you can do today: