In June, I spoke on behalf of MADRE at a conference in the Dominican Republic amplifying the international call to end violence against women.

The forum, sponsored by the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development (GFDD) in solidarity with the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence, was an effort to bring speakers from different backgrounds to discuss strategies for combating violence against women and the various ways that it manifests, including in armed conflict and post-disaster scenarios.

Natasha in DR

Natasha speaking on MADRE’s work with our sisters in Haiti.

During my presentation, I highlighted MADRE’s work addressing post-disaster incidents of sexual violence in Haiti. Our partnership with KOFAVIV, a grassroots organization established by rape survivors in Port-au-Prince, is an example that sexual violence in conflict and post-disaster situations is often anticipated, and thus can and should be protected against.

KOFAVIV provides the women they serve with access to medical attention, counseling and human rights training. While MADRE’s support in providing capacity assistance, technical and legal advice demonstrates the need for the international community to pay attention when women’s lives are threatened and to demand accountability.

As MADRE continues our decades-long work supporting women NGOs and their struggle to claim autonomy in all its facets, we ask that you stand with us and support us.  Now is the #TimeToAct.

Natasha Time to Act

Natasha, third from the right, joining other presenters on calling for an end to violence against women.

 

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan is a human rights attorney who practices both litigation and international human rights work, including the domestic implementation of human rights norms.  She has worked on gender and racial justice issues, including access to reproductive health, sexual violence and violence against women in conflict zones.

 

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What we wrote, read, listened to, remembered, watched and were inspired by last week.

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When I began my internship this summer, I was eager to apply what I learned in the classroom to the office, but as a student of Mount Holyoke College, I felt even more compelled to combine the skills I had learned at a women’s institution to the MADRE cause: using human rights to advance social justice for women worldwide.

MADRE, a well-respected women’s organization, introduced me to the world of human rights advocacy. As an intern for the Human Rights Legal Advocacy team, I learned how to coordinate tasks in response to humanitarian crises, how to use grassroots campaigning to advocate for women, and how issue-based advocacy can be used as a mode of social reform. MADRE staff work around the clock to meet urgent needs. On my first day, I was encouraged to directly jump into the work of MADRE, reporting on protests in Turkey and analyzing reviews of violence against women in Guatemala. From there, my learning experience continued: reviewing legislation to advance women’s rights in Haiti, drafting work for a documentation training manual in Iraq, and researching transitional justice in Colombia. I became inspired by the work I was doing and as time went on, I began to understand what makes MADRE an exceptional institution.

Much like my academic environment, MADRE is an all-female staff in which women work tirelessly for their partners. This is an environment where women seek challenges and assume leadership roles, where women are not afraid to speak their minds and argue, where women are committed to working in partnership. As a previous intern had said, MADRE demonstrates the true meaning of a working family. In crisis at home or abroad, these women support one another and do not let difficulty define them. They move forward, using the present to build the future.

My internship this summer has been an incredibly formative experience. From the advocacy team, I learn that law, research and active reporting are key aspects in identifying what needs to be done to alleviate human rights abuses. On a professional level, I am on my way to making a career in global advocacy for marginalized communities. I want to thank the MADRE staff for teaching me the value of working towards a cause and for renewing my belief that women really do have the power to demand rights, resources and results not just for women, but for all people worldwide.

 

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UPDATE: Since this blog entry was originally posted, there has been a further escalation in the violent threats targeted against our partners at KOFAVIV. More information here.

In the dark, early hours of August 23, unidentified armed men arrived at the home of Malya Villard Appolon, KOFAVIV’s General Coordinator, and fired several rounds of bullets into her front gate.

Malya in front of her gate, riddled with bullets.

Malya in front of her gate, riddled with bullets.

Although the police responded quickly, the assailants escaped. On September 4, three other KOFAVIV staff members were held at gunpoint near the KOFAVIV Center. The assailants sped away with the staff members’ wallets, cell phones, and the keys to the KOFAVIV car which the organization uses to transport rape survivors to the hospitals and to the courts. On September 15, Malya came back to her house to find that both of her dogs had been poisoned.

These attacks are the latest in a series of escalating threats against KOFAVIV workers and their families.

Since the shooting, MADRE has maintained daily communication with KOFAVIV, working closely with co-founders Malya and Eramithe Delva to enact a security plan. MADRE alerted members of the media, human rights networks and international partners about these threats. On September 4, MADRE staff traveled to Port-au-Prince to meet with Malya and Eramithe to hone legal and organizational strategies in response to the attacks.

MADRE will continue to support them through this difficult time. We’re thankful to be part of a strong community of organizations working on behalf of women human rights defenders in Haiti and around the world.

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As violence against LGBTI people surged in Haiti, MADRE worked closely with our partners to track these human rights violations and advance a strategy to confront them. We’re glad to see that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a regional human rights body, seized the moment to put out this statement:

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the recent wave of violence against lesbians, gays, trans, bisexual e intersex persons (LGTBI) in Haiti, allegedly linked to a march against homosexuality led by the Haitian Coalition of Religious and Moral Organizations (Coalition Haïtienne des organisations religieuses et morales) that took place on July 19, 2013 in Port-au-Prince. The Commission urges the Haitian government to investigate and take urgent and effective measures to stop these acts of violence and discrimination.

According to the information received by the IACHR, between July 17 and 24, there have been 47 cases of violence and aggression and LGTBI persons or perceived as such, including attacks with knives, machetes, cement blocks, rocks, and sticks. According to the information received, some LGTBI persons or persons perceived as such have received death threats, and their houses have been burned down or looted.

Click here to read the rest.

In French.

In Spanish.

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Today, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riot that lit the spark of the gay and transgender civil rights movement here in the United States, MADRE takes a moment to pause and reflect on the momentous Supreme Court decision that struck down the legally enshrined inequality of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the change we see sweeping across not just one nation, but the entire world.

MADRE is based in New York City, just a few miles from the Stonewall Bar. We were founded by a courageous group of women who recognized that the oppression and inequality they faced was a mirror image of the oppression and inequality so many others faced worldwide. Today we stand on the shoulders of those women, and the view is very different.

Today, we and our family members, friends and colleagues have rights we did not have only a few days ago, and beyond the respect and dignity of being equal under the law, the security those rights afford to all of us, and our families, is tangible and real.

As we celebrate these victories with all our hearts, we see the work still to be done. In May, our New York City community was shaken when two gay men were attacked in Midtown, then another was murdered in the West Village, only to be followed by another assault in the same neighborhood.

In Haiti, we are supporting our partners as they cautiously, and at great risk to their own safety, begin to build a movement for equality in the face of brutal violence against those whose sexual orientations or gender identities do not conform to a narrow standard.

When President Obama spoke hopefully of the future of equality while visiting Senegal this week and of the inspiration he draws from the example set by former South African President Nelson Mandela, Senegal President Macky Sall stated publicly that he has no intention of de-criminalizing homosexuality in his own country, where being gay can result in imprisonment and torture.

As our thoughts are with Mandela now, whose country legalized equal marriage in 2006, we draw strength and hope from his words:

I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

This week, we have seen some of our humanity restored. To ensure that our humanity, equality and rights are kept safe across the globe, the struggle continues.

To find out more about MADRE’s work on LGBT rights in Haiti, click here

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This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and like many of you, I will spend it at home with my family. I’m looking forward to the home-made cards and presents from my kids, and maybe the great gift of sleeping in an extra hour. As I enjoy this time, I’ll also be thinking of the Syrian mothers I just met in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Like mothers everywhere, their first priority is to ensure their children’s safety. That’s why many of them fled their homes in the first place. Now, as their families grow destitute as refugees, many mothers feel that the only way they can provide for their teenaged daughters is to marry them off. “I would rather see her married than hungry,” said Leila of her young daughter. “I just pray that this man will be kind to her.”

A young activist in a local Jordanian women’s organization told me, “This was supposed to be a revolution for freedom in Syria. But for the girls there is no freedom. Instead there are men from the Gulf countries lurking around the refugee camp looking for child brides.”

In my work with women around the world, I see mothers face choices like Leila’s every day.

After an earthquake devastated Haiti, millions of families were displaced from their homes. Mothers put up makeshift tents in huge public encampments with no running water, no security, and no lights at night. When an epidemic of rape swept through the camps, mother were their children’s only line of defense. “I stayed awake through the nights,” Louise  told me. “I had to choose between sleeping or keeping watch over my two daughters. I held a broken bottle for protection and positioned it to dig into my arm if I fell asleep.”

The mothers I met in Kenya were also forced to make decisions no parent should have to face. Severe drought over recent years has decimated herding communities in East Africa. As animals died off and water for even basic survival grew scarce, more and more families resorted to trading daughters for dowries, in some cases to ensure the survival of the rest of the family.

War, natural disaster, environmental crisis. No matter the threat to their children, mothers fight back.

In Jordan, Syrian mothers who are refugees are working with local women’s groups to protect the health and well-being of their daughters and provide safety and shelter for their families.

In Haiti, mothers organized community watch groups in the tent camps and reached out to rape survivors with healthcare and counseling through the women’s rights organization, KOFAVIV. A bill they put before the Haitian parliament would create Haiti’s first age of consent and criminalize marital rape for the first time, protecting their daughters now and throughout their futures.

In Kenya, mothers helped create a network of shelters as a place for their daughters to receive an education and enjoy their childhood, protecting them from female genital mutilation and forced early marriages. They call these shelters the Nanyori Network. In Swahili, Nanyori means “You are loved.”

This Mother’s Day, I’ll be thinking of these women, mothers just like me, facing unimaginable hardships. I’ll be thinking of their strength and their dignity, of their dedication and unfailing love. As the poet Alexis De Veaux has written, “Motherhood is more than the biological act of giving birth. It’s an understanding of the needs of the world.” Fighting to meet those needs, all around the globe, is what mothers do.

(This post originally appeared on RH Reality Check.)

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This time of the year last year, I was over-the-moon pregnant with Lucia, a baby girl who brought joy and big smiles to our families, friends, and of course to our partners in different regions who joined us in celebrating the birth of my first daughter!

This time this year, we are celebrating my first Mother’s Day with Lucia. And the fact that Mother’s Day is approaching made me reflect on what this day means personally to me. On one hand, I feel that it is not that important to celebrate a particular day, a commercial day after all. But at the same time, it made me remember the struggle of mothers around the world who deserve recognition and a day to celebrate, to receive love from their sons and daughters, a day that makes them special.

Just this week, my colleague Sahita and I met with mothers from Central America who confronted violence and the disappearance of their daughters and sons during a period of political violence in the 1980s. They have not reached justice or received recognition of their ongoing struggle. I remembered the mother in a remote community in rural Kenya who told me she did not have enough money to send her daughter to school, but still resisted the pressure to marry her off as a child bride to ensure her future. I thought of the mother in Haweeja, a small village in Iraq, who is desperate to get rehabilitation and treatment for her four-year old disabled son, who cannot walk. I was also reminded of the different situations that mothers face every day: mothers in Syria pressured to sell their daughters into early marriage to feed younger children and to save the girls from rape, mothers in Haiti protecting their daughters from sexual violence in the displacement camps, mothers in Colombia whose children were abducted by armed groups and forced to serve as child soldiers. Those are real stories of mothers who confront everyday discrimination, situations of poverty, violence and injustices. Those women deserve better, deserve a day of recognition and so much more.

We at MADRE celebrate the courage of all those mothers who are determined to move forward in the most discouraging circumstances, to change the conditions in their communities, to change cultural practices, to open up opportunities for their daughters. I hope I can contribute to making a better world a reality for all mothers and teach the importance of this work to my Lucia… I hope Lucia can be as determined as all these women to fight for a better future for all mothers, all daughters, all families around the world.

This year and every year, when you celebrate Mother’s Day, celebrate for your mother and mothers in your life, and all the mothers that are trying to make a difference in the world!!

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I recently attended an event at the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, on “Women, Peace, and Security: Elusive Opportunity for Afro-Colombian Women in Conflict Zones.” It focused on violence against women and security in times of so-called peace and in times of war. The panel featured four women from four different organizations: Black Communities Process: PCN, Global Rights, The Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and AFAB (Association of Haitian of Women in Boston).

Carline Desire, the executive direction of AFAB, is dedicated to promoting Haitian women’s rights. She reminded us how instrumental the role of women was in the revolution that led to the independence of Haiti in 1804 yet how brutally they were and are treated. A strong wave of women’s rights protests emerged in the 1990s with thousands of women marching through the streets of Port-au-Prince demanding more political representation, only to be violently rebuffed. Rape has been used as a tool of political suppression and a virtual epidemic has emerged since the earthquake in 2010. Economic insecurity has also led to sexual exploitation, as women are forced to exchange sex for food.

Carline added, it is essential to raise awareness and work on providing education for girls, vocational trainings for women and gender education for young boys and girls in the school system.

This was a point of convergence between Carline and another woman on the panel: Charo Mina Roja, the director of PCN. She emphasized the disconnect that exists between different parts of Colombia. Colombia has the fourth largest economy in the Latin American region, yet there are rural areas that are disproportionately poor compared to very rich regions of the country. Colombia has signed all the international agreements on women and children’s rights yet minorities like Afro-Colombians (which she is a part of) are constantly marginalized, Afro-Colombian women are significantly unequal to non-Afro-Colombian women, and Colombian women in general are constantly assaulted. As Charo put it, “women cannot be women” because of the violence imposed by the paramilitaries who constantly use them as targets to prevent any political action.

A woman in the audience posed a thought-provoking and inevitable question: what can we do to change these circumstances? The program director at the CWGL emphasized a principle that MADRE holds dear: she reaffirmed how important it is to partner with local groups and grassroots organizations to help women meet the needs on the ground that they themselves identify. Charo Mina Roja added that raising awareness is essential and international solidarity is very important. Carline ended by reminding us that NGOs cannot intervene in other countries by imposing their own frameworks: women need to be empowered, need to speak for themselves and should not let others speak on their behalf. We need, in other words, to make big international organization shift their paradigm and focus on giving women the help they say they need, not the help outsiders think they need.

The women at this panel were all incredibly inspiring in their commitment to promoting peace and security within their communities. Not only are they dedicated to women’s human rights but they are also proactively fight to give women a voice. As Carline put it, “We do not need charity but solidarity”. At MADRE, we fight every day with our partners around the globe to promote such solidarity.

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In a refugee camp in Afghanistan, a six-year-old girl named Naghma has had her future traded away.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, her father wasn’t able to pay back a $2,500 loan. Now, as payment, he feels forced to give Naghma up to be a child bride to the lender’s son.

Child marriage and selling girls are against the law in Afghanistan. Yet, that’s not enough to protect Naghma.

This is such a stark reminder of a core lesson of our work. It’s not enough to have laws on paper to protect women’s rights. We need action to make sure the laws are implemented.

I’ve seen the power of that lesson firsthand in Haiti, where MADRE partners are organizing to pressure their government to take a stand against violence and discrimination.

This month, I’ll be traveling to a refugee camp where Syrian women and families are also struggling to survive. Some have made the same desperate decision as Naghma’s parents — to trade their young daughters away in marriage. I’ll be meeting with local activists who are speaking out against child marriages and organizing to create alternatives. I look forward to reporting back to you about what I hear from our partners there.

Update: An anonymous donor has reportedly paid the family’s debt, allowing Naghma to stay with her family. Across Afghanistan, countless other girls will not be so lucky.

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