Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Powerful, Peace-Building Latin American Women Take the Podium

By: Abby Bowman, Program Assistant, Fall 2019

In late September, the already-dim lights of wooded Gaston Hall flickered along with the excited buzz of a room full of Georgetown students, professors, Ambassadors, and family members who had traversed seas and countries to see their loved ones receive an award. This journey was more than justified; their mothers, spouses, and sisters were not simply receiving a trophy, but were being honored with a 2019 Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for Advancing Women in Peace and Security.

The Honorable Michelle Bachelet, Virginia Martes Velásquez, and Rosa Anaya were the recipients of this year’s awards, and while the crowd certainly rose to their feet on several occasions throughout the morning as these women took the stage, the applause and energy that echoed through the hall when The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton herself approached the podium was without doubt exceptional.

The morning began with introductory remarks from John DeGioia, long-time President of Georgetown University. DeGioia applauded Clinton’s career-long commitment to women, and thanked her for the manner in which she has contributed to Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS).

The event’s eponymous icon then took the stage, energizing the young, female-heavy crowd in the most “Hillary Clinton” of ways. She strung together the common theme of the international empowerment of women, particularly highlighting Eleanor Roosevelt’s unparalleled achievements involving the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Greta Thunberg’s now-iconic, “How dare you?,” from the UN Climate Action Summit in September, and of course, Nancy Pelosi’s recent country-shaking call-to-action to impeach the President.

As Clinton moved out of the spotlight, Melanne Verveer, Executive Director of the GIWPS, and former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, began the presentation of the awards. In introducing Bachelet, she emphasized the two-term President of Chile’s close ties to human rights abuses. Although her intense and descriptive repetition of the personal traumas that Bachelet endured under the Pinochet regime was a bit strange (and caused visible discomfort for most in the room – including Bachelet), Verveer’s point was clear. It would surely be difficult to find someone more qualified for – on top of being more personally connected to – what can be considered the most esteemed position in the international sphere for the defense of human rights.

Bachelet assumed her role as the seventh United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on September 1, 2018, mere months after concluding her second term as the Republic of Chile’s first female President – and her accolades do not stop there. She also served as Chile’s (and Latin America’s) first female Defense Minister, after serving as the country’s Health Minister. Beyond her country’s borders, her accomplishments are truly reaching, including notable experiences with the ILO, WHO, and EWEC, as well as serving as the first Director of UN Women. Her dedication to human rights, memory, and gender equality within her country are evident, but her impact has more than certainly reached the world stage as well; perhaps most powerfully after her UN appointment last year.

While Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachelet are major household names for anyone with any awareness of international affairs, the world may not be so familiar with Virginia Martes Velásquez and Rosa Anaya. However, these women are doing critical work to promote women, peace, and security in their home countries, and the ripple-effects have been, and will be, felt across borders.

Virginia Martes Velásquez (lovingly, “Marta”) works in Choloma, Honduras; arguably the most dangerous city in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Velásquez has been organizing and empowering women since her early 20s; now, 50 years later, she heads an organization that legally and psychologically supports women who have survived violence in varying aspects. Specifically, the work she has done since 1990 with her group, MOMUCLAA (Movimiento de Mujeres de la Colonia López Arellano, or Women’s Movement of the López Arellano Area), has made measurable local and national changes, and the perseverance and courage she must demonstrate on a daily basis is truly unfathomable.

The final award recipient of the morning was Rosa Anaya, who has been advocating peace in El Salvador for the past two decades. She currently heads Segundas Oportunidades (Second Chances), which rehabilitates inmates in prisons across El Salvador. Her history with peace and justice is also quite personal; she is the daughter of two Salvadoran champions for human rights, and she shared the story of her immigration as a child to Canada, and then to the United States. Today, Anaya and her team create workshops that target the breaking down of toxic masculinity, and promote positive, productive futures for inmates. Anaya and Segundas Oportunidades have assuredly achieved their goal of creating communities that foster citizens who are “promotores de paz” (“promoters of peace”).

The event closed with a panel discussion moderated by Verveer, which included the three awardees and Clinton. Verveer directed one pre-selected student question to each woman, with topics ranging from the specifics of the Afghan peace process to the generalities of how to best approach each day knowing the great breadth of the struggles that still lie ahead for women’s progress.

A sense of both urgency and despair was woven throughout all of the questions: I know that paying attention to women is a great key to improving the world, and I want to help.  What now?

Let us strive to live by High Commissioner Bachelet’s concise charge: “We need to mobilize, hold firm, and advance”.

-         Abby Bowman, Georgetown University M.A. Latin American Studies ‘20

Program Assistant, United Nations Association of the National Capital Area

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Restrictions on Asylum Seekers at the Border are Ineffective, Harmful

By: Sean Coffey, Development and Advocacy Program Assistant, Summer 2019

In 1939, the Saint Louis ship sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, along with the hopes and dreams of over 900 Jewish refugees to escape the horrors brewing across Western Europe. The boat, scheduled to dock in Cuba, was re-routed to the shores of Florida after government officials in Havana revoked their necessary transit visas. The refugees could see the shimmering lights of Miami on the horizon, and many believed a new life was upon them. However, the United States decided to close its doors on these Jewish refugees, forcing the Saint Louis to return to a perilous and war-battered Europe. Nearly a third of the passengers would be later found murdered during the Holocaust. This would mark one of the darkest moments in this nation’s history.

Shortly thereafter, the United States made a promise to “Never Again” repeat this grave mistake and to welcome those fleeing persecution and mass violence. The US would not let those on the Saint Louis be forgotten, ever again. Nearly a century later, another group of people are pounding on America’s front door with similar fears and echoing stories.

Over the past year, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) have apprehended nearly 363,300 migrant family members from the US-Mexico border. Many are leaving behind family members and friends to escape rampant gang violence and political persecution. Yael Schacher from Refugees International, a refugee advocacy organization based in Washington DC, highlighted the case of an indigenous woman from the Central American country of Honduras. She, along with her son, had witnessed the brutal murder of her husband right in front of them, as he was targeted for being a community leader. Honduras has seen a dramatic spike of violence over the past few decades; so much so, that “The Telegraph” named it the most dangerous country on the planet back in 2014.

The woman and her child fled their village on foot and travelled hundreds of miles across the Mexican desert with the goal of reaching America. Her father, a Temporary Protected Status holder, lives in Houston, and she was determined to reunite with him. After weeks trekking through sandy deserts in scorching heat, the pair finally reached the Mexico-US border. Yet, once they reached the El-Paso city limits, they were instructed by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to return to Juarez, Mexico, as a part of the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

Remain in Mexico was imposed by the Trump administration in January of 2019 in order to have asylum applications processed and court dates established while the migrants wait in Mexico. Despite initial hesitations, the woman cooperated with CBP and patiently waited for the opportunity of a brighter future in America. However, she proceeded with caution as Juarez is known for its high crime, particularly directed towards asylum seekers. Many migrants facing immigration court in El Paso, Texas, have described being raped, assaulted, and mistreated by locals while remaining in Mexico for their asylum application to be processed. Her greatest fears would quickly turn to reality. While waiting in Juarez, the woman’s son was nearly kidnapped—a grim reminder that her chance at the American dream was submerged under a pile of bureaucracy and strict immigration laws.

The experience of the Honduran woman is one of countless tales shared by refugees and asylum seekers across Central America. As of April 2019, more than 8,000 migrants have been sent back to Juarez after approaching the US border. Remain in Mexico is simply part of a greater trend aimed at curbing the numbers asylum seekers approaching the southern border, such as the zero-tolerance policy which separated thousands of apprehended parents from their children. These restrictions aim to deter fraudulent cases; when in reality, all cases are being affected, including ones with legitimate asylum claims.

What many people fail to fully realize is these people are forced to flee. Those seeking asylum will continue to surpass obstacles presented their way—even if it requires traveling thousands of miles or jumping through a series of hoops—because the livelihoods of themselves and their families are at stake. The US-Mexico border clearly exemplifies this by the demographics of the migrants. Last year, nearly 3,000 African migrants were detained in Mexico alone to seek asylum in the United States. Many of the migrants cited concerns over European nations closing their borders as their main reason for traveling thousands of miles across the Atlantic to seek asylum in America. As Schracher mentions, “the [US-Mexico border] is becoming a microcosm of what we are seeing around the world”.

The United Nations has been incredibly outspoken in their disdain for these asylum restrictions such as Zero Tolerance and Remain in Mexico. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called many of these regulations ‘undignified and damaging’ and perhaps even a violation of international law. Bachelet does claim that while the UN supports independent nations having the sovereignty to control their borders, they must operate within the framework of international human rights.

Schracher also points out that these limits on claiming asylum impact local communities already in the United States. Similar to the woman from Honduras, many of the migrants wishing to seek asylum already have family and friends on the other side of the border. Forcing these migrants to wait in Mexico requires the people already in the United States to send out remittances to their connections at the border for food, shelter, and other living expenses. This can often cause large economic strains on both parties, as well as take a massive psychological toll for those apart from their loved ones.

Exactly 80 years have passed since the Saint Louis was forced to revert course and return to Europe. For some aboard the ship, it was the beginning of troubling and traumatizing period of extended suffering. For others, it was a death sentence. As Schracher explains, “the heavy hand by which the federal government is pressing upon to reduce refugee admissions place the most vulnerable communities in greater risk.” We are doomed to repeat the blemishes of the past unless we realize that this trend of implementing ineffective and, even, dangerous regulations to deter asylum seekers will not reduce the flows of people but impose further harm on those most defenseless.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Bangladesh and Women: The Critical Actors in Peacekeeping

 By Sadia Saba, UNA-NCA Program Assistant

         On July 22, 2019 the Better World Campaign and Peace is Loud screened “A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers” which follows three Bangladeshi women on their road to becoming foot soldiers in an all-female Muslim unit to the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to Haiti. As a young Bengali woman myself, this event reminded me of the complexities of global civic engagement and how one’s duty to the world can help overcome domestic glass ceilings.
         Bangladesh is the second largest contributor to international UN peacekeeping operations, deploying over 7,000 Bangladeshi troops and officers in 10 missions around the world in 2017. Farida Parveen and Mousumi Sultana, two of the women that the documentary follows, discussed how joining the peacekeeping mission had a major economic incentive for them and their families. Bangladesh is a developing country in South Asia, and as a peacekeeper these women would be making triple their wages as police officers in their country. This unit of women were exercising their duties to their families by performing their greater duties to the world.

The film opened with familiar hymns of the basher bashi (bamboo flute) and sweeping images of the vibrant green hues of the land. The women spoke in their native Bengali tongue as they brought us along their journeys, and told their stories of how they dealt with the harsh realities of joining the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. As the vivid scenery and sounds of Bangladesh resonated with my upbringing in a Bengali household, the societal frameworks these women were in were all too familiar as well. Child care, answering to authoritative male figures, housework these were all responsibilities that the women of the film had to attend to as they struggled with their own career pursuits. Several of the women did not have the support from their families to join the unit for a year abroad. The most skeptical were male figures in the family: husbands and fathers. They feared they would be forced to take on domestic roles in the household that they could not manage to do. But these women were resilient and determined. “I am a police officer… not just a mother,” said one of the foot soldiers. The others held similar sentiments. Peacekeeping was an opportunity – an opportunity to escape cyclical oppression and patriarchal systems of society. Mousumi said she joined the police force in Bangladesh as a way to mitigate the patriarchy in the country. Upon her entrance into Haiti and working with the local populations there, she says “Us, women in uniform, can give women of this country courage and strength.” This dedication towards equality went beyond their personal relationships. It was a commitment to empowering all communities facing similar injustices.  

This documentary showed the crucial work of UN peacekeepers and its vital role in peacefully mitigating the effects of conflict worldwide. The intersection of SDG #5 Gender Equality and SDG #16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions is told beautifully by the three women of the film as they transcend the boundaries of the society in which they live in and the rules they are told they have to abide by. As a young woman who identifies closely with the subjects, I left feeling empowered and inspired by their courage, defiance and commitment to a cause greater than themselves.

Panelists joined in a moderated discussion after the screening. (Left to right: Xanthe Scharff, Executive Director of the Fuller Project, Fiona Pearce, Squadron Leader and Military Gender Advisor of the UN Department of Peace Opertions, Geeta Gandbhir, Producer of “A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers”, and Indira Lakshmanan, Executive Director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting)