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Entries in sexual violence (23)

Tuesday
Jun022015

New UN Report: Treat LGBTI Humans As Humans

@HuffPost

This week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued its second report on the state of human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people worldwide. 

Here's a hint: It's not pretty.

Intended originally to share good practices and ways to overcome violence and discrimination, this report in reality spells out the violence and discrimination that must be overcome. That's not a coincidence. Since OHCHR issued its first reporton this subject in 2011, many countries have certainly taken significant steps to advance the rights of everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity and bodily diversity. But many others remain reluctant to do so. As the High Commissioner's report this week notes: "The overall picture remains one of continuing, pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting LGBT and intersex persons in all regions."

There are many reasons why discrimination and abuse persist. The report addresses two of them head-on. 

First, it tackles the objection that LGBTI persons are not covered by international human rights protections. This may seem remarkably straightforward based on the premise that we are all human -- all of us -- therefore we all have rights, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and bodily diversity. 

However, human rights generate obligations for states -- to promote, protect and fulfill these basic rights. States, everywhere, are reluctant to recognize the rights of those they deem "other" or somehow less valuable: Whether it is denying felons the right to vote, excluding undocumented immigrants from schooling or criminalizing freedom of speech for political opponents. For bodily autonomy and privacy for LGBTI persons, the mechanism is the same. And some states simply want to exclude those they don't "like" from the benefits and protection that human rights standards entitle them to. 

In seeking to overcome this objection, the High Commissioner's new report details many of the specific obligations states have to address discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons: Protection against torture and abuse; refraining from criminally or otherwise punishing people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and ensuring everyone's right to freedom of speech and assembly.

Secondly, the report overcomes the general objection that there is just "nothing you can do" about stigma and prejudice. In its 20 recommendations to states, the report lays out the first crucial steps that should be taken to overcome violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons. The recommendations cover discrimination in housing, education, employment, and refugee policies; urges revision of blatantly discriminatory laws, and suggests ongoing sensitivity training for public officials in healthcare, education and justice systems. Same-sex relationships should be afforded the same protections as opposite-sex relationships, the report notes; everyone should have access to legal identity document reflecting their preferred gender, upon demand, and no intersex child should be subjected to medically unnecessary procedures.

These recommendations should serve as a blueprint for priority action to overcome the violence and discrimination that is detailed in the report. 

They may look extensive. 

But if you read carefully you will see that all the report asks for is for LGBTI humans to be treated as humans.

Thursday
Nov202014

We All Deserve Justice

@HuffPost

You don't have to be a human rights activist to know that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans can get you killed pretty much anywhere.

Tragically, we can cite numerous examples: the 2012 assassination of LGBT activistErick Alexander Martinez Avila in Honduras; the brutal 2013 murder of Eric Lembembe, an activist and openly gay man in Cameroon; and just weeks ago, the sickening murder of Jennifer Laude, a trans woman in the Philippines.

In addition, there are the countless nameless cases--the depressing statistics in numerous reports by local and international human rights groups, as well as theUnited Nations.

Commonly, those responsible for the violence are rarely brought to justice. Prosecutions occur only (when they do) after long and sustained pressure by LGBT activists who are putting their own lives and liberty at risk in this cause.

Yesterday, the United Nations sought to remedy this situation.

The U.N. General Assembly's main committee dealing with human rights adopted an updated version of a biannual resolution to demand justice for all killings based on discriminatory grounds, including murders motivated by a person's real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Only one country voted against the resolution--the Pacific island of Kiribati, although its no vote was later sought changed to "abstain." The 2012 version of the resolution had had 35 cosponsoring countries--this year, it had almost twice as many, at 63.

The vote reflects an evolution in thinking that has become a broad consensus among the world's nations: no one should be killed because of who they are, and murders and extrajudicial killings should be promptly and independently investigated.

This view alone, though, misses an important nuance of the process around the resolution's adoption.

During the negotiations over the resolution, a group of countries led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia proposed to eliminate language referring to the groups of people who, research shows, are most at risk of being killed.

The text these countries wanted to delete made reference to those subject to racially motivated violence; persons belonging to national or ethnic; religious and linguistic minorities or those targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; persons affected by terrorism or hostage-taking or those living under foreign occupation; refugees; internally displaced persons; migrants; street children; members of indigenous communities; human rights defenders; lawyers; journalists; demonstrators; and those targeted for reasons related to "honor."

On the surface, it might seem reasonable to eliminate specificity in a resolution dealing with extrajudicial killings writ large. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others, argued that getting rid of the specific groups in the text would open it up for a broader interpretation.

Experience shows otherwise. At IGLHRC we know full well that unless people targeted for violence because of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity are explicitly included in protection efforts, they will be left out.

This is for example clear in a new publication by IGLHRC and its partners, MADRE and the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq. The publication, When Coming Out is a Death Sentence, exposes grave human rights violations and brutal violence against LGBT Iraqis, where killings based on sexual orientation and gender identity go unpunished. Last June, for example, two adolescent boys thought to be gay were killed and beheaded in Baghdad, their heads tossed in the garbage. No one has been prosecuted.

Justice is often equally elusive for the other categories mentioned in the resolution adopted yesterday at the U.N. Therefore, last week, 30 human rights organizationsjoined together to protest elimination of the specific language, sending a direct plea to all U.N. member states to protect the right to life for all through voting against the proposal from Egypt and others.

Fortunately, the plea was heard, and the proposal to eliminate targeted protections was rejected by an 82-53 vote.

Importantly, the real target of the proposal was not the list as such, but rather just one subgroup within it: individuals killed because of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. This became very apparent in the debate preceding the vote on the resolution and the proposed change, in which a small handful of countries desperately attempted justifying why they would eliminate protections for human rights defenders and those under foreign occupation just to avoid extending those same protections for LGBT populations.

Let us be clear. What Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the 51 other countries who voted to exclude vulnerable groups from the resolution were saying, is that some people don't deserve justice. Those people include Erick Martinez, Eric Lembembe, Jennifer Laude, and countless other LGBT persons and activists killed because of who they are.

The U.N. resolution sends a signal across the world: no matter who we are, who we love, or where we live, we deserve justice.

Thursday
Oct302014

We Are All As Blind To Racism As Men Are To Street Harassment

@HuffPost

These past days, a video tracking an actress walking through selected New York City neighborhoods has gone semi-viral. The video depicts the many (many) times the actress is accosted, harassed and even stalked by men, and was commissioned and produced by the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback!

As advocacy, the approach has, rightly in my view, been celebrated for making street harassment visible to men. Some have tweeted about the irony that this kind of evidence even needs to be produced. Shouldn't it be enough that we, the women who experience street-harassment regularly, say that it exists? But since we all know that it is not enough, solid audio-visual evidence is never a bad thing.

However, the video left me with large question marks and quite a bit of discomfort about its unspoken racial bias. Though the editorializing comments note that the actress was harassed by men of all ethnic or racial backgrounds, most of the men shown on the final video are Black, some Latino, and no one -- as far as I can tell -- white.

This racial bias in the video does not necessarily reflect reality.

While research shows that women of color are more likely to be affected by street harassment than white women, there is precious little actual research on who the harasser tends to be. Testimonials from women indicate that men of all colors harass, that maybe blue-collar workers are more likely to harass, and that street harassment can happen pretty much anywhere. My personal experience is of mostly white male harassers when in western Europe or the United States, and mostly Latino men in Latin America. In other words: I have been harassed mostly by whomever happened to be around.

And maybe geography is the key to the Hollaback! video's racial bias. The video seems to show the actress wandering mostly around communities with predominantly Black or Latino populations. There is no footage from City Island, Greenpoint or Shepherd's Bush, all NYC neighborhoods with predominantly white populations, where street harassment -- I can assure you -- is frequent and loud.

Intentional or not, the racial bias strips the video not only of authenticity and therefore authority, but also of effectiveness. When we continue to convey to (white) women, through imagery, pop culture and literature, that Black men are the main perpetrators of crime, we feed into the undeniable racial injustices in the United States crime processing system.

And that is bad enough.

But we also indirectly teach women and girls to ignore the violence and harassment they might -- and often do -- face from the (white) men who according to the same cultural biases are supposed to be their protectors.

And this latter point is perhaps the biggest question mark for me. I obviously don't get why Hollaback! would want to portray almost exclusively Black men as creepy and predatory. But I really don't get why an organization that prides itself on effective street harassment prevention would want to encourage myopic attention to only a fraction of it, however indirectly.

And I certainly don't understand why this problematic aspect of the video has not been universally highlighted by commentators along with its many strengths. Is it that we, as a society, are as blind to racial injustices as men, generally, are to street harassment?

Sadly, I think we are.

Wednesday
Jul242013

When Do Depictions of Sex Constitute Assault?

@RHRealityCheck

In June, a story of “girl power”-style revenge made the rounds on social media. Reportedly, a woman sent unsolicited penis pictures she had received to the sender’s mother, despite his protestations. Meanwhile, an ongoing debate in Britain about what—if any—depictions of sex should be banned has resurrected the age-old question: Does pornography cause rape?

Both stories raise interesting questions about the limits of privacy and consent.

Most of us agree that when adults voluntarily share generic photos of themselves with friends who consent to viewing them, this is no matter for censorship or state intervention. There is, however, less agreement on how much autonomy we should have when those images involve nudity or are explicitly sexual. Some jurisdictions ban “hard-core” or “extreme” pornography, while others place limits on the “obscene.”

Part of the problem is that we do not have a homogenous view of what constitutes pornography or obscenity in the first place. The difficulty in stating clearly what we believe is immoral or wrong was memorably captured by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, when he stated that constitutional protections of free speech clearly did not protect “hard-core pornography,” a concept he couldn’t define, though he was certain he would “know it when I see it.”

It was also recently highlighted by a successful grassroots campaign to push Facebook to implement better guidelines on what content the social networking site should take down. The campaigners argued Facebook wrongly identified breastfeeding mothers as “obscene,” while leaving up photos and speech they felt advocated violence against women. Facebook argued it routinely removed hate speech, while leaving up humorous, though offensive, content.

And the difficulty is at the core of the current debate in Britain about a 2008 act that prohibits the possession of “extreme pornography,” defined to include images produced for the purposes of sexual arousal of acts that, if real, would likely cause serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts, or genitals.

Last summer, this act was put to the test in a case against a London mayoral aide who was charged with possessing images of a sado-masochistic nature. The images depicted friends and acquaintances of the aide, who, the prosecution does not contest, had consented to the pictures being taken and shared. The aide was ultimately acquitted after a very public trial, but lost his job. Those who advocate for maintaining and expanding the prohibition of “extreme pornography” argue that such images, in themselves, are a form of assault, and that they cause more violence by trivializing abuse.

It is important to note that a causal link between pornography and violence has not been proven. A 1991 study of criminal data in four European countries concluded that incidences of rape had not increased more than nonsexual violent crimes as pornography had become more easily available. This was confirmed in a 2009 study, which concluded that evidence for a causal relationship between exposure to pornography and sexual aggression is slim and may have been exaggerated.

So the real question is whether pornography (or sexual imagery) in and of itself constitutes assault. And this depends on consent and affects privacy. Rape apologies aside, there is no longer confusion (at least in the law) that anyone forced to carry out a sexual act, on or off camera, is a victim of assault. In other words, pornography constitutes assault when it depicts individuals who have not consented to have sex, let alone to having it filmed.

Pornographic images also constitute a form of assault when they are thrust on people who have not consented to seeing them. This is the case with unsolicited penis pictures, and is the reason those forwarding such pictures to the sender’s family and friends (or the public in general) argue that thrusting them on others is par for the course.

To be sure, claiming privacy rights over penis pictures you have imposed on someone who did not want to see them is like suing for libel when publicized security camera footage shows you robbing a bank. Then again, there is something slightly off about forwarding photos you did not want to see on others who likewise have not consented to viewing them. In such cases, a more ethical (though much less immediately satisfying) course of action would be filing a complaint for aggravated harassment.

But not all pornographic images are wrong. Photos that have been taken and shared with the full consent of everyone involved, including the recipients, should not be banned, but rather benefit from privacy and free speech protections—because such images are not assault, but sex. And surely we would be hard-pressed to think of anything more private than that.

Monday
Apr082013

Argentina Considers Bills That Could Criminalize Sex Trafficking—But Also Buying Sex

@RHRealityCheck

As I arrived in Buenos Aires this week, the Argentine Congress started discussing two bills purporting to deal with human trafficking. According to reports, one bill seeks to establish prison sentences for individuals who buy sex from victims of trafficking, while the other seeks to penalize anyone who buys sex at all, regardless of whether the person providing the sex is a consenting adult. (The government is not suggesting legislation to criminalize sex workers themselves.) No one would contest that actual sex trafficking is a problem in Argentina and that something should be done about it. The question is if it is ever helpful, in policy terms, to lump together trafficking and sexual exploitation with the buying and selling of sexual services between consenting adults.

The push to eradicate trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation is a legitimate goal for any government—in fact, it is an obligation. In Argentina, this objective has gained particular urgency in the wake of a decade-long, largely unsuccessful legal investigation into the abduction and forced prostitution of a young woman. In relation to that case, Amnesty International and other groups have criticized the lack of effective protection in Argentina against gender-based violence in general and trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation in particular.

But the evidence suggests that Argentina’s latest approach to address the problem may not be the best one. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has carried out studies and generated guidance on anti-trafficking initiatives. The organization has come to the conclusion that brothel raids and “rescues” that treat all sex workers as victims of violence contribute to decreased safety for sex workers by forcing many of them to move constantly from one place to another, undermining the social networks that can help to keep sex workers safe.

UNAIDS suggests that governments should instead take a nuanced approach that on the one hand recognizes the autonomy of individual adult sex workers and clients who act on their own volition, while on the other clamps down hard on sexual exploitation. In this context, sexual exploitation should include not only trafficking into forced prostitution, but also violent acts against voluntary sex workers (such as rape) and the use, offer, or procurement of a child for commercial sex acts.

The question is, of course, if there is such a thing as voluntary sex work.

In general, people who believe governments should treat trafficking and sex work as one and the same would answer “no” to that question. To this group of advocates, sex work is inherently violent; they believe that the people who say they engage in sex work voluntarily are in reality forced to do so by circumstances or structural disadvantages they may or may not see. The goal for such advocates is to eradicate sex work, rather than trafficking, and the assumption is that the criminal law is an effective tool in advancing this goal.

It is undeniable that sex workers, like everyone else, make decisions about their lives and livelihoods that are at least in part informed by the opportunities available to them. For some sex workers, opportunities are severely limited because they belong to a disadvantaged group in terms of gender, income level, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and many may have chosen a different path given a different context.

It is also undeniable that the notion of exchanging sexual services for money makes many people very uncomfortable. I would venture that most parents would rather not see their children having sex for a living. And it is certainly true that many people would prefer not to see sex workers at all, leading to initiatives to curb street solicitation that often do little to promote sex worker safety.

However, it is not clear why our discomfort with sex for money should lead us to disregard, wholesale, the decisions made by sex workers themselves. When I did research on access to reproductive health services in Argentina, I spoke to women who felt empowered by their sex work, because it was the only relationship in which they felt they had some measure of control. And when I did research on discrimination based on HIV-status in the Dominican Republic, I spoke to women who were mortified that sex work was the only avenue open to them after they were fired from hotel and factory jobs. Both groups of women had made decisions in an imperfect context, but neither group would benefit from brothel raids and the blanket criminalization of their clients. In fact, treating these women as if their choices do not matter is unlikely to empower them to overcome structural abuse.

In Argentina, trafficking into forced prostitution remains a problem. However, not all sex workers are trafficked or remain in commercial sex work against their will. As Argentina’s congress—and many other countries—debate how to deal with both of these issues, they would do well to remember that to be effective a policy approach must be grounded in evidence and supported by those who are meant to benefit from it.