Posted by: srari1 | January 12, 2011

where were you one year ago?

BY SAYOMI ARIYAWANSA

Where were you one year ago? It was likely to be a day just like any other. But one year ago, the lives of thousands of Haitians were forever changed by the earthquake. Around 316, 000 people died; 300, 000 people were injured; 1, 000, 000 made homeless. Numbers like these are hard to completely comprehend. Perhaps it is our minds way of dealing with such devastation – numbers can obscure the fact that each individual they represent had a past, a family, dreams hopes and fears for the future. Such numbers distance you from what is overwhelming and devastating.

On Monday, I attended a panel discussion on the women and girls of Haiti, which was held at the law firm O’Melveny and Myers. The topic was the particular risks faced by women and girls in the aftermath of the earthquake. In the tent cities which have replaced the shaky houses, they have little protection. No door to lock, no security whatsoever – and sexual violence has become endemic. The perpetrators can harm women and girls with utter impunity.

I heard from representatives from a few organisations who are working right at ground level, far away from plush conference rooms and catered lunches. Brian Concannon, who is the director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti opened his speech by saying that when he first arrived in Haiti after the earthquake, he wished he had an MD instead of a JD. However, he said he realised that value of a JD when it became evident that it was the lack of legal standards (and their enforcement) for building requirements which was responsible for so many deaths which could have been avoided. It is also the lack of law enforcement which emboldens perpetrators of horrific abuses against women and girls.

Maricia Jean, the co-founder of FAVILEK (a grassroots advocacy organisation based in Port au Prince) spoke of their work, and I was particularly struck by how she was able to have the energy to contribute so much despite the conditions in which she lives. She spoke not only of the earthquake, but of the ghastly ordeals Haitians endured during and after the coup d’etat. She, herself a victim, spoke calmly but with strength behind each word uttered – it is easy to see how she anchors an organisation which tries to bring justice and hope to women in Haiti. During the seminar we watched part of a play produced by FAVILEK, which was the story of the struggle of one of their members to tell her son that his father was her attacker – although it was in Creole, the language barrier did not diminish the power of its message.

In Australia, I have not come across the very unique situation of many Haitians in a refugee context. The US used to have a separate legal pathway for Haitians and Cubans to seek asylum in the US, but for many years now, that policy has only applied to Cubans. Haitians – particularly women and girls who at most at risk and unable to be protected by the government – are not easily accommodated by the strict definition of a refugee and do not have any other pathway to the US. The issue has really engaged my interest and I’m in the right place to be able to learn more about different proposals being made by various organisations as to how to rectify this problem.

Back at the Human Rights First office, I have been writing intake reports of prospective clients. I am delighted that we are placing one of the clients I assisted with a pro bono attorney. The difference legal representation can give to the success of a case is stark and certainly makes me question the adversarial process of immigration courts and the supposedly non-adversarial process of initial interviews with the Asylum Office (a government body).

One potential client I have had the privilege of meeting truly inspired me. Her commitment to free political expression and determination to fight for her political beliefs in the face of repeated brutality from the government is incredible. I really identified with this client who has suffered so much harm at the hands of those who are supposed to protect her. When speaking to someone like that, you start to think: would I have kept going? When would I have stopped? After the first, the second or the third beating? The second hospitalisation? The first threat? Would I also have kept fighting?

At the moment I am also doing research on a subject which is both broad and obscure at the same time, and the question which plagues human rights law: the enforceability of migrant’s rights in their host countries. I have gone from the very practical and tangible, to the realm of ideas. When considering the tussle of law, politics, State sovereignty and public opinion, it is at once passionate and, paradoxically, comatose.


Responses

  1. Check out the recent Saudi decision in case you haven’t seen it already: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/01/12/saudi.arabia.maid/index.html?eref=rss_world&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+rss/cnn_world+%28RSS:+World%29&utm_content=Twitter

    relevant to the last part of your blog.

    You’re probably already aware of this but check out: http://www.ilo.org/asia/whatwedo/projects/lang–en/WCMS_114205/index.htm as well.


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