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Women & Human Rights: Part I

By Yuan Stevens

This is the first of two blog posts about the work of women in human rights.


All street art photos from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s project, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” Photo by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

In this post, I’m going to tell you a bit about the work of Salini Sharma in Delhi, India and some thoughts on her organization’s work in relation to privacy. 
In my next post, I’m going to talk about the work of a civil rights activist in Morocco.

First of all, why (these) women? 

The organization I interned with, Equitas, held their 36th annual International Human Rights Training Program (“IHRTP”) this past summer.

The theme of the entire program was centred on how to better equip young girls and women to meaningfully participate in their societies. That very theme inspires this post. I’m writing about these women because I find their work fascinating and connected with them at the IHRTP.

Salini (pronounced Shaw-lini) Sharma, the first female in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree, studied biotechnology engineering before working with Safecity in India.


Me (left) and Salini (right), during Equitas’s International Human Rights Training Program.

Salini told me that she didn’t find it incredibly satisfying to work in biotechnology engineering — even though she absolutely loved studying it. Once she began working in the field, she was consistently given odd tasks she was overqualified for. The timing of her shifts were consistently very inconvenient. It’s hard not to attribute this to the fact that she was female in a very male-dominated field.

After months of volunteering with UN Women and a growing passion for working in the development sector, Salini is now the Program & Outreach Officer with Safecity, an amazing organization in India that fights against gender-based violence — primarily through their crowd-sourced map that reveals anonymous complaints of sexual harassment all over the country.

They advocate for change in urban planning and police enforcement through reports, their community-led campaigns, events, and through the sharing of digital tools that empower women.

According to BBC, the site was created just after a 2012 gang rape of a Delhi student.

harassing women masculinity

Photo by Pat Gavin.

An important feature of Safecity’s work is that they welcome and encourage anonymous complaints of all kinds of sexual harassment.

This of course results in some practical problems of accountability — but, as Harvard Berkman faculty associate Zeynep Tufekci argued in a recent Medium article, the ability to choose when to reveal information about ourselves — or not — is a necessary corollary to an “open and connected world.”

Tufekci wrote her article in response to Mark Zuckerberg and his family’s decision to share that his wife, Priscilla Chan, had had miscarriages before they had conceived their current baby to-come. (Congratulations to their family!)

Tufekci eloquently reminds us [emphasis added]:

 “Privacy, the bedrock of openness, is at its core about agency, about control and about the right to engage the world on your own terms (and with the name of your own choosing, too).”



Photo by Graff Hunter via streetartsf.


The work of organizations like Safecity are emblematic of this same belief that we must first and foremost celebrate self-determined privacy and control. Only then are (a woman’s) decisions (to be open) meaningful. 

Safecity provides women with the ability to have meaningful control over their lives through community-involvement and advocacy about their needs to state decision-makers.

Tufekci ended her article the way I will end this blog post:


“Just like privacy, openness are connectedness are about agency and control — otherwise, they would be exploitative and become a violation. There is no contradiction between strong privacy and an open and connected world.

Privacy and openness, control and connectedness, agency and disclosure feed on each other, and can only be built on each other.

two women

photo by carnageflushx.

Final Reflections and Lessons Learned

2015 Zidel Max 2By Max Zidel

As I write my final blog post, I watch through the big glass windows at Budapest International Airport as the various planes pull out of their gates, accelerate and disappear into the sky. In an hour or so that will be me, boarding an EasyJet flight for Berlin and eventually Italy, where I will spend a couple of weeks with friends before returning to Canada.

As I sit and enjoy my espresso (one of my favourite pastimes), I am conscious of the Hungarian words that hang above me – “felvonók” for lifts, “mosdók” for washrooms – which remind me of the unique culture and kind people that I leave behind. I think about all the amazing nights I spent with friends by the Danube or dancing on Margit Island (it’s a little island-park between Buda and Pest); I think about all the amazing people that I met – through work, family friends or living arrangements.


Of course, while I have many great stories to share about my short three months in Budapest, I have decided in my final blog post to make some concluding remarks about my experience here as a human rights intern, and some of the key lessons I have learned about law, social justice and even myself.

1. Personal experiences are crucial, but there is a danger in generalizing. Having grown up with a sister with severe intellectual disabilities, I have had many first-hand encounters with the ways in which law and mental disability interact, as well as with trying to live up to the needs and aspirations of someone who was often incapable of verbalizing her thoughts and feelings. This kind of personal connection and experience was essential to my work at MDAC, but I also learned how important it is to keep it in perspective. My sister’s story is really only one among many, and what she may have wanted out of law or life is not necessarily what other individuals with mental disability may want. And this works both ways. For example, while the CRPD’s General comment on Article 12 rightly callsfor an end to guardianship and a move toward supported decision making, I fear that in my sister’s case this would be a step in the wrong direction. Incapable of understanding notions like ‘money’ or performing basic tasks like getting dressed or preparing a meal, my sister’s dignity and autonomy were greatly enhanced by some of the substitute decision making carried out by my parents. But while this may be true for my sister, I have no doubt that it is probably not true for the vast majority of individuals with mental disability.


2. Legal human rights work doesn’t always feel like human rights work. Legal work can be powerful and impactful, but it can also be highly removed and impersonal. Though I very much enjoyed the various research tasks I was assigned to and am really pleased with the amount of knowledge I acquired in the process, I am aware of how often I simply disconnected from the real world while sitting behind my desk. Just as in law school, I often found myself in a universe of legal jargon – where peoples’ stories were simply fact summaries and fundamental rights a means to some strategic objective or outcome. This is not to say my desk-work was not important – it was and I do believe that it will eventually lead to some real change and impact at a very personal level for some of our beneficiaries. I just thought it important to point out that I sometimes felt like that wasn’t the case, and that maybe there is a better balance that can be struck between engagement and legal work.

3. It is hard to go somewhere when you don’t know where you are going. Over the past few months, I learned that it is much easier to denounce something that’s wrong or unjust than it is to articulate a promising alternative. If guardianship is abusive, invasive and belittling, then what do we propose instead? If institutions are broken and harmful, then what is a better vision based around community care? These are the challenges we faced every single day at MDAC. And rightfully so, because it’s not enough to tell judges and governments that the current ways aren’t working if we don’t have any better ideas. And we don’t just need ideas, but also ones that are affordable and implementable. This is no easy task, and indeed it often felt like we were driving into the abyss without any maps to lead the way. Human rights, it seems, is not necessarily about “immediately realizable” rights, but more so about courage and experimentation, and an acknowledgement that the world we live is and will continue to be – imperfect.

All in all, I am really glad I got the chance to work at MDAC and participate in this amazing internship program. I really look forward to reflecting on all of these issues in greater depth as I begin the process of writing my term paper this fall!

To Witness a Miscarriage of Justice

2015 Noga BrodieBy Brodie Noga

I used to think that the phrase miscarriage of justice was oddly visceral. Having felt my heart slow, my chest become heavy, and my stomach wrench as the “Phnom Penh 11” were handed down 20 and seven year sentences in a deeply flawed legal proceeding after a mere 15 minutes of deliberation, it now feels sterile.

The trial of the 11 opposition party officials and activists I was observing had deteriorated quickly after an opposition led boycott of a vote on the NGO law and a major political rally held at a contested area of the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Plaintiffs conveniently failed to show when summoned and instead had suspiciously similar written statements read into the record; after months of delay the trial was suddenly sped up to a daily schedule despite defence lawyer protestations that they would be unable to attend; the day of the verdict only one of the nine defence counsel was present; closing arguments were announced with three minutes notice; and as as the judges left to deliberate, scores of police were mobilized to shut down the streets surrounding the Court and to fill the courtroom.

When it became clear that the outcome was pre-determined, the 11 men charged with leading and participating in an insurrection – despite a total absence of any accusation that they’d committed acts violence or that the events of July 15 2014 had in any way amounted to an insurrectionary movement – began to joke. One man, whose son had died that morning, teased the court police that he needed to pee before the verdict was rendered and promised he wouldn’t run away. Others asked the guards if they could have their cellphones back so they could give them to their family before they were jailed. While my translator conveyed these words to me he would interject and tell me how these words hurt his heart. They hurt mine, too.

And then the verdict came, read so quickly most couldn’t even catch who received which sentence, and the police handcuffed the 11 to lead them to prison. As we left, my translator told me that he was glad to see the verdict so that now he will be prepared for when they come for him. And then my heart hurt for him as well.

As students of law we often talk about justice and injustice, but it is nearly always in the abstract. The trial is far from the first terrible thing that I have witnessed, but the emotional charge that hung in the air as the verdict was read continues to haunt me. But it wasn’t the catalog of fair trial violations in my notebook that was disturbing, it was the performance of state power before me, it was the men aware of their looming sentence, it was the nervous energy of the audience, it was the rapidity of the judge’s speech as the sentence was read. Law in the abstract never really exists without law in the concrete. A miscarriage of justice isn’t just a failure of the court to abide by abstract codes of behaviour, it is the immensely visceral interaction between humans whose final reality exists in their flesh. For me and for those in the audience, the physicality of the injustice was vicarious. For those 11 who felt the handcuffs around their wrists, it was far more immediate.

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