In America, we take for granted that we are the “land of the free.” There are scores of people who believe that there is nothing more liberating than being an American citizen, and almost cannot fathom that there are groups of people who are marginalized and even lack basic human rights.
This summer, I took an opportunity to help change that for a voiceless group in Pennsylvania.
When I was in Washington, D.C., last semester, my course on International Law and Organizations introduced me to CEDAW, the Convention for Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. We explored what basic human rights had been drafted into the convention, who signed it, and what that piece of international law can do to protect women across the globe. It provides an outline for what rights women have and how to rectify wrongdoings under the convention.
Unfortunately, international law lacks a certain level of understanding and enforcement that province, state, and federal law enraptures among its citizens. Between varying cultures and individual perspectives, many do not even realize that what their society encourages is actually silencing and holding back millions of people worldwide.
For me, the issue at hand is female genitalia mutilation (FGM).
FGM is a harmful cultural practice in 28 different countries in which young girls are held down against their will and “circumsized” (this is a school blog, so I don’t want to get graphic!) and it leaves horrendous physical and psychological effects on the victims. When I learned about FGM in class, I was shocked at the practice but automatically assumed that nothing like that would ever happen in the US, let alone near my hometown.
When my summer plans landed me back home in Horsham, Pennsylvania, I was curious to see if there was anything political or human rights related that I could do with my time. I looked into campaigns and canvasing, but through my mother I learned that Representative Tom Murt, the state representative in the district next to mine, was working on passing a bill making FGM a felony in the state. When I was told about the bill, I was confused as to why we needed such a bill in PA.
I immediately emailed him and asked if he would like any help on passing the bill and why it was important. He responded by telling me that immigrants from countries that practice FGM would perform it on their young girls and Philadelphia hospitals like CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania hospital had been seeing victims come in with excessive bleeding and have no legal recourse to help or protect these girls. When I learned about that, my heart was in my throat as it came to my full realization that just because you’re in the US doesn’t mean that you are completely free.
With that, we got set working on a plan to sell the PA Judiciary Committee on why this bill should pass unanimously and prove that it would aid thousands of women around the state.
My first task was to draft an article to publish in papers around the state so that people were made aware of the issue. Just like school, I had to write and rewrite the article until it had all the facts that would anger the audience while creating a personal connection for why they should care. I’m still working on outreach, but the article has been published once so far with Pennlive, the Harrisburg online news site. You can find it here!
In addition, I have also started a petition and am planning a potential press conference with Murt. This experience has shown me both the frustrations of politics and once again set the fire in my heart for human rights. I want to help give people like these young immigrants a voice in their own community, because that’s what human rights is truly about: being heard and moving forward in creating equal opportunity and protection under the law for people of all backgrounds.
As I begin my junior year at Lafayette, I will be continuing my work and utilizing the resources at school (including a course I’m taking on women and development) to push this bill and hopefully make a small step forward in human rights!