Thanks to a generous grant from DA Cy Vance, Sanctuary and STEPS to End Family Violence are thrilled to be launching the FamilySafe Program which will offer family-focused therapy treatment to victims of domestic violence and their children.
“By [investing in youth and families] we believe that we can limit [children] becoming involved in the criminal justice system in the first place… Law enforcement has to understand that we’re not going to prosecute and arrest our way out of the problems that we have in our society, we’re going to have to get serious about investing in our kids.”
– Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance
Back in February, Manhattan DA Cy Vance announced the grant awardees of a $58 million dollar investment into youth and families to prevent crime in Manhattan. As a recipient of nearly $1.5 million in funding over three years, Sanctuary, in partnership with STEPS to End Family Violence, is preparing to launch the FamilySafe Program. Speaking at the grantee ceremony earlier this year, Sanctuary Executive Director Hon. Judy Harris Kluger shared how the FamilySafe Program will help heal and empower New York families.
“Every year, tens of thousands of children right here in New York City witness the horror of domestic violence in their own homes. The damage is incalculable.
Exposure to domestic violence in a child’s life is associated with increased levels of high-risk behavior, like substance abuse and gang involvement. One study found men who were exposed to abuse and domestic violence as children were almost four-times more likely to become abusers than men who had not been exposed.
Thanks to the Manhattan District Attorney’s generous grant, Sanctuary for Families will work in partnership with STEPS to End Family Violence, to launch the FamilySafe Program. The program expands on our existing clinical services that strengthen relationships between parents who suffer domestic abuse and their children who witness it.
This grant will allow us to serve 225 new families – every year – providing them with intensive evidence-based treatment or with assessments for family therapy and parenting services.
This initiative will go a long way to reduce the trauma in children, improve parents’ confidence and optimism, and break the inter-generational cycle of violence for the families we serve.”
Building on over 30 years of clinical services and expertise
The launch of the FamilySafe program marks an exciting and important step forward for our clinical department. Over the last decade, research into traumatic stress and PTSD has given way to a greater understanding of the symptoms and effects of trauma as well as several therapy methods (also called evidence-based treatment) that have been proven to be effective in treating trauma victims AND their families.
Since 1985, Sanctuary has provided specialized services to children who have been victims or witnesses of domestic violence in their homes. Acutely aware of how domestic violence affects entire families, we have built a strong portfolio of trauma-focused, culturally and linguistically sensitive clinical services for domestic violence victims and their children. This portfolio is one that we are proud of and one that we continually seek to improve upon and expand. With the launch of the FamilySafe Program, our Clinical team hopes to begin a larger transition from separate counseling services for adults and their children to an attachment-focused family therapy approach (also known as dyadic family therapy) that both treats the trauma children have experienced and rebuilds the trust and attachment between the non-abusing parent and child.
Rolling out the FamilySafe Program
At this time, the roll-out of the FamilySafe Program is just beginning. Sanctuary is currently developing an assessment tool which we will integrate into our intake screenings so that we can identify families who would benefit from dyadic family therapy. With the assessment tool in place, specialized staff on-boarded, and our clinical department trained on the new process, we will begin intake.
Between Sanctuary and STEPS to End Family Violence, we aim to assess 225 families and provide intensive evidence-based, family attachment-focused treatment to 150 of those families annually. In addition to specialized treatments, STEPS and Sanctuary will each offer two tothree cycles of Parenting Journey, a program which helps parents build stronger families by developing the inner strengths, life skills, and networks of resources they need to succeed. In each cycle, 8-10 families will meet for two hours a week for three to four months. Parents will be able to participate in activities, discussions, and family-style meals with complimentary childcare included.
Over the next two and a half years of the FamilySafe Program, Sanctuary will track and assess the program’s impacts. Assuming we see the positive effects we expect, we will look for ways to continue and expand the program.
Keep an eye out for more updates as we roll out this exciting new initiative!
At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Cahill associate Margaret Barone for her dedicated representation of Maria, a mother with a special-needs child, who escaped the abuse of her partner after being pressured into leaving her professional career in her home country.
Jamie Stinson is an associate in the Special Matters and Investigations practice in the New York office of King & Spalding. She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Co-Chair of this year’s Above and Beyond Pro Bono Awards and Benefit.
At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Cahill associate Margaret Barone for her dedicated and compassionate representation of Maria, a mother with a special-needs child, who escaped her abusive partner after he pressured her into leaving behind her professional career in her home country—making her financially dependent on him. Through Margaret’s tireless efforts, Maria won court-ordered enforcement of critical provisions of her post-divorce agreements, allowing her to provide the support and care that her son so desperately needed.
Isolated by an Abuser
Maria had a thriving career in Mexico before being tricked into moving to the United States by her abuser. Subject to abuse and the loss of her economic freedom, Maria struggled to provide for herself and her son, who has special needs. Through a long and hard-fought legal process, in part with prior assistance from Sanctuary, Maria finalized her divorce, and procured a custody agreement as well as a financial settlement.
Various issues related to the agreements arose. Maria is the primary custodial parent, but shares joint legal custody with her ex-husband. Maria is a fierce advocate for her son to receive better services through the Board of Education to meet his complex needs but her ex-husband was effectively blocking her efforts and failed to participate in parent coordination meetings as required by the custody agreement. In addition, he missed many deadlines on financial obligations and deliberately misinterpreted the financial agreement so as to deprive Maria and her son of support that he was required to pay.
Enforcing Her Client’s Rights
When Margaret took over the case, she dove head first into addressing the myriad issues related to both Maria’s rights under the custody and financial agreements, as well as those related to addressing the needs of Maria’s son. The stakes were clear as emotions ran high in Margaret’s first meeting with Maria, who explained that all of this work was in service of fighting for her child. Recalling the meeting, Margaret said, “It makes you want to do everything you can as quickly as possible.”
Margaret worked closely with Sanctuary’s Director of the Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project, Amanda Norejko, in order to formulate next steps. Margaret drafted an extensive, several-inches-thick motion and memorandum of law (totaling 51 pages) to help Maria enforce her agreement in Manhattan Supreme Court. This motion required in-depth analysis of evaluations by medical and educational experts to show how the abuser’s obstruction impacted their special needs child. In the course of organizing more than thirty motion exhibits, Margaret poured over custody agreements, a lengthy financial stipulation, and countless emails in order to demonstrate exactly how the abuser had violated relevant provisions and disrupted their child’s special needs services. She also made herself available for late night and weekend telephone calls and meetings with Maria to assist her both with legal strategy and with her emotional response to the abuser’s hostile communications with her regarding their son.
As a result of Margaret’s efforts, the court ordered the abuser to comply with the terms of the custody agreement and to make the payments he was refusing to make. In addition, Maria’s educational hearing against the Board of Education to get her son into a special school can now proceed unobstructed by the abuser. When asked about how she approached the case, Margaret explained that she worked to tell a compelling story with the motion so that the judge could understand the unique situation.
Working Together to Move Forward
Margaret’s dedicated efforts continue. While Maria has already begun to receive funds owed to her, there will be ongoing representation related to enforcement of the order, including court appearances and client meetings. In addition, Margaret continues to assist Maria in preparing proposals to present at parent coordination meetings to obtain the father’s cooperation in enrolling the child in a special school. Margaret looks forward to continuing to work with Maria and with Sanctuary.
“Margaret’s hard work, diligence, excellent legal analysis and writing skills have given this mother the opportunity for a brighter future for herself and her son that she desperately desired.”
Reflecting on her experience so far, Margaret said, “It was wonderful working with Amanda [from Sanctuary], to have the opportunity to work with someone who is an expert in this field. You can lose sight of how much legal work can matter. Working one-on-one with a client makes you realize that you can make a huge difference in someone’s life.”
Maria also stated her appreciation for Margaret’s dedicated efforts:
“My son and I have been enormously blessed . . . with the valuable assistance of Margaret whom I can only thank forever with all my heart as a mother and as a woman and as a minority.”
Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Margaret’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event here.
If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.
Over the last month and a half, Sanctuary has joined with fellow immigrant and social services providers, New York City Council members, the State Attorney General, and acting Brooklyn DA to call on ICE to stop raids and arrests in New York courthouses. Read the remarks and testimonies our staff have delivered.
On the morning of Friday, June 16th a Chinese woman at the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court was about to have her case adjourned when Judge Toko Serita called her attorney from Legal Aid Society to the dais. According to Judge Serita, immigration agents were waiting outside the courtroom to detain her. In an effort to protect their client, the Legal Aid attorneys asked the judge to set bail so that the client would be held in custody thereby providing her attorneys with time to make a plan. Watching the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents circle the courtroom, attorneys and clients waiting in the hallway began to panic.
Many of the defendants in New York City’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts are immigrants and the increasing reports of arrests at or near courthouses has only served to fuel the climate of fear already prevalent within immigrant communities. Over the last month and a half, Sanctuary has joined with fellow immigrant and social services providers, New York City Council members, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez to call on ICE to treat courthouses as sensitive locations, similar to houses of worship and schools, and stop raids and arrests in New York courthouses.
Read the remarks our Executive Director Hon. Judy H. Kluger delivered on the steps of City Hall, the testimonies Sanctuary staff members Yvonne Chen and Carmen Rey gave at the June 26th New York City Council hearing, and the speech staff attorney Jillian Rudge prepared for the State Attorney General and acting Brooklyn District Attorney’s August 3rd press conference.
Written remarks of Hon. Judy Harris Kluger Rally on the steps of City Hall
June 22, 2017
Good morning. I am Judy Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families –one of New York’s leading advocates and service providers for human trafficking and domestic violence survivors.But, before I came to Sanctuary in 2014, I had the privilege of serving as a New York State Judge. One of the proudest moments in my years on the Bench was working with Chief Judge Lippman to spearhead the creation of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts.
When we created these courts, we envisioned them as a place that would offer a compassionate and comprehensive response to the problem of human trafficking in New York. To this day, these Courts serve as an intervention to help people break the cycle of exploitation and arrest.
The majority of defendants before the Intervention courts are vulnerable immigrants. I am appalled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at a Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens to arrest a victim of sex trafficking whose case was on the docket that day. Their actions violate the absolute sanctuary that these courts offer people who have been victimized and brutalized by violent pimps and johns. But the ICE agents’ intrusion into the Human Trafficking Court is not the only cause for alarm.
Their presence in our courts is having a chilling effect on domestic violence survivors who seek protection from their abusers in our Family Courts, places that should be safe havens for traumatized victims and their children. How can Sanctuary for Families – and other service providers – urge clients to get the lifesaving remedies they need, when deportation hangs over their heads?
No one should be afraid to seek justice in a court of law and ICE’s actions are spreading waves of fear among the most vulnerable among us. If this continues, ICE will drive trafficking and domestic violence away from the courts and into the world of violence they are trying so desperately to escape.
Written Testimony of Yvonne Chen, Manager of Outreach,
Anti-Trafficking Initiative, Sanctuary for Families
The New York City Council, Committee on Courts and Legal Services
Chair, Council Member Rory Lancman
Hearing on June 29, 2017
Good afternoon. My name is Yvonne Chen, and I am the Manager of Outreach for the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, one of New York City’s leading providers of services for survivors of trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence. We are grateful to the New York City Council for the opportunity to testify today—and to Council Member Lancman for calling this urgent hearing to discuss the crisis triggered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement appearances in our city courtrooms.
Most recently, less than two weeks ago, ICE agents entered the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, a problem-solving court whose goal is to identify trafficking victims and offer comprehensive services to assist them in escaping their abuse, not only from the massage parlor owners and brothel keepers who hold them captive, but from the thousands of sex buyers who rape them with impunity. As such many, if not most, of the defendants are themselves victims of horrific crimes, and feel hopeless about their prospects for getting help.
The terrifying appearance of three male ICE agents, to detain them rather than investigate the abuses against them, not only failed to protect public safety: by eviscerating the trust the courts had carefully nurtured, ICE aided traffickers in instilling the kind of fear in victims that discourages them from seeking justice.
Sanctuary was closely involved in the creation of the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs) in New York City and statewide over the past five years. These courts are a powerful means of identifying trafficking victims, offering them social and legal services as an alternative to criminal conviction. In partnership with some of New York’s preeminent law firms, Sanctuary launched a Pro Bono Project at the Queens HTIC in June 2014. Today, hundreds of trained lawyers provide high-quality legal services to trafficking victims including immigration, public benefits, family law and criminal conviction vacatur. Perhaps even more importantly, these mandated consultations are an opportunity to identify indicia of severe forms of trafficking.
Since the launch of the HTICs, Sanctuary has provided immigration consultations and counseling services to increasing numbers of victims in Queens and in Brooklyn—from 57 in 2014, to 370 in 2016. Among service providers working in the City’s trafficking courts, Sanctuary has elicited the highest rates of victim disclosure, due to the culturally and linguistically sensitive and trauma-informed interviewing techniques utilized by our staff and pro bono partners. The outcomes reveal a brutal industry that preys upon some of the most defenseless members of society—many of them Chinese and Korean women, most of them mothers and, in some cases, grandmothers—who come from impoverished rural communities with little education. Hoping to escape abuse in a land that they believed valued human dignity, these women instead have been coerced into providing sexual services through debt bondage and under threats of arrest and deportation.
On June 16, ICE sought to detain one such defendant, a Chinese woman believed to be a trafficking victim, who, like many of the East Asian defendants seen by Sanctuary, had been arrested for unlicensed massage. This young woman had been in touch with Sanctuary in the past, and was on track to have the charges against her dismissed after completing her mandated services. Instead, by complying with the legal requirement to appear in court as scheduled, she suddenly risked detention and deportation. All of this occurred in front of dozens of other immigrant defendants in the same situations—and many surely resolved at that moment never to return or complete their services.
Victims seeking justice in the courts—whether trafficking survivors in the HTICs, or domestic violence survivors in Family Court—should never be fearful of accessing protections offered by the criminal justice system. These courts should remain havens for traumatized victims. How can Sanctuary and other service providers responsibly encourage clients to seek the lifesaving help they need in the courts while the menacing presence of immigration agents are likely to be there? This only makes our city LESS safe: immigrant crime victims are driven into the shadows, less likely to report crimes for fear of arrest and deportation, while their exploiters flourish, emboldened with this extra layer of fear they can use to coerce their victims into submission. And it weakens the efforts of service providers, who can no longer reassure clients that they will be safe in the courts.
To illustrate this, let me describe to you the scene at court when ICE agents appeared on the scene two weeks ago: after court broke for lunch, two Chinese women approached me anxiously, questioning why ICE was there and if they were going to be deported next. They were terrified to even exit the courtroom and asked me to escort them outside so they could get some food, as they had been waiting since early morning for their case to be heard. As we were about to exit the courthouse, they panicked and decided to remain huddled inside the courthouse rather than risk arrest. I could tell they were famished, but because they could not bring themselves to step outdoors, the best I could do was bring them some stale bagels. As I sat with them for a few minutes, they wondered how they could possibly finish their sessions and return to court given the risk that doing so could cause them to be deported.
The mental health ramifications on a population of immigrants such as those in Queens, scores of whom fled traumatic experiences of state control in China, is chilling. Coming from places where corruption runs rampant, our clients experience overwhelming anxiety and paralyzing fear of public systems, especially the justice system. As a result, we must repeatedly explain to them that we are not representatives of the court or immigration.
Our multilingual staff works hard to gain their trust so that clients understand our assistance is safe and confidential. However, having been betrayed by supposed friends who trapped them into illicit massage parlors, where customers are often permitted to beat, rape, stab or strangle them for their sexual pleasure, fear and suspicion remain high. Unfortunately, the challenge of identifying victims and gaining their trust is getting more difficult, not less. Given the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed by the current federal administration, non-citizen victims are so terrified of the risk of being deported just for reporting their abuse, they choose not to come forward at all.
Immigrant victims must not be allowed to believe what their traffickers tell them: if you try to escape and seek help, the American government will arrest you and lock you up instead. Our courtrooms must remain a sanctuary for victims of crime seeking justice. Thank you for listening to this testimony—and thank you for your work on behalf of our most vulnerable neighbors.
Written Testimony of Carmen Maria Rey, Esq., Deputy Director, Immigration Intervention Project, Sanctuary for Families
The New York City Council, Committee on Courts and Legal Services
Chair, Council Member Rory Lancman
Hearing on June 29, 2017
Good afternoon. My name is Carmen Maria Rey. I am the Deputy Director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, one of New York City’s leading providers of legal, clinical, housing, and employment services for survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other forms of gender-based violence. We are grateful to the New York City Council for the opportunity to testify today, and to Council Member Lancman for calling this hearing to discuss the impact of having agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) present and engaging in immigration enforcement efforts in New York City’s courtrooms.
The presence of ICE in New York’s courtrooms deeply concerns us because it has unquestionably created a chilling effect on victims of domestic violence and trafficking seeking to exercise their legal rights in New York’s Courts.
A recent survey conducted by The Immigrant Defense Project this June found that of 225 advocates surveyed, 74% reported having worked with immigrants who expressed fear of the courts because of ICE’s presence there, and a further 45%—that is, close to 110 advocates—reported having worked with immigrants who failed to file a petition, or who withdrew a petition because they were afraid of encountering ICE in the court. Most concerning for us as attorneys and advocates working with survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, 67% of survey respondents working with survivors reported having had clients who decided to not seek help from the courts because they feared encountering ICE there.
These survey results are extremely troubling. Abusers and traffickers share one common trait: they exercise power and control as an instrument of abuse, attacking their victims where they are most vulnerable to keep them under their control. For immigrant victims, especially those with tenuous or no immigration status, the weapon of choice is clear: abusers and traffickers routinely threaten their victims with deportation and permanent separation from their U.S.-born children and other family in the U.S. as a tool to prevent them from calling authorities and ending the abuse.
For decades, organizations like Sanctuary have worked tirelessly to gain the trust of immigrant victims and assure them that if they come forward to report the crimes committed against them, we can keep them safe from their abusers and traffickers; that ICE will not be able to just find them and take them away, and that, most importantly, they will be safe with our law enforcement officers and with judges in our courts.
That trust that we developed over decades has been severely damaged since January of this year. Routinely now the news report incidents of ICE arresting litigants in our courts—even attempting the arrest of a survivor of human trafficking in the Queens trafficking part two weeks ago. This lends credence to the threats victims have heard for years—sometimes decades—from their abusers and traffickers. These days, even in our professed “sanctuary city”, being an immigrant in a courthouse seeking to exercise your right to safety and protection may well lead to arrest, detention, and deportation by ICE.
Over the past several months, immigrant clients have been particularly apprehensive about going to Family Court to seek orders of protection, custody and child support. They have even expressed concern about protecting their property rights in divorces: “If I make my husband mad, he will call ICE to come and get me in the courtroom.”
Of the hundreds of our clients that have been too afraid to proceed with litigation in the Courts, one of the most heartbreaking stories is that of one of my longtime clients, Maria, who is too afraid to seek an order of custody and visitation in Family Court against her daughter’s father, a man who beat her brutally for over a decade and recently kidnapped their daughter.
Maria’s abuser knows that she entered the country unlawfully and that, in 1998, at the age of 17, she was convicted of a minor drug-related crime. This means that, despite having lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, and having a young U.S. citizen daughter, Maria is a priority for deportation. Her abuser knows this, and has threatened Maria that if she tries to get her daughter back, he will call immigration and have her deported. He doesn’t know where she lives, but if she files for custody, he can tell ICE where she will be on the day of her Court hearing, and they will likely come to arrest her.
This means that Maria is too afraid to seek the one legal remedy that would be available to her—suing for custody and visitation in Family Court—because she is too afraid to come to the attention of immigration authorities and be deported from the U.S. and never see her daughter again. And as advocates for Maria, as the situation currently stands, we unfortunately cannot assure her of her safety in court.
In closing, we strongly believe that the courts must remain a sanctuary for all New Yorkers in need of help, and that ICE’s presence in the courts has had a tremendously damaging effect on immigrant victims of domestic violence and trafficking in need of protection from the courts.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify.
Written remarks of Jillian Rudge (never publicly delivered) Press conference co-hosted by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez
August 3, 2017
Good morning. My name is Jill Rudge. I am an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow and Staff Attorney at the Immigration Intervention Project of Sanctuary for Families – the City’s largest provider of legal services for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. Sanctuary for Families provides services to some 17,000 adult and child New Yorkers per year, and over 70% of our clients are immigrants who come from over 140 countries.
We are grateful to Attorney General Schneiderman and District Attorney Gonzalez for the opportunity to join the voices calling for to ICE raids in our courthouses. We too are concerned that ICE’s presence in our courts undermines access to justice for New Yorkers because it deters non-citizens from accessing the courts as both cooperating witnesses on criminal prosecutions, and as litigants in civil cases – which is especially harmful to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
ICE’s presence in our Courts breeds fear, and abusers and traffickers exploit that fear to ensure that victims are too afraid to help put an end to their exploitation. Along with other legal providers across NY State, we have noted a marked increase in the number of our clients who cite fear of deportation as a reason to not call police or cooperate in a prosecution of their attacker or trafficker. A recent Immigrant Defense Project survey reports that 74% of advocates polled across New York are experiencing the same uptick at their organizations, and that nearly 70% of those working with survivors of domestic violence or trafficking reported having clients who decided to not seek help from the courts because they feared encountering ICE there.
One example of the choices victims are being forced to make daily across New York State is the situation being faced by our longtime client Maria, who, like many of our clients, is too afraid to seek an order of custody and visitation in Family Court against her daughter’s father, a man who beat her brutally for over a decade and recently kidnapped their daughter. Maria’s abuser knows that she entered the country unlawfully and that at the age of 17, she was convicted of a minor drug-related crime. Despite having lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, and having a young U.S. citizen daughter, Maria is a priority for deportation. Her abuser uses this information to threaten her that if she goes to Court to get her daughter back, he will call immigration and have her deported. He doesn’t know where she lives, but if she files for custody, he can tell ICE where she will be on the day of her Court hearing, and they will likely come to arrest her. This means that for the first time ever, Maria is too afraid to seek the one legal remedy available to her—suing for custody and visitation in Family Court—because doing so means coming to the attention of ICE and never seeing her daughter again.
Maria’s story also highlights how the presence of ICE in our courts is not just an immigrant issue. Immigrant families are of mixed immigration status, and include United States citizens. Whole families and communities are being negatively impacted by the fear generated by ICE’s presence in our courts. This is not just an immigrant’s rights issue – this is an access to justice issue concerning all New Yorkers.
For decades, organizations like Sanctuary have worked tirelessly to gain the trust of immigrant victims and assure them that if they come forward to report the crimes committed against them, we can keep them safe from their abusers and traffickers; that ICE will not just find them and take them away; and that, most importantly, they will be safe with our law enforcement officers and with judges in our courts. That trust developed over decades has been severely damaged by ICE’s arrest of immigrant New Yorkers in our court. As a result, victims are going unprotected, and witnesses are being silenced. Even in our “sanctuary city”, being an immigrant in a courthouse seeking to exercise your right to safety and protection may well lead to arrest, detention, and deportation by ICE.
In closing, we strongly believe that the courts must remain a sanctuary for all New Yorkers in need of help, and that ICE’s presence in the courts has had a tremendously damaging effect on immigrant victims of domestic violence and trafficking in need of protection.
As a survivor of FGM, I deem it fit to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls.
Where I am from, a girl is recognized by the following: Who is her father? Who is her husband? Where are her children? Society believes these are the only stages in a girl’s life. Men and women spend their whole lives teaching their girls how to eat, drink, walk and subject their girls to female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage in the name of religion and culture.
I am from The Gambia; the smallest country in mainland Africa. We have a population of about two million people, 60% of whom are young people under the age of 24. Almost half of the population lives in abject poverty. In my country, women bear the weight of these challenges and endure all the injustices society has to offer despite the fact that our government signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is also a signatory to the Beijing Declaration which has the singular purpose of promoting gender equality and empowerment of women around the world.
As a survivor of FGM, I believe it’s my duty to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls. I would not have done all my activism both local and international without my father’s firm belief in girls’ empowerment through education. With all my experience and both formal and informal educational background, I decided to represent and speak for the voiceless.
Where I come from
I am the sixth child of my parents’ seven children, all of whom started school as early as 4 years old. I was the only one who started school at age 7 because my father was more interested in teaching me the Holy Quran first before enrolling me to school. He wanted me to understand the fundamental principles of Islam and differentiate Islamic values from cultural values. My father made sure I was going to school and at the same time attending Arabic school.
At the age of 11, I memorized the Holy Quran and started studying Islamic Sharia law. I attended a Catholic middle school during the day, and in the evening I went for my Islamic studies. Going to a Catholic school made me an outcast in my society and during my Grade 9 exams, my Islamic teacher would keep me in the mosque until late hours before releasing me in order to prevent me from studying for my exams. The only difference between other girls in my country at the time and me was that I had an advocate who went against all the odds to make sure I had the same opportunities boys had to reach their fullest potential.
Although my father was not able to protect me when my aunty kidnapped me and took me to the circumciser, he taught me the Holy Quran and made sure I attended school. My father was called “Western” and was denied access to Muslim gatherings because he never asked me to wear hijab. He was a disabled man and he relied on his wheelchair, but he worked very hard to empower my mother who took over his business after his stroke. Unlike many of my friends’ fathers, he believed a woman could be more than a housewife.
Finding my voice
In May 2011, I was appointed as the head girl of Nusrat Senior Secondary School. One of my many responsibilities was to work with the staff to improve girls’ academic performance. In my research, I discovered most of the girls in my school were betrothed to be married. Some faced domestic violence, and others were victims of teenage pregnancy. As a result, they were often expelled while the perpetrators continued to go to school.
With the help of my father and the school administration, I organized an All Girls Conference for 700 girls from different schools in the greater Banjul (the capital city) area. This event served as a platform for girls from different backgrounds to come together and discuss issues hindering their performance in school with mentors, counseling experts, and peer health educators. At the end of the meeting, the participants came up with a pledge. My school helped me send it to the Vice President, the Office of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education and I was granted audience by the Minister of Basic Education and a representative from the Office of the Vice President for follow ups on the issues raised by the girls at the conference.
I also made a video about early marriage in the Gambia with the support of my father, Young People in the Media, and The Gambia Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices-Access Gambia (GAMCOTRA). Working with GAMCOTRA, I went to rural Gambia where I spoke with victims of early marriage and learned the challenges they face in their daily lives.
The All Girls Conference and my video helped me launch a gender sensitization curriculum for young people to address and prevent gender-based violence in all schools and communities together with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education.
Challenging my culture
After I graduated from high school in August 2013, I was elected President of Young People in the Media, an organization which aims to use media to create a greater understanding of the developmental issues facing children and young people and to give youth the opportunity to express their feelings and aspirations. I decided to start a radio talk show to address issues faced by young people, especially girls. On the show, I challenged religious leaders who were preaching that FGM is written in the Quran and that a woman’s place is in her husband’s house. I studied the Quran for twelve years, and there is no chapter where Allah says a woman needs to be mutilated or a woman should not speak up.
In June 2013, I was invited to Abuja, Nigeria by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to speak on the role of young people in media and information literacy. After this meeting, I organized a capacity building training titled “Media Literacy: Incorporating Child Rights in a Changing Information Age.” The goal was to promote freedom of expression, access to the information youth need in order to be educated about technology, and to show them how they can use it to their advantage.
In December 2013, UNESCO organized the first Global Alliance on Media Information Literacy and Gender in Bangkok, Thailand. The main purpose of this event was to promote gender equality in the media. I was invited to participate as the UNESCO youth representative in the Global Alliance for Media and Information Literacy. I advocated for the inclusion of media and information literacy in school curricula because our President, who came to power through coup d’état in 1994, did not support freedom of the press.
With the support of UNESCO and the American Embassy in Banjul, my organization was able to train journalists and social media activists on how to engage people on online platforms, create online videos, and write blogs. The outcome of this was clear in our 2016 presidential election during which online media platforms were flooded with content.
How I will change the world
When my father died in 2014, his younger brother stepped in. He wanted to inherit my mother and he threatened to mutilate me a second time and marry me off, but my mom refused.
I fled to the United States and upon my arrival, I connected with Pooja Asnani, a lawyer at Sanctuary for Families.Pooja told me about Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, an option for young people who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. Pooja represented me in Family Court and helped me obtain the orders I needed to apply for legal permanent resident status. In the summer of 2015, I received my green card thanks to Pooja and Sanctuary’s help.
These days I am pretty busy. As a Youth Representative on the UN Communications Coordination Committee’s Board of Directors, I represent the voices of the young and bring the attention of the Council to issues affecting young people. I stay connected to Sanctuary through their FGM Coalition. As head of the Coalition’s Youth Advocacy Committee I work with members to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM in New York’s African communities.
I am also working with Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Masood Katamee. He is a clinical professor at the New York School of Medicine and the founder of a gynecology and fertility research foundation, and together we are organizing a conference on June 22nd at the UN Headquarters with the theme Eradicating Harmful Cultural Practices Impacting Women’s and Girl’s Health and Well-being.
I am additionally working with UNESCO Paris to develop an app that will enable students in Africa to access library resources on their smartphones so that they don’t have to travel long distances in order to go to their school library. I am building this app based on my experience and the experiences of many young people in developing countries.
This fall, I plan to attend college. I want to study Women’s and Gender Studies because I will be able to learn not only about gender issues, but about sexuality, social class, ethnicity, race, and nationality. Studying the consequences of inequality in this way can help us shape a better world.
In the future, I plan to work with UN organizations like UN Women to encourage men to advocate for women’s equality.
I know I can influence change. By sharing my experiences as an African girl with the world, I believe I can create a difference in the lives of young people everywhere.