Category Archives: Human Rights

Amnesty International votes to decriminalize sex work; controversy ensues

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


At its International Council Meeting in Dublin on Tuesday, human rights organization Amnesty International adopted a resolution allowing the organization to develop a policy toward the decriminalization of sex work, with the goal of strengthening human rights protections for sex workers around the world.

The resolution recommends that Amnesty International develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work. The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.

The research and consultation carried out in the development of this policy in the past two years concluded that this was the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights and lessen the risk of abuse and violations they face.

The violations that sex workers can be exposed to include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. They can also be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection.

The policy has drawn from an extensive evidence base from sources including UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, UN Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.

It was a pretty big deal – the story has been covered by most major news outlets and was even on NPR this morning – and the decision comes after two years of discussion and debate within the organization.

To call the vote controversial might be somewhat of an understatement. Last week saw a feminist firestorm erupt over the issue, joined by celebrities like Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham on social media, leading up to the vote.

Last week’s internet melee is just the most recent boiling-over of a decades-long debate on the “problem of prostitution.” When I first saw Humanosphere’s reporting on the story in my RSS reader last week, I skimmed over it but did not mentally bookmark it until I came across a post from “Sex Work Research” from the same day. The post links to a 1994 article by Annette Jolin from the journal Crime and Delinquency called “On the Backs of Working Prostitutes: Feminist Theory and Prostitution Policy” (a full-text link to the article is available in the post). It is a decent read, providing the historical background that informs the current debate and breaking down the feminist split on the issue without getting too heavy on feminist theory.

Modern feminists have been unable to resolve questions of this sort: Is it sexual or economic inequality that keeps women from attaining equality? Should protecting women from male sexual subjugation entail restricting women’s ability to make choices?

In fundamental terms…feminists divide into two broad groups regarding the role of prostitution in women’s fight for equality:

  1. Women who stress emancipation from male sexual oppression (prostitute as victim) as the primary equity issue in the prostitution debate – the sexual equality first (SEF) group; and
  2. Women who stress freedom of choice (prostitute as worker) as the primary equity issue in the prostitution debate – the free choice first (FCF) group.

The paper goes on to explain each position in more detail and outline what Jolin sees as the flaws and fallacies on each side. While most of the commentary on the AI vote is shorter and potentially more accessible than the article, it is essentially all a rehash of what Jolin’s paper outlines.

The modern concern with decriminalization (as opposed to legalization, which would allow states to regulate the industry and which AI does not support) is that it will protect traffickers; opponents advocate for what is commonly referred to as the “Swedish model,” in which pimps and purchasers are targeted but the sex workers themselves are not subject to prosecution. However, sex workers and their advocates have pointed out that this model presents a whole different host of problems, including disdain and abuse from police officers (which the model is designed to prevent). What surprised me most was that anti-trafficking advocates and feminists who oppose decriminalizing do not seem to be listening to sex workers themselves, who have very vocally advocated for decriminalization for years – both in the developed and in the developing world.

It can be difficult to strike a balance between principle and “realities on the ground” when it comes to policy, but what ultimately steered AI to its decision was the evidence – mounting research that decriminalization is the most effective way to protect sex workers’ rights to health, work, and choice. As a public health and HIV advocate myself, I cannot help but agree.

It’s (UN) official: South Korea’s mandatory HIV testing for foreigners is racial discrimination

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


South Korea has come under fire in recent years for its treatment of immigrants, migrant workers, and non-ethnic Koreans (and even their own working-class people). Last fall, Bitter Harvest, Amnesty International’s report on the country’s treatment of agricultural migrant laborers highlighted how Southeast Asian migrants went unpaid, were subjected to harsh treatment and squalid living conditions, and were either deprived of medical care or forced to pay for their own care out of pocket (from their own meager wages). In some cases, the migrants were forced to take (and pay for) an HIV test, with employers requiring a negative test result.

In the case of migrant workers, this is clearly illegal – currently, the only visa category for which the South Korean government requires an HIV test is E-2 (native-speaking English teachers from the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand). However, even this requirement – first implemented in 2007 in response to a racially-fueled moral panic – has been determined to be discriminatory and racially motivated, according to a ruling from the UN’s Committee to End all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) handed down last week. The ruling, issued in response to a case filed by a New Zealand woman who lost her job in 2009 after refusing to take an HIV test to renew her contract – has been long awaited by the expat ESL community in Korea. Whether the Korean government will remove the requirement remains to be seen.

The case was brought to CERD by Benjamin Wagner, an international human rights attorney who co-authored a legal paper on the issue of South Korea’s use of HIV testing as a proxy for racial discrimination with Matt van Volkenburg. The paper (PDF) provides an excellent background on the history, political and cultural climate, and xenophobic advocacy efforts that led to the implementation of the testing requirement, as well as how the requirement is a clear example of South Korea shirking its international human rights obligations:

The HIV and drug test requirements for foreign teachers were first established as emergency measures in 2007 by the Ministry of Justice
(“MOJ”), which claimed they were necessary in order to “ease the anxiety of the citizens.” Part II of this Article examines the background and
context of the implementation of these requirements and argues that they were introduced during a period of media hysteria and moral panic…a civil society group called the “Citizens’ Group for Upright English Education”…succeeded in courting public opinion against foreign English teachers by contributing to highly sensationalized media reportage replete with lurid tales of perversion, sex crimes, drug use and AIDS. This group was also successfully able to influence national policy by petitioning the government for measures against foreign teachers, including mandatory HIV and drug tests.

Part III examines the ROK’s international commitments to eliminate discrimination and stigma based on actual or presumed HIV status and
examines how and why the ROK has failed to honor these commitments.

Korea’s HIV restrictions for foreign teachers are among the most extreme form of HIV restrictions in the world…Of the forty-nine countries in the world that continue to have some form of HIV-related restrictions in place for foreigners only about six have restrictions so extreme as requiring in-country testing for foreign workers that must be repeated on a regular basis, and nowhere are teachers subject to such restrictions. Indeed, the ROK’s extreme position toward its foreign teacher population has attracted the attention of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who has urged the ROK to eliminate its HIV restrictions on foreign teachers.

Obviously, any foreigner who tests positive for HIV is immediately detained and deported; in 2008, the Korean CDC reported that it had deported 521 out of 647 HIV-positive foreigners. Non-nationals of Korean ethnicity have been able to successfully challenge such deportations, but the Korean judicial system explicitly differentiates between the legal rights of citizens versus foreign nationals.

Interestingly, South Korea has given CERD “the same authority as domestic law” regarding foreign nationals; however, this means next to nothing as Wagner explained in a different piece last week:

Professor Kyong-Whan Ahn…remarked that the constitutional analysis used by Korean courts to determine whether an incidence of discrimination has occurred is relatively underdeveloped. The method relied upon by courts is the “reasonableness test”. But, Ahn complains, decisions are all too often “a foregone conclusion” with little analysis or scrutiny.

[T]he status of the CERD is unique in that “it has the same authority of domestic law and does not necessitate additional legislation,” as the Republic of Korea has made clear to the Committee on several occasions. Nevertheless, the Committee has responded, “although the Convention forms part of the domestic law and is directly applicable in the courts of [South Korea], there are no court decisions which contain references to or confirm the direct applicability of its provisions.” The Committee has pointed out to the government that the situation may be the result of “a lack of awareness of the availability of legal remedies” and has recommended “information campaigns and education programmes on the Convention and its provisions.” Unfortunately, however, the treaty remains relatively unknown in Korea and neither the government nor the courts have done enough to change that.

van Volkenburg, who has been covering this issue (and its origins) since it all began in 2005 at the long-running Korean expat blog Gusts of Popular Feeling, has a great summary of the ruling and its implications (as well as the best collection of links to the news coverage of the ruling):

The summary makes public the justification the UMOE offered for the tests – something that many people taking these tests have known for years, but never admitted by the government:
[D]uring arbitration proceedings, L.G.’s employers, the Ulsan Metropolitan Office of Education (UMOE), said that HIV/AIDS tests were viewed as a means to check the values and morality of foreign English teachers.

One of the Committee’s recommendations isn’t very surprising:

The Committee recommends that the State party grant the petitioner adequate compensation for the moral and material damages caused by the above-mentioned violations of the Convention, including compensation for the lost wages during the one year she was prevented from working.

It continues with much more sweeping recommendations, however:

It also recommends that the State Party takes the appropriate means to review regulations and policies enacted at the State or local level related to employment of foreigners and abolish, both in law and practice, any piece of legislation, regulation, policy or measure which has the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination. The Committee recommends the State party to counter any manifestations of xenophobia, through stereotyping or stigmatizing, of foreigners by public officials, the media and the public at large, including, as appropriate, public campaigns, official statements and codes of conduct for politicians and the media. The State party is also requested to give wide publicity to the Committee’s Opinion, including among prosecutors and judicial bodies, and to translate it into the official language of the State party.

This doesn’t just refer to English teachers, but to regulations for all foreign workers. And as I’ve covered here, the references to the conduct of the media and politicians is very pertinent, considering the ‘Citizens Group for Upright English Education’ (also known as Anti English Spectrum) worked closely with the media and had access to politicians when pushing for the creation of the HIV testing policy (among others) in the first place.

It will be interesting to see how the Korean government will respond to the CERD’s ruling – whether it will in fact change the law in accordance with its treaty obligations. Based on South Korea’s history of human rights protections, it does not look promising. Even when human rights principles are codified into law, employers (and often police officers) who violate workers’ legal rights do so with widespread impunity and are rarely prosecuted or held accountable – as demonstrated by the cases of the migrant workers in Bitter Harvest and the workers enslaved on salt farms on the islands of Jeollanam-do. The admission that HIV tests were seen as a way to “check the values and morality” of visa applicants is a slap in the face – doubly so considering that only foreigners are required to have “upright values” in order to get jobs.

Nonetheless, the CERD ruling is a major victory – a solid foundation on which to pressure the South Korean government, which has demonstrated that it wants to be taken seriously in the international community.

World Human Right Cities Forum Advances Interdisciplinary Rights Dialogue

Gwangju, the “City of Light” and capitol of Jeollanam-do province in South Korea, is also the country’s historical epicenter of democratic activism and civil disobedience. In addition to being known for its flavorful food and spicy kimchi, the city has made a name of itself as a champion of human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi accepted an award for democracy there in 2013 (that had been awarded to her in 2004, while she was still under house arrest), and the city hosts an Annual World Human Rights Cities Forum. I am so proud of the fact that my own time in Korea was there, and that I became actively involved in the Gwangju International Center – a non-profit organization focused on cultural exchange that organizes and co-hosts the forum – while I was there. My husband and I both still have a strong affinity for Gwangju, which is why he chose to do his internship for his Master of Global Policy Studies program at the GIC. He had the good fortune of attending this year’s forum and even had the opportunity to speak with several panelists. He graciously agreed to share his experience and observations – even those that relate to public health – so that I could feature them here. What follows is his coverage (and photos!).

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


Gwangju, South Korea – From May 15th to May 18th Gwangju, South Korea played host to the 5th Annual World Human Rights Cities Forum. Begun in 2011, the World Human Rights Cities Forum (WHRCF) has grown into a premier forum for human rights advocacy and policy with an emphasis on community-level programming. The foundational concept for the forum is that of the “human rights city,” which, according to the Gwangju Human Rights Charter, is a city built on “the historical assets and the infrastructure of democracy and human rights the city has, a democratic administration of participatory autonomy, and civic consciousness that functions as a catalyst in implementation of the human rights.” Gwangju’s interest in human rights stems from its history as the site of the May 18 Democratic Uprising, a popular revolt that played a key role in South Korea’s transition to democracy in the 1980s.

The WHRCF aims to draw activists, community organizers, and city government officials together in order to encourage the exchange of policies and ideas involving human rights advocacy and implementation. While acknowledging that city-level government is often unable to set a national tone for human rights policy, the role of municipal governments in implementation of human rights policies is key. Sessions at the 2015 WHRCF covered a variety of different themed sessions including topics of state violence and torture, gender, disability, education, and social economy. In total, over one hundred speakers from twenty-three countries presented or participated in panel sessions.

Public health interests were well represented among the panelists. The thematic session on disability placed a significant focus on self-determination in access to care, particularly for patients with mental disabilities. Discussions involved the rights of the disabled to humane treatment when institutionalized in long-term facilities, and how municipal and provincial policies can encourage proper oversight and legal protection for long-term patients at psychiatric facilities. Areas of additional concern were policies protecting the disabled from involuntary sterilization and strategies to advance public education capabilities for developmentally disabled children. Many of these are areas where local ordinances or regional organizations can have a major effect on at-risk populations, even in situations where national healthcare and education policies are lacking in their protections for the disabled.

Panelists and audience members listen to a speaker at the special session on psychological support for torture victims participating in legal proceedings.

Panelists and audience members listen to a speaker at the special session on psychological support for torture victims participating in legal proceedings.

A topic of particular relevance in many countries, including even the United States given the ongoing racial tensions and unrest in places like Baltimore or Ferguson, was the thematic session on assisting victim of state violence and torture. In an interview following the session, panelist Pinar Onen, a clinical psychologist working with the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, spoke about the need for psychological treatment for victims of state violence, and the difficulty of finding treatment for victims who distrust state authority and state-operated healthcare system due to their association between oppressive violence and state authority. Other speakers talked about the challenges facing legal activism in support of victims of state violence, particularly re-traumatization associated with the legal challenges needed to get redress for state violence or torture. An additional concern is the need to relax or eliminate statute of limitations laws for state violence and torture, as they prevent accountability of government figures and represent an inherent conflict of interests when the body instituting the statute of limitations stands to directly benefit from the inability to hear legal action involving state violence and oppression.

Assembled dignitaries and representatives at the closing of the 2015 World Human Rights Cities Forum on May 17th, 2015.

Assembled dignitaries and representatives at the closing of the 2015 World Human Rights Cities Forum on May 17th, 2015.

The WHRCF is particularly valuable as a platform for coordinating research and policies involving human rights across a variety of different fields and locations. The opportunity for dialogue and discussion helps activist gain insight on how to institute local government policies or to effectively run advocacy organizations working to increase access to human rights protections across the world. More recognition needs to be given to worker on the regional and municipal levels who are actually involved in policy implementation and development, as broad, national directives can make a statement about human rights but cannot actually benefit citizens without effective implementation on the ground. It is absolutely essential for those in need of assistance and expertise in implementing these policies to have platforms such as these to gain knowledge and information on managing and implementing the desired programs.

As the WHRCF continues in the future, there is great need for further participation of researchers, policy-makers, and professionals in related fields to continue this dialogue regarding methods for ensuring human rights protections. Public health plays a crucial role in this endeavor, as evidenced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25, which establishes access to medical care and social services as a basic human right. When protections are needed for children, elderly, infirm, or disabled persons, public health professionals are best equipped to provide input on the needs and challenges of these at-risk populations, and their input is absolutely necessary for administrators and policy-makers to be able to craft the laws and regulations necessary to realize human rights protections for all.

Media Wars: #Ferguson, American Hypocrisy and a Hint of Spring

This was originally posted on my professional blog.

America has experienced an ugly spotlight reversal with the eruption of popular discontent into violence in its own backyard. Just a few weeks ago, international media was buzzing with reports of ISIS steamrolling the Iraqi military and Russian-supported separatists in Ukraine shooting down passenger airlines. Now, the US squirms uncomfortably under international scrutiny of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer has once again raised the specter of racism and police brutality.

Obviously, the incident itself is complicated. Eyewitnesses – who have given conflicting testimonies – are the only window into what happened, since there was no dashboard camera. The initial description of Michael Brown, the victim of the shooting, as a “gentle giant” about to start college clashed with video footage of him stealing a box of cigarillos from a convenience store. Commentators have drawn parallels with the case of Trayvon Martin, whose mother has now reached out to Brown’s mother. Peaceful protests have given way to violence and looting, reporters have been arrested, and witnesses have complained of excessive use of force by the police.

Social media, which played a major role in bringing media attention to Ferguson in the first place, has played host to the battleground of ideological responses to the incident. The primary complaint from conservatives is that the uprising in Ferguson, and the underlying racial tensions it has exposed, don’t deserve our consideration because some of the protesters have been looting and vandalizing stores…

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…including a few gems that actually blame the community for the excessive force used against it.

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Meanwhile, people used the Twitter hastag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to spar over which photos of Brown were used by traditional media (wearing a cap and gown vs. striking a “thug” pose) and post their own side-by-side pictures. Still others are expressing frustration at the fact that the vandalism and looting has been used as a straw man to distract from ongoing widespread racial profiling and policy brutality against blacks, including one refreshingly blunt protester at a rally in DC:

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What has been the most interesting to me is the global shock and horror at the incident and resulting fallout. The international community sees what many Americans are apparently missing: that the protests and unrest in Ferguson are the manifestation of a minority group sick of being oppressed and ignored. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights drew parallels to South African apartheid, while several countries have been using the situation to take shots at America’s own human rights record when we so often criticize other countries. One might expect Iran and Russia troll the US over civil unrest, but as one friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, “When Egypt calls you out for human rights abuses, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.”

American police brutality, and the unwillingness of many police departments to be held accountable for their actions, have also been focal points. What happened to Michael Brown will unfortunately always be shrouded in mystery, since the Ferguson police department apparently prioritizes riot gear and tear gas over cameras for officers or police cruisers. They also seemed to have forgotten the meaning of “free press,” as they arrested and harassed several reporters who were trying to cover the protests. Interestingly, Obama was quick to condemn the bullying of journalists “here in the United States of America,” despite his own administration’s secrecy and aggression toward the press, including prosecuting a journalist who refused to identify the source of an intelligence leak.

Indeed, many observers have been quick to point out America’s hypocrisy at fingering human rights abuses outside our own borders when we have threads of discontent, similar to those found in the Arab Spring and other global protest movements, woven throughout our own society. A lovely little piece of satire from Vox portrays how American media might describe the events in Ferguson if they happened in another country.

When everything is said and done, America doesn’t look so much like a shining beacon of democracy and human rights – we just kinda look like everybody else.

Mass Shootings and Important Conversations

Elliot Rodger, a disturbed rich young man went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, a wealthy district in Santa Barbara, California. Thanks to the joys of social media, both his written and videotaped “manifestos” were able to go viral. The reasons he listed for his killing tour included his parents’ divorce, lack of luck with the ladies, and being short.

I get the divorce and the sexual frustration, but being short? That one was new.

Predictably, this has set off all manner of commentary in the public sphere. First and foremost, of course, comes the discourse on gun control. Gun control advocates have pointed out that all of the guns that Rodger used were legally obtained. The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence has spoken out on the need to tighten controls on obtaining firearms, and one of the victim’s fathers blamed “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA” for his son’s death. To be fair, three of the six people who died were actually stabbed to death, but Rodger had plenty more ready in his car that he could have used.

The feminist response to the “manifesto” (can we even call it that? should we?) has been swift and furious, pointing out the misogynism woven through it and drawing attention to his links to the usually peculiar, occasionally violence-embracing “Men’s Rights Movement” (which, by the way, is what exactly?)

But it also denies reality to pretend that Rodger’s sense of masculine entitlement and views about women didn’t matter or somehow existed in a vacuum. The horror of Rodger’s alleged crimes is unique, but the distorted way he understood himself as a man and the violence with which he discussed women — the bleak and dehumanizing way he judged them — is not. Just as we examine our culture of guns once again in the wake of yet another mass shooting, we must also examine our culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which devalues both women’s and men’s lives and worth, and inflicts real and daily harm.

Outspoken feminist writers have pointed out that this is not the first time a shooter has claimed similar motives, and Laurie Penny, in her usual no-holds-barred style, has dubbed the attack as the latest example of misogynistic extremism.

Last, and perhaps least, is the quiet conversation about mental health that seems to only experience half-hearted revivals when these tragedies strike. Mental health advocates speak up to point out that mental illness and seeking treatment for it are stigmatized in our culture, so social awkwardness and becomes anger without productive outlets which then warps into repressed rage. The media usually turns its head for a bit, shrugs, and then moves on to montages of grieving members of the community and talking heads interviewing NRA spokespeople on CNN. Unfortunately, this shooting has pitted feminists and mental health advocates against one another – as if Elliot Rodger the misogynist and Elliot Rodger the mentally unbalanced were mutually exclusive.

As both a feminist and a public health advocate, that makes me sad.

However, I think these are all important conversations to have. I much prefer them being featured on prime-time television in shows like Law and Order: SVU and Scandal than to have them forcibly thrust into the spotlight in the wake of a tragedy, but they need our attention nonetheless – and not at the expense of one another. While I’m not quite with the NRA on (lack of) gun control, I do think it’s something of a straw man in this case – California is one of the strictest states when it comes to gun ownership, and preventing mass killings goes beyond cutting off access to handguns (which, for better or worse, cannot be kept from citizens per the Supreme Court) – but conversations about gun violence segue into discussions about poverty and equity, which badly need to be confronted. We need to scrutinize sexism and gender violence as much as society’s assumption that a man’s worth is based on his sexual prowess – all of which hurt men as much as they hurt women, but in completely different ways. And we need to stop sweeping mental health advocacy under the rug, so that people don’t avoid treatment for mental illness for fear of being unable to get jobs in places like the military or the federal government.

Rather than fighting each other for the spotlight, let’s share it together.

Announcement: American-Iranian Academic Exchange

Section members and other interested professionals! Please see the following announcement from Taraneh Salke, who is leading an effort to organize a public health exchange to Iran. This exchange, while modeled after APHA’s sponsored delegation to Cuba, is not directly affiliated with APHA. If you are interested in learning more, please contact her at taranehsalke@yahoo.com.

If you would like to publicize commentary on the exchange described below, you may do so in the Comments section here, or contact me directly at jmkeralis [at] gmail [dot] com.


Dear colleagues,

My name is Taraneh Salke, an APHA member. I am writing to invite the APHA community to join an academic exchange trip to Iran tentatively scheduled for October of 2014. The American Iranian Academic Exchange is the first of its kind in nearly four decades, presenting a historic opportunity for public health professionals to bridge the distance of culture and politics, taking advantage of new openings created by high level dialogue between the American and Iranian governments. The exchange aims to support global academic cooperation through scientific exchange with our Iranian colleagues. This exchange is open to all professionals from all health and medical fields.

The visit will help us gain an understanding of the Iranian medical care structure, its integration with public health systems. The country’s successful family planning and reproductive health programs have led to maternal mortality rates at levels comparable with the United States, a total fertility rate of 1.6, and rates of contraceptive use that are among the best in the world. Iran’s public health establishment has also pursued a rigorous immunization campaign, reaching 99% coverage rates for most indicators tracked by UNICEF.

To learn more about Iran’s health care system, we will visit hospitals, clinics and medical universities. Also on our itinerary are visits to the Pasteur Institute of Iran and a generic pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Isfahan.

In joining this project, we also join in the prospect of fostering collaborative research and the sharing of ideas, culture and values between American and Iranian health communities. There is a strong desire among Iranian professionals of all fields and many government officials to improve relations with the United States. During our travels, we will also be exposed to Iran’s rich culture–including Persian culinary arts, a storied architecture and the country’s famous rug crafts–which had the Huffington Post calling Iran a top tourist destination for 2014.

This trip is led by myself, Taraneh Salke, and my team. Since 1999, I have been working to promote women’s health and rights in the Middle East, founding the nonprofit organization Family Health Alliance (FHA) in 2005 to carry out my vision. In my position as FHA’s Executive Director, I have designed and implemented over 30 capacity building programs in Afghanistan, training hundreds of local health providers on strategies to reduce maternal and infant mortality. I have also studied Iran’s health care system extensively, coordinating two previous projects with Iranian medical universities and public hospitals.

More information on me and the work of Family Health Alliance is available at the following links:
http://www.taranehsalke.com/
http://www.familyhealthalliance.org/

The American/Iranian Academic Exchange is modeled after an APHA-sponsored delegation to Cuba that I had the good fortune to be a part of. The APHA community has helped build bridges between the scientific communities around the world, and this is an opportunity to continue in that tradition.

In November 2013, I traveled to Iran meeting with university officials and medical professionals who have eagerly agreed to participate in and host the academic exchange. There is a great deal of excitement over this trip among members of the Iranian scientific community. I have been asked to convey their desire to establish connections with their counterparts in the American public health community. They are hopeful that interactions during the exchange will serve as a springboard for collaborative research and joint publications, as well as leading to American academics teaching in Iran, and vice versa.

They have also invited exchange participants to present before our Iranian colleagues at a major medical university in Tehran, an opportunity available to those joining us in the October. The deadline for submitting abstracts is in June.

I am approaching APHA members’ to explore your interest in participating in this historic trip. The deadline for submitting visa processing documents is April 30th. This will reserve applicants a spot to be considered for the exchange trip. The deadline for making a final decision and submitting a security deposit is in June. We have requested for an extension on the visa application, please let me know if you require additional time for the visa application.

Please, if you have any other questions, feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,
Taraneh Salke
Executive Director, Family Health Alliance
taranehsalke@yahoo.com

Too far to go still: India’s struggle against gang-rape continues

This was cross-posted to my professional blog.

In the worst news you’ll read today, yet another gang-rape – of another tourist, and the second one this week – has surfaced in India.

An 18-year-old German was allegedly raped on Friday after falling asleep on a train heading to Chennai in southeastern India, where she was going to do volunteer work with a charity.

“The young lady took several days to muster courage to report to the police,” Inspector General of Police Seema Agarwal told NDTV. “Though it’s too late for medical examination, we have handled the case in a very sensitive manner.”

The attack brings the toll of publicized rapes on foreigners in the country to two in just a week, after a 51-year-old Danish woman was allegedly gang-raped in New Delhi on Tuesday.

En route to do charity work – they say no good deed goes unpunished, but damn.

Rape in general, and gang-rape in particular, has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny, and (thankfully) a whole lot of national soul-searching in India since the report of a brutal gang-rape on a bus in New Delhi made international headlines in 2012. Naturally, the stories involving tourists tend to garner more attention that those of locals, but there have been plenty of those to go around. Take the case of the German tourist raped by her yoga instructor in December. Or the British woman who jumped from her hotel window to escape a rape by the hotel manager. Or the Swiss woman who was brutalized by five tribesmen while her husband was tied to a tree. All of these news article mention, and often link to, stories of multiple other women who went through similar ordeals. You could spend all day following the links and questioning the humanity of humanity, or seriously wondering if Antoine Dodson had it right after all.

In response to the 2012 Delhi case and subsequent uproar, the Indian government worked very quickly to strengthen existing rape laws and increase punishments for perpetrators. However, while cases involving foreigners are seen through, too many cases reported by Indian women are just dropped, or completely ignored. Meanwhile, no one can really explain why this keeps happening.

A few obvious things spring to mind. Feminists in the west wage a never-ending battle against rape culture and victim-blaming, but the terms take on a whole new light in Indian culture, which is dominated by men and dictated by strict social rules. In the Delhi case, the defendants’ lawyer offered this gem to the press:

“Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady,” Sharma said in an interview at a cafe outside the Supreme Court in India’s capital. “Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect.”

Sharma said the man and woman should not have been traveling back late in the evening and making their journey on public transport. He also it was the man’s responsibility to protect the woman and that he had failed in his duty.

“The man has broken the faith of the woman,” Sharma said. “If a man fails to protect the woman, or she has a single doubt about his failure to protect her, the woman will never go with that man.”

A spiritual guru and a politician offered a different perspectives:

A spiritual guru, Asharam, sparked an outcry earlier this week when he said the New Delhi victim was equally responsible and should have “chanted God’s name and fallen at the feet of the attackers” to stop the assault.

Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the pro-Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that underpins the country’s main opposition political party, said rapes only occur in Indian cities, not in its villages, because women there adopt western lifestyles.

Pearls of wisdom, to be sure.

One factoid that has been indicated is the stark gender imbalance, propagated by sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. Another issue is the widespread prevalence of abject poverty; the perpetrators are bored, desensitized, and have nothing to lose. An October article in the New York Times examined the issue in depth through coverage of a case in Mumbai:

One problem is that perpetrators may not view their actions as a grave crime, but something closer to mischief. A survey of more than 10,000 men carried out in six Asian countries — India not among them — and published in The Lancet Global Health journal in September came up with startling data. It found that, when the word “rape” was not used as part of a questionnaire, more than one in 10 men in the region admitted to forcing sex on a woman who was not their partner.

Asked why, 73 percent said the reason was “entitlement.” Fifty-nine percent said their motivation was “entertainment seeking,” agreeing with the statements “I wanted to have fun” or “I was bored.” Flavia Agnes, a Mumbai women’s rights lawyer who has been working on rape cases since the 1970s, said the findings rang true to her experience.

“It’s just frivolous; they just do it casually,” she said. “There is so much abject poverty. They just want to have a little fun on the side. That’s it. See, they have nothing to lose.”