Arj Rizvi’s breastfeeding journey had gotten off to a rocky start. She had just given birth to her first child—a son—and wanted to breastfeed. But after a few weeks of trying, her nipples had grown painfully sore and she was worried about producing enough milk to support her new baby’s growth.
“This is when you get demotivated,” said Rizvi, a 31-year-old auditor from Karachi, Pakistan. “You think the milk is not enough and your child is hungry, and then you start giving formula. I have seen many young mothers in my family who left breastfeeding because of this issue.” Even Rizvi’s mother, who had breastfed her own kids and supported Rizvi’s desire to do the same, urged her to supplement with formula.
While health care practitioners in the West aggressively encourage breastfeeding—sometimes to the detriment of women who struggle to maintain the practice—social norms in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia favor bottle-feeding, the product of decades of marketing by makers of infant formula. While some of these companies have changed their practices in response to public pressure, many Pakistanis still view breastfeeding as insufficient nourishment for a growing child—a view encouraged by a medical establishment that is often quick to recommend formula and reinforced by a stunning dearth of trained lactation specialists.
Zohra Kurji is a pediatric nurse at Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi—and the only practicing lactation consultant in Pakistan certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners, the global standard for education in the provision of breastfeeding support. “There was no support from doctors on how to initiate breastfeeding,” she said, recalling her work in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit in the early 1990s. “I saw these mothers struggle with tremendous amounts of guilt and frustration.”
When Kurji gave birth to her own twins in 1995, she said she was repeatedly told by physicians and family members that it was impossible to adequately breastfeed her infants without relying on formula. “The awareness of a supply-and-demand system of breastfeeding—the more milk a baby drinks from the breast, the more milk the body makes—did not exist in Pakistan back then,” Kurji says. She gave up after five months.
Her experience reflects a gradual shift in attitudes toward breastfeeding that started taking place in the 1980s. Having prospered in the West by promoting bottle-feeding as the key to women’s liberation, formula-makers began to seek new markets in the countries of the global south. In 1975, 95 percent of infants in Pakistan were being breastfed at 12 months. By 1986, years of campaigning by Western formula-makers helped drive down that percentage to 86 percent. Today, only 38 percent of Pakistani mothers practice exclusive breastfeeding for just six months, despite high rates of stunting—a condition characterized by low height relative to a child’s age, poor cognition, and other developmental delays. Breastfeeding has been shown to be beneficial for cognitive development and long-term protection against chronic disease, research that has led to a surge in breastfeeding in rich countries in recent decades. Currently in the United States, almost 60 percent of infants are breastfeeding at six months. Of the nearly 34,000 board-certified lactation consultants worldwide, more than half are in the United States.
“The women in villages I spoke to used to believe that not giving their babies formula was the worst thing they could ever do,” Kurji said, recalling her early work as a community nurse in rural Sindh province during the 1990s. “Such poor women will do anything to purchase formula, even if it means borrowing money and taking on debts because they believe the only way to have their babies turn out like the beautiful, chubby child they see on the formula boxes is by supplementing with formula milk.” Traditional practices—like feeding infants water, ghee, honey, and herbal tea—and employers’ lack of accommodation for working mothers also discourage the initiation of breastfeeding.
Nida Keshwani, a Karachi-based early childhood educator who knew of the benefits of breastfeeding, gave birth to her son in March. When he wasn’t progressing according to her doctor’s expectations, she was pushed to provide formula.
“The pediatrician felt my baby had lost a lot of weight, so he suggested I feed him formula milk three times for two nights and then come back and see him,” she said. “I kept insisting that I am not OK with formula feeding at all.” It wasn’t until Keshwani herself suggested that there might be a problem with her child latching or with her milk supply that he referred her to a lactation specialist. The next morning, Keshwani met with Kurji.
“Dr. Kurji checked me and taught me how to latch the baby properly to my breast,” Keshwani said. She also learned, for example, that the breast milk that comes toward the end of the feed has the highest fat content and that, by expressing the last few drops of milk, she could help her baby gain weight. “To date I have not given my baby any formula or had to bottle-feed him.” She feels that breastfeeding helped strengthen the bond with her son and brought her peace of mind during one of the most challenging phases of new motherhood.
For new mothers, that external support can make all the difference. Kurji was late in her second pregnancy when she enrolled in the Aga Khan University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. Her daughter was born on the first day of class, but unlike during her first pregnancy, this time her decision to breastfeed was supported by those around her. The dean of the school encouraged Kurji to bring her newborn to class, even offering her a private room where she could breastfeed.
“I was the first student in the university’s history to bring my baby to class,” Kurji said. “Classmates used to do group assignments with me in the feeding room so I wouldn’t fall behind on my studies. My colleagues were very supportive of my decision to breastfeed, and other students soon started using the room for their own lactating needs.” She went on to breastfeed her daughter for more than two years. A few years later, she traveled to Texas to complete her international certification as a lactation consultant. “You could not take the exam in Pakistan at the time,” she said.
Families and health care practitioners are beginning to recognize the benefits of the practice. In August 2020, Kurji established Pakistan’s first dedicated lactation clinic, at Aga Khan University Hospital, to support mothers who choose to breastfeed. Online networks like Lahore-based LactNation, a breastfeeding advocacy group established in April 2020 that has grown to over 23,000 members on Facebook, are also empowering mothers with the tools and knowledge necessary for them to successfully breastfeed.
But while breastfeeding rates are ticking up in urban areas, women in Pakistan’s villages and rural areas—where children are most at risk of stunted growth and malnourishment in the early years of life—still lack access to accurate information. “The next step for our clinic is to bring more awareness on these issues to the middle and lower classes of Pakistan’s rural populations,” Kurji said. “We have to grow these initiatives … to secondary hospitals and health care facilities working directly with their communities. That’s where the need is greatest.”
In the meantime, more and more women in Karachi are seeking help for their lactation issues. After consulting with Kurji, Rizvi began using a nontoxic nipple ointment she could apply while breastfeeding, expressing her milk by hand, and wearing nipple shields that helped ease her pain. “I was very lucky I had Dr. Kurji to motivate me through this tough time,” Rizvi reflects. “Otherwise, I would have given up breastfeeding my son.”
Tomás Gimeno’s intended target—former partner Beatriz Zimmerman—is alive. Gimeno, a 37-year-old business administrator in Tenerife, Spain, instead inflicted his violence on their 6-year-old daughter, Olivia, killing the little girl and leaving her body in a bag tied to his boat’s anchor at the bottom of the sea. Gimeno and his other daughter with Zimmerman, 1-year-old Anna, are missing and presumed dead.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called the murders a “doubly savage and inhumane” form of violence known in academic circles as “vicarious violence”: harming one’s children to cause emotional distress to one’s partner or ex-partner. Although data on vicarious violence is limited, experts who have studied the phenomenon say it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by fathers.
Gimeno shared joint custody of his children with Zimmerman, despite a history of violent behavior. Although Zimmerman did not report instances of alleged abuse to the police, the ensuing tragedy is prompting new questions about whether abusive partners should be able to maintain custody of their children. Feminists in Spain have rallied under the slogan, “an abuser is never a good father,” applying a gendered lens to two issues long viewed as separate: a man’s relationship with his partner and his relationship with his children.
“We can’t disassociate violence against women from violence against children,” said Sonia Vaccaro, the psychologist credited with coining the term “vicarious violence” nearly a decade ago when writing a book on child custody disputes. Through her research and own sessions with patients, Vaccaro found that even when women were legally protected from abusive exes by restraining orders, some men would take their anger toward their exes out on the children they had access to—discontinuing their medical treatments or physically harming them, for example. “I called it vicarious violence because the violence is displaced onto a third party,” Vaccaro explained.
Although domestic violence does not necessarily evolve into vicarious violence, experts agree that divorce or separation is the most dangerous moment for victims of domestic violence and their children. In the United States, 809 children have been murdered by a parent in the process of separating or divorcing their partner since 2008. In 72 percent of these cases, the killer was the child’s father. In Spain, official figures reveal that 42 children have been killed in domestic violence cases since 2013, when such data started being collected. Although the data is not broken out by gender, Spanish authorities regularly refer to vicarious violence as a gender-based crime disproportionately perpetrated by fathers.
On paper, Spain is ahead of the curve in legally connecting intimate partner violence and violence against children. In 2015, a law passed making violence against mothers an act of violence against their children. Under the law, children are entitled to legal protection from their mother’s abuser.
But in practice, deeply entrenched notions regarding the father’s role as provider and protector persist. Judges often grant fathers full or partial custody even if they have a history of abusive behavior. “Every so often, a dramatic, headline-making case makes a splash in the press, and everyone is scandalized and indignant and wonders how this is even possible,” said Gema Fernández, managing lawyer at Women’s Link, a nonprofit focused on human rights. “But really, the courts are filled with similar cases. It’s a miracle we don’t see more violence.”
Spain isn’t unique in this regard. A May Council of Europe report evaluating countries’ adherence to the Istanbul Convention—a European treaty that sets out legally binding standards to protect both women and children from gender-based violence—found that Austria, France, Italy, and Portugal also prioritized the joint exercise of parental authority “even in the event of a final criminal conviction for violence committed against the other parent or where a protection order exists.”
In the United States, there is a similar emphasis on fathers’ rights even when there is a risk of abuse. A bill for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act noted “scientifically unsound theories that treat mothers’ abuse allegations as likely false attempts to undermine the father are frequently applied in family court to minimize or deny parents’ and children’s reports of abuse.”
Just weeks before Olivia’s body was found, Spain had moved to strengthen legal protections against vicarious violence. In June, lawmakers passed a new child protection law that requires judges to suspend a parent’s visitation rights with their children if their partner or former partner obtains a protective order against them and there is evidence the children suffered or witnessed violence at home. It also bans the use of “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) in custody disputes.
Introduced by the late American psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s, PAS is defined as “a child’s experience of being manipulated by one parent to turn against the other (targeted) parent and resist contact with him or her.” But many in the scientific community reject the theory, which has been criticized for perpetuating harmful, gendered stereotypes against women.
Related: ‘Women Are Routinely Discredited’: How Courts Fail Mothers and Children Who Have Survived Abuse
Gardner claimed mothers overwhelmingly played the role of “indoctrinators,” casting fathers as unfairly maligned victims. Despite a widely acknowledged lack of empirical or clinical evidence, claims of parental alienation are often successfully weaponized by fathers in custody disputes. (Gardner later generated controversy for his belief that society treats pedophiles too harshly.)
The controversy around PAS led Spain’s judicial council to advise against its use in 2013, leading some experts to question whether banning it accomplishes anything. “Lawyers rarely resort to the PAS defense today anyway,” said Altamira Gonzalo Valgañón, vice president of feminist lawyer’s association Mujeres Juristas Themis.
Instead, attorneys representing fathers accused of abuse often seek parenting coordination, a dispute resolution process originally developed in the United States, where a social worker or psychologist assists parents in coming up with a schedule and implementing mutually agreed upon rules. The arrangement may also include supervised visits, but it doesn’t always.
Although the American Psychological Association does not recommend parenting coordination for parents with a history of domestic violence because it “may present substantial risks or power imbalances,” Gonzalo Valgañón said some judges in Spain are pushing for its use across the board.
First introduced in Spain in 2011, parenting coordination counts as one of its champions Francisco Serrano, a former family court judge and reputed gender-based violence denialist as well as early architect of Spain’s far-right political party, Vox. “It has the same objective: forcing children to spend time with their father when they don’t want to,” Gonzalo Valgañón said. “It doesn’t matter what they call it. The concept is still around.”
Part of the push toward parenting coordination has to do with capacity. State centers tasked with overseeing court-ordered supervised visits for families simply cannot accommodate the need. According to Fernández, visitation centers are so overbooked that a parent might have to wait months before landing a one-hour slot to see their children. Without an adequate budget to expand the state’s capacity, Fernández doesn’t see Spain’s new law as a complete solution.
In 2011, she represented a mother whose daughter had been murdered by her violent ex-husband during an unsupervised visit. The mother, Ángela González, had reported her ex to authorities on multiple occasions and asked the court to impose supervised visits. She was denied by a judge who gave precedence to fathers’ rights. When Spanish authorities refused to pay her reparations, Fernández took González’s case to a committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In a landmark decision, the committee called for the state to pay up, which it did in 2018.
Ultimately, Spanish activists say preventing vicarious violence will require a change in mindset, not least among judges who regularly dismiss the mortal danger abusive men can pose to women and children. In a public letter following the discovery of Olivia’s body, Zimmerman pleaded for stricter mechanisms to protect children from violent fathers. “I hope that Anna and Olivia did not die in vain.”
Editor’s note: This story is the third in The Fuller Project’s ongoing series, “Ending America’s Forever War: What is next for Afghan women?”, documenting what the end of America’s longest war on foreign soil means for the women who have lived through it.
A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, America’s then-first lady Laura Bush took to the airwaves to deliver a radio address normally delivered by her husband, then-President George W. Bush. The administration had repeatedly evoked the plight of Afghan women to make the case for war.
“Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” the first lady said. She went on to describe America’s mission in Afghanistan as “also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Now, with the last of U.S. forces gone, Afghan women are reeling from what many see as a retreat from that mission. Over the last 20 years, they have become policewomen and prosecutors. They took to YouTube and studied art. They learned to play volleyball. Now, those pursuits could make them targets.
The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy asked six women still in Afghanistan to share their thoughts about America’s withdrawal. Some acknowledged the progress that had been made over the last 20 years but were angry that the United States hadn’t done more to ensure their safety. Others are mourning the loss of their education or career. While many expressed a sense of hopelessness, one said she is looking ahead to the day the Taliban will be gone for good. Despite the risk, several women bravely insisted on using their real names; three requested complete or partial pseudonymity.
Here’s what six Afghan women had to say.
Fatima Ahmadi, 28, former policewoman from Kabul
In the early hours of Monday, 2 a.m., I woke up to the sound of celebratory firing from the Taliban. It was then that I understood the last American soldiers have left Afghanistan. It saddened me because, when Americans were here, the Taliban were trying to behave better. But now they would openly harass women, because no one is hearing women. Women are not allowed to attend school after grade six. Soon, the Taliban would stop women from working outside, and even going outside. The Taliban have not changed. They still want to remove women from society.
The Taliban need U.S. support even though they say Americans are infidels. Until a few days ago, I had hope that I might be able to return to work. But now, when I am looking at the Taliban’s treatment of women, life seems impossible for women. I have used social media and posted my pictures. Now, my picture is on the internet, and I am frightened that the Taliban might kill me as infidel. Now that the U.S. left, I am very scared. I think the Taliban might stone me to death—if not because of working as policewoman, then as a woman whose picture is on social media.
Related: What Afghanistan’s Women Stand to Lose
As a policewoman, I have no hope of returning to work. I know it is impossible. Now, our life is in danger because of the work we have done before. The United States should help policewomen, because it encouraged us to join the police. But now that our life is in danger, the United States should have helped us. If the Taliban kill me, what would happen to my two children? That is what scared me the most. They don’t have anyone to take care of them.
Thousands of policewomen like me are in danger right now. Some of them have a husband and can afford to stay home and hide, but what will happen to single mothers who were policewomen? I am so scared. Someone should hear our voice. While I am alive, I want to speak out about the situation of policewomen. What we are living is a gradual death.
Asiya Rahimi, 22, YouTuber
When the United States came to Afghanistan, they claimed to improve women’s rights and fight terrorism. However, after 20 years, the Americans left us where they started. It is true that in the past 20 years, women had an opportunity for education and work. But now we have returned to 20 years ago. We don’t have rights to education, work, and even to go out without a male chaperone. I think the United States used Afghan people as a tool to reach its objectives, and now they turned their back on us. I hate American politicians. I think they are responsible for our misery.
Kobra (last name withheld), 23, art student at Kabul University
The United States destroyed our life, our future. They could have departed more responsibly and prepared. Now, our female professors are not allowed to work. The Taliban ordered separate classrooms for men and women at the university level. Where should we find enough women to teach us? Do you know what that means? It means women cannot attend university. This is the legacy the United States left for us.
Related: As the Taliban Resurges in Afghanistan, Girls Are Already Losing Schools
Anonymous, 32, former anti-corruption prosecutor, Attorney General’s Office of Afghanistan
For the Taliban, women are not human. They only recognize men as human and treat women as possession of men. So, how can we expect the Taliban to recognize women’s rights? They vaguely talk about women’s rights based on sharia, but we are not sure what is their definition of sharia.
We never thought the international force will leave so quickly the way they did. They abandoned Afghanistan. Now, we are left alone with the fundamentalist group that the Western countries couldn’t defeat in 20 years. The Taliban’s treatment of women is no secret to the international community. But they left us to the Taliban.
It was painful for me. I never thought they would abandon us like this. When the U.S. military left Bagram base while Afghan government was still in power, they destroyed their camps and equipment. I saw a picture that broke my heart. It showed a U.S. soldier destroying the camps. That sent a message to us: “We are leaving. Everything is over. We will never return, no matter what happens to Afghans.” But I believe an oppressive regime like the Taliban will not last forever. I am looking forward to the day the Taliban are gone and I can restart working toward my dreams.
Zahra Hussaini, 26, women’s rights activist
The U.S. withdrawal that was completed on Aug. 31 was a cruelty done to Afghan women. The political game the United States and other Western countries played in Afghanistan sank Afghan people into misery.
When the United States came to Afghanistan, they did some things—like including women in society. In the past 20 years, we had some change, especially that women have reached some position in politics, sports, technology, health, art, security, and all other aspects of life. We have fought for our rights, and we sacrificed to get where we were. Many women have lost their life for gender equality, for women to have an opportunity for a more equal society.
We know that the Taliban are a threat to Afghan people, particularly for women. The Taliban do not want women to be in society, to work or participate in all other aspects of social life.
But the U.S. withdrawal means we returned to 20 years ago. Now, women are marginalized. They are sent back home. Women can no longer work. They cannot be a singer. They cannot be an actress. They cannot participate in sports. Women cannot advocate for themselves. It is very sad for women who are left behind. It is very painful to return back to 20 years ago and live like our mothers and grandmothers under the Taliban. It is sad. Women have lost their hope. Their dreams are turned to a nightmare. We can no longer live as an active part of our society.
Anonymous, 16, high school student who had been training to play volleyball for Afghanistan’s national women’s team
When the United States left, it did not care about us Afghan women and girls. But when they came, they promised to change our situation. Now, they left us worse than before. The Americans showed us some forms of freedom but didn’t help us to free ourselves. They left us in our cage. Now, I cannot live the life I wanted.
When BeLinda Berry was in graduate school in 2017, she posed nude for a photographer who was a friend of hers. “I was living on my own, exploring my sexuality and my freedom,” she said. The experience was empowering.
The photographer posted the images in an online portfolio accessible to anyone with the link. Soon after, a girl from her Ohio hometown reached out to tell Berry her images were showing up in invite-only local Discord channels dedicated to “revenge porn,” a misleading term commonly used to describe intimate images shared online without the consent of the subject. Someone also posted the photos, with her name and hometown, to a now-shuttered website called Anon-IB, which trafficked in so-called revenge porn and child pornography. “Suddenly, there were people anonymously posting, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been wanting to see these tits for years. Does anybody have any more?’” she said.
Berry didn’t even try to go to the police. “I didn’t feel like I had a right to make a case because I had the photos taken of me, and I knew to some degree that they would be out in the world,” she said. “There was a lot of internal victim-blaming.”
At the time, Ohio didn’t have a specific law against nonconsensual intimate image sharing. What’s more, Anon-IB was based abroad in the Netherlands. Berry, now an advocate with the nonprofit March Against Revenge Porn, was on her own.
In recent years, as awareness of the issue has risen thanks to high-profile leaks involving celebrities and public figures, many countries and local governments have outlawed the practice. Under pressure from advocates, big online platforms have begun implementing their own policies. But victims and lawyers report the laws just aren’t working. Although the internet has no borders and content travels freely, remedies vary vastly across jurisdictions, and there is very little cross-border cooperation between law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, the crime—which disproportionately affects women and people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual—is flourishing.
When multiple jurisdictions are involved, even when they have intimate image abuse laws on the books, police will often try to pass the buck, said Honza Cervenka, a lawyer with British-American firm McAllister Olivarius.
“If I’m in Scotland and my perpetrator is in Virginia, I go to my local Scottish police, and they say, ‘No, you have to go to Virginia because that’s where your perpetrator lives.’ I call the perpetrator’s local precinct in Virginia, and they tell me, ‘You’re not here. In order to start a complaint, you need to go to your local police station, and then perhaps we can collaborate on this case with them,’” Cervenka said. “But in reality, I’ve never seen that collaboration be done successfully.”
Globally, regulations overwhelmingly criminalize sharing an individual’s intimate images without their consent, but the specifics differ widely. In some jurisdictions, it’s a sex crime akin to harassment. In others, it is treated as a privacy violation. In New Zealand, a specialized government-approved agency tries to negotiate a settlement between the parties before the case is turned over to the courts. The Philippines is more punitive: Sentences range from a minimum of three years in prison to a maximum of seven years in prison.
One particularly contentious issue when it comes to crafting legislation is the question of intent—whether the person sharing the images wanted to harm the victim. In places like the U.S. state of Ohio, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, critics say laws fail to bring perpetrators to justice because of the intent language. According to research conducted by advocacy group the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), most people who share intimate images without the subject’s consent are doing so without aiming to hurt the subject.
The disparities are particularly palpable in the United States, where 48 states and the District of Columbia all have their own relevant laws. New York, for example, has an “intent to harm” clause whereas Illinois, which law advocates view as the gold standard, does not.
For victims, these variances mean navigating a morass of different rules. “What would ideally be a simple avenue to get justice becomes a complicated maneuvering exercise between exactly what the intent element is in Minnesota as opposed to what the intent element is defined as in New Hampshire,” Cervenka said. “Many victims just give up.”
One solution, at least in the United States, would be a comprehensive federal law. But thus far, no bill has been successful in Congress (although attempts are still being made).
In the United States, the main disagreement has been around scope. If a law is too narrowly defined, it would apply in only a limited subset of cases, argue victims’ advocates. But if it’s too broad, it risks being overly punitive and silencing speech, say civil rights groups.
In countries with weaker free speech protections and rule of law, this dilemma becomes even starker. “A lot of our concern has been about how the crime is described,” said Erika Smith of Take Back the Tech, a global anti-tech-related violence campaign. “Is it so broad that anything can fit in? Because we know that governments will twist the laws and use them against marginalized groups.”
This kind of misuse has been reported in Pakistan, for example. Similar concerns have been raised about Mexico’s recent law, which includes potential sentences of up to six years in prison. Candy Rodríguez, spokesperson for Acoso. Online, a group that supports victims of online harassment in Latin America, said the law was a sign of progress but an overly punitive stance would disproportionately affect marginalized communities. “It is mostly people of color or the poorest who receive prison sentences in Mexico,” Rodríguez said.
In the absence of adequate protections, victims of nonconsensual intimate image sharing sometimes seek remedies in more established legal territory like privacy or copyright law. The latter is fairly harmonized around the world and allows victims, who often just want their images to disappear from the internet, to more swiftly deal with the problem. After Berry said she held the copyright to her images, Anon-IB took them down. (Generally, copyright law only applies to images that were taken by the victim, such as selfies.)
In the European Union, victims have some recourse with the General Data Protection Regulation, the behemoth online privacy law implemented in 2018. The law includes a “right to erasure,” requiring tech companies to take down content about a person if that person requested it. But the process is complicated and lengthy—not particularly helpful when haste is key. If not removed immediately, intimate images often get downloaded and disseminated broadly.
Although Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook have cracked down on intimate image abuse in recent years, advocates say there’s much more work to be done. Unless they have a copyright claim, victims have to rely on the goodwill of individual platforms to erase their images.
Online platforms are generally protected from being held liable for content posted by their users unless legislators choose to carve out exceptions. The United States, where most Big Tech companies are based, does not make exceptions for intimate image abuse, which critics say makes it very difficult for victims to hold platforms accountable. But Brazil, for example, does.
“That changed things a lot,” said Mariana Valente, a Brazil-based researcher and author of a 2018 report on laws governing intimate image abuse globally. “Brazil has been fairly able to enforce local law with platforms, but it’s taken years. They resisted a lot at the beginning,” Valente said. “This also has to do with the relative importance of the Brazilian market.” Smaller countries might not have as much leverage.
So far, there is little concerted effort on the part of governments or law enforcement agencies to collaborate on these issues.
Ideally, there would be a multilateral regulatory regime with an enforcement arm, said attorney Ann Olivarius of McAllister Olivarius. “There should be an international law. … Not just a treaty or international protocol, but a real law.”
There is precedent for international cooperation on cybercrime. Governments have long been collaborating in the fight against child pornography, for example. But nude adult selfies are a much harder sell. In the end, changing attitudes may be just as important as legal reform.
“We’ve had situations where police officers will gawk at the photos,” said Mary Anne Franks, head of the CCRI and one of the leading advocates for stronger laws to protect victims. “They’ll ogle them. They’ll laugh about them. They’ll pass them around the station. The idea that that law is actually going to be useful for that victim in that situation is a legal fiction. You want to move society to a place where it see this as something very wrong…and that has serious consequences”
Although Berry has managed to have her images taken down and Dutch authorities seized the servers of Anon-IB in 2018, her images are still out there. Every now and then, she’ll get clusters of Facebook friend requests from people she hasn’t spoken to in a decade. “Then I’m like ‘Oh, somebody probably found the photos again,’” she said.
TEL AVIV, Israel—With Israel’s newly formed government, women’s rights activists are heralding a new day for the country.
The new unity government has ended the country’s nearly three-year political deadlock, and the 12-year rule of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. After surviving Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to thwart its formation, the newly sworn-in “change government” of right-wing, centrist, left-wing, and Islamist parties faces its most difficult challenge yet: governing. With little agreement on anything more than uniting a deeply divided nation and keeping Netanyahu out of office, many here wonder how long the government can last.
Yet one largely overlooked area of consensus—and hope for many—is the issue of women’s rights. In addition to including an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s 73-year-history, this government also boasts a record number of female ministers—nine out of 27.
The fragile government, with a knife-edge majority of 61 out of 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, must find as much common ground as it can to survive, secure the legislative wins it needs to prove to voters that the alliance of ideological rivals was justified, and show Israeli citizens that the country can in fact thrive without Netanyahu at the helm. (The new government is supposed to be led for the first two years by right-wing, pro-settler Naftali Bennett and the remaining two years by centrist Yair Lapid.) Tackling problems like gender inequality and domestic violence could prove to be unifying causes for this fractious coalition, according to experts.
“There are huge differences between these parties,” said Abraham Diskin, former chair of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “What unites them is animosity toward Netanyahu. But everybody can agree that violence against women should be restricted.”
Israel’s political future could influence the future for women in Israel, as well as elsewhere in the greater region, where Israel’s strong ties with the United States, in particular, affect everything from sanctions on Iran to U.S. military spending.
Women’s rights advocates say they see a silver lining in the diverse coalition’s lack of ideological accord. Because the new government intends to avoid controversial subjects that could lead to its collapse—particularly those relating to the Palestinians—it plans to focus on domestic issues which the parties can agree on, including some causes that are paramount to women.
Israel’s political right and left are in fact united on many fronts, particularly women’s rights (abortion, for example, is heavily subsidized by the state). Their one major sticking point is the conflict with and treatment of the Palestinians.
Despite recent Israeli airstrikes that killed at least 243 Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas-fired rockets that killed 13 people in Israel in May, and simmering tensions over land disputes, the new government is expected to try and focus on anything but that issue. It will be difficult to ignore: Days into the new leadership, Israeli aircraft bombed Gaza, targeting Hamas, which had launched incendiary balloons into Israel in retaliation for a government-approved far-right Jewish march through Jerusalem in which some shouted, “death to Arabs.”
In addition to passing a budget for the first time in three years, building badly needed new hospitals and mending the country’s post-pandemic economy, the new government plans to advance gender equality, fight the widespread gun violence plaguing Israel’s Arab community, and tackle a long-simmering crisis of domestic violence that was intensified by COVID-19, according to coalition agreements released ahead of the government’s swearing-in on Sunday. There is a great deal of work to be done, experts say, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which set back advancements in gender equality across the globe, and after 12 consecutive years of Netanyahu’s rule.
“To say that Netanyahu’s government would not get an outstanding grade on advancing women’s rights would be an understatement,” said Gali Etzion, who heads the legislation department at NA’AMAT, Israel’s largest women’s rights NGO.
While Israel offers arguably more freedom to its female citizens than elsewhere in the Middle East, it struggles with many of the same problems women face in other developed nations.
Women in Israel earn 67 percent of what men earn, according to the 2020 Gender Index conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. And among Arab women, the gaps are even more stark. Only 30 percent of Arab women participate in the labor force in Israel, compared to 60 percent of Arab men, 60 percent of the general female population, and 68 percent of the general male public.
Domestic violence, particularly against Arab women, has also plagued the country. Arab citizens make up 21 percent of Israel’s population of nine million people. But of the approximately 20 Israeli women who are reported killed by a partner or family member each year, many of whom previously sought out help, over half of them are Arab women, according to NA’AMAT, citing government data. Etzion and other activists say the actual figures are much higher than those reported to authorities
In 2017, in response to the growing outcry over domestic violence, Netanyahu’s government approved a $77-million five-year plan to combat the crisis. Yet the budget necessary to carry out that plan was never allocated. Women’s rights activists hope that fulfilling that plan will be one of this new government’s early achievements.
“Although this will be a very difficult and complex government to operate, I’m definitely hopeful,” said Etzion. While it is anyone’s guess how long this government will last, “there are members who have worked overtime to promote gender equality and women’s rights,” she said. “I do have great expectations and I do believe that there are people in this government for whom gender equality are their core values.”
Indeed, for many of the women in Israel’s new government—and some of the men—women’s rights are among their fundamental priorities. Most prominent among them is Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, Israel’s new transportation minister, a former journalist and feminist activist who has championed women’s rights for decades. As a member of Israel’s parliament since 2013, Michaeli has advanced over a dozen pieces of legislation to protect and assist women in crisis, and fought for more government funding to aid survivors of sexual assault, according to the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.
Incoming Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party who broke away to form his own party, New Hope, was an early leader of the right-wing effort to replace the now-former prime minister. Along with Oded Forer, a member of the right-wing Jewish Home party, both politicians are former chairs of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, which Etzion worked closely with to help pass various laws to protect survivors of domestic violence. Among them was a bill Sa’ar passed on his last day in the Knesset before he left to form his new party. That legislation changed the laws regarding custodianship to prevent a parent who either killed their spouse or raped one of their children to continue to be the guardian of their children.
“When people have a mission to do something, they can work together,” said Etzion. “I think gender equality should cross party lines and different beliefs.”
One priority that many women in Israel and the Jewish diaspora have long waited to see fulfilled is the expansion of the small egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In 2016, after years of activism by the feminist group Women of the Wall, Netanyahu approved a plan to expand the space at one of the holiest sites in Judaism. The Western Wall is the last remnant of the Second Jewish Temple, built by Herod the Great around 516 B.C. and destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Bowing to political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties that had significant power in his government, Netanyahu quickly scrapped the plan. The new government reportedly plans to implement it.
For Arab women in Israel, one of the most hopeful elements of this new government—aside from its end to the premiership of Netanyahu, who often vilified Israel’s Arab population —is its plan to combat crime and illegal weapons in the Arab community, which suffers from high levels of discrimination, poverty, and unemployment.
“This is the most important issue for Arab-Israeli women,” said Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, an Arab citizen of Israel and the director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “This affects our sons, our husbands, our brothers, ourselves.”
Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am—an Islamist Arab party, which seeks the establishment of a Palestinian state and calls for the right of return for Palestinians who say they were expelled in 1948—made history by joining this coalition and campaigned on this very issue. “Here, I expect great achievements from Ra’am,” said Haj-Yahya. “Abbas understands that if there is no improvement on the issue that is most important to the Arab-Israeli community, he won’t be able to justify his joining this government. Budgets will not be enough. This is an issue of survival.”
Part of Ra’am’s agreement to join the coalition government was its pledge to adopt a five-year plan worth nearly $1 billion aimed at curbing crime in the Arab sector, in addition to a $150-million plan for development in the long-neglected Arab community.
The eruption of violence between Israeli Arabs and Jews in May could prove to be a rallying force for action after years of government neglect of this long-simmering crisis, added Haj-Yahya.
Any advancements for women in Israel put forth by the new government will have little bearing on the daily lives of women in the Palestinian territories, as they are governed by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and by the Islamist militant group Hamas in Gaza. Palestinian elections have not been held since 2006, and both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority restrict women’s rights. Abortion is illegal in the Palestinian Territories and women must have permission from a “guardian” to travel from the blockaded Gaza Strip, according to a Hamas-run court, as well as permission from Israel or Egypt, which control Gaza’s borders.
Despite renewed hope around Israel’s new government, not all women’s rights activists are optimistic about the prospects of change in Israel.
“There being more Arab lawmakers in this government doesn’t mean that they will work towards women’s rights,” said Insaf Abu Shareb, a Bedouin women’s rights activist and attorney who has worked for over a decade to fight against polygamy and honor killings in Israel’s Bedouin community.
“It could be the opposite,” she said, noting that Ra’am is an Islamist party whose voters have highly traditional and patriarchal views of women.
Activists say they are less hopeful when it comes to issues of religion and state. In Israel, there is no separation between the two. Marriage, divorce, and other family matters are handled by religious authorities, either Sharia courts for Muslims or Rabbinical courts for Jews. This is why, for example, Israel does not provide the option of civil marriage for LGBTQ couples, despite being seen as relatively progressive.
Despite the array of ideologies in Israel’s new coalition government, both religious and secular, the country’s Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox political parties, find themselves out of the government. This past week, when a photograph of the new government circulated online, the Haredi news site Behaderey Haredim published the photograph of the politicians standing shoulder to shoulder, with nine of their faces blurred—the faces of the women.
Ana often gets nosebleeds after working at her job assembling cellphones at a factory in Vietnam. The single mother, who requested a pseudonym in fear of professional repercussions, has also fainted numerous times. “When I feel a little dizzy and nausea I still go to work,” she said. “I may lose a lot of bonus if I stay off work for a day.”
Mobile phones contain a variety of chemical substances, including plasticizers and flame retardants. And while it’s difficult to isolate the health impacts of exposure to these and other chemicals because they are so ubiquitous in our environment, studies have linked their use to developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems. A new report published in January found that these health effects are particularly worrisome for women, who are disproportionately exposed to chemicals in the workplace because of their prevalence in chemical-heavy industries, poorer working conditions relative to men, and even biological factors.
Generally, women have a higher proportion of adipose tissue compared to men and, as a result, they are more likely to store environmental pollutants. A woman’s reproductive cycle may also play a role. The new report, jointly produced by the International Pollutants Elimination Network and the Strategic Alliance for International Chemicals Management, notes that women “have different susceptibility to hazardous chemicals in connection with their reproductive cycles” and that they may be more vulnerable to health damage from toxic chemicals “at different life stages such as pregnancy, lactation, and menopause.”
Electronics and textiles are among the industries that most contribute to the problem, said Sara Brosche, one of the report’s authors. “These are also two sectors that have a predominantly female workforce,” she said.
Exposure to chemicals is common in other female-dominated industries, too. When Elva Aguilar went to the hospital with chest pain, shortness of breath, and headaches, doctors diagnosed her as having a nervous breakdown. “My breathing was not normal,” she said. “I had to breathe short breaths because, when I would breathe, there was intense pain in the rib cage.”
The 55-year-old, who moved to the United States from El Salvador, had been working as a cleaner for more than a year when she developed a skin allergy, dry eyes, back pain, and digestive issues. Desperate to explain the onset of her symptoms, she sought help at a local health fair, where a chiropractor asked her what cleaners she used. When she listed off the names of some common household products, he suggested another potential cause for her symptoms. “He told me that it could be poison,” Aguilar said. She switched to nontoxic products and said that, while her symptoms have improved, she still suffers from headaches and digestive problems.
“We can’t necessarily pin it to one thing,” said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit based in Montana that advocates for women’s rights in the workplace and has studied the impact of toxic chemicals on hair and nail salon workers, who are regularly exposed to chemicals in hair sprays and nail glue for acrylic nails. “A lot of the issue has to do with cumulative impacts, which can often get ignored,” she said. “There is very little research into, for example, ‘This group of women who have been exposed to this chemical from X product and they have this health outcome.’ That kind of research—which would be great to have—almost never gets done.”
There is no global framework to protect workers from chemical exposure, but some jurisdictions are better at implementing protections than others. The European Union, for example, has more stringent regulations than the United States and bans certain chemicals that are commonly used in products sold in America.
In January 2019, a bill was introduced in Connecticut to make cosmetics in the state “meet the chemical safety standards established by the European Union,” but it failed to pass. Both the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization have urged policymakers to prohibit the use of asbestos, and more than 60 countries have banned the mineral. But in the United States, it is commonly used in the construction industry (with the exception of New Jersey, which banned asbestos in 2018). Formaldehyde, a chemical listed by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as a known carcinogen, is banned from use in cosmetics in the EU but is frequently used in nail polish and hair-straightening treatments in the U.S.
Hairstylist Emily Baedeker has worked in the industry for more than two decades. Around nine years ago, the Alameda, California, hair stylist began to get “crazy migraines” and suffer from fibroids, dermatitis, and thyroid issues. “The hair color … also caused my eyes and nose to burn,” she said. Later she saw an ad in a trade magazine that made her question whether her symptoms were related to her exposure to chemicals. “The picture was really intense,” she said. “It was a stylist wearing a gas mask and the headline was something like, ‘You shouldn’t have to risk your health to color your hair.’” Research from as far back as 2009 found hairdressers have a higher risk of cancer than the general population.
Both globally and in the United States, women of color are even more at risk from the potential health effects of chemical exposure, not only because they disproportionately work in chemical-heavy industries but also because they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high levels of pollution. Studies show that communities of color are more often situated next to highways and big polluting industries, such as oil refineries, meat processing plants, agricultural fields, and toxic waste dumps.
Brosche said that more research is needed to understand the health effects of exposure to toxic chemicals and that more pressure should be put on manufacturers to phase out their use. When products are found to have a health impact, she wants manufacturers to be held accountable, including being made to cover the costs of patients’ medical care.
Meanwhile, Baedeker said her experience opened her eyes to the potential dangers of working in the hair salon industry: “I had never once considered what these chemicals might be doing to my body.”
SEOUL, South Korea—Lee Yong-soo seemed to shiver with frustration as an activist wheeled her out of the Seoul Central District Court in a wheelchair. The 92-year-old Korean woman, who survived Japanese military sexual enslavement as a teenager during World War II, gripped her red cane and faced the crowd of reporters.
She was noticeably distraught—and understandably so.The court had just issued what activists and human rights groups say is a devastating blow to decades-long efforts to seek justice for so-called “comfort women”—but which the judge described as a victory for international diplomacy.
In a packed courtroom on the morning of April 21, Judge Min Seong-cheol said in his surprise dismissal of the civil suit filed by 20 survivors and their family members that a “diplomatic clash would [have been] inevitable” if an exception to Japan’s state immunity was upheld. The judge thus embraced an argument made repeatedly in public by the Japanese government—and one that may have had the support, for the sake of regional stability, of the Biden administration in Washington.
In issuing his verdict, Min contradicted the court’s landmark decision in a case from January that had ordered the Japanese government to pay 12 Korean survivors roughly $91,800 each. It was the first domestic court case of its kind that demanded compensation and legal responsibility from Tokyo for wartime crimes against women and girls raped and forced into sexual servitude by Japanese forces. Survivors and historians say Japanese forces raped, enslaved, sterilized, tortured, and killed hundreds of thousands of Asian women and girls like Lee, most of them Korean, during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea until the end of World War II. Seventy-six years later, Lee is one of only 15 registered Korean survivors still alive.
Despite the verdict, Lee said she will seek out other avenues for justice. “We will go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ),” she said, referring to the United Nations’ main judicial court at The Hague.
The case had thrust the two countries’ ailing bilateral ties back into the spotlight, complicating renewed U.S. efforts to unite allies in Seoul and Tokyo to counter China as a global competitor to Washington and manage North Korea and its nuclear arms arsenal, which U.S. President Joe Biden has said is his administration’s top foreign-policy issue. The case’s dismissal puts a spotlight on the political and diplomatic hurdles that survivors of wartime sexual violence and rape anywhere in the world—from Sarajevo to Seoul—face as they seek what they say is justice.
In January, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called on South Korea to drop the case. The country refused to take part in the trial, citing sovereign immunity—international legal doctrine that says a state is immune from another country’s legal jurisdiction. The Seoul Central District Court had rejected Japan’s claim of sovereign immunity, saying the country “violated international norms by committing intentional, systematic, and wide-ranging inhumane criminal acts.” But on April 21, the court—and a new judge—used sovereign immunity as the basis for the decision to dismiss the complicated and controversial case.
Japan has apologized at numerous points in history for its treatment of so-called “comfort women” but stops short of accepting legal responsibility. The country maintains the issue was resolved as per a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. Tokyo provided hundreds of millions of dollars in economic assistance and loans to Seoul as a settlement. Japan says the two countries had reached a “final and irreversible resolution” in Seoul in 2015. As part of the joint agreement, Japan “painfully acknowledge[d] its responsibility” and promised $8.3 million in government funds to back projects supporting former “comfort women.”
But survivors and human rights groups say the bilateral agreement didn’t go far enough in terms of Japan accepting legal responsibility and did not include survivors at the negotiating table. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said the 2015 agreement was flawed and “cannot solve the comfort women issue.” In 2019, Moon dissolved a Japanese-funded foundation set up under the agreement, prompting outcry from Tokyo.
The 2015 agreement was a “stubborn political agreement that excluded victims,” said a spokesperson for the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, also known as the Korean Council, in an email on behalf of the organization. The Seoul-based organization said it aims to prevent future wartime sexual violence through remembrance, education, legal reparations, and other means. (The organization came under fire in 2020 when survivor and activist Lee Yong-soo accused the Korean Council of exploiting the cause and misusing funds, prompting an investigation into Yoon Mee-hyang, the organization’s former head who stepped down in April 2020 after winning a seat in parliament. The Korean Council has apologized for what it said are “banking errors.”)
Although the United States has not commented on the court case and most recent tensions surrounding the “comfort women” legacy, Biden is expected to work on repairing South Korea-Japan relations through diplomacy, similar to when “President Obama pressured Korea to improve relations between Korea and Japan,” said Lee Shin-wha, a professor of political science and international relations at Korea University in Seoul. The outcome, with Moon’s conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye, was the 2015 “comfort women” agreement, which the United States applauded as a step in the right direction at the time.
After Biden’s inauguration, the president sent his top envoys to Tokyo and Seoul in March for the administration’s first overseas diplomatic meeting. “It’s no accident that we chose the Republic of Korea for the first cabinet-level overseas travel of the Biden-Harris administration, along with Japan,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Seoul on March 17.
On April 16, Biden met with Suga at the White House. It was the first in-person meeting of Biden’s presidency with a foreign leader. In their press conference and readouts, both Biden and Suga touted the “unwavering” alliance between Washington and Tokyo as well as threats they—and regional partners Australia and India, otherwise known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—face from China and North Korea. Neither leader mentioned Washington’s other close ally, South Korea.
The U.S. State Department declined a Foreign Policy interview request with Sung Kim, the top department official overseeing East Asia and Pacific affairs, on the matter of the “comfort women” and U.S.-Japan-Korea relations.
The United States has an obligation to responsibly respond to the court case and wider calls for justice, considering its own damning legacy with “U.S. military comfort women,” said a Korean Council spokesperson in an email. Since the end of World War II, U.S. servicemen have helped fuel and taken part in sex work, trafficking, and exploitation of Korean and other Asian women around U.S. military bases in the region. In February 2018, a Seoul court ordered Seoul pay more than half a million dollars to 117 surviving plaintiffs who served as sex workers in “camp towns” around U.S. bases in the 1950s, saying South Korea violated its citizens’ human rights and actively encouraged prostitution to benefit the U.S. military alliance.
Every week, for 29 years, protesters in Seoul have gathered to demand justice for former “comfort women.” On Wednesday, hours after the court ruling, protesters gathered outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, as they do every Wednesday, and took their places next to a bronze statue of a Korean girl with bare feet, her eyes fixed squarely on the embassy. A woman placed a bright yellow sign on the statue’s lap. It read 1,488—the number of protests demanding justice since 1992.
Police lined the street as counter-protesters, some of whom say the “comfort women” narrative is a fraud, shouted over speakers. Despite decades of well-founded and widely accepted historical research into the experience of women and girls sexually enslaved by Japanese forces, Japanese scholars and critics—as well as, most recently, a Harvard professor slammed for historical revisionism—have argued women and girls forced into military brothels entered into prostitution willingly.
The debate over what justice looks like is not just an issue of resolving the legacy of “comfort women” but also Japan’s colonial legacy as a whole. Japan forcibly conscripted hundreds of thousands (if not millions, according to some South Korean sources) of Koreans into fighting and laboring across Asia before and during World War II.
“It’s not correct to describe these historical issues as a diversion or sideshow,” said Jacob Stokes, an expert on East Asian security with the Center for a New American Security and a former White House national security staffer for Biden during the Obama administration. “They’re so important to the fundamental question of what kind of regional order you are building.”
Washington is struggling with how to address the issue or even whether to address it at all, experts said, as it tries to carefully balance alliances and counter China, address priorities in Tokyo and Seoul, and weigh geopolitics against domestic politics in both capitals.
The politics of patriotism continue to play important roles in both Japan and South Korea, and it’s unlikely tensions between the two countries over World War II-era atrocities will fade away over time, said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based think tank.
Even as the last members of the generation that survived World War II pass away, the horrors they faced have become “part of the firmament of South Korean politics,” Smith said.
Those tensions are now complicating other aspects of the relationship, including trilateral ties with Washington and renewed U.S. efforts to strengthen alliances across the Indo-Pacific region to counter China and rein in North Korea’s nuclear capability.
“You’ve watched the historical legacy issues that have always been there in different forms or fashion, now spilling out into the economic relationship, which has always been very strong, and now spilling into the security and alliance relationship with the United States,” Smith said.
Historically, efforts to prosecute wartime sexual violence, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, around the world have been largely unsuccessful. The past 25 years, in particular, have seen the issue of conflict-related sexual violence elevated in local and international courts. Yet progress has been slow.
Such cases are difficult to prosecute and are often sidelined due to political pressure and inability to gather sufficient evidence due to the length of time—sometimes decades—that passes between when crimes are committed and when they are tried in courtrooms. Prosecuting wartime sexual violence often requires more money, more legwork, and more fortitude than other crimes.
Since the end of World War II, survivors of Japanese wartime sexual enslavement have filed lawsuits against Japan in Japanese courts across Asia—including South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and China—as well as the Netherlands, according to Amnesty International. None have succeeded.
Survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, and activists say they will stop at nothing to seek justice. “Time does not wait for the victims,” said activist Choi Jun-hyuk, who accompanied Lee to the trial.
He slammed the Japanese government, the Korean government, and the Korean judiciary for failing to support survivors like Lee.
“We need to get to the ICJ as soon as possible and seek justice,” he said.
Correction, April 22, 2021: The original version of this piece erroneously identified a spokesperson for the Korean Council.
Rajveer Kaur grew up working in the fields of Gandhar village in Muktsar, Punjab, alongside her parents and siblings. After her school day, she would harvest wheat and feed cattle; during summer break, they sowed cotton and rice for the monsoon season. “If you want to eat, you don’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s a question of survival from one day to the next when you are born into a family of laborers.”
Kaur is a Dalit woman, a dual identity that reflects the most marginalized of India’s oppressive caste hierarchy. She is also among the millions of women protesting laws enacted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deregulate the agricultural sector. In Punjab and elsewhere, farmers largely operate under the mandi system, in which crops are procured by government intermediaries at minimum support prices, or price floors. Proponents of the new laws say moving to a free market system will allow farmers to sell directly to private buyers for potentially higher prices than what they currently get from the state.
But millions of Indian farmers remain unconvinced, demanding the repeal of what they see as a corporate takeover of agriculture, which employs some 40 percent of the country’s workforce. Dependence on the sector is even higher in rural areas, where, as of 2018, 58 percent of workers—and 71 percent of women—got their livelihoods from farming. These women, many of whom are Dalit, are largely invisible in the sector. Most own no land or are smallholders, earn less than male laborers, and have virtually no power to negotiate prices or wages. In an unregulated market with no safeguards, India’s disempowered female farmers arguably have the most to lose.
In recent years, as climate change-induced crises like droughts and failing crops have forced rural men to migrate to cities for work, agriculture has become increasingly female-dominated. Women are left to manage farmland, domestic work, and care for children and elders—but less than 14 percent have land in their name. Women’s farm labor is also often uncounted in census data, making them ineligible for government programs, which, accordingly, tend to overwhelmingly benefit male farmers.
In interviews with female farmers translated from Hindi and Punjabi, many said they feared being pushed even further to the margins.
Revanti Dhayal, who joined a sit-in in Delhi that started in November and is still ongoing—she planned to stay there until the laws were repealed—spoke passionately about needing to provide for her two toddlers, who clung to her sari. “Everyone else who works at a company gets a say in the prices they charge,” she said. “We, too, want fair rates for the food we grow!” She wants the government to make minimum support prices legally binding. (They aren’t mandated under the new law.)
Dhayal’s husband owns 15 acres of land in the state of Haryana, but her name isn’t on the title. “I’m a farmer, too,” she said. Myriad religious inheritance laws mediate women’s ownership of farmland. While legally they can own land, patriarchal cultures often prevent them from doing so.
60-year-old Balveer Kaur (no relation to Rajveer Kaur) leases an acre of land for more than $800 per year and saves less than $70 annually, leaving her with virtually no financial cushion. Now, she worries the laws will disrupt the relationship she has with the middlemen who facilitate sales at the mandis, or agricultural markets, and also act as informal sources of credit. “Negotiating the mandis is difficult,” she said. “If our relationship with the middlemen is broken, then it will become near impossible to even earn enough to survive.”
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Private investment, one of the Modi government’s main justifications for deregulation, is also far from assured. The local government in the state of Maharashtra deregulated parts of its agricultural sector in 2016, but the move hasn’t yielded the influx of investments in agriculture that Modi is predicting as the outcome of the new laws.
Indeed, many protesters fear a situation more akin to what happened in Bihar, which underwent deregulation in 2006. Government mandis there were eventually shuttered, making minimum support prices irrelevant. Over time, many Bihari farmers had to migrate outside the state, to Punjab and Haryana, to find work doing farm or other types of daily-wage labor.
Opponents argue that the government is pulling the rug out from under states, which typically set agricultural policy, and doing it without regard for regional differences in crop production and distribution and with few safeguards for small farmers—some of whom are barely subsisting as it is. Nirmal Kaur (no relation to either Rajveer or Balveer Kaur), a farmer who traveled from Haryana to Delhi to be part of the protests, said she came as a last stand against “complete ruin.”
Among female farm workers, 85 percent belong to tribal, Dalit, or other marginalized castes, and most are landless or own small farms, making caste dynamics an inextricable part of opposition to the new farm laws. In rural Mukstar, where Rajveer Kaur’s family lives, 96 percent of Dalit agricultural laborers do not own the land they work.
Historically, oppressed caste communities in India were prevented from being landowners, breeding intergenerational poverty and a reliance on exploitative labor arrangements. This inequity persists today, despite regulations on paper meant to protect these communities from discrimination. In Punjab, for instance, a third of publicly owned village agricultural land is legally reserved for Dalits, but attempts by them to claim this land have been met with brutal violence.
Dalit women typically work as daily-wage labor, putting them at the mercy of mostly male landowners who often pay the bare minimum—as low as $2 a day—especially if she is from a marginalized caste. Their wages can change at whim—there are no salaries and often no fixed contracts—and they have little say over terms.
In addition to the volatility brought about by fluctuations in the market, Modi’s reforms encourage trading activity to move online, ignoring low rates of literacy and access to smartphones and the internet among rural women. “Most homes here don’t even have internet,” said Phoola Devi, a Dalit farmer from Badokhar village in Banda, southeast of Delhi. “How would we operate a smartphone? Most of us women farmers never went to school. If we had, we wouldn’t still be farming!”
Many of the young women protesting are the first of their farming families to attend university or graduate school—often at protest sites that are explicitly masculine and casteist spaces themselves. “At first you could count the number of women at the protests on one hand,” Rajveer Kaur said. “Those who came stayed mostly out of sight, at the very back. It took months of meetings with farmer union leaders and setting norms for women to start speaking on stage regularly.” During court hearings about the protests, the chief justice of India’s Supreme Court said he didn’t understand “why old people and women” were being “kept” at the protests.
In January, Rajveer Kaur’s sister, the labor rights activist Nodeep Kaur, was arrested from a protest site near Delhi and charged with a number of offenses, including attempted murder. (No one actually died; police claimed that protesters became violent, a charge that Nodeep and others refute.) She had made national news with a viral video decrying the government’s move toward privatization.
Nodeep and fellow protesters want a repeal not just of the new farm laws but also of sweeping labor reforms passed in 2020 that diluted protections for workers, including farm laborers. Protesters are also demanding the implementation of reforms proposed by India’s National Commission on Farmers in 2006. In particular, they want to see minimum support prices one and a half times the cost of production.
Harinder Bindu, the president of the women’s wing of the farmers’ union Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), sees the protests as an opening. “You can see a shift in responsibilities and gender roles. We have done so much work organizing and educating door to door these past years, and it’s paying off. Where women were at home, now they are here.”
GULU, Uganda—In her office in Gulu, an impoverished city in northern Uganda, Stella Angel Lanam is worried about eviction. She is the founder and director of the War Victims and Children Network, an organization that helps women who, like her, were abducted during Uganda’s lengthy war and forced to become wives to rebel fighters and mothers to children born out of rape. These days, she’s simply struggling to pay rent. “Ever since we came back home, we did not get the support,” she said.
Uganda’s former decadeslong conflict came under the spotlight last month when the International Criminal Court (ICC) reached a verdict against Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier-turned-commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The rebel group was headed by Joseph Kony, whose brutality was infamously depicted in the short documentary Kony 2012, which was produced by an American charity and went massively viral.
Ongwen was convicted on 61 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the first ICC conviction for forced marriage and the first conviction for forced pregnancy at any international court. The presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, ruled that Ongwen had personally attacked seven women and coerced others to marry and have sexual relations with men under his command, calling these actions a “coordinated and methodical effort” to commit sexual and gender-based crimes and emphasizing the role of sexual violence in the conflict.
Human rights groups hailed the decision as a milestone in the fight against impunity for sexual crimes. But in northern Uganda, it’s hard to find much enthusiasm for the verdict among survivors who are grappling with poverty, stigma, and the total absence of government support.
LRA atrocities included forced marriage, pregnancy for abducted girls
Between the late 1980s and mid-2000s, tens of thousands of children were abducted by the LRA. The boys were indoctrinated and turned into fighters. Girls were assigned as so-called wives and threatened with murder if they tried to get away. “The abuse of women and girls in the LRA was truly systemic and institutional,” Schmitt said.
But he also acknowledged another unsettling reality: Forced marriage and pregnancy can have “complex emotional and psychological effects” on survivors, who, despite their lack of consent, may feel “bonded” to their abusers.
And many of the women Ongwen targeted are less worried about a proclamation of guilt in some faraway court than they are about scrabbling for money to buy food, finding shelter, paying their children’s school fees, and generally trying to survive—worries they have had ever since leaving the LRA.
Over the past few years, during interviews I’ve done with dozens of women who were kidnapped and forced into such “marriages” in the bush, most said they received little or no help once they escaped, and they were given no government compensation. Without an education or skills, they aren’t able to earn a living. Many say this is a key reason why they face so much stigma; they could have been welcomed back by their families if they weren’t a financial burden. Most women viewed the men in the rebel group as victims, too. The majority did not want Ongwen to be charged or sentenced. One of Ongwen’s so-called wives, Dilis Abang, said she is worried about what will happen to their children if the man she still calls her husband is unable to support them.
Case against Ongwen was contentious
Sarah Kihika Kasande, the head of the Uganda office of the International Center for Transitional Justice, an organization that seeks accountability for human rights abuses in post-conflict countries, said the ICC verdict was significant because it looked at the “full spectrum of sexual crimes and other atrocities that the people experienced and their lasting impact.”
“Forced motherhood was a defining feature of the conflict,” she said. “Young women were forced not only to be sexual slaves … but to give birth to children who would be groomed to become child soldiers.”
But she also recognized that the case against Ongwen has been contentious, tracing some of the controversy back to a government amnesty program that encouraged LRA fighters to defect and be welcomed back to their communities. The program, Kasande said, did not take into account the gendered needs of escapees. While male defectors were invited to join the Ugandan military and draw a salary, women were effectively left with nothing. “The aspect of sexual violence is not the immediate concern [for the women],” she said. ”It is the consequence of the sexual violence.” Survivors still live with trauma, suffer from medical problems, and have children to support.
The last few decades have seen growing efforts around the globe to remove impunity for sexual crimes in war. The Rome Statute, which established the ICC, was one of the first international treaties to list conflict-related sexual and gender-based crimes as crimes against humanity and war crimes, while expanding what could be prosecuted. “[It’s] dizzying to think of how many people endured the indignity and pain of being forced to become pregnant, or [were] forced to remain pregnant, or forced to give birth, before states eventually decided in 1998 to make forced pregnancy a crime under international law,” tweeted Rosemary Grey, an academic focusing on international criminal law and gender, following the Ongwen verdict.
Despite the legal framework being in place, prosecuting cases is fraught with “inherent challenges and unanticipated delays,” according to a spokesperson for the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC. “Mr Ongwen managed to evade justice for a decade after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for him in 2005.” After he was apprehended, it took 15 months for the prosecution to present its evidence, followed by presentations from survivors’ representatives and Ongwen’s defense, which lasted roughly another 15 months.
In the 19 years since the ICC’s founding, only five people have ever been convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Of those, three included initial convictions for sexual violence. The first, against Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, didn’t occur until 2016 and was later overturned. Judges said Gombo could not be held responsible for the actions of troops under his control. Three years later, in 2019, Congolese military leader Bosco Ntaganda was convicted of rape and sexual slavery, but his case is currently under appeal. Ongwen is also expected to appeal. “When it comes to convictions, it is important to note that the verdict at trial, albeit significant, is not the end of the process,” the ICC spokesperson said.
Globally, there was a boost in awareness of sexual and gender-based violence when the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize went jointly to Nadia Murad, an activist and Yazidi survivor of sexual slavery, and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who has treated tens of thousands of women in the conflict-wracked region of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Still, activists and survivors’ representatives say much more needs to be done.
Katrien Coppens, the director of the Mukwege Foundation, which advocates for an end to sexual violence as a weapon of war and supports survivors, said that while high-profile convictions send a message about the gravity of these crimes, they are “not more than a first step.” Even with a guilty verdict, compensation for survivors is not guaranteed. The court may order reparations for women in the Ongwen case, but the process could take years. Meanwhile, thousands of other survivors of rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, or forced pregnancy who never got the chance to participate in a justice process also need help. Coppens pointed to the Global Survivors Fund, recently founded by Mukwege and Murad, as an important attempt to fill those gaps. It aims to make at least $50 million available for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence by 2022.
‘We don’t want to be ashamed’: Survivors still face stigma back home
Many LRA survivors blame the government for what happened to them. “I was a young girl,” said Lanam, who was 10 years old when she was kidnapped by the LRA. “The government didn’t protect me.” During northern Uganda’s war, the Ugandan army was also accused of raping women in camps for displaced people, charges that were never investigated or brought to trial. Yoweri Museveni, the former rebel leader who seized power in 1986, is still president today.
“The pain we got in the bush to now—it will always remain,” said Ellen Awma. “We will remember for the rest of our lives.” The 35-year-old was kidnapped in 1993, when she was just 9 years old, and forced to “marry” an LRA commander the same year. In 2004, she escaped with four children. She has been rejected by both her family and his.
Santa Aber, 40, is another survivor who was made to live in the bush for 11 years and came back with a daughter. She was rejected by her relatives.
“I don’t want to be ashamed,” Aber said. She sat on the ground—a bullet wound in her back means she can’t stay in chairs for a long time—and reiterated the need for support for the women who survived. “This thing spoiled our future,” she said, wondering where all the “good Samaritans” are when it comes to providing survivors with tangible support. Ongwen’s conviction means little to Aber, who struggles to buy even basic necessities. “There’s been no international help,” she said. “Maybe the world can focus on that.”
When police knocked on her door in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2020, Valérie (a pseudonym to protect her identity) instinctively knew it had something to do with her ex-husband. The charming, funny, and seductive man she thought she had married in 2012 was, it turned out, a violent and paranoid master manipulator convinced of the world’s imminent end, for which he prepared by collecting canned food, weapons, and military radios—to communicate after the grids collapsed. Since she had left him in 2013, Frédérik Limol had repeatedly threatened to murder both her and their young daughter. According to Valérie’s lawyer, Wissam Bayeh, she reported him to the police at least three times, and, on other occasions, warned them that he was armed and dangerous. But, like a modern-day Cassandra, her complaints fell on deaf ears. “It was a permanent nightmare,” Bayeh said. “He’d sworn to poison her life, and he was succeeding.”
“Law enforcement suddenly discovered that violent men can be violent with everyone, not just with their wives or girlfriends”Suzy Rojtman, spokesperson of the National Collective for the Rights of Women
In the wee hours of that dark December morning, Limol made good on his threats of violence. Only Valérie wasn’t the target. A few hours before police arrived at Valérie’s door to escort her and her daughter to safety, Limol had shot four police officers as they responded to a domestic violence distress call at his home a few miles outside the tiny village of Saint-Just in central France. “Law enforcement suddenly discovered that violent men can be violent with everyone, not just with their wives or girlfriends,” said Suzy Rojtman, spokesperson of the National Collective for the Rights of Women, a coalition of feminist groups, unions, and political parties.
A woman—Limol’s most recent partner—had been perched on the roof of their large stone house while he stalked the grounds below wearing a bulletproof vest and wielding an AR-15. He shot the responding officers, set the house ablaze, and fled in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Backup police found him later that morning less than a mile down the road. He had crashed his car into a tree, then turned a Glock pistol on himself. The woman survived the ordeal, but three police officers did not.
The news quickly spread across France, where gun violence is relatively rare. The regional paper La Montagne—which, just two days prior, had run an entire article on a man’s conviction for firing two shots in the air—featured a single word on the front page of its Dec. 24 edition: “Carnage,” above a picture of a military helicopter hovering above the scene of the crime. National media ran headlines evoking the “war scene” at Saint-Just, soon to be echoed by international outlets, including the Guardian and the New York Times. The news channel TF1 ran a lengthy segment on the growing dangers facing law enforcement in France.
In these Hollywood-esque scenes, the women Limol had terrorized were relegated to bit parts, their more mundane stories of intimate partner abuse eclipsed by the brazen act of public violence that followed. “What started this violence against the police was domestic violence, and we hardly talk about that,” Rojtman said.
While data specific to France is limited, the link between domestic violence and public violence is well documented elsewhere. In the United States, the perpetrator in more than half of mass shootings between 2009 and 2018 shot a current or former intimate partner or a family member, in addition to others. A U.S. study spanning from 1980 to 2006 found that domestic violence calls resulted in more than 4,000 officer assaults and six deaths on average each year. (French government data on police injuries and deaths does not specify the nature of the call.)
Threats of violence still linger
In 2019, 146 women were killed by an intimate partner in France, making it one of the more dangerous countries for women in Europe, behind Northern Ireland and Germany. While women come out to protest each year on Nov. 25 for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the term “femicide”—the murder of women on account of their gender—is now widely used, the threat of gender-based violence is still largely perceived as a remote one, the kind that does not happen in nice villages like Saint-Just. A France2 news segment in the wake of the Dec. 23 killings illustrated this well: While it included domestic violence as part of its coverage of the Limol affair, its focus was intimate partner violence far afield, on the French island of Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar. Footage from a police station showed white police officers processing Black couples accused of domestic violence.
“There’s a real blockage in France,” Rojtman said. Her collective was born in 1996 on the heels of a 40,000-strong feminist protest against the then-incoming administration’s decision to grant amnesty to anti-abortion activists. But she said that violence against women has not succeeded in mobilizing women the way abortion did.
France is the birthplace of “courtly love” and revered around the world as a cradle of seduction. Rojtman believes that these cultural touchstones may be preventing a more aggressive response to gender-based violence. She points to the now famous letter signed by 100 high-profile French women condemning the #MeToo movement as trying to hinder women’s sexual freedom. And it was only this January that the French Senate approved a law setting an age of consent: 13 years old.
There’s a gap in enforcing the law
France’s resistance to cracking down harder on gender-based violence contrasts with nearby Spain, which, in 2004, passed a pioneering law that established harsher penalties for offenders and made prevention of gender-based violence a priority. Rojtman’s collective drafted a similar bill in 2006 and presented it to the French government. Though some of the proposed measures were included in a law passed in 2010 aimed at protecting women from abusive partners, most were discarded. What laws do exist, she said, “don’t go far enough, or aren’t applied.”
In some cases, they can be manipulated to further victimize survivors. Before his death, Limol had brought a case against Valérie claiming that she had violated his parental rights by failing to notify him of a change of address. “For some time now, it’s become trendy to talk about things like ‘the year against violence,’ actions taken to fight gender-based violence, the word ‘femicide,’ etc.,” Bayeh said. “But in reality, nothing changes.”
The perception that intimate partner violence is a private family matter runs deep. “People close their eyes to it,” said Natalie Conte, who runs a bakery in Ambert, the town of 7,000 where the slain police were headquartered. Residents of the town were blindsided by the shooting. “Knowing they’re no longer here, it’s traumatizing,” Conte added. “And Saint-Just, where it happened, it’s so small, it’s a tiny village, we know most people there. It’s just shocking.”
A few miles down the road, Saint-Just is the kind of rural idyll into which American movies love to drop disaffected writers in search of inspiration, a cluster of stone houses with painted wooden shutters surrounding a squat stone church and, before it, a monument to the village’s lost combatants: two names for World War II, 40 for World War I.
On a snowy morning in January, three men in their 60s, the only people out, gamely chatted about the village’s dwindling numbers (down to half during the winter; many of the houses are summer homes for people from the regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand) and the kind of stone the houses are built out of (lime, not volcanic rock, like further south in the region). But they politely declined to comment on the events of Dec. 23. Limol was a recent arrival and an out-of-towner; they didn’t know him, they said. They’re weary of the press, who have flooded their otherwise peaceful village the last few weeks.
“It’s that way for the pilgrimage,” one said, jokingly pointing down the road toward what remains of Limol’s house: a blackened stone carcass with the terra cotta roof burned off.
Chris Janczewski was finishing up a lengthy investigation into online drug trafficking in Thailand when a source called him about a website in South Korea. Hosted on the darknet, the site encouraged users—including U.S. citizens—to pay Bitcoin to access over a million videos depicting the rape and sexual assault of children as young as six months old.
A special agent with the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations division, Janczewski was used to tracing cryptocurrency transactions to track money laundering and other forms of organized crime. But he had never worked on a child sexual abuse case. “I was like, well surely the FBI or Homeland Security or somebody is already doing something about this,” he recalls. “Like, why does the IRS need to do something? And then I was poking around and I realized: Nobody was doing it.”
For the next two years, until late 2019, Janczewski found himself at the forefront of the investigation and takedown of what the U.S. Department of Justice has dubbed “the largest darknet child pornography website” in the world.
Cryptocurrencies are increasingly being used to fund child sexual exploitation (CSE), creating new opportunities for law enforcement to track down perpetrators. But experts say success stories are rare: Unlike those responsible for big money crimes like drug trafficking and money laundering, agents tasked with investigating CSE lack the training, knowledge, and resources to pursue the growing number of operations financed by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. With law enforcement behind the curve, hundreds of thousands of sexual predators go uninvestigated, and are free to continue victimizing children.
Contrary to popular belief, some of the most mainstream cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum or Litecoin, can be easily tracked; every transaction is logged in a shared, public ledger known as a blockchain. Criminals can employ various techniques to try and obfuscate their spending, but the records—while harder to find—remain. “I pay you $2,000 in a dark alley, who are the witnesses to that transaction? Just you and I, right?” said Pamela Clegg, director of financial investigations and education at the blockchain analytics company CipherTrace. “With cryptocurrency… the whole world could be the witness.”
But a lack of understanding of what cryptocurrency is and what its use in child exploitation looks like often leads anti-trafficking investigators in the United States and globally to reject cases, or miss crucial pieces of evidence. Clegg cites an example from 2017 in which a team of experienced law enforcement officials from Central America uncovered a website hosting child sex abuse materials (CSAM), complete with Bitcoin addresses that could have identified dozens of users. The team didn’t know how to capture the data before taking down the website and mistakenly lost all of the information.
“I don’t want to paint this as ‘law enforcement doesn’t have experience in crypto,’” Clegg explains. “Law enforcement does amazing work with crypto. It’s primarily the teams that are focused on human trafficking and CSAM that I’m referring to.” In 2019, she gave a speech to 750 members of law enforcement from almost 100 countries, each a specialist in investigating human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. “I asked, ‘How many people have actually worked a case that involved cryptocurrency?’” To Clegg’s dismay, just five people raised their hands.
Around the world, governments are failing to prioritize cryptocurrency analysis in child sexual exploitation investigations, agrees Neil Walsh, chief of the Cybercrime, Anti-Money Laundering / Counter Financing of Terrorism Department at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “It seems to me that this is still seen as a niche area: That it’s a bit geeky and not something that is common.”
Meanwhile, the rate at which sex predators are spending virtual money is far outpacing anti-trafficking agents’ capacity to track them. According to Chainalysis, a U.S.-based blockchain analysis company, the amount of money paid in Bitcoin and Ethereum to known child abuse websites nearly quadrupled between 2017 and 2019, topping 1.75 million dollars.
Some cryptocurrency pioneers are exacerbating the problem by ramping up privacy preservation and data protection to make transactions fully anonymous. Of the roughly 4000 cryptocurrencies currently listed on the price-tracking website CoinMarketCap, private analysts and senior IRS investigators say only a handful—like Bitcoin and Ethereum—are straightforward to trace. Even then, it requires the right training and tools.
“We’re in an arms race here,” said Rebecca Portnoff, director of data science at THORN, a U.S. organization working to build technology to counter child sex abuse. “And it’s a pretty complicated arms race.”
But Clegg says that training isn’t prioritized for these cases because the purchase and sale of online child sexual abuse materials amounts to just a fraction of what changes hands in white collar or drug crimes—most payments are between $10 and $50.
To take down Welcome To Video, the South Korean child exploitation site, Janczewski and a skeleton team of agents from the IRS and Homeland Security Investigations teamed up with the Korean National Police. Together, they spent two years tracing thousands of Bitcoin addresses, leading to the arrest of 340 men in 38 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia. At least 25 children were rescued from situations of abuse.
Janczewski believes other federal agencies had overlooked Welcome to Video because they didn’t have the expertise or the necessary manpower. “The child exploitation investigators were very good, but they rarely had to look at cryptocurrencies and that’s a large learning curve,” he said. “And they’re just too busy.” On occasions when he shared a lead with other agencies, he often checked back in weeks later to discover they hadn’t made any progress. “In one example, the agent was like, ‘Yeah, I’d really like to work this case, but it takes a lot of effort for me to work out what’s going on.’”
The case was no less time consuming for officials in Korea. As chief of the Korean National Police’s cyber investigation division since 2018, Jong-sang Choi oversaw dozens of agents tasked with investigating Welcome to Video. The site catered to up to a million users and tracing their crypto transactions was challenging—“a fight between a spear and a shield,” Jong-sang recalled.
Despite Jong-sang and Janczewski’s best efforts, the majority of Welcome to Video’s users likely got away with their crimes. In several cases, investigators would trace Bitcoin addresses to foreign countries, only for the relevant authorities to ignore their reports. “Not only are they not interested,” Jong-sang said, “but they’re not capable.”
“It’s about turning this technical challenge into a mainstream part of investigative technology,” said Walsh of the UNODC. “And that requires political leadership domestically and internationally.”
Consumers of CSAM are everywhere, but demand is driven largely by people in wealthy countries. One study from the Philippines found that three-quarters of people who purchased materials depicting child sexual abuse were from the U.S., Sweden, and Australia. Meanwhile, 81 percent of child sexual abuse materials are produced in low-income regions, including in South East Asia, Africa, and Latin America, according to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. In many of these countries, the tools required to analyze virtual transactions are prohibitively expensive. “If you’re in the UK or the U.S., the ability to invest in a blockchain analyzer is very possible,” said Walsh. “However, if you are from an economically developing country, then that’s really difficult to do.”
Instead of relying on resource-stretched agencies and governments in low-income countries to independently investigate CSE crimes using cryptocurrency, some experts have called on financial institutions—such as the “exchanges” that can convert cryptocurrency into other assets, including traditional, government-issued money—to introduce protocols to identify and report suspicious activity to authorities.
In May 2020, Aaron Kahler, founder of the Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative, launched the Anti-Trafficking Cryptocurrency Consortium after seeing a “huge lapse” in the investigation of child sexual abuse by both U.S. law enforcement and financial institutions. “It’s still not a priority,” he said, explaining that the nonprofit consortium is working to encourage exchanges to cooperate with law enforcement, while providing U.S. investigators with much-needed tools and expertise.
Since shutting down Welcome to Video, Janczewski has collaborated with European investigators to trace over 300 Bitcoin addresses linked to a Dutch-hosted site called Dark Scandals, which sold more than 2000 videos of women and children being raped. In March of last year, authorities arrested the site’s administrator.
Janczewski admits he didn’t initially understand how prolific the use of cryptocurrency was in child sexual abuse or the role the IRS could play in combatting it. But he does now.
“Once I got into it, I realized this is the thing.”
As an active-duty officer in the Marine Corps, Lindsay Rodman was accustomed to being the lone woman in the room—and, unlike her male peers, having her mere presence challenged.
There was the lieutenant colonel who seemed genuinely bewildered that a woman would be interested in joining, and another colonel who flat out told her women didn’t belong. A different colonel in Afghanistan didn’t have to say a thing; he refused to shake her hand.
“There’s no great response,” said Rodman, now the executive director of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), a nonprofit that advocates for greater gender diversity in national security. “My response typically was always like, ‘Well, sir, I’m grateful to be in the Marine Corps. I do think women belong in the Marine Corps.’”
If confirmed, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary, retired army general Lloyd J. Austin III, would be the first Black person to head the Department of Defense. But his historic selection dashed hopes for another first: that after 73 years of uninterrupted leadership by men, a woman might run the Pentagon.
For a time, that possibility finally seemed within reach. Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration and also served in the Clinton administration, was widely considered a top contender for the position. Many viewed her as a slam dunk because of her decades of experience, her knowledge of how the Pentagon operates, and her deep connections within the defense community. The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, endorsed Flournoy, telling reporters last month that she was “hands down the best qualified person for the job.”
Austin’s nomination also comes with some controversy. Many Democrats have called for a return to civilian leadership of the defense department after President Donald Trump chose retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to be his first defense secretary. Because of a law requiring seven years of separation between military service and civilian leadership, Mattis, who retired in 2013, required a waiver from Congress. As a recent active-duty general, Austin will also require a waiver.
Women have long faced barriers to reaching some of the country’s top defense and national security jobs. Not only has the military openly discriminated against women throughout history—combat jobs were only opened to women in 2015—the Pentagon remains an environment in which “most people were either military or former military,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown Law professor and co-founder of LCWINS who previously worked for Flournoy at the Defense Department. Women were “overwhelmingly likely to be neither,” Brooks said of her time at the Pentagon, which resulted in them being left out of networks often developed by a shared military connection.
The numbers show just how tightly shut the doors have been to women at the Pentagon. Women accounted for just six of a total 23 positions at the rank of assistant secretary or above within the Defense Department as of late 2018, according to a New America report. Indeed, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Veterans Affairs are the only cabinet agencies that have never been led by a woman (neither has Secretary of the Treasury, but Joe Biden has nominated Janet Yellen for the role).
While it’s hard to predict how Flournoy—or any woman—would run the department, her appointment would have signaled to other women interested in working in national security that the United States is ready to draw from all of its talent. Linda Reynolds, who has led the Australian Department of Defence since May 2019, has made the case for better gender equity within that country’s forces and pushed back against a toxic locker room culture that has been described by government officials as “what happens outside the wire, stays outside the wire.” Last month, after a war crimes investigation revealed the gruesome killings of Afghan civilians by Australian soldiers, she dismissed claims from a former special forces captain that the killings were the “fog of war,” instead calling them “cold-blooded murder.”
A study of female defense ministers worldwide found that women are less likely to be appointed in countries that are engaged in conflict or that invest heavily in military operations at the expense of peacekeeping. It also found that, as women’s representation in government overall increases, so does the likelihood that they will be appointed to top national security posts. In the United States, women’s participation in government lags behind that of many developed countries. Dozens of countries, including the U.K., India, Chile, France, Spain, and Germany, have had women at the helm of their defense ministries. America, Rodman said, is “behind the curve.”
More coverage: The Feminine Appeal of Macho Populism
That lack of representation can influence decision-making in ways that can affect national security. In September, the U.S. Air Force released a report on digital acquisition titled “Take the Red Pill,” intended to be a reference to the film The Matrix. But the phrase “red pilling” has also been used as a dog whistle by men’s rights groups that have been associated with violence. Kathleen McInnis, an author and defense expert who has served in the Pentagon called out—along with other women and at least one man—the double meaning within the defense community, including online, prompting the Air Force to rename the report “There Is No Spoon” (another Matrix reference). “If you have … a bigger pool of diverse perspectives to draw upon, these kinds of things are more likely to be brought to the fore, earlier, in a way that they aren’t right now,” McInnis said.
Rodman noted the hypocrisy in America’s call for greater participation of women abroad while continuing to fall short at home. In 2000, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 recognized the need for greater representation of women in the peacebuilding process, and the United States passed its own version in 2017. Her organization received pledges from every Democratic presidential candidate and Republican Bill Weld in the 2020 election to strive for greater gender parity in senior national security and foreign-policy appointments. But Trump did not sign on. “It’s quite easy for other countries to point at us and be like, ‘Are you guys kidding us?’” Rodman said, adding that there are no excuses for officials who say they would consider a woman for a senior civilian appointment but can’t find any who are qualified.
There are currently 57 Senate-confirmed civilian positions at the Defense Department, according to Senate Armed Services Committee spokesperson Marta Hernandez. LCWINS developed a database of female candidates for those and other agency positions, including senior civilian roles at the State Department, totaling about 200 jobs. The organization aimed to offer two candidates for each position, or 400 names. It ended up compiling about 900.
Rodman said there’s plenty of room for more women in the national security space. Biden recently named Dr. Kathleen Hicks, who served at the Pentagon as part of the Obama administration, as his pick for deputy secretary of defense. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to hold the number two position (Christine Fox held the job in an acting capacity during the Obama administration). More national security personnel announcements are expected soon.
Beyond representation, McInnis stressed the need for the culture of the field to change. A woman as defense secretary is no “silver bullet,” she cautioned. When she was working as the NATO-ISAF operations director at the Pentagon, a man told her that she was “too passionate” about her job and that it was undermining her credibility. “That shut me up for years,” she said.
Rodman said she also self-censored when she felt her audience wouldn’t be receptive to her ideas, keeping her from pushing back against sexist comments or from offering alternative perspectives.
Now, she’s more concerned about what would have happened if she weren’t there. “It always dawns on me that if I’m not in the room, then there’s no woman in the room, right?” she said. “That seems to me to be even more important than being the lone female voice.”
Rodman imagines what she might have said to the men who questioned her presence in the Marine Corps if a woman had been in charge of the Pentagon. “The power of being able to look at someone under those circumstances and say, ‘Hey, sir, the secretary of defense is a woman.’ Just the power of being able to turn around and say something like that.”
Miriam Goulart was crestfallen when President Donald Trump lost the election.
The 45-year-old Brazilian mother of three was rooting for Trump, whom she describes as having “tenacity” and someone who “wants the best for his country.” He reminds her of the president of her own country—Jair Bolsonaro, another brash strongman who rode to power on a wave of populist anger and has sparked controversy for his public remarks about women. Bolsonaro once told a female member of Congress he wouldn’t rape her because she “didn’t deserve it.”
That rhetoric hasn’t deterred Goulart or the millions of women around the world who revere leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro despite their hostility toward women. Though Trump lost reelection, his support among women increased in 2020. World leaders like Bolsonaro, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and President Andrzej Duda of Poland also continue to enjoy strong support from many women, suggesting that—while Trump’s defeat may have dealt a blow to his brand of “macho populism”—the phenomenon isn’t going away any time soon. And in many cases, it’s women who are fueling it.
While there is no single unifying explanation for why women in different countries support macho populists— politicians who project an ideal of male dominance—there are some commonalities. Women tend to be more religious than men, a fact that macho populists often use to their advantage. Trump has aggressively courted religious voters and three-quarters of white Evangelicals voted for him in 2020. In Brazil and Poland, a similar dynamic draws women to men who seem to fit traditional gender norms.
When Ellen Nunes, 29, was deciding who to vote for in Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, she found everything she was looking for in Bolsonaro, a former military captain who had promised to restore Christian ideals in a country where 81 percent of the population is Catholic or Evangelical.
“He’s talking about principles based on the nuclear family, which is what we need to have in our homes,” she said. Nunes grew up in a home where “men were men and women were women” and she doesn’t see a problem with “what a lot of other people see as sexism or authoritarianism coming from the president.”
Claudia Félix, a 49-year-old married mother of two from Brazil, was similarly unconcerned. “Men don’t usually react the same way as women,” said Félix. “They’re more in-your-face, especially when they’re from the military like he is.”
During public appearances, Bolsonaro often uses his middle name, Messias, rhetorically equating himself to Christ the Messiah. He told supporters he was chosen to save the people of Brazil from chaos caused by corruption, violence, radical leftists, and feminism. “Bolsonaro’s supporters act as if they are his believers,” said Daniela Gomes, McGill visiting assistant professor of international studies at Trinity College-Hartford. “They worship him no matter what.”
In Poland, Duda, who has called LGBTQ rights an “ideology” more destructive than communism, won reelection this summer by a narrow margin. A few months later, he praised a court decision ruling that abortions based on fetal abnormalities—which constitute most abortions performed in the country— were unconstitutional. (He backtracked somewhat after nationwide protests).
Female supporters of macho populism also tend to share a desire for a hard line on crime. In the Philippines, Duterte has styled himself as a protector of women, many of whom believe he has made them safer. As president, he has waged a violent war on drugs that has led to more than 8,600 deaths. Last year, he signed a law criminalizing public sexual harassment.
For many of his supporters, these measures are cover for his innumerable remarks seemingly promoting sexual violence, including attributing an increase in rape cases in his hometown to the fact that there are “many beautiful women” there. He has admitted to sexually assaulting a housemaid as a teenager and ordered Filipino soldiers to shoot female rebels in the vagina, saying, “If there is no vagina, it would be useless.” Duterte insists these are jokes and many Filipino women believe him. When he forcibly kissed a migrant woman at an event in South Korea, it was viewed by many Filipina women not as a violation but a sign of relatability.
“It’s read as, ‘He’s one of us. He’s not disgusted by us,’” said Sharmila Parmanand, who has a doctorate in gender studies from the University of Cambridge.
But macho populist rhetoric, which often fetishizes women as chaste and in need of protection, can fly in the face of actual policy outcomes. Duterte’s drug war has left large swaths of women more economically and physically vulnerable. Trump’s expansion of the Mexico City Policy has drastically cut funding for reproductive health services in the United States and globally. Bolsonaro has curtailed Brazil’s longstanding social welfare program, Bolsa Família, which provides financial aid to 13 million families—most of them single-parent households run by women—living in poverty and extreme poverty. Some forms of domestic violence have been decriminalized in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And in Narendra Modi’s India, sexual violence against women has risen despite the prime minister’s promises of “zero tolerance.”
More women in positions of power aren’t necessarily a salve, either. Newly elected U.S. congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, French politician Marine Le Pen, Brazilian politician Joice Hasselmann, and other female public figures have embraced a tough, anti-feminist brand of politics. “Male populist charisma is appealing to both men and women,” said Susi Meret, associate professor of politics and society at Denmark’s Aalborg University.
In the United States, that appeal is far stronger among white women, 55 percent of whom voted for Trump (2 percentage points more than in 2016). Both Black and Hispanic women overwhelmingly voted for President-elect Joe Biden (though Trump got a higher share of their votes in 2020 than he did in 2016). “Some women don’t view what’s going on at the border with sterilizations or what’s happening to communities of color as in any way related to their lives,” said Christina M. Greer, associate professor of political science and American studies at Fordham University. “We all have multiple identities and I think a lot of white women have chosen whiteness over gender.”
While Trump’s defeat isn’t a death knell for macho populism, it may weaken the coalition of like-minded leaders that has emerged in recent years. Macho populists have made no secret of their affinity for one another. China’s President Xi Jinping has called Putin his “best and bosom friend.” Bolsonaro had repeatedly praised Trump, even telling him “I love you” at a United Nations General Assembly meeting last year. But in recent municipal elections in Brazil, he suffered major losses. Seventy-eight local candidates added “Bolsonaro” next to their names—candidates are permitted to include nicknames on ballots—to show their allegiance to the sitting president. Only one was elected. Bolsonaro now appears to be distancing himself from the outgoing U.S. president, reportedly saying after Trump’s loss that he “is not the most important person in the world.”
Goulart doesn’t see Bolsonaro’s lack of support in the municipal elections as a loss, but as a stepping stone on the path to change. And she is sure he’ll win again in 2022.
“It’s only been two years since the people have woken up,” she said. “Not everything is going to change in four years, in just one mandate.” Goulart still believes that Bolsonaro’s military toughness is just what Brazil needs.
“Look what he’s already done with the population,” she said. “He made everyone think. It’s spectacular. How could you not love this president?”
KAUGAMA, Nigeria—Saki Samuno hissed at the darkening skies. The women around her wore the same irritated look as they pointed upwards, anticipating a torrential downpour.
After months without access to family planning services, 28-year-old Samuno trudged along the dirt paths leading to the only clinic for some 80 miles serving her rural village of Kaugama, a remote farming area in northeast Jigawa, Nigeria’s third most impoverished state.
The facility itself—a rundown, government-owned bungalow with sloping ceilings, wall cracks wide enough for fat lizards to slip through and no regular staff—did not discourage the women from their hours-long trek. The women sought the female medical workers in crisp white uniforms who came every few months, or longer, bearing medication and medical expertise.
The nurses, employed by the organization Marie Stopes Nigeria, provide free family planning counseling, pregnancy testing, contraceptives and, when necessary, post-abortion care to women in underserved and remote areas across the West African country. The organization, which often works with the Nigerian government, also advocates for more relaxed abortion laws in a country where the procedure is both criminalized and common (potentially as many as 2.7 million abortions are carried out annually in Nigeria, most of them unsafe, according to Johns Hopkins University research).
“We have been waiting for this,” said Samuno, a trader and mother of six children who was married at 14. She can barely afford to feed her children, Samuno says, and she doesn’t want to become pregnant again and give birth to a seventh child. Instead, she says: “I want to rest.”
For poor and rural Nigerian women like Samuno, struggling to support her family in a country with one of the world’s worst maternal mortality rates and highest fertility rates, the November U.S. presidential election—and the possible repeal of controversial Trump administration policies—could mean the difference between life and death. With abortion in the United States now central to this year’s political debate, access to sexual and reproductive care is also on the ballot, possibly affecting millions of women around the world. The United States is the world’s largest global health funder, and U.S. policies that place broad restrictions on billions of dollars of funding have the power to drastically limit access to life-saving services, from Nigeria to Nepal and beyond.
In January 2017, President Donald Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule by critics and women’s rights advocates. The policy, first introduced by President Ronald Reagan and implemented by every Republican president since, cuts funding to global health providers receiving U.S. financial aid that “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning,” according to USAID.
Later that year, Trump further expanded the 1984 policy, renaming it “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance,” to include not only family planning and reproductive health providers, but also those working on issues related to global health security, HIV and AIDS, maternal and child health and infectious diseases.
Should Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden win the November election, he could rescind the Mexico City Policy, just as both former Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done before him, which could increase access to health services and support for millions of women worldwide.
The financial shortfall created by the cut in U.S. funding means Marie Stopes Nigeria—which refused to sign the Mexico City Policy in order to continue pressing for safe abortion access and laws—has had to limit their family planning services, halt plans to expand, and stop partnerships with other organizations who signed up to the policy to receive U.S. aid, according to the organization.
As a woman, if you don’t have plenty of children, you don’t have a voice.”Blessing Agbo, Head nurse of Marie Stopes’ mobile nursing team
Since 2017, Marie Stopes Nigeria says at least two programs focused on training family planning service providers, much like the mobile nurses in Kaugama have been halted. The organization’s 23 remote outreach teams serve a population of more than 200 million. While Marie Stopes Nigeria trained 2,600 service providers and supported other key initiatives with $14 million in U.S. funding in the five years prior to Trump’s expansion of the Mexico City Policy, the organization says it has only been able to train 1,010 additional providers since then. Marie Stopes Nigeria, says they have also been blocked from receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in funding that could have helped expand its walk-in and mobile support services across the West African country.
The Mexico City Policy has “massively shrunk the work that can be done,” says Effiom Effiom,Marie Stopes Nigeria’s country director. Many women opt for abortion because they do not know about family planning, he says, and so cutting off funding providing those services in a bid to halt abortion is unfair. “The whole concept of family planning is an emergency business, it’s a necessity,” he said by phone.
Trump’s April 2017 defunding of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has also led to immense funding shortages in the country. In 2016, the year prior to the funding cut, UNFPA contributed around $18.5 million in reproductive healthcare funding to support family planning, maternal health and HIV assistance across Nigeria. The next year, that number dropped to roughly $10 million.
For many Nigerian women, particularly those in remote parts of the country, the difficulties imposed by U.S. foreign policy on the search for contraception and family planning services are compounded by the local conservative and religious resistance to contraception and abortion, and now, the crippling COVID-19 health crisis that has further limited access to sexual and reproductive health care globally.
Samuno often has to wait for months to get contraceptive and family planning counseling, and, like the other women who gathered on floor mats inside the Marie Stopes clinic, can neither afford the $3 contraceptive cost in hospitals some 80 or so miles away in Dutse, the capital of Jigawa state, nor can they easily travel the distance without the permission from their husbands. Most of the Nigerian women who come to Marie Stopes have specific requests: birth control pills and injectable contraceptives (some that prevent pregnancy for months and others, like a small plastic rod injected into the arm that dispenses the hormone progestin which halts production of a monthly egg], for years). Some women who see the nurses need critical care after having sought out dangerous unregulated abortions, desperate to end pregnancies in a country where abortions are illegal, except in cases when a woman might die without one.
Social stigma around contraceptives and abortion remains high
The vast majority of Nigerian women do not use contraceptives, particularly in low-literacy rural areas where misinformation spreads rampantly by word of mouth, some of it stating without medical basis that contraceptives cause infertility. In the country’s conservative north where Sharia law, or Islamic law, is practiced, religious and traditional norms do not encourage child spacing, meaning many women who lack decision-making power in their families abstain or are barred from using contraceptives.
In Jigawa, the average fertility rate was 8.5 live births per woman in 2016, according to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics—one of the highest rates in Nigeria and far surpassing the global average of around 2.5 live births per woman, according to the United Nations.
Women like Samuno are outliers in their communities: Her husband is friends with the village head, who works closely with Marie Stopes’ health workers and allows Samuno to hike to the clinic for birth control. Maternal mortality rates are higher in northeast Nigeria where the ongoing war with the extremist Boko Haram has led to decimated health infrastructure.
Nigerian government efforts to expand family planning services and awareness have seen some impact. The number of Nigerian women using modern contraceptive methods rose from 6 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2018, according to a 2018 health survey conducted by the Nigerian government. But Nigeria also has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, although post-abortion care is not illegal, which allows Marie Stopes to treat women who have undergone unsafe abortions.
Social stigma attached to abortion is high across the country, particularly in the Muslim-majority north, also home to Nigeria’s poorest households. In May 2019, Nigerian police, raided a Marie Stopes clinic in Lagos, the country’s economic capital on the southernmost coast, harassing staff and confiscating confidential client information, with one officer allegedly claiming that birth control was abortion.
“People see giving birth as their strength here,” says Blessing Agbo, the head nurse of the mobile nursing team, as she paused briefly to call in another patient for a contraceptive implant. “As a woman, if you don’t have plenty of children, you don’t have a voice.”
Despite the stigma, research in Nigeria points to rising abortion rates. In cases of unintended pregnancies, women often opt for roadside doctors, some of whom use wildly unsafe methods such as drinking dissolved eyeliner.
The pandemic puts a new strain on health facilities
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has made the situation even more dire. A months-long national lockdown in Nigeria meant a doubling of calls to health facilities requesting family planning services as well as gender-based violence treatment and post-abortion care, according to Marie Stopes and Ipas, another reproductive health organization in Nigeria.
Jigawa State saw some of the highest numbers of sexual abuse cases reported in recent months, according to Lucky Palmer, country director for Ipas, which advocates for increased global access to safe abortions and educates women on sexual and reproductive health in Nigeria. Ipas has also spoken out against the terms of the Mexico City Policy.
With global COVID-19 shutdowns limiting medicine supplies, women who cannot access free care are now paying much more to get the care they need—or going without it, risking potentially deadly results.
Samuno says the countrywide lockdown meant husbands in Kaugama, who would normally go off to work in the more prosperous southern Nigeria, were stuck at home. It also meant more unintended pregnancies, according to local women, a situation the women at the Marie Stopes clinic say they are determined to avoid. Habiba, a 30-year-old woman who has given birth to 10 babies, six of whom have survived, says she’s particularly at risk for unplanned pregnancies because she doesn’t leave the house to trade or farm like other women. “I’m a housewife and this is important for me because I want to rest before I can think of giving birth again,” she said, minutes after a nurse implanted a plastic birth control insert into her arm.
The white-clad nurses said they were also the first health workers to relay the danger of COVID-19, on the same day that they arrived at the government-owned bungalow in Kaugama. They stressed the importance of hand washing, sanitization, and social distancing before turning their attention to family planning.
Minutes before noon, just as the rain started to trickle from the sky, Samuno got her turn to select what contraceptive method she wanted. She chose a plastic rod to be inserted in her arm. It would help her prevent pregnancy for up to five years.
The women who left before their turns, fearful of the torrential rains, would have to wait for the next time the nurses showed up. It could be three months, or it could be 10.
Those who stayed behind, sitting on the mats waiting beside Samuno—teen girls and middle-aged women alike, with babies strapped to their backs under long flowing hijabs of green, red, and black—would likely be the butt of gossip, or worse, if neighbors found out about their trip to see the nurses. But Samuno shrugged, dauntless. She’s done getting pregnant.
“Shikena,” Samuno said, in the local Hausa language. Finished.
The day Yineth Layevska was finally able to change the name on her identity card, she felt reborn. When the 38-year-old indigenous transgender woman went out with her friends on the weekends in Panama City, dressed up in high heels, she looked forward to being asked by the security guard at the nightclub door to pull out her national ID card, with her new female name freshly printed on it. “I felt more free,” Layevska said.
But all of that changed with the pandemic. “Now,” the transgender activist said, “I’m afraid to go out.”
In mid-March, when the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases started to rise in Panama, a global hub for transportation, maritime trade, and banking, the country put in place a social distancing measure that no other country had tried before: segregating citizens based on sex.
Since then, women have been permitted to go out on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to perform essential activities, like going to the grocery store, pharmacy, or bank. Men can do so on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On their assigned days, people can only go out during designated two-hour periods based on whether the last digits of their national ID cards are odd or even. No one is permitted to go out on Sundays, and a special permit is needed to go out on undesignated days or hours, such as for a medical emergency.
The government envisioned the measure as “the easiest mechanism” to enforce social distancing because law enforcement could ostensibly identify men and women based on their physical appearance. But it offered no guidance about what the policy would mean for transgender people, putting the country’s transgender residents — numbering at least 1,200 according to transgender organizations like Panamanian Association of Trans People and Trans Men Panama, who stress the number is likely much higher — the vast majority of them transgender women, in a dangerous limbo.
The Americas, the most dangerous for transgender people
The Americas are the most dangerous continents for transgender people, accounting for 86 percent of the world’s murders of transgender and gender-diverse people between 2008 and 2019, led by Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, as documented by the Trans Murder Monitoring project. In Latin America, Panama is among the least progressive on transgender rights. Transgender people can’t donate blood or legally change their sex without undergoing sex reassignment surgery, and same-sex marriage is illegal.
The sex-based measures have sparked broad criticism among LGBTQ, human rights, and women’s organizations inside Panama and abroad, which saw the rule as discriminatory and further demeaning an already marginalized social group. Penalties for violating Panama’s sex-based restrictions, which remain in effect, are high. The police have reportedly detained transgender people for hours, forcing them to pay fines of $50 or more. (The average salary in the country is $789.) Police agents and security guards have subjected transgender people to violence and threats. Between April 1 and July 17, two Panamanian transgender organizations identified at least 28 complaints of discrimination against transgender people, nearly two-thirds of whom were transgender women.
No matter what day she goes out, Layevska says she is terrified. If she leaves her house on a day assigned to women—along with thousands of other women with whom she identifies—security guards at the supermarket or bank often don’t let her in. Though her ID card shows her new female name, it still displays an “M” for male. She is not a woman, the security guards tell her, with a clear order: Come back on a day assigned for men. “That makes me feel so helpless, so angry,” Layevska said. Her elderly parents are at higher risk for COVID-19, so she does the shopping for the family. “I’m not going out for fun,” she said. “It’s about buying essentials.”
If she goes out on a day assigned to men, Layevska, with her cascade of black hair and skinny jeans, says she faces constant harassment. Men mock her and catcall. Guards block her from entering stores.
By the end of May, the country had just over 11,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Then, beginning June 1, the government started loosening restrictions, including the sex-based social distancing measure, to enable some business sectors to resume trade operations and to jump-start economic activity. (Roughly half of all goods transported by sea between Northeast Asia and the East Coast of the United States pass through the Panama Canal, which remained open during the shutdown but at reduced capacity.)
“When you talk about gender, it’s a gray area.”Arturo Rebollón, epidemiologist
By June 9, confirmed cases had surged to more than 17,000. The country went back into lockdown and reimposed its sex-based social distancing policy, among other measures, to prevent transmission, but it was too late. The brief reopening allowed the virus to spread, especially in poor, crowded urban areas, and adherence to the social distancing rules has lagged ever since. Panama is now one of the world’s worst coronavirus hot spots based on weekly cases per capita, alongside Brazil, Peru, and Bahrain.
According to the Panamanian epidemiologist Arturo Rebollón, the sex-based restrictions helped curb the spread of COVID-19 early on because they were a relatively straightforward way of enforcing social distancing, but there was no scientific reason to use biological sex as the basis for it. Other visual cues, he added, such as a certain colored sticker on people’s cars or colored clothing, could have worked just as well while also mitigating the harm to the country’s transgender residents.
“When you talk about gender, it’s a gray area,” he said. Peru and Colombia only use odd or even ID card digits to restrict people’s movements. The two South American countries briefly tried sex-based social distancing, but they rolled the policies back after public backlash to police harassment and overcrowding in supermarkets on days assigned to women.
Venus Tejada, the director of the Panamanian Association of Trans People and a transgender woman herself, doesn’t oppose the sex-based social distancing measures implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19. But she believes the government should state unequivocally that transgender people are allowed to go out on days that correspond to their gender identity. Her phone rings at all hours with queries from transgender women who say they don’t have any food left or that they have been evicted, problems that the social distancing policy has only exacerbated because transgender people don’t feel safe going out or seeking help. Some transgender people, she said, haven’t left their homes for weeks or have had to interrupt hormone or antiretroviral treatments because they can’t access essential medication. (15 percent of transgender women in Panama live with HIV.)
“Now with the pandemic, we don’t exist,” Tejada said on a video call from her mother’s home. COVID-19 lockdowns forced Tejada to close her beauty salon—her main source of income—and move back with her mother because she couldn’t afford to live on her own.
At first, Tejada thought the controversial measure could open up an opportunity to broaden people’s understanding of gender. Many people in Panama and elsewhere aren’t aware of the difference between sex, the biological attributes that distinguish men from women, and gender, socially constructed roles and expectations of men and women that influence an individual’s concept of themselves. The Panamanian Association of Trans People reached out to the government and to private security companies to offer training on issues related to transgender rights. So far, they have been able to train security guards in several supermarket chains across the country. But the police have been unresponsive, according to the organization. “They don’t know how to deal with us,” Tejada said.
It took over three months for the government to publicly acknowledge the impact of the social distancing policy on transgender people. On July 16, the Ministry of Health finally issued a statement rejecting all types of “xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, or discrimination.” Even still, people must only go out on days corresponding to their biological sex. After months of public pressure and activism, Tejada says she is “embarrassed” by the government response.
In the last two weeks, transgender organizations have noticed an increase in abuse complaints. And as the coronavirus crisis continues and economic insecurity surges, transgender women are growing more desperate. Many are turning back to the streets and selling sex to get by, Tejada said, estimating that some 90 percent of transgender women in Panama rely on sex work. Transgender leaders say these women are more exposed to police abuse and arrests, which they link to the uptick in complaints. The Panamanian Association of Trans People is ramping up its response, providing transgender women with condoms, lubricant, HIV tests, face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
Despite the uptick in reported abuse complaints and the devastating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, Layevska says that there has been a silver lining. “It has made us more visible as a collective,” she said.
SÃO PAULO — “I feel like I’m going to die.”
It was just after midnight on April 16, and Vanessa Pereira was chatting with one of her best friends, Jaci Diniz, on WhatsApp. Three days earlier, a doctor had told the 27-year-old psychology student that her exhaustion and shortness of breath were symptoms of COVID-19.
She was tested and sent home with a note to bring to her bosses at the call center where she worked in the northern São Paulo neighborhood of Santana. She was employed by Atento, a telemarketing company that operates in Latin America and is owned by Boston-based private investment firm Bain Capital, which is in talks to sell its equity stake in the company. Atento is present in 13 countries, but the majority of its work is done in Brazil, where it employs some 70,000 people and has 33 of its 48 call centers.
Pereira started working there in 2013, first as an operator and later training new staff in a position known internally as a multiplier. Her commute was long—two hours each way by subway and bus—and when the coronavirus pandemic first hit Brazil, she was still working six days a week. Her heart murmur—a condition, according to a representative from a public-relations firm hired by Atento, Pereira didn’t tell them about—put her at a high risk of infection, as did obesity, a condition impossible to hide.
The company had allowed some of her colleagues to work from home because of pregnancy, old age, and other medical conditions, but Pereira’s husband said she continued to work at the five-story building at least two times a week through the beginning of April.
According to Atento, Pereira was slated to work from home after completing her shift at the office on April 8. But that same day, she sent a former colleague a work schedule showing her shifts through the end of April, which Pereira said she was being made to work from the office.
The day before she was set to return for her scheduled shift on the 14th, she found out she might be infected. “I’m afraid,” she wrote to Diniz, who also used to work for Atento. “Really. I’ve never felt so weak. If something happens, I won’t be able to tell you. I love you.”
Eleven days later, she was gone.
High-stress and poor working conditions
More than 70 percent of Brazil’s call center employees are women. Many are single mothers or women who have been out of the job market in order to take care of children and other tasks related to the family and home. The jobs they take on are high-stress, and the working conditions are often poor. It’s not uncommon for these women to work six hours a day for six or seven days a week in extremely tight quarters, with cameras monitoring their every move, limited bathroom breaks, and salaries that rarely break Brazil’s minimum wage of roughly $200 a month.
Now that the coronavirus has swept Brazil—ranked second behind only the United States in both confirmed cases and deaths, with July 16 tallies at 2,012,151 and 76,688, respectively—these women face extreme risk as they weigh the consequences of staying in a job that could endanger their lives or walking away from the salary they need to keep their families afloat.
According to the São Paulo Union of Telemarketing, Direct Marketing, and Related Companies (Sintelmark), Brazil’s call center industry brought in 43.4 billion reais (currently $8.1 billion) in revenue in 2014; if it were a city, it would have had the sixth-highest gross domestic product among Brazilian municipalities at the time. Hiring in the previous 10 years increased 244 percent, leading to 1.6 million direct jobs and putting 12 billion reais ($2.25 billion) into circulation. The union has also noted that income earned by call center workers is, on average, equal to 70 percent increase in their families’ total income.
Call centers are notorious for having their employees work in close quarters—sometimes at four to a desk and thousands per floor—in offices with closed doors and windows that don’t open. They spend their shifts trying to speak above the din of ringing phones and colleagues’ conversations, creating the perfect storm for the spread of the coronavirus, which is easily transmitted through spittle, especially in enclosed and highly populated spaces.
On March 20, an updated national decree was issued adding work done at call centers to the list of the country’s essential services, defined by Brazil’s federal government as services and activities that, if not carried out, “endanger the survival, health or safety of the population.”
Atento employees swiftly filed a complaint with the Telecommunication Companies Workers’ Union (SINTETEL). According to the employees, no preventative measures had been taken by the company to protect them from the spread of the coronavirus. They said they continued to work at full capacity, without masks, hand sanitizer, or any information about how to keep themselves safe during the pandemic.
“When they declared call centers an essential service I was really scared.”
Pereira worked with the bank Cetelem, one of Atento’s more than 400 clients on a list that includes U.S.-based companies Whirlpool, Motorola, and Riot Games, which announced its partnership with the call center company in May. Brazil’s call center industry started to go global around 2005, when companies from the United States and other developed countries saw an opportunity to lower wages and increase profits. While the shift meant bigger business for Brazil’s managerial class, much of the predominantly female workforce remained mired in poverty.
“When they declared call centers an essential service I was really scared,” said one 19-year-old woman who works as a phone operator at Atento and asked that her name not be revealed, for fear of losing her job. She lives with her sister, who has a heart condition, and three young nephews, one of whom suffers from asthma. She said her $200 monthly salary supports her entire household.
The representative hired by Atento said the company is operating in compliance with the federal decree and now has its call centers working at half capacity, with 30,000 of its employees either sent home because they are at high risk of infection or working from home. The company also said it started implementing “rigorous preventative measures” in mid-March, and began taking employees’ temperatures on April 13 and handing out masks on April 29. In June, the representative said, it installed 1,800 acrylic dividers in its break rooms.
According to vice president of SINTETEL Mauro Cava de Britto, Atento, like other telemarketing companies the union has been pushing to better protect employees from possible infection, hasn’t been transparent in responding to requests for information about how the company is addressing employee health and safety.
Employees at Almaviva do Brasil, another company that operates call centers across the country, went on strike at the end of March, protesting outside one of its locations in downtown São Paulo.
One woman who was laid off from Almaviva do Brasil’s office in Itu because of the pandemic, and who did not want to be identified because she is hoping to get her job back, said that health inspectors visited the company that same month after receiving complaints there was no soap or hand sanitizer in the building. The next day, the products were made available, but the woman said they were watered down so they would last longer.
Another former employee, an 18-year old woman who quit working for the company in April because she feared for her health, but who did not wish to be identified for fear of being blackballed from telemarketing jobs, confirmed the lack of supplies and added that, although Almaviva do Brasil started implementing social distancing measures and stopped scheduling shifts on Sundays, those measures didn’t extend to Saturdays. “At lunch, it was really crowded and all the chairs were still one next to the other,” she said. “Nobody wore masks yet because they weren’t mandatory and all the doors were closed.” She said one attempt was made to have employees work from home, but they were called back into the office after the equipment they took home didn’t work.
Almaviva do Brasil declined requests for an interview, but said in a statement that it has “spared no steps to guarantee the safety of its employees during this moment of the COVID-19-related pandemic and rigorously follows the guidelines of the Brazilian Teleservices Association (ABT), the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO).”
She wouldn’t be coming back to work
Pereira’s COVID-19 test came back positive on April 26. The next day, after spending one week at a field hospital, she died.
Many of her friends and colleagues found out about her death on social media. Some only came to know what happened days later, when their bosses at Atento told them she wouldn’t be coming back to work.
But the rest of the employees would.
Pereira hadn’t been to the office since April 8, and Atento didn’t think it was necessary to send the others home. The government had deemed call centers essential. Nothing could stop their work. Not even death.
On Nov. 25, 2019, while thousands of women took to the streets of Mexico City to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Abril Pérez was shot to death by a hitman. The 48-year-old executive of a Mexican online retail store and mother of three was on her way to the airport to return home to Monterrey after a custody hearing. She’d recently divorced Juan Carlos García, a former Amazon Mexico CEO and the father of her children, whom she had accused of attempted murder 11 months prior for allegedly creeping into her home in the middle of the night and beating her with a baseball bat. The gunman and his driver were arrested in March, but García, the suspected mastermind behind Pérez’s death, has reportedly fled to the United States.
What remains an open question is what role the United States played in the murder itself. As coronavirus-related lockdowns worsen the threat of domestic violence for women around the world, women in Mexico face an additional danger: the flood of American guns into the country. “The U.S. talks about how drugs and migrants cross the border from Mexico,” said Maura Roldán, a researcher on gun violence from Mexico City. “But it hasn’t recognized its role in the rise in violence in Mexico. It doesn’t mention the fact that it’s providing the guns.”
While it’s impossible to know the provenance of the murder weapon in Pérez’s case—Mexican homicide databases do not include this information—what is certain is that a steady stream, or torrent, of American firearms since the early 2000s has contributed to a spike in gun-related deaths in Mexico, in turn transforming and exacerbating gender violence. Seventy percent of guns recovered as part of a criminal investigation in Mexico are traced back to the United States, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
That influx of guns has taken a toll on women’s safety. Ten women were killed each day in 2018, according to Mexico’s national statistics agency. Roldán and a handful of other researchers and activists, almost all women, point to another statistic: In 2018, six in 10 of those women were fatally shot.
“The proliferation of guns, the huge presence of guns, including in homes, is changing the nature of domestic violence,” said Ana Pecova, the director of the human rights organization Equis. “In the past, a fight would descend into punches. Now, a gun gets pulled out, and a woman ends up dead.”
Gender violence becomes more lethal
Not only has gender violence become more lethal, but it has also spilled out of homes and into the streets. Since 2009, more women have been killed in public spaces than in domestic settings, according to a 2015 report by Data Civica. While fewer women than men die of gun violence, the rates at which women are dying from firearms are growing faster: Between 2007 and 2018, gun violence rates for women rose 357 percent (compared to 311 percent for men), and 500 percent in public spaces (347 percent for men), according to Estefanía Vela Barba, one of the authors of the Data Civica report who continues to research the link between gun violence and femicide. Gun-fueled gender violence in public spaces is multifaceted. It can be outsourced intimate partner violence, as is suspected in Pérez’s case. Or it can be cartel messaging.
The scale of violence in Mexico, which abets both forms of public gender violence, comes down to the country’s drug war and the militarization of public security, local experts and activists said. Then-President Felipe Calderón’s mission to uproot organized crime in Mexico has, since its start in 2006, spectacularly failed, fracturing and multiplying cartels, and leading to soaring levels of violence, the most prominent evidence of which is the disappearance of some 61,000 people. While the violence can be blind to gender—stray bullets are indiscriminate—it is often targeted. There are clues in the swirl of statistics: rape, mutilations such as cut off breasts, or shots to the genital region all point to violence against women specifically. But many bodies are hidden or destroyed, or mistabulated. While government registries counted 1,012 femicides last year, activists say the number is likely much higher.
The data in Mexico correlates neatly with a short history of increasingly relaxed gun control laws in the United States and the steady growth of both a legal and illegal firearm trade. The 2004 expiration of the assault weapon ban in the United States ramped up the production and sale of military-grade weapons. By the time Mexico declared its drug war two years later, American manufacturers were ready to pump these high-grade weapons into Mexican military arsenals. Organized crime responded by ratcheting up its own caches, buying more weapons through its own channels: third-party straw purchases; buying on the extensive black market, which lately consists of bringing gun parts in piecemeal fashion across the border and assembling them in Mexico; and even obtaining weapons directly from Mexican security forces. Some 20,000 firearms were reported lost or stolen from state and federal police between 2006 and 2017.
“The more guns there are, the more domestic violence.”Eugenio Weigend Vargas, Center for American Progress
Citizens, caught in the middle of a bloody turf war, armed themselves too. Though Mexico boasts some of the world’s strictest gun control laws, 16.8 million firearms were estimated to be in civilian hands in 2017, according to the Small Arms Survey. Only a small fraction of these were registered. Due to the vast illegal trade, it’s impossible to know exactly how many American guns are sold into Mexico. But the numbers are large enough that Mexican authorities are concerned—and even more so recently.
A slump in domestic sales since 2017 has further turned U.S. gun manufacturers’ attention toward Mexico. In a bid to support the industry, the Trump administration recently moved firearm export oversight from the State Department to the Commerce Department, in what John Lindsay-Poland, the director of Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico, said is designed to loosen oversight and increase the number of firearm exports. “For the U.S., I contend that the assault weapons ban is a foreign-policy issue,” said Lindsay-Poland. “U.S.-sourced assault weapons are used in many more crimes in Mexico than in the U.S.”
In addition to reinstating the assault weapons ban, Eugenio Weigend Vargas, the associate director for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress think tank, said the United States should implement universal background checks and ensure stricter regulation of American gun stores. “The measures we advocate for won’t just reduce violence in the U.S., but will also reduce gun traffic to Mexico and Central America,” Vargas said. “The more guns there are, the more domestic violence.”
It was February when the first globally coordinated conversation happened about human trafficking during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Staffers at the Global Protection Cluster—the independent network of over 1,000 international nongovernmental organizations, headed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and focused on supporting vulnerable groups in times of crisis—recall one especially intense gathering, underpinned by a growing sense of concern; the feeling that this was a problem for which the entire humanitarian sector was unprepared. “We were like, wow, this is a different area,” said Samantha McCormack, the Global Protection Cluster’s legal specialist on trafficking in persons. “When we talk about trafficking in times of crisis, usually we’re thinking about a conflict situation or a natural disaster. This was completely new.”
For the network’s anti-trafficking task team, the year had begun with a sense of momentum and energy: William Chemaly, the newly appointed Global Protection Cluster coordinator, had told member organizations that addressing trafficking in crisis zones was critical, and the team was in the process of developing formal guidance on how their peers could incorporate trafficking into their on-the-ground response to emergencies such as earthquakes and typhoons. McCormack expected to spend the year explaining what trafficking prevention could involve in 32 countries where there were a significant number of internally displaced persons, who are at particular risk of exploitation.
For anyone familiar with the mechanisms and methods that drive trafficking, it’s obvious why rates of exploitation spike during international crises. Whether it takes the form of recruiting, transporting, or harboring individuals through the use of force, coercion, or fraud (or all of the above), trafficking is predatory behavior, and people who are vulnerable—such as child brides or refugees—are invariably the ones most at risk. But in times of emergency—be it a flood, a drought, or a famine, a declaration of war or a recession—support structures shift and collapse. Communities that were once strong become suddenly weak as people grapple with losing their families, their homes, and their jobs. For traffickers around the world, each disaster signals a sudden availability of potential prey.
But even with the Global Protection Cluster’s increasing focus on trafficking prevention in times of emergency, few in the humanitarian sector appear to have anticipated the domino effect of exploitation that top-level experts assert the coronavirus has already kicked off—and that trafficking specialists are now scrambling to prevent across the globe. In interviews with a dozen members of the anti-trafficking community, each questioned whether NGOs on the front lines of the pandemic would be unable to handle an increase in trafficking—largely because the majority of them had neglected the issue until now.
Despite calls to approach trafficking prevention as a “life-saving activity” for first responders to implement in the initial stages of emergency response, numerous leading humanitarian organizations have no specialized anti-trafficking training available for their staff members. Others are still discussing and debating their strategies—months into the pandemic and at a time when international lockdowns mean an estimated 75 percent of humanitarian operations are temporarily on pause. Meanwhile, funding cuts may be exacerbating the very thing that anti-trafficking actors are working to confront: Earlier this month, the World Food Program was forced to slash its food distribution programs by up to 50 percent in trafficking hot spots including conflict-stricken Yemen and refugee camps in Uganda, positioning already socially and economically vulnerable communities on even shakier ground.
“I’m already hearing that victims are being forced to participate in even riskier activities to earn money for traffickers, that they’re facing higher levels of violence, and also that they’re in more debt [to their traffickers] every day,” said Tatiana Kotlyarenko, an advisor on anti-trafficking issues for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “We need to make sure that those who are still in situations of trafficking are detected and removed, and we need to make sure that survivors of trafficking have access to food, to shelter, and to medical assistance at the most basic level, and access to justice and access to information.”
Restrictions of movement won’t stop trafficking
Restrictions on movement during the coronavirus pandemic won’t stop trafficking. Millions of people are still in captivity, and it’s a common misconception that trafficking must involve crossing international borders.
Catherine Worsnop, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, began researching the nexus of trafficking and outbreaks of infectious disease in 2017, after stumbling upon a UNICEF blog post about the need to develop the humanitarian response to trafficking in emergencies. Worsnop said she could immediately see parallels between outbreaks and natural disasters: Both amplify existing vulnerabilities while also endangering others who might not have previously been at risk. “You have an increase in economic inequality, stigma, separation from family, the death of family members,” she said, “all of which are well established risk factors for trafficking, and all of which are also the results of both major and localized outbreaks.” The influx of UN peacekeepers (as seen during local and regional outbreaks such as yellow fever in Brazil and Lassa fever in Nigeria) poses an additional risk, she added.
By 2019, Worsnop had proved her hypothesis correct: Countries that had experienced outbreaks were likely to see an increase in trafficking outflows after the spread of infection. Using information gathered by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime and a separate dataset called the Human Trafficking Indicators, Worsnop was able to analyze the years 1996-2003 and 2000 – 2011 respectively. But she was unable to examine the impact of more recent outbreaks, such as Ebola in 2014, or Zika in 2016, because the necessary data was no longer being collected. “Trafficking data is unreliable, and so is outbreak data,” she said. “But I did what I could with the data that I had.”
Worsnop may not have been able to include Ebola in her research, but she said there are other indicators that would suggest an increase in exploitation in affected regions. Within two and a half years of the first diagnosis of Ebola in 2014, more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone had died after contracting the virus, and over 16,000 children had lost one or both of their parents. Child sexual exploitation soared: the United Nations Development Program reported that teenage pregnancy increased by 65 percent during the outbreak in Sierra Leone, while research by Plan International, World Vision and Save The Children revealed 10 percent of young people knew of girls who were being forced into prostitution following the loss of a family member. The U.S. Department of State also acknowledged in its 2016 Trafficking In Persons Report that governmental anti-trafficking activities were on pause in Ebola-affected countries—leaving thousands of people at risk.
Yet Worsnop’s research has until now been largely overlooked by the humanitarian sector. “We tried to talk a bit about Ebola last year, but we struggled to get any traction,” said Andria Kenney, a specialist in counter-trafficking in humanitarian settings with the International Organization for Migration. “So it just got dropped there. But once this coronavirus really got rolling, questions have been coming in and a lot of us have been looking at it again, trying to find some kind of comparison. I kind of wish we had looked at it before.” Over email, Kenney later confirmed that the reason the organization hadn’t previously explored the link between outbreaks and trafficking in more depth wasn’t because of a lack of interest, “but because health actors who could answer to the Ebola context were simply very busy.”
Redirected resources for COVID-19
Now, despite reports of trafficking during the pandemic, governments are redirecting resources away from counter-trafficking activities—placing added pressure on the humanitarian sector to step up. In March, the Jordanian anti-trafficking police reached out to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to ask for a supply of basic personal protective equipment. “And that’s not what we would usually do,” said Ilias Chatzis, the chief of the office’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling section—a department normally focused on helping countries to draft and enforce laws and anti-trafficking policy. “But in times of crisis we have to adapt. So we tried to find the funds to support them with gloves and masks so that they’re able to continue their work.” He’d like to see more departments taking the same approach. “There’s a definite need for greater cooperation in the field,” he said.
What counts as an anti-trafficking activity in a global crisis is another point of debate, even among those advocating for the same cause. On March 31, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women—a Bangkok-based network of over 80 international NGOs—published a blog post acknowledging that although the coronavirus pandemic will certainly trigger an increase in exploitation, it felt “disingenuous to be concerned with trafficking right now.” There are broader socio economic issues that the humanitarian community more urgently needs to address, the post argued, such as unemployment and hunger.
“Our organization sees trafficking as a symptom, not as a disease itself,” clarified Borislav Gerasimov, communications and advocacy coordinator for the alliance and the author of the post. “It’s what happens when people don’t have livelihoods, don’t have social support, cannot afford health care, cannot afford child care. Even in normal circumstances we would say we need to address the factors that make people vulnerable to trafficking. This pandemic has made these things very obvious.”
Rather than focus on rescue operations and convicting traffickers during the outbreak of the coronavirus, the alliance is pushing for its members to provide essential services to vulnerable communities and to lobby governments for universal health care and unemployment support.
Speaking over the phone from the Netherlands, Evelien Holsken rejected the idea that humanitarian organizations should deprioritize anti-trafficking work during the pandemic. A co-founder of Free a Girl, a Dutch nonprofit committed to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children in South Asia, Holsken said that since the Indian government announced its countrywide lockdown on March 24, she’s been hearing anecdotal reports of child sex trafficking and abuse every day. “Children are being exploited on a day-to-day basis, and the facilities and support that are available to them are limited as it is,” she said. Those on the front lines of the outbreak have a duty to find ways of responding to both hunger and trafficking, she said—even when access is limited and funding is tight.
What would an effective anti-trafficking response look like?
What an effective anti-trafficking response would look like in a crisis has long been the source of unnecessary confusion across the humanitarian sector, said McCormack, the Global Protection Cluster’s legal specialist. It doesn’t necessarily mean deflecting attention away from other pressing issues. Nor does it have to involve developing entirely new projects, each with their own set of targets, budgetary requirements, and demands. It’s often a matter of training first responders to recognize incidents of trafficking when they arise, ensuring victims of exploitation receive specially targeted support.
“One of my worries is that often what gets reported as a gender-based violence issue is actually a trafficking issue,” McCormack said. “People need to know what trafficking is—both to identify it, and to work on addressing it in a holistic way.”
A positive sign came earlier this month, when a group of local NGOs in Nigeria signed on for a series of virtual workshops on anti-trafficking. Meanwhile, a team of trafficking experts from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and U.N. Women are also preparing a survey to distribute in 20 languages across survivor networks before the end of April. The hope is that they’ll be able to start drafting informed national protocols on how to respond to trafficking during the pandemic within four to six weeks.
Still, Worsnop doesn’t understand why so many large-scale organizations failed to train their staff members on how to identify victims of trafficking before the pandemic. It may not be possible to predict exactly when an outbreak such as the coronavirus will strike, but it’s not the first time a crisis has seen family structures collapse and left vulnerable groups at risk of exploitation. “It concerns me that this trafficking risk is not being integrated in any systematic way to humanitarian response plans right now,” she said. “It seems like a missed opportunity.”
McCormack is also saddened by the current situation. The year had begun with such promise, she said. But in frantic conditions where people are struggling to access food and water, it’s much harder to persuade NGOs to make space to combat trafficking too—even though it can also be a matter of life or death. “It’s really critical that organizations think about trafficking when they’re responding to all crises,” she said. “Obviously coronavirus is an enormous challenge for the entire global community, but trafficking is such a big issue. We need to do a lot more.”