Boston Center for Refugee Health
&  Human Rights Newsletter
In This Issue (Click on Title)
International Women's Day: The Chance to Look Beyond Ourselves
Asylum Case Reversal Confirms FGM as Persecution
Defining Rape as a Weapon of War
Worker's Rights are Women's Rights
Obama Scores Early with Two Major Women's Rights Victories
Remembering Alison Des Forges
Our Mission
The Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights is committed to improving the health and quality of life of refugees and torture survivors through a holistic model of health care provision coordinated with legal aid and social services, training, advocacy, and research.  
Special thanks  to the Health and Human Rights Caucus at Boston University's School of Public Health for helping to make this launch possible. 
Thank you to everyone who baked goods or purchased baked goods at our bake sale. 
Great things can be accomplished with the efforts of a few dedicated people. 
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Top MARCH 2009
We are pleased to present our first newsletter in observance of International Women's Day!  When we think of women's rights, we often relegate them to a concern of the female portion of the world's population. In fact, women's rights are human rights. Gender issues guide and determine the work we do as health professionals and as international human rights advocates. The Boston Center for Human Rights and Refugee Health's mission focuses on providing comprehensive health care for refugees and survivors of torture and related trauma, coordinated with legal aid and social services. Our clients come from various backgrounds, though an overwhelming majority have arrived from areas of political turmoil and conflict.  Many faced persecution in their countries of origin for their social and political activism, and in fact, some were targeted for their work advocating for gender equality.  Also, out of the 604 BCRHHR clients seen in 2008, the majority (62%) were women.  In order to understand the needs of our clients and their families, we keep in mind their life histories and the challenges they face today.  Inevitably, we are reminded of the importance of gender issues in our work to care for this population.  Unfortunately, gender issues are not always included in refugee and international human rights policy development and implementation. As we celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, let us face the challenges of the future and rededicate ourselves to working towards human rights for all people, regardless of race, creed, class, orientation, or gender.
 International Women's Day:  The Chance to Look Beyond Ourselves

If you were to visit Cameroon on March 8th, these are some of the banner slogans you might see women carrying as they proudly parade through the streets, wearing the special International Women's Day uniform.  This day holds profound meaning for Cameroon's women and for women from many other countries served by the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights (BCRHHR). For many Cameroonian women, this is the one day of the year they do not work and they can tell the men in their lives to cook, clean, and care for the family, as they do every other day of the year.  They celebrate this day in various ways. For instance, many cultural groups hold singing, dancing, and cooking competitions. When asked, many Cameroonian women at our Center say confidently that, "women are very important in society and can do what the men do."
Interestingly, in the United States, where Women's Day was first observed in 1909, the day has lost much of its significance.  (1)  Like Cameroon today, the backdrop for the first Women's Day was a period of discord and social transformation, including advances in the rights of women.  Across the nation, women's suffrage associations were working tirelessly to advocate for women's enfranchisement. By 1909, women had been granted the right to vote in three states: Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. Thirteen additional states adopted this law by 1918. (2)  In 1913, March 8th was designated as International Women's Day and is now recognized as a national holiday in fifteen countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
While it is generally recognized in the United States that inequalities between men and women continue to exist, taking for instance the proverbial glass ceiling, the fact that Women's Day barely receives a nod of recognition would seem to indicate apathy, or a general consensus that the battle has been won. The statistics demonstrating high rates of domestic violence, gender-based disparities in pay, and inaccessibility of family planning options within the U.S. testify to the fact that women's rights are still very much in contest today. Furthermore, true awareness of the challenges faced by women throughout the world makes apathy shamefully inappropriate.  
Many women served by the Center originate from countries where they are too often regarded as the property of their husbands or other male heads of households.  Some women and their daughters have already undergone female genital mutilation, or are at risk of having it performed should they return to their countries of origin. Countless others have been infected with HIV because they can not refuse sex with their husbands, nor can they insist on the use of condoms. Women in many countries continue to fight for their right to lead their own lives even as they support their families by working menial jobs and are treated as property by their husbands and fathers.  It does not require much investigation to unearth the appalling human rights violations that women endure each and every day.  As we acknowledge that we have an incredibly long journey towards achieving women's rights in many of these countries as well as our own, we can see the women of BCRHHR as survivors, beautiful and courageous, with eyes full of conviction and hope.  They serve as a powerful reminder that their struggle is our struggle.  

~Erica Hastings, MS

(1) International Women's Day 2009, March 5th 2009, 
(2)Women's Rights Movement in the U.S.,  
Asylum Case Reversal Confirms FGM as Persecution
On September 22, 2008, staff at BCRHHR shared in an important victory for women's rights. On this date, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey issued a rare reversal of the Board of Immigration Appeals case of Alima Traore, a 28-year-old woman from Mali. Ms. Traore, who was forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) as a child in Mali, was denied asylum based on the reasoning that FGM is persecution that cannot be repeated, and therefore cannot be used as grounds for asylum in the U.S. Not only was this ruling inconsistent with past asylum cases involving claims of persecution in the form of FGM, but according to Attorney General Mukasey, the reasoning of the Board in the Traore case was essentially "flawed."
The Board likened FGM to losing a limb, claiming that while it does present "enduring harm," it is not a strong enough reason to grant asylum, because, in effect, it cannot be lost again. Yet, as millions of women from parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East know, FGM is not necessarily a singular event, and is often accompanied by further gender-based persecution.
Experts from across the country advocated for Mukasey to overturn the Traore ruling. Amongst those who submitted an amicus brief to the court was BCRHHR staff member Dr. Kelley Saia, in collaboration with Dr. Michael Grodin, Dr. Sondra Crosby, and George Annas. The brief echoed concerns that FGM presents multiple future gynecological and psychological health problems. Ms. Traore also expressed fear that if she returned to Mali, her father would force her into an arranged marriage with a cousin, and that any future daughters she might have would be subject to the trauma of FGM.
With Mukasey's reversal, a critical precedent is again set - a precedent that upholds women's rights as human rights in the context of seeking refuge from the consequences of FGM.  Center staff feel privileged to have played a role in the advancement of women's rights on this front.  
~Megan Halmo, Administrative Coordinator
Boston University School of Public Health 
Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights
Defining Rape as a Weapon of War
Rape is the most underreported and the least prosecuted crime in the Western world. It is generally regarded as a crime perpetrated by an individual against another individual, usually a woman or female child.
However, in many of our patients' countries of origin, including Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Liberia, Somalia, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Chechnya, the former Yugoslavia, and scores of other countries, rape has been, and is, deliberately used as a tactic to destabilize whole societies. Rape is often used as a weapon of war and is considered a war crime under Article 4 of the Geneva Conventions. (1)
In addition to the mental and physical trauma caused by the rape itself, in countries as far apart as Chechnya and Rwanda, women who have been raped are often shunned by their families and communities. Single women may not be marriageable, married women may be divorced by their husbands, women are at risk of being infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, women may bear the children of their rapists, and some women feel that suicide is their only option after the rape has occurred.
The United Nations Security Council has voted unanimously to classify rape as a weapon of war. The UN resolution describes sexual violence "as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group." It further states that such violence "can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of international peace and security." (2)
A former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in eastern Congo said that rape is an effective weapon because total communities are destroyed. (3) Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that the world now recognizes that sexual violence profoundly affects not only the health and safety of women, but the economic and social stability of their nations. (4) David Scheffer, former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, states categorically that he believes mass rapes, such as those committed in Darfur and Rwanda, constitute genocide.
 In 2008, a reporter for CBS visited a small hospital in Congo run by a single doctor, Dr. Mukwege, who performs surgery on women who have been so mutilated by rapes that they can no longer control their bodily functions.  His patients have often had objects inserted into their vaginas such as broken bottles and even bayonets. Some women have even been shot in their vaginas. Dr. Mukwege says "This is a show of's done to destroy the person. Sex is being used to commit evil... then people flee, they can't get help, they become refugees, they become malnourished and it's disease that finishes them off."
At the Center, we see many survivors of rape who tell us, usually very reluctantly, about their experiences of sexual violence. They always feel intense shame but also anger that the perpetrators are never punished and go on to attack other women with impunity.
We see women who have been physically damaged by objects, as described by Dr. Mukwege, who will sometimes refuse gynecological examinations because they cannot face explaining what happened to them and, in doing so, reliving the horror of it.
An African woman, who was raped by a high level army officer while working as an investigator of rapes against her country women, gave a compelling description of the meaning of these acts. She said that in her culture rape is viewed as a curse: women are rejected by society and often abandoned by their husbands; the woman is made to feel worthless, as though she were dead; she is no longer considered to be a woman and people do not think her worthy of consideration as a person; she will be shamed and rejected while her rapist will go unpunished. This woman also told us that many women and girls commit suicide because they cannot live under such circumstances.
She was working secretly under the auspices of a women's group to document the rapes that occurred in her country but was forced to leave under threat of death if she continued her work.
We know these brutal crimes are happening and it is incumbent upon all of us to do whatever we can to draw attention to this situation. As direct care providers we can help women to heal in safe environments; as health care workers of any type we can spread the word; as human beings we can petition our government and international agencies to work on ending these atrocities. 
~Charlotte Herrmann, LICSW
Coordinator of Social Work, BCRHHR
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(1) Mollmann, M. Women's Rights Division Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch, 12/27/08
(2) report, 6/20/08
(3) Ibid
(4) Ibid
(5) Scheffer, D. "Rape as Genocide in Darfur", Los Angeles Times , 11/13/08
(6) Cooper, A.  War against Women, 60 minutes, CBS News, 1/11/09
Worker's Rights are Women's Rights

International Women's Day is a day to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women worldwide. The women's movement has made huge strides in fighting for women's right to equal opportunity and pay in the workforce. This Women's Day, let us honor Lilly Ledbetter. The first bill that President Barack Obama signed into law was named after this remarkable woman. Lilly fought for 10 years to be paid equal wages as her male co-workers at Goodyear...and won! The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act allows victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint within 180 days from their last paycheck (rather than 180 days from the day of their first unfair paycheck). (1)

Many people do not realize that employment is a human right, just like food and water. The Declaration of Human Rights states that: 
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment; everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work; everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection; and everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
These human rights are WOMEN's rights and we celebrate women in the workplace through this newsletter!
Here at the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights, we provide Vocational Rehabilitation services to help refugees, asylees and asylum seekers choose, get and keep gainful employment while addressing the difficulties involved in adjusting to a new environment and vocational focus.  Many people using Vocational Rehabilitation services are also simultaneously dealing with the psychological and physical challenges resulting from torture or trauma. We also help people with the process of obtaining an Employment Authorization Document (work permit). In 2008, 91 women used Vocational Rehabilitation services at BCRHHR, ranging in age from 21 to 66 years old and came from 26 countries of origin.
In our current economic climate, in which the unemployment rate has reached 7.6% as of January 2009  it is that much more important for women to fight for their right to fair and equal employment.(2) The Refugee Center has partnered with two remarkable organizations that help women to reach their employment goals. Dress for Success Boston ( provides one interview appropriate suit to women who have a scheduled interview and then provide more work attire after she has been hired. Crittenton Women's Union has a phenomenal training program called the Woman to Woman program ( It is a free twelve week training program for women who have their GED or High School Diploma and would like to get a job or go back to school. Crittenton also has a listing of "hot jobs" for women in today's industry (
~Corey Simon, MA
Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist, BCRHHR 
For more information on Vocational Rehabilitation services at BCRHHR and affiliated agencies, please contact Corey Simon, Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist at (617) 414-4338 or   
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(1)Washington Post, "Obama Signs Lilly Ledbetter Act", January 29, 2009,(
(2) United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 20, 2009, (
Obama Scores Early with Two Major Women's Rights Victories
John McCain's effort to attract Hillary Clinton's female supporters by appointing Sarah Palin as his running mate was a resounding failure; indeed, it may have cost him the election. According to MSNBC exit polls of the November 4, 2008 election, 56 percent of female voters chose Obama, as well as a whopping 83 percent of the Democrats who had supported Hillary in the Primaries.(1) With all this pro-women energy Obama has garnered, the question begs asking whether Obama is living up to expectations. 
As one of his first acts in office, Obama rescinded the Mexico City policy, or the "global gag rule," as it's commonly called.(2) The global gag rule withholds federal taxpayer funds from international groups who perform abortions or even discuss abortion as an option. It was established by Reagan in 1984, rescinded by Clinton in 1992, and then re-established by George W. Bush in 2000, as one of his first acts of office. Fittingly, Obama revoked the policy on the 23rd of January, one day after the 36th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which made abortions legal in the United States.(3) During the last three Republican presidencies, while American women were able to exercise their long-fought-for right to be free from undue burden when choosing to have an abortion, women in developing countries were not even given the option of family planning, because of an American policy.
After revoking the global gag rule in his third day in office, Obama found another worthy cause for his presidential signature. He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act into law on the 29th of January.(4) Before the Lilly Ledbetter Act, civil rights legislation (as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court) required individuals who felt they had been discriminated against due to age, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or disability, to file a complaint under the law within 180 days of the original discrimination decision. This meant that if an employee discovered she was being paid thousands less than her male counterparts, but had been working at the company for more than six months, or was being held up by her company's internal complaint process, she could no longer sue for discrimination. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act declares each discriminatory salary payment-not just the original salary offer-to be discrimination, which effectively gives her a new 180-day window in which to seek a civil rights claim, each time she receives a paycheck.
Obama let an entire six days go by between his first two epic achievements for women. Granted, he was in the middle of working to pass a $787 billion dollar stimulus package, shutting down Guantanamo, instituting wage freezes for top-earning White House officials, limiting the power of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, and restoring transparency to the Freedom of Information Act. He might have been a little bit busy.
Next up on Obama's women-friendly agenda is limiting or eliminating Bush's "right of conscience" regulation instituted in December 2008. This "conscience" regulation withholds federal funds from healthcare organizations that do not allow their staff to deny medical care to patients for personal, moral, or religious reasons. An official at the Department of Health and Human Services said in a Washington post article: "[The 'right of conscience' regulation] is worded so vaguely that some have argued it could limit family-planning counseling and even potentially blood transfusions and end-of-life care."(5)
Things are certainly moving in the right direction. But before we can hold our heads high on the world stage as a proponent of women's rights, the Senate must pass-and Obama must sign-the long-overdue ratification of the United Nations' treaty to end discrimination against women. Ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) would show the world that the United States stands by the principles of equality between men and women, and that it is willing to establish the legal and social protections needed to move toward eliminating all forms of discrimination against women. The United States has yet to join the 185 countries-including every industrialized nation as well as countries such as Bangladesh, China, the Congo, Iraq, and Rwanda-now party to this important 30-year-old treaty.(6) In refusing to ratify the treaty, the United States joins the exclusive company of Iran, Qatar, Brunei, Nauru, Palau, Tonga, Somalia, and the Sudan.(7)
With all of the advances coming in the first six weeks of the Obama administration-from signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to overturning the global gag rule-perhaps we can begin to repair our image as a model for women's rights in the international community. But "begin" is the key word-we still have a long way to go.
~Megan Wulff
BUSPH, Health and Human Rights Caucus

[1] 2008 Election Results, "United States President Exit Polls,", <>.
[2] Daniel Nasaw, "Obama reverses 'global gag rule' on family planning organizations," The Guardian, 23 January 2009 <>.
[3] For full text of Roe v. Wade, see: "Roe v. Wade," Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, <>.
[4] For the text of the law, visit: "The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009," Whitehouse Briefing Room, <>.
[5] Rob Stein, "Health Workers' 'Conscience' Rule Set to Be Voided," Washington Post, 28 February 2009: A01 <>.
[6] Division for the Advancement of Women, "Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women," United Nations, <>.
[7] Working Group on Ratification of CEDAW, "Support Treaty for the Rights of Women (CEDAW)," Amnesty International, <>.

Remembering Human Rights Activist Alison Des Forges
The list of Alison Des Forges' accomplishments and contributions is a long and impressive one, but perhaps her most lasting legacy will be her tireless work on Rwanda before, during, and after the 1994 genocide. Dr. Des Forges died at the age of 66 in the crash of Flight 3407 in Buffalo, NY on February 12, 2009. Having worked on Rwanda since she was a student at Radcliffe and Yale, her voice was one of the early warnings of rising ethnic tensions in the region. Once the violence broke out, she convinced diplomats in Kigali to move several Rwandans to safety, including human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya, and she produced what is widely considered the definitive account of the genocide, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (Human Rights Watch, 1999). Even after the violence subsided and she served as expert witness in genocide trials in Europe, Rwanda, and Canada, Dr. Des Forges continued to push for accountability in Rwanda. She felt that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front forces, responsible for defeating the genocidal regime, should be held accountable for the murders of 30,000 people during and right after the genocide and was banned by the Rwandan government in 2008 for her part in an published analysis that claimed inappropriate prosecution and external influence on the judiciary there. "She never forgot about the crimes committed by the Rwandan government's forces, and that was unpopular, especially in the United States and in Britain," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "She was really a thorn in everyone's side, and that's a testament to her integrity and sense of principle and commitment to the truth." (1)
Most recently, Dr. Des Forges was working on a Human Rights Watch report about killings in eastern Congo. She is survived by her husband, two children, three grandchildren, and her brother and sister-in-law.
~Alexis Boyce, BA

(1) "Human Rights Watch Mourns Loss of Alison Des Forges." Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 2/18/09.
The Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights