July 18th marks a special day for all freedom fighters – the birthday of a truly exceptional man, Mr. Nelson Mandela. Happy 95th Birthday Mr. Mandela! Mandela Day has officially been named in honor of him by the United Nations, the first time the UN had ever been dedicated a day to one person. Today Human Rights Initiatives also celebrates Sona, our client from the Gambia, who was recently granted asylum!
Nelson Mandela’s life has been devoted to the pursuit of freedom, democracy, and justice. Under the oppressive practices of apartheid in South Africa, he was considered a terrorist as he fought for the equality of his nation’s people. After decades of apartheid and 27 years of imprisonment, he and his colleagues awoke to find a new democratic South Africa. Post-apartheid, Mandela continued working for the equality of all South Africans. He helped create the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which pursued justice and peace within committees while investigating human rights abuses committed during past oppressive governments. Mandela spent years investigating rapes, tortures, and more to help bring justice and peace to the country.
While celebrating his birthday, we want to reflect on how poignant his life’s work and struggles are to our clients’ lives. Sona, a young woman from Gambia, came to HRI to claim asylum last year. As a ten year old child, she was obligated to undergo female genital mutilation. While on a “vacation” with her family, she was blindfolded and forced to have the procedure in a public ceremony and spent months, thereafter, recovering. A decade later, she came to the United States to study, and upon graduation was told to return to Gambia to help pay of her father’s debts. The payment would require her to marry a man more than twice her age and undergo yet another circumcision procedure. The right to bodily integrity is protected by the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights, a covenant that Gambia is party to. Yet Gambia does not have any legislation banning female genital mutilation and over 80% of women are forced to undergo the procedure to this day.
Our clients’ stories run the gamut of human rights abuses: Gambian women subject to genital mutilation, Nigerians who have been brutally wounded for standing up against corruption, Rwandans who have been subject to watch their families die during genocide and El Salvadorians who watch gang violence take over their communities while the government does nothing but stand idly by. But, today on his birthday, HRI is so happy to have been part of a victory which exemplifies the ideals Mr. Mandela fought for: equality amongst all human beings, justice for those who abuse their power and, most of all, peace and non-violence throughout the world. Each abused asylum seeker and immigrant HRI represents is a testament to the need for leaders and fighters like Nelson Mandela. His life and dedication is an example to us all.
By Kathryn Sullivan and Kavita Khandekar
*All client names have been changed to protect their identity