Month: November 2011

With Dignity: The Right To Equality Before The Law

“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”

Finally, two Somali men stood up to speak: one to talk and one to translate. The reason we are all so scared, they said, is because one of the gang members involved in the incident in the park ran through our apartment building Saturday night. The locks on the outside doors of the building are broken because people prop them open, so anyone can come in. We were scared for our lives.

I was sitting in a neighborhood meeting in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis, a historically American Indian neighborhood with a fairly recent influx of Latino and Somali immigrants. The Somalis’ points elucidated the proceedings thus far: a detail-free explanation of the “incident in the park,” an explanation of an apartment manager regarding why repairs to his building took so long and a motion to approve a resolution against the apartment manager.

Having come to a new country for safety from a war that had raged in their country for years, the Somalis found themselves translating while listening, and attempting to understand the workings of an institution in a strange country that seemed to be addressing inconsequential issues while ignoring their most pressing concerns.

To the Somalis, the “incident in the park” was not simply a shooting incident; it was an immediate threat to their lives. The comments of the apartment manager regarding repairs were absurd; he was talking about toilet repairs, and they were talking about safety mechanisms.

The neighborhood proposal against the apartment manager was a nice gesture, but did not address the Somali community’s concerns, as these were not even mentioned until the Somalis brought them up.

No one outside of the group of Somalis seemed to have been aware that one of the gang members involved in the incident had even gotten inside of the apartment building.

Fortunately, the police officer, along with the rest of the neighborhood, seemed appalled that the apartment manager was careless enough to let this happen. The neighborhood members immediately jumped on the apartment manager.

Why didn’t the locks work? Broken locks were not the same thing as broken toilets. The safety of his residents should be his first priority.

Did he have a translator? He should get a translator if he had so many Somalis living in his apartment building, even if some of them could translate. The apartment manager offered no answers to the questions. He suggested that we consider how harsh the language of the neighborhood resolution was, picked up his briefcase, and left.

Even when established legal structures attempt to protect citizens equally, they can be undermined by other factors, such as discrimination by other citizens — such as the apartment manager — or the lack of education among new immigrants.

For example, the Somali immigrants living in the apartment building did not even know how to call 911, and when told that they could call 911 when in trouble, asked if there was even a Somali translator on the other line — thankfully, in Minneapolis there is.

It takes an entire community to ensure that the needs of even the most vulnerable groups are being met. If you are interested in helping meet some of these needs, consider volunteering at the Hmong American Partnership or Fox Valley Literacy Coalition. Although you may think that you have little to offer, you may offer much more than you realize. You may offer hope.

With Dignity: Combating Sex Slavery

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

Like discrimination, slavery is viewed as something of the past, yet is still widely prevalent today. Sex slavery exists worldwide and takes different forms in different places. What form does it take here in the United States? Prostitution.

“But prostitutes earn money,” you say. “They choose to enter prostitution. They could leave anytime they want if they didn’t like it.”

Oh, really?

Do you call it earning money when everything you earn is taken away from you? Do you call it choice when you are told to sell your body by someone you love, who says they love you? Can you really leave a situation in which you are threatened with bodily harm if you leave?

What many people do not realize is that prostitution, in practice, is nothing short of slavery. Here is one vastly oversimplified example of how prostitution works in the U.S.

You are a young girl when a close family member begins to sexually abuse you. Over time, you come to feel that your body is not worth anything, so you are not worth anything. One day, a charming young man falls in love with you.

You move in with him because finally someone loves you. But one day, he asks you to sell your body so he can pay the rent. You love him too, so you agree. It quickly turns into a nightmare. He takes the money you’ve earned prostituting yourself and beats you for not earning enough.

You are scared to leave because he might hurt you, but you also stay because you love him. You are trapped.

If this seems twisted, it is. But it is also sadly realistic. Most women who become prostitutes were physically or sexually abused as a child. Many women are drawn into prostitution by men who pretend to fall in love with them, and then ask them to sell their body.

Pimps rely on physical abuse and psychological coercion to control their prostitutes. If you don’t believe me, look at the U.S.’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011.

Problems like this are extremely difficult to face. Because of this, and because we often truly believe it, we are quick to say that they have nothing to do with us. Because they have nothing to do with us, there is nothing we can do about them.

As a complex problem fed by many factors such as childhood abuse, poverty and culture, there are more things we can do to address sex slavery than we realize.

How might one address sex slavery? The most obvious way is to not participate in the system perpetuating it. Sweden has done a fantastic job of minimizing sex slavery by arresting people who buy sex. The idea is simple: if fewer people buy sex, people will stop selling it.

Amazingly, it works! Sweden has seen a dramatic decline in sex slavery since outlawing the purchase of sex in 1999. Another way to address sex slavery is to become informed and inform others about the problem.

If more people understood how prostitution works, perhaps it would be easier to find support for programs that aid victims of sex slavery. Volunteering at organizations supporting victims of sex trafficking, or even victims of physical and sexual abuse such as Harbor House is another way to combat sex slavery.

By addressing sex slavery, even indirectly, we are able to make a positive difference, no matter how small, because if we are able to help even one person, our efforts will have been completely worth it.

If you’d like to help fight sex traficking, sign up to volunteer at Harbor House on November 19 by emailing Susannah Maiken.