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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.

With Dignity: The Right to Rest and Leisure

“Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”

Why is this a human right?

If you’re asking this question, I would recommend you look into the histories of labor movements around the world. For centuries, laborers have demanded the right to rest and leisure, which is often guaranteed through paid holidays and limits on working hours.

Take a look at the birth of the labor movement in Wisconsin in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Listen to some Woody Guthrie songs. Look up the strong history of miners’ unions in Chile. Look up why we have weekends.

Labor movements pushed hard for guarantees of the right to rest and leisure. Why? Let’s take a look at a contemporary group of workers that is denied this right.

Farm workers in the United States are currently denied many human rights, including but not limited to the right to join trade unions — yes, this is also a human right — the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to rest and leisure.

Among many other abuses against both international human rights and our own federal laws, they are often forced to work extremely long days — we’re talking about 12 to 16 hours/day — for extremely low pay.

In Florida, workers must pick more than two tons of tomatoes per day just to make the state minimum wage of $6/hour. They do not have weekends. They do not get paid for working overtime.

For most employers of farm workers, the concept of paid holidays or even sick days is a joke. Workers aren’t even entitled to mandatory breaks for meals. As one farm worker described it, “They want us to work more than a machine can.”

The denial of rest and leisure, indeed of any time off at all, has serious long-term effects for farm workers in many realms of their lives. As one doctor explained at a TEDx Talk given in Oakland, Calif. last Friday, working with no breaks, weekends, or holidays — as they do — leads to chronic medical conditions such as tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and the early onset of arthritis, all of which often persist for years after farm workers have stopped working.

Farm workers are unable to spend time with their families, particularly since their families are often in another country, waiting for the paltry wages they send each week. Perhaps most heartbreaking is the loss of educational opportunities for farm workers.

Although education is also a human right, children as young as 12 years old are allowed to work in the farming industry. Children who work in farming are unable to go to school and therefore, are deprived of the opportunity to receive an education and have a better future.

The effects of the long-term denial of rest and leisure are even more damaging psychologically. For a very tame comparison, consider your state of being after a solid week of continuous cramming and sleep deprivation.

Chances are you’re not at your best. In fact, you’re probably downright snarly, about to burst into tears or just depressed.

The creators of the UDHR understood this. They understood that to fully experience being human, to truly be yourself, and perhaps more importantly, to treat other people well, you need some down time. In other words, rest and leisure are necessary to uphold human dignity.

Think of your state of being after midterms, compounded by factors of hundreds and time periods of years, combined with the realities of living in a state of chronic poverty. We have it pretty good, don’t we?

Here at Lawrence, we often bemoan our lack of free time, our high-stress schedules, our overburdened calendars. Yet we do not stop to consider that it is our choice to do many of the activities that sap our time.

No one is forcing us to work 12 hours every day. With a few exceptions, we are not required to attend class on weekends. We are even given a break in the middle of the term to rest and rejuvenate for the rest of the term.

We often get wrapped up in our lives here at Lawrence and forget about the rest of the world. We forget how lucky we are to be able to study and live here. Spend a bit of time this reading period reflecting on the rights Lawrence gives us and appreciating your right to rest and leisure.

Let this weekend of rest — however brief it may be — rejuvenate you so you are better able to do the work you need to do. Spend some quality time resting and playing so that you can go forward with more grace and compassion.

Marika Straw is the social justice programs coordinator at the Volunteer and Community Service Center; please contact her with any questions regarding her weekly column.

With Dignity: Article One

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Does this sound like a human right to you? Or does it sound more like a recommendation for human beings’ actions toward each other? Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is unique in that it functions not as a proclamation of a human right, as most other articles do, but as a theoretical foundation for all of the rights proclaimed within the UDHR and a recommendation for human beings’ actions toward one another.

Article 1 sets the UDHR in motion with a statement of the core ideas contained within the concept of human rights. It states that all humans are born free: that we should have the agency to make our own choices. It states that humans are born equal — an idea that most of us would publicly affirm, yet one that we often ignore in our interactions with others. It brings up the idea of human dignity, the idea that each human has the right to have his or her humanity respected.

Finally, it introduces the concept the whole UDHR is built around: that human beings, simply by virtue of being human, have certain rights, certain things they deserve. The idea of human rights goes beyond saying that it would be nice if we could guarantee people things such as free speech or freedom from discrimination or equal access to public services.

It demands these things. It takes the position that saying that giving people these things would be nice is simply not enough. There are real human needs in the world. The concept of human rights demands that these needs be fulfilled. Human rights defenders will not settle for anything less. This struggle to fulfill human rights, to affirm human dignity and freedom and equality, is what the UDHR is all about.

When we think of human rights being upheld or denied, we often think within a framework of political action. We think that the way human rights are upheld is by human rights activists pressuring governments to improve their country’s human rights conditions. But this is not the only way to improve human rights conditions.

Article 1 is also unique because it gives a recommendation not for the actions of governments, as most of the other articles implicitly do, but for the actions of all human beings — including you and me. According to the UDHR, we can affirm human rights not only by pressuring governments, but also by acting “toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The UDHR does not simply state that we can do this, but that we should do this.

I want to step back for a moment and ask a question: Coming from the U.N., which created the UDHR, how much authority does or should this recommendation hold? The answer to the first part of the question is: none. As a declaration — as opposed to, say, a treaty or a convention — the UDHR is not, and was not intended to be legally binding. The answer to the second part of the question is up to all of us, as individuals, to decide for ourselves.

Many people in the U.S. would be quick to dismiss the U.N. or anything related to the U.N. as a joke, as the U.N. is arguably unable to enforce its recommendations in practice. These people would perhaps be quick to dismiss the UDHR as pointless. Yet the UDHR is the most translated document in the world, and principles from the UDHR have been incorporated into the constitution of nearly every new government since the UDHR’s creation. How is this?

I would posit that the reason the UDHR holds so much weight is precisely because it was never meant to be legally binding. Instead, it was meant to inspire. People all around the world have taken the UDHR seriously not because of its origins in the UN, but because of the power and hope contained within its ideas. Should we “act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood?” Is this an idea powerful enough to be worth supporting? It is up to you to decide.

Originally published in The Lawrentian, Lawrence University’s student-run newspaper since 1884. Check out The Lawrentian at

With Dignity: A View on Human Rights

I’d like to take you on a human rights journey with me this year. My column, “With Dignity,” will be an exploration of the content, applications and implications of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

It will be a probing into the broad scope and the essence of human rights and what they mean to us as Lawrentians and as American citizens. Most importantly, it will be a journey into the realm of personal ethics and values, a realm I find we all too often set aside as “unacademic” or “subjective” here at Lawrence.

Who am I and why am I qualified to write about this? I am Marika Straw. I am the Social Justice Programs Coordinator at the Volunteer and Community Service Center and co-vice president of the Amnesty International club at Lawrence. I am always seeking new ways to gain knowledge and fight for human rights, so last summer I decided to dedicate my time to volunteering at the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.

Amidst everything I gained from this experience, the most important realization I made was that we will never have the world imagined within the UDHR unless we all learn how to treat each other as human beings. Put in human rights language, we need to learn how to affirm each other’s human dignity.

The concept is deceptively simple. Yet in reality, it is incredibly difficult to enact. Indeed, it is difficult enough to spend a lifetime trying. After all, what is human dignity? And how does one affirm it? These are questions we will be examining.

In this weekly column, I will be taking you on a journey through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article by article.

We will look at articles’ implications, their histories, their current violations and the ways they are being upheld. We will look at the cultural values we place on certain articles, at cultural conflicts with articles and their interpretations and at alternative interpretations and misconceptions. We will look at how our legal system affirms or denies the rights stated in articles. It’ll be some heady stuff.

But I don’t want you — or myself — to get totally lost in these technicalities and discussions — although getting slightly lost can often be quite instructive. I want to always bring it back to what I think is most important: how we enact human rights within our own lives. Because the most basic way of affirming human rights does not necessarily involve signing petitions or spreading information about abuses.

It involves treating other human beings as human beings, by treating human beings with dignity. And that is something that we, as Lawrentians, can do. And it is something very, very powerful.

So please, if there is nothing else you take away from my column this entire year, remember that by treating your fellow humans as humans, you, too are doing your part in affirming human rights.

I’ll try to do my part, too.

Originally published in The Lawrentian, Lawrence University’s student-run newspaper since 1884. Check out The Lawrentian at