A Fighting Chance: Legal Responses to the Humanitarian Border Crisis

By: Jacqueline Kelley, PHRGE Fellow at South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) in South Texas

Child on Border Fence blog photoI sat across from Jonathan as he told me a lifetime of stories. Abandoned by his mother at age three, Jonathan, from Michoacan, Mexico, was raised by a father who worked for drug traffickers and brutally abused him. After Jonathan dropped out of school and ran away from home, another drug cartel targeted him to recruit him into their ranks. Even though he resisted recruitment, Jonathan was arrested by the Mexican military on unfounded allegations of criminal behavior. He was then tortured before prosecutors even brought formal charges against him. When he was released after six months for lack of evidence, Jonathan faced a heavy choice: return to his abusive father or try to make it on his own on the streets, where the cartels would surely target him once more. That is when he made the choice to head to the United States, to save his own life. After two hours, I looked down at my pages of notes detailing Jonathan’s lifetime of struggles—those of a fifteen year old boy.

Every year, thousands of unaccompanied children attempt to cross into the United States through the Mexican-U.S. border—and in recent years, thousands make the attempt every month. The humanitarian crisis of 2014 that brought a massive influx of Central American and Mexican migrants, many of them children, has barely subsided as we approach mid-2016. Some migrants look for ways out of crippling poverty, in many cases caused by U.S. economic policies that stunt opportunity. Some are looking to reunite with parents or other loved ones whom they have not seen in years; harsh immigration laws make legal family reunification either an exceptionally lengthy process or, more often, an impossible one. Many are quite literally fleeing for their lives—running from ever-growing gang and cartel violence coupled with the inability or unwillingness of their home countries’ authorities to protect them. To call the choice to migrate under these circumstances a true “choice,” seems starkly inaccurate. When your life is on the line, is migration a choice? Did Jonathan have a choice?
Since early March, I have worked alongside ProBAR in the Rio Grand Valley of South Texas in the struggle to give detained migrants a fighting chance as they battle through our draconian immigration system. ProBAR (South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project) provides free, direct legal services to adult and minor asylum seekers detained by the U.S. government in South Texas, and coordinates national pro bono volunteer efforts to serve migrants who relocate to other parts of the country. For my first six weeks in Texas, I interned for the Children’s Project; there, I worked on the immigration cases of minors, like Jonathan, who are detained in local Office of Refugee Resettlement “shelters” and are in active deportation proceedings. ProBAR Children’s Project works to reunify migrant children with loved ones while identifying potential legal relief, coordinating with national pro bono partners, and providing full-scale legal representation to locally-released children and those facing imminent deportation.Detained Youth and Families blog photo

In mid-April, I moved to ProBAR’s Adult Office, which serves detained asylum seekers primarily at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas. I spend long days in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, identifying legal relief, participating in Know Your Rights presentations and providing legal assistance in immigration cases—from drafting applications and gathering evidence, to prepping testimony for hearings and filing court motions. For many detainees, the time they spend in visitation rooms with ProBAR staff and volunteers may very well be the only opportunity they have to tell their stories and document their legal claims. Time with ProBAR staff may also be the only human contact they will have for months, aside from time spent with other detainees and detention/deportation officers. ProBAR believes that detained migrants should never have to fight deportation alone.

There is no right to counsel in immigration removal proceedings, despite the fact that the penalties associated with losing one’s claim—detention and deportation—are some of the worst that human beings can face. Because of the sheer number of individuals requiring assistance nationally, many migrants will receive no legal assistance whatsoever and will be returned to countries where they fear persecution, violence and even death. And the grim realities of our harsh immigration system, where the deck is stacked against migrants from the outset, ensure that even migrants with full representation and solid legal claims may still face deportation. However, due to the coordinated efforts of organizations like ProBAR, thousands more migrants know their rights, put forth strong claims for relief and have a fighting chance to emerge through the system victoriously—with stability and safety waiting on the other side.

For more information on the critical work of ProBAR,

Watch the video: The 25th Anniversary of ProBAR: Pursuing Justice, Changing Lives.

Or Read about ProBAR’s work.

For more information on the need for protections for children asylum-seekers, notably Central American and Mexican minors fleeing gang violence, see the UNHCR’s resources, including its report about the migration crisis, “Children on the Run.”

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The Experience of Working in an Established Human Rights Institution

By: Emmanuel Sam, PHRGE Fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Lund, Sweden

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While considering co-ops, I always wanted to get an international experience, especially in an institution with a human rights focus. When the time came for co-op, I decided to try my luck and applied for a PHRGE fellowship to work at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. I did not expect much though, because at first glance, I saw that the PHRGE Fellowship was very competitive. I was so excited when I was called for an interview and, after a few days, was told that I received the fellowship. Finally, I had my dream of doing my co-op overseas.

From the very first day at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, everyone welcomed me as a member of the team and genuinely expected me to make a contribution. I hit the ground running, working on a memo about the role of Nordic cities in the human rights framework. My supervisor then told me that the memo would be developed into a concept paper.

My second project was to work on a memo about National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). The memo addresses the Sub-Committee on Accreditation’s procedure in assessing and analyzing NHRIs up to the threshold of grading them by A, B, and C statuses, using the Paris principles. NHRIs are independent institutions that are established by the domestic law of a given country. I worked on the accreditation process with specific reference to the procedure used in grading NHRIs.

I briefly worked on a pilot program for Zimbabwe in which I conducted research and wrote a memo. The memo addressed the constitutional alignment in Zimbabwe, the new provisions incorporated into the new constitution, and the parties involved in the process. The memo also addressed the independence of the judiciary in Zimbabwe in relation to human rights.

Finally, I am working on hate crime and hate speech with one of the institute’s Head of Programs. I am writing a report on my findings about the causes of hate speech and how hate speech sometimes gives rise to hate crime. I also focused on the role of the press in hate crime situations in relation to freedom of press. I have looked at case studies on Rwanda, the Holocaust, Kenya and Myanmar. I hope to complete this last project for my co-op before heading back to the US.

My experience in Sweden has been great. The people I have met and interacted with are very friendly. I have traveled around Europe on the weekends, visiting France, Italy, Denmark and Germany. The climax of the excitement of my internship was when I was announced as this year’s LL.M. commencement speaker at Northeastern University School of Law’s commencement on May 27, 2016. I am very happy for such a great honor. Lastly, I am very grateful to PHRGE for giving me such an opportunity to pursue my career objectives.

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Understanding Family Planning – Poor Medical Care, Forced Sterilization and the Genocide of Tribal Peoples and ‘Backward Castes’

By: Morgan Wilson, PHRGE Fellow at Human Rights Law Network in Delhi, India

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Sterilization patients recuperating on the floor of a meeting room in the Basta Community Health Centre


I recently completed a co-op assignment with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) in Delhi, India. I worked with the Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights Initiative (WHRRI) researching maternal and infant deaths and the implementation (or lack thereof) of the Indian Public Health Standards (IPHS) in Odisha state. My travels took me to two villages – one in the Basta region, Balasore District and the other in the Banki region, Cuttack District, where my supervisor and I met with two families impacted by substandard medical care.

These families, and most of the people served by WHRRI, were from the so-called ‘Backward Castes’ (BC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) or Scheduled Castes (SC). In India’s complex caste system, these are ‘protected’ classes, people who through generations of discrimination and isolation have become socio-economically disadvantaged.

At our first meeting, we spoke with the mother and mother-in-law of a woman who died of postpartum hemorrhaging (PPH) after childbirth. In this case, the woman bled out on the delivery table in front of her family as the doctor stood idly by. Although the decedent’s family begged the doctor to administer lifesaving treatment, he refused. The doctor decided instead to chastise the decedent in her final moments of life, making clear that his refusal to administer care was punishment for having a third child as a member of a ST. The impact of his decision is felt not only on the three children the decedent left behind, but on the father who is now a widower, and the mother who was forced to bury her child prematurely.

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Delivery table in the labor room of the Dampara Community Health Centre


Similarly, at our next interview, we listened to a grieving father explain that his daughter’s only child was killed by a disgruntled doctor whose aggressive use of forceps punctured the newborn’s head, resulting in a slow painful death. In this case, the OBGYN insisted that she be paid 500 INR (roughly $7.40) to assist with the birth, even though healthcare is free. When the family explained that they were unable to pay the exorbitant fee, the doctor begrudgingly assisted in the delivery once it was clear the baby was in a difficult position. After the delivery, the doctor told the family “these things happen sometimes” and “there was nothing she could do” to save the child. As I later learned, stories like this are not uncommon in rural areas. Without access to legal aid organizations, many families are left without any recourse to confront negligent doctors.

Adding insult to injury, a tour of the medical facilities in Odisha revealed sterilization wards where BC/ST/SC women, no older than 23, were being sterilized through vigorous and vicious family planning campaigns aimed at decreasing their family sizes. In exchange for being sterilized, men and women are given monetary incentives by national and state governments for their participation in family planning programs. This form of coercion increases the number of people (particularly women) dying from haphazard procedures in healthcare institutions where IPHS are not fully implemented and doctors care more about meeting quotas and receiving awards than they do about helping patients. In this way, the government maintains control of BC/ST/SC people and ensures a smaller tribal population in the future.

Historically, BCs/STs/SCs were effectively excluded from attending medical school, resulting in a large portion of medical staff treating patients of different/lower castes/tribes. When doctors refuse to give care or are negligent in the administration of their duties, caste and tribe discrimination in both the medical and legal fields provide them with relative impunity. Sadly, if a victim or their family is successful in bringing a medical malpractice claim against a negligent doctor, oftentimes the result is that the state pays a pre-set amount of money to the family and the doctor is allowed to continue harming/killing patients. What this means on a basic human level is that BC/ST/SC people are being killed by the very people charged with their care. It comes as no surprise, when villagers explain they are afraid to utilize the free government medical facilities but are too poor to pay for private care, that the question is one of risk – stay home and hope for the best, or go to the government hospital where there is a high likelihood of substandard care and possibly death.

What I have taken away from the visit to Odisha, and my experience with HRLN, in general, is that there is a significant need for attorneys and volunteers to engage in human rights work. Otherwise, the most vulnerable populations will continually be subjected to acts of violence and terrorism. Terrorism has taken on a very specific meaning in the post 9/11 age, but terror manifests itself in a myriad of ways. In the context of women’s health and reproductive rights in India, it is my contention that the forced sterilization of BC/ST/SC) women is, indeed, terrorism. Sanctioned by the national government and implemented through health service providers at the state and local level, mass sterilization becomes a form of genocide. Moreover, it is also an act of terror when doctors refuse to administer care to BC/ST/SC patients, thereby causing death or serious bodily harm.

The work that HRLN does in the field of women’s health and reproductive rights is necessary to ensure delivery of proper medical care, and critical for the livelihood of BC/ST/SC people. For more information about HRLN, please visit: www.hrln.org.

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Something Like Home

By: Hilary Deignan, PHRGE Fellow at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy in Galway, Ireland

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Like many Massachusetts natives, I have long-identified with an Irish culture I knew little about. Growing up on Cape Cod I proudly wore green ribbons in my hair on St. Patrick’s day with a plastic pin that had a green leprechaun hat with a big gold buckle and said “Kiss me I’m Irish” in rainbow-colored bubble-print.

My grandmother would decorate her table with green-tinted carnations vased with babies breath, her grandmothers hand-made lace linens, and water glasses that looked like diamonds to my eyes. She would serve corned beef and cabbage with parsley sauce and every kind of mustard you could imagine and she let the kids drink her usually off-limits Polar Orange Dry. I would boast to my classmates about how much I loved corned beef and I would wear my pin for weeks, clipped on my jacket like a badge.

When I had the opportunity to come to Galway, the very city my family left during the famine long ago, it became not only a journey to investigate the interplay between human rights, disability and reproductive rights, but it also became a trip home.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, I walked three miles in gale force winds and torrential rain to arrive for my first day at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, housed on the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus. I would later learn that this was a rugged thing to do, but at the time I just thought – this must be Irish weather.

My work in Galway had an immediacy I have not experienced working in the U.S. legal setting, with my research objectives changing drastically in response to new legislation, policies and shifts in focus. Fore Ireland, the beloved homeland of so many Americans; the tragically beautiful land of green mountains and Connemara ponies; of buskers on street corners and fiddlers on pub stools; this country that values charity and music, poetry and education; this Ireland still has some work to do catching it’s laws up with its generous moral standards.

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When I first arrived, every paper and news show spoke to the imminence of a referendum to the Constitution of Ireland that would repeal Article 40.3.3, commonly referred to as the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. This is the Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1983, that ultimately makes abortion not only illegal, but also unconstitutional in Ireland.

Because of this, Ireland presently has the most restrictive abortion laws in the European Union and under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act of 2013, only allows legal abortions for women who are at immediate risk of loss of life or who face a real and substantial risk of loss of life whether from physical illness or from suicide.

As a result of this strict criteria and the competing “right to life” for the mother and the unborn, there has been uncertainty in the medical field about providing (or not providing) treatment to a pregnant woman when the result could injure the fetus. Examples of this include: whether a medical provider can perform an abortion on a woman who lacks capacity to consent to an abortion and who has a real and substantial risk of loss of life without an abortion, and determining whether it is lawful to allow a woman who retains consent to refuse treatment that would harm the fetus in it’s refusal (such as a blood transfusion).

Currently, most guidance documents and professional organizations encourage their physicians to obtain legal advice to determine whether they need a High Court Order before providing care for woman in these, and similar situations. As a result, women are not always getting the care they need in a timely and dignified manner. For more information, see this timeline illustrating the development of some of the important abortion law in Ireland.

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While Ireland remains a country with strong ties to the Catholic church, public opinion is changing and people are now calling for the government to protect the lives of women. Graffiti and flyers calling for the repeal of the 8th Amendment are commonplace and it is not unusual to see a group of women marching the streets calling for abortion rights. In the recent election, this was one of the central issues to voters.

While Ireland will likely not offer abortion on demand in the near future, I believe that it is only a matter of time before the country expands access to abortion in select circumstances. I admire the people of Ireland’s willingness to reconsider their past values and norms and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to bare witness to the process.

As for me, I am back in the States now, proudly displaying my Irish heritage still/again with my new Claddaugh ring and my Aran wool sweater, missing the city on the sea with it’s Christmas markets and fish and chip shops, and the music on the streets.


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Leymah Gbowee: We’re Hiding Our Humanity behind Our Fear

By: Nicole Hicks, PHRGE Program Intern and NU Human Services Student

NU Interfaith Keynote 2016 (2)[2]On February 11th, Northeastern’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service and a host of other campus organization presented Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee to an overflow crowd at Blackman Auditorium. Ms. Gbowee answered many of the audience’s implicit questions. How does someone look at the way another person is dressed and decide they are a threat? How can someone read a last name or passport cover and decide to hate the individual it belongs to? Watching the world news can leave anyone asking, “how does this happen?”

“Fear,” says Gbowee. Every fear, assumption, or stereotype you have heard builds a thin wall between you and that person or group. Every time you act on the fear, another wall is built, further inhibiting your ability to see that person, and their humanity. “Eventually you do not see the indi­vidual; you see a thing. And because you are looking at a thing you are able to harm them and treat them in what­ever way you want,” she told the audience.

Gbowee worked to mobilize Christian and Muslim women in Liberia during the country’s second civil war. With Liberia at war and her community divided, she could not think about human rights without finding a path to peace. Her first challenge was to break down the barrier between women; who came to regard their difference in religion as an impenetrable wall.  Gbowee asked the women if the pain a Christian mother feels when she loses a child is different than the pain a Muslim mother feels. If a rebel walked into their meeting and started shooting, would the bullets know to avoid the Christian women, or Muslim women? Slowly, the women began to talk, and were eventually able to look at each other as fellow Liberians united in their cry for peace.

The overwhelming theme of Gbowee’s talk was how fear has begun to limit our lives in new ways each day. We continue to allow metaphorical walls to create boundaries where there are none, avoiding certain places or becoming wary of certain people. We live in constant fear because we refuse to listen; to see the humanity in others the way we do in ourselves.


Proud of her heritage and accomplishments, Gbowee made many references to her family and Liberian culture, but acknowledged that her coalition, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peacewas being used as a model to teach peace-building around the world, in places like the U.S. and Sweden. It would seem that she has no intention of limiting her reach to Liberia, and understands the global implications of her work.

Gbowee’s parting wisdom included the observation that American women tend to get angry politely, while African women get angry loudly. Perhaps this was her way of subtly imparting her passion and fiery intellect to the many young people sitting in the audience, hoping to “light the spark” in them and inspire social change around the world.

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My Voice and Human Rights Advocacy

By: George Amos, PHRGE Fellow at the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD)

No one can tell my story better than I. Img0545Sometimes, I may not have the means or the capacity to tell my story, but even then, the help that I may need should be such that will enable me to tell my story. The empowerment I need should be such that enables me to give a narrative that is a true reflection of my situation, condition, experience, and history. Empowering others to find their voice, I believe, should be the framework for those of us who have an interest and passion to fight for human rights, especially in those communities and regions where human rights abuses exist.

My interest in human rights is prompted by the desire to serve others not the way I would want it, but the way those I intend to serve want it. The world is getting smaller, not by physical distance, or by a common understanding, but by the manner and way information is accessible via the Internet. The people we talk or write about are real people, with real history and culture, and concrete experiences. Therefore, no matter how we claim to own information about such people through the internet or printed materials, experiencing such people and assisting them to tell their story by themselves is more empowering than talking or writing on their behalf.


My decision to work with the Niger Delta people of Nigeria within the human rights parameter will not be effective if I do not encounter these people with the eye of a human rights advocate. Even though I am from this area, it makes a great difference, with my theoretical knowledge of the human rights legal framework, if I experience these people who have suffered so many human rights violations as a result of crude oil and gas exploitation.

The Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) fellowship, and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) now affords me the opportunity to make such an encounter possible. As a PHRGE fellow, I am able to do my co-op with CEHRD, which is an NGO working in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria with a special interest in human rights, the environment and development. It is a research and advocacy organization, which works to hold oil companies accountable for their operations, educate the people on their rights, and empower them to take steps to enforce their rights. It is also involved in conflict resolution and peace building within the region, bearing in mind that there could be no meaningful development without peace.

During my co-op in CEHRD, I was privileged to be part of a team that planned and participated in a Media-Civil Society and Citizens Forum designed to ‘feel the pulse of the communities.’ The program, which was part of an ongoing intervention project on human rights and corporate accountability in Nigeria and funded by the Dutch Embassy in Nigeria, was to create the forum to hear the voice and the narrative of oil producing communities in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The theme of the forum was “Feeling the Pulse of Communities: Oil Corporations and Human Rights Violations in the Niger Delta.” It brought together civil society organizations, the media, and some members of selected communities to essentially hear the voice of these communities on their experiences with oil companies doing business in their communities. From questions around the business and human rights domain, especially as it concerns their economic, social and environmental rights, the communities narrated their experiences vis-à-vis oil exploitation activities in their communities over the years.

It was a refreshing, informative, and an expository experience for me as we listened to them, and hearing the media making a commitment to publicize their voice. This experience is central to human rights work. Following that forum, I began working with the Governance Team of CEHRD to document the outcomes of the discussion in a policy document that will provide public sensitization and information on the human rights challenges facing communities in the Niger Delta. The policy paper will also provide an avenue for institutional engagement and dialogues with policy makers, regulatory agencies and oil corporations on how to ameliorate the suffering of communities impacted by oil exploration in Nigeria.

Encountering and engaging victims of human rights violations is at the core of whatever success human rights activists and advocates hope to achieve. The human rights movement should not and is not intended to be self-serving and pushing a particular agenda of states or individual organizations. Human rights advocacy is to eradicate human rights abuses wherever they may exist, and against whoever may be the victim. Donor agencies and individuals must also know that whereas human rights are indivisible and are of equal value, hearing the voice of victims of abuse is equally essential. Hearing the voice of such victims will help in a great way to ascertain the priority of the people or communities so as to avoid the suspicion of carrying out an agenda that is foreign culturally and socially to the people they seek to assist.

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Child Marriage in India: How Far Have We Come?

Many countries, including India, suffer from high rates of child marriage. According to a 2012 UNICEF report, India is home to one third of child brides worldwide.  One in two women in India is married before the age of 18.  During my time as a PHRGE Fellow at the Human Rights Law Network, (HRLN), I was given the opportunity to travel around India and conduct field research on child marriage and its pervasiveness throughout communities.   Generally, we found situations in line with such statistics, and that rates of child marriage vary greatly depending on social traditions of a given area.  Unfortunately, in many of these states with deeply-entrenched social traditions, there is a lack of uniform enforcement of law against child marriage. As a result, child marriage only decreases at a rate of 1%, while the population of India increases at a rate of 8% each year.

It wasn’t until 2006 that India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.  The Act is designed to curb the prevalence of child marriage throughout the country and articulates that it is indeed illegal for children to get married.   Under the Act, females may not legally marry under the age of 18 and males may not legally marry if under the age of 21.   These ages correspond to “healthy” times for each gender to be married and have children.   The inherent gender inequality is seldom discussed. The Court has the authority to void child marriage where they do occur, or place an injunction on a pending marriage.  Those who promote the marriage are subject to fines and imprisonment. According the Act, each district and each state must have a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer, who is responsible for a range of activities, including voiding child marriages, sensitizing the community to the malignant effects of child marriage, and creating awareness of child marriage laws.

While progress has indeed been made in the last ten years to stop child marriage, the question remains: is it enough?  After researching the topic, and conducting interviews with victims, hospital workers, government officials and social activists, I have concluded that it is absolutely not enough.

In many areas throughout India, there is no enforcement of child marriage laws.  Some districts have indeed decreased child marriage rates, and these statistics are widely celebrated.  However, other states and districts have done little to curb child marriage see no government repercussion and no movement toward change.  For example, we conducted interviews throughout remote villages in the Ganjam District which is on the south-eastern Coast of India in the state of Orissa.  We interviewed female victims, village leaders, health workers, hospital workers and social activists.  In each of the five villages we visited, the average age of marriage for boys was 22-23.  The average age of marriage for girls was 15.  Social pressures force these female victims to drop out of school when they are married.  They are then expected to move in with their new in-laws and do daily household labor for the family.  Further, tradition expects the girls to immediately seek to become pregnant, which ultimately increases health risks related to adolescent pregnancy.

None of the community members knew about the child marriage laws, understood the negative effects of child marriage, or could recall being visited by any government officials on the status of child marriage.   Throughout India, you will find entire districts, or even entire states, that share similar child marriage traditions to these villages.  Despite it being well known that child marriage is pervasive in these areas, many state and local governments are doing little to create awareness about law, enforce the law and ultimately stop child marriages.

Child marriage will remain pervasive in India until laws are uniformly and rigorously enforced.  Until then, there will be wide discrepancies in child marriage rates, which will result in a perpetuation of gender inequality and poverty.   Until these marriages are stopped, child victims will be forced to abandon education, career opportunities and face increased health risks.  As my time in India comes to an end, I hope that organizations like HRLN continue to fight to turn well-intended laws into reality.  I can hope that with zealous activism, governments and local communities will start to feel the pressure to change and begin to uncompromisingly enforce the law and in turn, create brighter futures for the children of India.

– Anna Holding

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