Global Roundup: Gender-Based Violence in Mexico & Puerto Rico, Death of Pakistani Women’s Rights Advocate, Black ASL on TikTok, and a Woman and Her Students Fight for the Environment in the Bahamas

Compiled by Samiha Hossain

The declaration, which is also to offer protection to gay and transgender people, includes measures like creating a mobile app for victims to request help and report attacks [File: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP]

Puerto Rico has declared a state of emergency over rampant levels of gender violence. According to a 2019 report, violence against women resulted in one woman’s death per week on average in Puerto Rico - a rate which has been estimated to have increased in 2020. 

The declaration offers protection to gay and transgender people and includes measures such as creating a mobile app for victims to ask for help and report attacks. Authorities will also create a new programme to check in with women who have taken out restraining orders against abusers, and a new committee will be responsible for enforcing policies and proposing other measures.

Today is a great day for women, girls and all the people who have believed in the declaration of a state of emergency for gender violence, which we had been requesting for three years - Lisdel Flores, director of Hogar Ruth, a shelter for women victims of violence

Rights groups have staged protests and drawn attention to these issues to secure demands across the Caribbean and Latin America, such as the legalisation of abortion in Argentina. In Puerto Rico, the declaration comes just days after widespread outrage erupted on the island over the death of nurse Angie Noemi Gonzalez at the hands of her partner, who confessed to the crime, media reports said. Activists recognize that the declaration is not perfect, but a first step towards saving women’s lives.

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Karima Baloch was forced to flee to Canada in 2015, where she was later granted political asylum. Photograph: Baloch Students Organization Azad via The Guardian

In December 2020, Pakistani women’s rights advocate, Karima Baloch was found dead in Lake Ontario in Toronto, where she fled in 2015 to seek political asylum after her work as a human rights activist in Pakistan put her life in danger. Recently, when she was returned to her family in Karachi, police confiscated her body for hours. Furthermore, in order to prevent thousands of her supporters turning up to Baloch’s funeral, Balochistan was placed under the control of paramilitary forces, a curfew was imposed on the region, and mobile services were suspended.

Balochistan is a province with decades of conflict due to a long-running nationalist insurgency. It is a common occurrence for people with suspected ties to terrorists, insurgents or activists to be “disappeared” by Pakistan security forces, where they face torture without any justice or accountability. 

Karima was the epitome of women’s politics in Balochistan. Because of her we can leave our houses in a tribal and conservative society. We can protest in a male-dominated society. She was one of the first to challenge the brutal state, outdated norms and tribalism. Her legacy lives on in us - Sadia Baloch, 21-year-old student activist

During her years as a student, Baloch started to get involved in nationalist politics and activism and defy conservative norms. She became the first female chair of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO-Azad), a political group advocating for the rights of Baloch people. Her activism continued even after she was forced to flee to Canada. In 2016 she was listed by the BBC in its 100 most inspirational and influential women.

The threats however persisted. In 2017, while living in Toronto, she received a threat that her uncle would be killed unless she returned to Pakistan. A year later, she received the terrible news that her uncle’s body had been found dumped in her hometown. Still, she continued her activism against human rights abuses in Balochistan.

The Toronto police have said that they are still treating Baloch’s death as non-suspicious. However, her family has been pushing them to investigate further. Not only were there no witnesses to her death, she fell in a spot where it would be difficult to fall in accidentally.

Protesters attend a demonstration on 24 December in Karachi, Pakistan, after human rights activist Karima Baloch was found dead in Canada. Photograph: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian

Days after her death, the streets of regions in and around Balochistan and the city of Karachi filled with female protesters “chanting slogans against human rights abuses, calling themselves Karima and demanding a thorough investigation into her death”. These protests were barely covered and subjected to a blackout in Pakistan’s media. Pakistan security officials likely feared a similar turnout during Baloch’s funeral, as it took place under tight security.

Even after her tragic death, Baloch continues to fuel the women's resistance movement in Pakistan. It is heartbreaking that women who refuse to conform to the conservative norms of society and the state face such violence, potentially to the point of their death in Baloch’s and many others’ case. From the security, government and military actions, it is clear that the patriarchy fears that women like her will continue to challenge patriarchal power and will not back down. 

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A woman puts her hands with red paint on a monument during a protest to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, in San Salvador, El Salvador November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Jessica Orellana

Recently published data found that emergency calls related to violence against women in Mexico rose more than 30% in 2020 amid the global pandemic where families have been stuck at home due to lockdown restrictions. Criminal investigations opened into domestic violence and other gender violence crimes rose.

Without a doubt there was an increase. They aren't just numbers, they're people, they're women's stories - Wendy Figueroa, head of the National Network of Shelters

Reporting violence has been more challenging than usual for many women during the pandemic, as they are often unable to bring someone to accompany them and forced to queue up outside offices, where they risk being seen by their aggressor. 

Activists have criticized the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for slashing and delaying budgets for the National Institute for Women (INMUJERES) and for shelters. Interior Minister Olga Sanchez Cordero has said that there were now clear protocols for how to investigate crimes with a gender perspective, as well as a weekly inter-institutional group meetings on the topic. 

In November, years of campaigning from victims led to Mexico's Senate unanimously approving legislation that would punish digital violence such as “revenge porn” which is also known as non-consensual porn. However, investigations into human trafficking stagnated in 2020 after two years of sharp growth. According to activists, authorities are struggling to adapt to recruitment shifting online during the pandemic. 

Considering that two-thirds of women in Mexico have experienced some form of violence according to surveys by a national statistics agency, it is appalling that the government is not tackling this issue with more urgency. Activists should not have to campaign for years for minimal changes. 

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Nakia Smith’s popular TikTok videos celebrate the history of Black American Sign Language and delight in its divergences from standard American Sign Language.Credit...JerSean Golatt for The New York Times

Nakia Smith, who is deaf, has been using TikTok to celebrate the history of Black American Sign Language with her nearly 400,000 followers. According to scholars, Black ASL is frequently overlooked. It differs significantly from American Sign Languages and its research is decades behind, which obscures a major part of the history of sign language.

Carolyn McCaskill, founding director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, estimates that about 50% of deaf Black people use Black ASL. Black ASL users face the assumption that Black ASL is a lesser version of contemporary ASL. However, it  is actually more aligned with early American Sign Language, which was influenced by French sign language.

Smith, whose sign name is Charmay, has a simple explanation of how the two languages differ:

The difference between BASL and ASL is that BASL got seasoning…History is important…Am I trying to divide the language between ASL and BASL? No. I just carried the history - Nakia Smith

This difference between BASL and ASL is largely due to the fact that white deaf schools in the 1870s and 1880s shifted towards oralism, which prioritized teaching deaf students to speak and lip-read, whereas Black signers retained the standards of American Sign Language.

Here you have a Black dialect developed in the most oppressive conditions that somehow, in many respects, wound up to be more standard than the white counterpart - Robert Bayley, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Davis

According the the Black ASL Project, racial segregation played a large role in Black ASL’s development. Due to separation, Black deaf schools greatly differed from their white counterparts. White schools focused more on an oral method of learning and providing an academic-based curriculum, while Black schools emphasized signing and offered vocational training, as they were not expected to continue their education.

Historically, so much has been taken away from us, and they’re finally feeling that ‘this is ours…’This is mine. I own something.’ - Carolyn McCaskill

Amid the pandemic, the online interaction across the Black deaf community has grown. Smith has been using her TikTok to preserve and celebrate the history of Black ASL, and proudly claiming it as a part of her culture and identity. Marginalized groups often have their history overlooked, altered or erased entirely, so it is inspiring to see young people like Smith take up space on social media. 

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Kristal Ambrose is a 29-year-old woman in the Bahamas who is an outspoken advocate for protecting the environment. In 2013, she founded the Bahamas Plastic Movement. Plastic waste from locals, the tourism industry and marine debris is seriously harming the Bahamas’ coastline. She says her face being at the forefront of an environmental issue as a young Black woman and working at the grassroots level is very important to her. 

I deserve to fight and my voice matters - Kristal Ambrose 

She also founded a tuition-free plastic camp for local youth, which has educated over 500 students. She drafted a bill of what a single-use plastic ban would look like in the Bahamas. With the help of her students, she arranged a meeting with the environment minister. Her efforts led to a nationwide ban on single-use plastic in 2020. She also recently won the Goldman 2020 Environmental. Kristal and her students’ passion is evident and it is uplifting to see her mobilize her community - particularly young people - to rally for large scale changes. 

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Samiha Hossain (she/her) is a student at the University of Ottawa. She has experience working with survivors of sexual violence in her community, as well as conducting research on gender-based violence. A lot of her time is spent learning about and critically engaging with intersectional feminism, transformative justice and disability justice.

Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She refuses to let anyone thwart her imagination when it comes to envisioning a radically different future full of care webs, nurturance and collective liberation.

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