Tahirih Justice Center

Tahirih Justice Center is a national, non-profit organization that supports the courage of immigrant women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence by providing holistic legal services and advocacy in communities, courts, and Congress. Working to create a world where women and girls can live in safety and with dignity, Tahirih protects women and girls seeking protection from gender-based human rights abuses such as domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, honor crimes, and forced marriage.
Aug 13, 2013

Claudine's Story of Courage

Photo courtesy of Sergio Pessolano
Photo courtesy of Sergio Pessolano

I was raped trying to protect my sister from a man who had raped me once before. I grew up working to bring positive change for women in my country, but had to flee because of it. Yet, I never gave on my potential to make a difference.

My name is Claudine.* I am from East Africa** and this is my story.

When I was a child, my country experienced political unrest and my family and I became refugees in another country.

While abroad, a good family friend, Marc* briefly moved in with us, hoping to convince my parents to join his political movement back home. My parents refused his offer and asked him to leave.

That day I came home from school and found myself alone with Marc. Having known him as a good friend of the family and unaware that he was asked to leave, I didn’t think it unusual when he asked to hang out with me.

Marc asked me to come over to him and when I did, he grabbed me, covered my mouth with a cloth, pushed me to the floor and raped me. He then took out a knife and cut my stomach, as if to mark his territory. Being just a child, I laid on the floor in shock until my mother came home. She immediately took me to the hospital.

When I came home from the hospital, my father cried because he couldn’t protect me.

After the rape, my whole community found out what had happened and shunned me. Where I lived, not being a virgin before marriage is cause for great shame. Kids taunted me in school so much that I wanted to stop going. I didn’t have any friends. Feeling desperate, ashamed, and alone, I tried slitting my wrists after seeing an actor do it on TV but, luckily, I didn’t succeed. I convinced my parents to let me drop out of school and I spent my days at home with my siblings.

Later, when the political situation at home improved, my family moved back to our old neighborhood and I was able to return to school.

My new life did not last long because Marc moved in next door. My father saw this, but he was powerless to remove Marc because Marc had become a ranking a member of the dominant political party.

Bad things started up again when Marc and his friends began taunting me on my way to school. I always ignored them and tried walking away faster.

One day Marc called me and said if I wouldn’t come and “talk” with him, he would make sure to “talk” with my younger sister, who was only in elementary school at the time. I knew what he meant. His way of “talking” was to rape. I wanted to protect my sister and knew what I had to do. I went to his house where he brutally raped me. Again. He cut my stomach once more to mark his rape.

And, Marc got away with it. The police dismiss women’s reports of rape, so I didn’t even try. My first rape was too shameful for me and my family. I kept this rape a secret.

I later moved on and enrolled in university. I eventually got involved in a new political party that had split with the one Marc still belonged to.

I believed this party would bring peace to my country and advocate to end violence against women. I hoped that my work with members who supported women would also protect me from Marc, who had become a high-ranking member of his party.

But my father, still concerned for my safety, helped me enroll in a university in a neighboring country.

Only a few months before the new semester, Marc’s political party grew in power and started threating members of mine. Police made constant arrests and would often torture and murder anyone they took in. Marc consistently called my phone just to harass me.

One day, I attended a peaceful protest, but was beaten over the head by the police and hospitalized. I knew the police would send for me and, if they did, I would be tortured or killed, like other friends of mine had been.

Not long after at 5 AM one morning, I heard police knocking on my front door. I quickly ran out of the back door. From then on, I had nothing and relied on friends and strangers to hide me until I could figure out a plan for safety.

After a few months in hiding, a good family friend, Emile,* found me living on the streets and helped me obtain my passport from home. It was a miracle that he then helped me get a visa to transit through the United States to another country.

On the way, I had a short layover in Washington, D.C. where I stayed with friends of Emile. After hearing my story, they told me to apply for asylum in the U.S. because my identity might still be discovered if I traveled on to my final destination. I knew that going home was not an option.

I applied for asylum with the help of a pastor, but I was afraid to reveal that I had been raped. I feared that my new church community would shun me as a rape survivor. My application was referred to immigration court and so I needed an experienced attorney to help.

My answer came when I found the Tahirih Justice Center through an outreach presentation conducted by Tahirih’s African Women’s Empowerment Project.

Tahirih took on my case and set me up with a pro bono attorney from Holland & Knight. With Tahirih’s professionalism and trust, I was comfortable telling my full experience in confidence.

After months of hard work and two intensive court hearings, I was granted asylum in immigration court. I will never be able to thank my attorneys for what they did for me.

Since I was granted asylum, I started feeling a sense of peace I haven’t felt in a long time. I of course miss my family and worry about their safety but what keeps me going is my determination to make a good living to support us all.

I am now enrolling in university to finally finish my degree. I ultimately hope to make my family proud and to see them again one day soon.

*Name has been changed to protect client privacy.

** Country of origin and some of the details of this case cannot be disclosed to protect client privacy and confidentiality.

Photograph courtesy of Sergio Pessolano.

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May 29, 2013

The Washington Post Features a Tahirih Client

Washington Post 4.18.13
Washington Post 4.18.13

Last month, The Washington Post featured the inspiring story of former Tahirih Justice Center client, Fouzia Durrani who courageously defied the Taliban to educate young girls in her village and refused to marry a man to whom she had been promised at age 3. (See Pam Constable, “Afghan Escapes Taliban Oppression, but She Fears for the Others Still,” Washington  Post, 4/19/2013). In the article, Ms. Durrani notes, “So many girls in Afghanistan are still caught by all those forces, with no way to escape.”

We honored Ms. Durrani with the Courageous Voice Award at our 16th Annual Gala in Washington, DC on April 25th, 2013.  

Feb 26, 2013

Tahirih's Work on VAWA

When Fighting to End Violence Against Women, Non-Partisanship is Key

by Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih Director of Public Policy

 

As a new session of Congress gears up but many of the old problems still loom large, we wanted to reflect on one of the Tahirih Justice Center’s core values – non-partisanship – and share why we have found that holding tight to that principle in the policy world is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

 

Political parties and beliefs have their place, and we respect that. But our institutional belief is that the vital human rights issues we advocate for on behalf of our clients, incredible women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence, are universal and defending them occupies a bipartisan space where both have always found a way to come together.

 

The original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994 and Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 had lead authors and co-sponsors from both parties. Subsequent VAWA reauthorizations passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, and by stunning margins in the House (VAWA 2005 passed the House by 415 to 4!).  And, despite the political battle that has been waged over the last year on VAWA’s reauthorization, recent signs indicate that we can reclaim that bi-partisan space again.

 

On February 12, 2013 the Senate passed a VAWA reauthorization bill (S.47) by a resounding 78-22 bi-partisan vote.  At the same time, the Senate passed an amendment to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act by a decisive 93-5 bipartisan vote.

 

The House also seems to be following in the same spirit. On February 6, 2013 the Majority and Minority Leader on the House floor declared that early reauthorization of VAWA is their shared priority, and on February 14th, the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues issued a joint press statement calling for VAWA’s bi-partisan reauthorization.

 

So how has Tahirih been helping turn this tide in Congress? We have been at the forefront of efforts over the last year to preserve and advance protections under VAWA for immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and human trafficking. We have also been fighting to keep the VAWA discourse passionate and principled, but not political.

 

Over the last year, Tahirih repeatedly met with staff and Members from both parties and within leadership of both House and Senate, reaching out to over 30 Congressional offices. Our even-handed approach has opened doors for us and earned us willing allies. Provisions that Tahirih drafted to strengthen the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (a law enacted as part of VAWA 2005 to protect “mail-order brides” from abuse) were offered by a Republican leader on the Senate Judiciary Committee, accepted by the Democratic Chair, and then passed by a nearly unanimous vote by the full committee last February.

 

As in all our advocacy initiatives, we have worked hard to build bridges, foster communication, encourage cooperation and most of all, promote respectful relationships. We have built a strong track record of working with a broad base of allies and securing bi-partisan co-sponsorships for our efforts although this can be a constant challenge in a partisan Washington.

 

But, no matter how complicated to achieve, non-partisanship is a core value that we strive toward in countless ways, every day. Tahirih does not support any political party, or participate in campaign activity (though we respect the right of employees and Board members to take part in party politics in their personal capacity and on their own time). That means we do not allow party-bashing at staff meetings, in lunchroom conversations or in our communications.  Tahirih representatives also do not attend candidate fundraisers and are reminded to uphold our non-partisanship value at coalition meetings, at briefings and receptions, and especially in speeches and media interviews. We are always honored to be invited by a wide range of conservative and liberal groups to speak at their events, and we accept most such opportunities for public education – so long as we are not expected to be a mouthpiece for others’ platforms rather than our clients’ plights.

 

Tahirih has been fortunate to attract an incredibly diverse group of supporters to rally around our mission to protect women and girls from violence. Every year Tahirih invites all members of Congress to show their support by joining an Honorary Congressional Co-Chair Committee for our annual national fundraising gala. And, every year we are grateful that dozens of Democratic and Republican committed legislators from across the political spectrum agree to serve.

 

Tahirih’s inspiring clients deserve every last one of the allies that we can muster and marshal for their protection.  Being genuinely non-partisan helps ensure that Tahirih can weather all the storms that pass through Washington and keep us effective no matter where the balance of power shifts.

 

The moment we presume who our best friend or worst enemy is, is the moment we will fail to be the fiercest advocates we can be for the courageous women and girls we represent.

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