Her body is a map that reveals a lifetime of torture.
Scars from multiple beatings are etched into her back, her legs, and her arms - from her hands to her forearms to her elbows.
From the moment of her birth, Camille’s* religion set her apart from others in her tribe in Burkina Faso. Her parents were Catholic. They raised Camille to share their religion, but they did not protect her from life-threatening customs that prevailed in her community.
At age 7, Camille was sent to a hut in the woods. Inside, a villager cut her genitals with a rudimentary blade. She walked back to her village with blood streaming down her legs. At 19, she was forced into marriage and had to leave behind her family and friends to live in her husband’s village.
Upon her arrival, her sister-in-law examined her genitals and declared that she must undergo another cutting. A few days later, a group of women attacked Camille, sitting on her stomach and pinning down her arms and legs as a second FGM was performed. A month later, Camille and her husband moved into the city.
Once the new couple was away from home, their relationship took a surprising turn; it flourished. Her husband broke away from the traditions of the men of his community. He refused to take a second wife, and he eventually converted to Catholicism for Camille. The birth of their first child - a girl - was difficult, likely as a result of complications from FGM, and Camille was in labor for three days. With an intimate understanding of the dangers of FGM and the support of her husband, Camille became a traveling nurse, educating people in rural villages about the life-threatening effects of FGM.
Camille’s career as a nurse, however, did little to prepare her for the sudden death of her husband. Doctors told her he died of a heart attack or stroke.
"My world died with him that day,” Camille recalls.
When Camille returned to her husband’s village for his funeral, his family forced her to undergo a humiliating ritual. They shaved her head and paraded her naked around the village while people beat her with sticks to exorcise the demons that they believed had killed her husband.
According to the tribe’s tradition, Camille now belong to the family, like a piece of property passed from one person to next. The family demanded that Camille marry her late husband’s younger brother, in part so that he would inherit her husband’s money. Camille refused.
Her defiance enraged the brother and marked the beginning of a violent 12-year campaign against Camille and her children. The family sold her home in the city without her knowledge. Camille was forced to move. She sought help from her family and several governmental agencies, including the police, but no one was able to protect her.
The abuse, led by her husband’s brother, escalated. He stalked her at home and at work. On one occasion, he came into her house, grabbed her by the neck, and took out a knife. Camille’s youngest son tried to save her and was stabbed. Less than a year later, her tormenter attacked her with a stick outside the hospital where she worked, threatening to kill her with his bare hands.
Camille had two choices: escape or die.
"There was nowhere safe in my country for me,” she says. “I fought for 12 years, and I cannot fight any longer."
Determined to create a new life for herself and children, Camille sought asylum in the United States.
Because of your support, she had somewhere to turn to for help for the first time in her life.
Our office in Houston provided Camille with free legal and social services. Staff connected Camille with a pro bono attorney. Then, the team tracked down Camille’s medical records, which documented her brutal abuse. They connected Camille with vital medical care, including medicine and eyeglasses that Camille had long needed.
After waiting 13 months for an interview with an asylum officer, Camille was finally granted asylum in early 2015.
Today, she looks forward to learning English and is excited to help her children, who are now adults, obtain safety and dignity in the United States.
“There are some cases that are difficult to close because we inevitably miss working with the client. Camille’s case is such a case. It is bittersweet,” reflected her Tahirih attorney.
Thank you for making Camille's victory possible!
*Name has been changed and photo does not depict client to protect her safety and privacy.
Thirty-two years ago, a former United Nations Secretary delivered an important message about an unmet duty. The world must ensure, said Javier Perez de Cuellar, that “all children, without any exception whatsoever, enjoy special protection.” It is children, he said, who “pay the highest price of aggression in its various forms.”
International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression acknowledges the pain suffered by children who are the victims of abuse and to affirm the commitment to protect the rights of all children.
It is a commitment that Javier Dominguez is reminded of every day.
Javier is the Children’s Attorney at Tahirih Houston. His position is part of the Children’s Border Project, a Tahirih Justice Center initiative to respond to the urgent legal advocacy needs of children who are fleeing violence in Central American countries in record numbers.
Gender-based violence has emerged as one of the root causes of the influx of more than 60,000 unaccompanied children to the United States in 2014.
Girls now account for almost half of all unaccompanied children arriving in the United States, and they commonly cite domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape as reasons for making the dangerous trip north.
“They have to flee — leave their homes, their parents, their families — to avoid getting raped or killed. They don’t see it as a way to exploit the immigration system, but as survival. They don’t have a choice,” says Javier.
Homicide rates have spiked in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, making these countries twice as dangerous as Iraq.
Girls fleeing violence are particularly vulnerable to continued exploitation and abuse once they leave their homes. One Border Project client fled to the United States to escape a violent gang member who physically assaulted, threatened, and stalked her, even when she relocated to a different part of the country. She fled to the United States with her brother. But on the trip north, she was sexually abused by her guide. Rape is so common that girls’ families often send them on their journey with birth-control injections, said Anne Chandler, the director of Tahirih Houston.
Once a girl arrives in the United States, safety is far from guaranteed.
She must then navigate the complex legal system to avoid being sent back into the violent, life-threatening situations she originally fled. She may be placed in detention in a remote area of Texas, where it is difficult to get the legal and social services she needs to access the justice system and heal from trauma.
In fact, Javier is currently supervising a habeas corpus petition to free a young girl who had been unlawfully confined at an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter for over a year.
“Our clients are really scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” Javier says.
Children must contend with a range of obstacles even if they are lucky enough to obtain legal representation, including transportation challenges, post-traumatic stress disorder, long-term psychological damage, and accelerated deadlines to file complicated cases.
Most of Javier’s clients are teenagers; some are as young as 9.
Alongside Javier and our Houston office, Tahirih Justice Center is privileged to serve the children of our Border Project.
Every day of the year, we honor their courage. We give thanks for donors like you who support our work in communities, courts, and Congress. We affirm our commitment to creating a world in which the children we serve, and children throughout the world, no longer pay the highest price of aggression.
Featured Art by Teerawut Masawat
Forced and child marriage is a devastating global problem, but it doesn’t just happen “over there” – it affects individuals living right here in the United States.
Our 2011 national survey found that as many as 3,000 cases of forced marriage were encountered in just a 2-year period, all across the country. Thousands of women and girls in the United States, and also men and boys, may be at risk each year. It’s happening in families of many different cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. Victims may be forced into marriages here in the United States – maybe at the courthouse just down the street from you – or may be taken (tricked or forced) to another country for the ceremony.
That is why we are calling on President Obama to create a national action plan to protect all individuals at risk and to support survivors of forced and child marriage.
We need your help to double the impact our petition to the President by March 17. Please sign and share the petition with your friends, family, and co-workers. Every signature truly does matter! We've seen the government respond to petitions like this with real and concrete commitments.
Here's a simple message you can pass along via email or social media: "I just signed the petition to urge President Obama to create a national action plan to end forced marriage in the U.S. I really care about this issue, and I hope you will take a look at the petition and consider signing it, too: bit.ly/SigntoEndFM."
Follow our progress using the social media hashtag #SigntoEndFM.
Since 2011, when Tahirih Justice Center launched our Forced Marriage Initative, we've served at the forefront of the movement to protect individuals fleeing and at risk of forced marriage in the United States. Our important petition to the President, which already has nearly 5,000 signatures, is just one of several milestones that our Forced Marriage Initiative has recently celebrated.
We are also pleased to announce that we launched the first and only website of its kind in the United States dedicated to providing lifesaving resources to individuals in the U.S. fleeing this human rights abuse. And our six-city, national tour to raise awareness of this hidden problem is wrapping up March 17-19 in our nation's capital.
Our progress in the fight to end forced marriage in the United States would not be possible without supporters like you.
This holiday season, I hope you have a moment to meet a real-life hero, Gloria.* Born out of wedlock and orphaned by her mother in Mexico City, Gloria grew up without knowing what it felt like to be loved. At age 14, Gloria was homeless and was forced to drop out of school to support herself.
In her early 20s, she met a man who showed her affection for the first time in her life. He asked her to prove her love for him by getting his initials tattooed on her shoulder, and she did. Gloria couldn’t have known the meaning of the tattoo; his initials branded her as property of one of the most violent gangs in the world, Los Zetas. Soon after, her boyfriend took her to a party, where he sold her to Los Zetas as a sex slave.
During her six months in captivity, Gloria was raped, drugged, burned with cigarettes, cut with broken bottles, and tortured so often that she lost count. She was kept in a room with 20 other women and girls. All had similar tattoos on their shoulders.
One night, Gloria was put alone in a room after being raped. Frustrated, she punched a rusted air conditioner mounted in the window, and it budged. This was her chance.
She punched the air conditioner until it fell to the ground. Gloria climbed through into the night, and she ran for days.
Apprehended at the border, she was immediately placed in a detention center in Texas and sought protection through Tahirih. We helped Gloria win asylum and connected her with vital social services.
Today, Gloria is slowly rebuilding her life and healing from her trauma. She recently found a job and dreams of one day becoming a dentist. For the first time in her life, she feels like she has the tools she needs to build a home.
Unfortunately, Gloria’s story is not unique. At Tahirih Justice Center, we hear stories like Gloria’s many times a day, every single day. Her story is an urgent reminder of the work that remains in the fight to create a world where women and girls enjoy equality and live in safety and with dignity.
Since 1997, Tahirih has responded to pleas for help from nearly 17,000 women and children from every corner of the globe. We protect courageous immigrant women and girls, like Gloria, who refuse to be victims of extreme gender-based violence, a worldwide epidemic that impacts everyone. But none of our lifesaving work would be possible without your help.
Thanks to supporters like you, in 2014, we:
Despite these challenging times, this holiday season, we have so much to celebrate. We are immensely grateful to our dedicated staff and our robust and compassionate Pro Bono Network. We are also incredibly thankful for you. Your continued support has saved lives, and it has given many of our clients a sense of safety and dignity for their first time in their lives.
As we approach 2015, Tahirih Justice Center will continue to seek efficient, effective, and innovative ways to protect women like Gloria and all of our brave clients. But we cannot do this without your generosity. We simply do not have the resources necessary to meet the needs of the courageous women and girls who reach out to us for help; with every client we serve, we still have to turn two others away. This Thanksgiving, please give what you can and know that the lives that your gift touches will be forever transformed.
With your continued support, we will increase the number of women and girls we serve through public policy advocacy and direct lifesaving legal services. Together, we will achieve a world free from gender-based violence. Please make a donation at whatever level you can, and transform a life like Gloria’s this holiday season. Remember, every $1 you donate will be turned into $5 of impact.
With warmest regards,
Tahirih Justice Center
*Please note that our client's name and photo has been changed to protect her privacy.
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