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Advocating for the rights of women and LGBT individuals in the developing world

Randy Barry - smallLast spring, I traveled to Washington, D.C. for my first experience as a citizen-activist, lobbying in Congress for the rights and well-being of women and LGBT individuals in the developing world. I recently returned there to see some of the impact of that work – crucial new appointees, new legislators in support of key issues and new words of encouragement from both sides of the political aisle.

I visited Washington as part of a 170-person delegation from the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international organization that promotes human rights and seeks to end poverty in developing countries. Our goal was to advance several initiatives, including passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, and changes to ensure that U.S. foreign contracts and foreign aid programs do not discriminate against LGBT individuals.

I was thrilled to hear a talk by Randy Berry, the State Department’s first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, who assumed the new post in February. Just a year ago, AJWS had made the appointment of a special envoy one of its priority issues, and many of us, myself included, had met with our Congressional representatives to push for the position. I had been motivated by my experiences as an AJWS Global Justice Fellow in Uganda in 2014, when we met with LGBT activists who were living in a climate of terror because of the country’s impending anti-gay law. We heard stories of people who had been raped, beaten, harassed, evicted from homes and jobs and subjected to summary arrest.

I realized it was important to make LGBT rights a priority issue for U.S. foreign policy. Berry, the new U.S. envoy, said AJWS had been a “prime mover” in the creation of his new office – gratifying news indeed. He said he views LGBT rights as a “core human rights issue.”

“We are talking about equality, and it should go hand-in-hand with what we are doing in gender equality and in the disabled community,” he told us. “One of the most disturbing elements of discrimination is that it’s the first step to denying one’s humanity.”

He acknowledged that he has a daunting job ahead; while the U.S. is making swift progress on gay rights, these rights are just as swiftly being eroded in other parts of the world. Nearly 80 countries now criminalize same-sex behavior, with penalties that include death or life in prison. Yet the fact that the U.S. has made so much progress in recent decades suggests it’s possible to change the climate elsewhere as well, he said.

“Who would have dreamed 20 years ago that we would be where we are today in the United States,” he said. “I am sitting here today with the support of the State Department, the president and members on both sides of the aisle.”

We also saw progress on the International Violence Against Women Act, which would make ending violence against women worldwide a top U.S. diplomatic and development priority. Violence against women and girls is alarmingly pervasive, with as many as one in three being beaten, coerced into sex or subjected to other abuse in her lifetime.

The legislation was reintroduced in the House of Representatives in March with a record 18 co-sponsors, including many more Republicans than in the past. On the morning of our lobbying visits, we heard from seven Members of Congress, including Chris Gibson (R-NY), Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY), all of whom expressed strong support for the bill. David Cicilline (D-RI) described a trip to Liberia in which he met a group of young girls who had been subjected to “hideous, indescribable sexual violence.”

“It made me realize we need to do everything we can to change the lives of these young girls,” he told us.

I couldn’t agree more.

Previously: Stanford study shows many LGBT med students stay in the closetChanging the prevailing attitude about AIDS, gender and reproductive health in southern AfricaLobbying Congress on bill to stop violence against womenPreventing domestic violence and HIV in Uganda and Sex work in Uganda: Risky business
Photo of Randy Berry by Ruthann Richter

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