Last week, I returned from Kenya where I was working with my medical, public health, and legal colleagues from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). For the past five years, we have worked with our partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to end impunity for sexual violence. The program primarily works in areas affected by conflict and unrest.
Before I went to Kenya, I spoke at an Animal Politics conference in the Netherlands, where scholars, students, activists, lawyers, and other professionals gathered to discuss how to advance the political and legal rights of nonhuman animals.
To some, the Physicians for Human Rights program and the Animal Politics conference might at first appear to have little in common. But—among the many points of commonality—the empathy and commitment shown by my colleagues in the Netherlands and Kenya reminded me of our responsibilities to each other today, and in the coming months and years.
Here are some reminders I brought home with me:
1) We need to be upstanders, not bystanders. Now, more than ever, we need to stand up for the most vulnerable among us, including those who could be further marginalized in today’s political climate.
Following contested elections in 2007, violence broke out throughout Kenya. After the election, sexual violence incidents increased more than sixty-fold. Other human rights violations increased by about eighty-fold. By partnering with other medical, legal, and human rights organizations in Kenya, PHR has helped eight courageous survivors file a legal petition demanding action from the Kenyan government. The public interest lawsuit claims the government should be held accountable for failing to protect civilians against sexual violence, credibly prosecute these crimes, and provide adequate access to medical and psychiatric services. The public interest litigation also aims to prevent such crimes from occurring in the future.
2) The struggle for human rights and animal rights is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s uncomfortable and taxing at times, but the payoff is worth it.
Over the past few years, my PHR colleagues and I have trained healthcare providers, law enforcement professionals, and legal and judicial experts on how to collect, document, and evaluate medical forensic evidence of sexual violence. During that time, we’ve also helped strengthen cross-sectoral networks essential to the successful prosecution of sexual violence crimes, the prevention of mass crimes, and effective interventions.
In our most recent visit, we began working with one of our hospital partners to strengthen their capacity to provide assessment and care for sexual violence survivors. Slowly, with time, together we’ve begun to address these grave human rights violations.
Along the same lines, some of my colleagues at the Animal Politics conference – including animal rights lawyer Steven Wise – have spent decades trying to advance the legal rights of nonhuman animals so they will one day be protected from imprisonment, torture, and other abuses.
3) If we’re in it for the long haul, we need to take care of ourselves and each other to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue, also called vicarious trauma.
In Kenya, I was so impressed by the respect, compassion, and care the healthcare professionals extend to one another. I was equally encouraged by the mutual regard and humility shown by people at the Animal Politics conference in the Netherlands.
4) Stories of resilience are restorative and empowering, and we need to acknowledge our capacity for resilience at the same time we recognize the difficulties ahead.
Though there have been setbacks and challenges, our partners working on the frontlines in Kenya remain dedicated to caring for survivors of sexual violence. Much of their strength stems from the resilience shown by survivors.
Likewise, stories of hope also fuel those working on behalf of nonhuman animals. For example, many people in the Netherlands highlighted the benefits of sanctuary for animals, and Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka spoke about a new, more ethical vision for our increasingly human-animal society.
Do you have stories of courage and resilience you’d like to share?