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Brazil-Philippines Connection: Human Rights Work Transcends Space and Time

 
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Amy A. Avellano and Elizabeth da Cunha Sussekind

 
 

By Amy Avellano, Philippines
(Humphrey Fellow 2008-09; LL.M. 2009)

In 2009 when Elizabeth Sussekind and I were celebrating her birthday and our last dinner together at Brasa restaurant in Minneapolis, we dreamed of seeing each other and our fellow graduates of the 2008-09 Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program again. We expected any reunion to be in Minnesota. Little did we know that three years later we would meet in Brazil, Elizabeth's home country.

The Humphrey program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, brings mid-career professionals to the United States for a year of professional development, study, and cultural exchange. Our cohort was the first hosted by the University of Minnesota Law School through the Human Rights Center.

Elizabeth, a former national Secretary of Justice of Brazil, and I, an NGO lawyer for women and children in the Philippines, found common ground in our human rights work and advocacies, in addition to the trafficking-in-persons program we were both pursuing as Humphrey Fellows. Our age gap did not prevent us from sharing and enjoying common activities. Even after the fellowship year was over, Gmail and Facebook kept us connected to discuss various aspects of the wide field of human rights.

In early 2012, Elizabeth was contacted by the State of Espírito Santo, Brazil, to deliver a keynote address at the formal launching of Jusmulher Capixaba, an anti-domestic violence program for women in the Brazilian state. (Jusmulher refers to justice for women; capixaba refers to the residents of Espírito Santo.) She told the organizers that she knew somebody who specializes in issues of domestic violence, and I was also invited to speak at the event in Vitoria, Espírito Santo's capital.

Espírito Santo is the first among the 27 states of Brazil to launch a program like Jusmulher Capixaba since the national Maria da Penha Law was passed, which addresses domestic violence and penalizes its commission. The law is national legislators’ response to the plight of Maria da Penha, a battered woman who fought to earn her freedom from an abusive husband. She fought a long legal battle. Several times, the courts decided in favor of her husband, and when he was released from jail, he resumed the beatings. When her husband finally crippled her, Maria da Penha sought the help of NGOs and found herself the center of media attention. Only then was he sentenced to imprisonment.

Maria da Penha, now in a wheelchair, paved the way for the law penalizing spousal abuse and gave hope and legal remedies to women in similar situations. After passage of the law, structural and institutional reforms have gone full blast. The reforms are felt at all levels: executive, legislative, and judiciary.

Jusmulher Capixaba is supported by the federal government of Brazil—through the Office of the President of the Republic and the Ministra de Estado Chefe da Secretaria de Políticas para as Mulheres, and by the State of Espírito Santo—through the Offices of the Governor and Vice-Governor, Office of the President of Tribunal de Justiça, and Office of the Coordinator of Women and Domestic Violence Victims.

At the launching event, a one-stop shop was introduced where victims of domestic violence can access competent, gender-sensitive, holistic medical, psychosocial, and legal interventions under one roof with the help of a multidisciplinary team. Three such units are now available in Espírito Santo.

Attending the event were national and local legislators, justices, judges, law practitioners, police, media, academics, NGO workers, and others in the front lines of protecting women and children. What was very telling, however, was how Jusmulher Capixaba was claimed and owned by the women and supported by the men of Espírito Santo.

After the Vitoria event, Elizabeth and I proceeded to Rio de Janeiro. She had invited me, as head of the Núcleo de Estudos sobre Justiça e Segurança Pública (Center for Studies on Justice and Public Security), and attorney Farah Marie G. Decano to a colloquium with law students of Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro-Unirio Centro de Ciências Jurídicas e Politicas (CCJP). The students, despite some difficulty with English, actively engaged us in discussing violence against women and children, the women’s rights movement, judicial reform and administration, judicial and legal education, innovations in human rights education, and other issues.

We had no illusions that everyone would become champions for women’s rights after just one session, but we were able to bring some human rights issues to the forefront and make the students think about society’s treatment of the marginalized. After class, one student approached us and promised that, although she cannot do much to help right now, will do her share to make the world better for every woman and child as soon as she becomes a lawyer.

The Humphrey Fellowship Program, U.S. State Department, University of Minnesota Law School and Human Rights Center, Fulbright Commissions in our respective countries, Institute of International Studies, host families, professors, co-Fellows, and foreign students all contributed to what Elizabeth and I have become after the 10-month Humphrey Fellowship. Participation was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Fellowship enabled us to see the world outside our own countries and build bridges across the globe. We are reinvigorated; our passion for human rights work, for helping and impacting the life of even one person, is stronger than ever. And our burden is lightened because we know our work is being shared by similarly minded people.

We also know that, with modern technology, we need not be physically present to extend help—to Law School and Humphrey Fellow alumni and others. Meeting friends and colleagues around the world is just another bonus we gained from our year in the United States of America.