AJWS In Action: Updates from Our Partners, May 14

While AJWS grantee partners continue to provide emergency relief including food and personal protective equipment, they are also deeply entrenched in the ongoing battle for human rights. Governments around the world are using the pandemic as cover to crackdown on the rights of vulnerable people, and AJWS grantees are on the frontlines to defend them. Below, read two such stories from Guatemala and El Salvador. AJWS will continue to stand by all of our grantees in 19 countries during this global crisis—and we will update you on their life-saving work right here.

El Salvador
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has instilled an aggressive lockdown and gone to great lengths to assure his people that the government will care for them throughout this pandemic. His policies to ease the economic burden of the lockdown have been more comprehensive than those of most countries in the region: In March, the government announced that it would suspend billing for services like water and electricity for three months for the entire population, and that it would send the equivalent of $300 USD to hundreds of thousands of people to compensate them for lost income as the economy ground to a halt.

But these measures have also revealed severe human rights abuses while and made even more visible underlying problems that face the country’s most vulnerable people. AJWS grantee partners have been on the frontlines of calling out these abuses, and holding the government—rated a flawed democracy by the Economist’s Democracy Index—accountable to protect all of its people.

As AJWS grantee partners point out, people who live in extreme poverty and lack access to basic services simply cannot follow the government’s guidelines for public safety: Mandatory face masks, strict stay-at-home measures, frequent handwashing and more. Access to water tops this list. According to a 2016 UNHCR report, nearly 600,000 people in El Salvador lacked access to clean water.

In response, AJWS grantee partners are mobilizing the public around one critical, life-threatening fact: Government handwashing guidelines are impossible to follow when entire communities do not have access to clean water. Those who already suffer the most from the existing unequal distribution of water are now unable to protect themselves against this virus.

Five AJWS grantee partners are part of The National Alliance Against the Privatization of Water—a coalition of civil society organizations that this week launched #sinaguaelcovidavanza (“Without Water, COVID Grows”), an online campaign raising the voices of vulnerable communities without access to clean water. The campaign prompts the public to post a video or photograph of themselves demanding clean water for all, everywhere in El Salvador.

These grantee partners— Asociación Comunitaria Unida por el Agua y la Agricultura (ACUA), La Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho (FESPAD), La Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES), Asociación de Desarrollo Económico Social de Santa Marta (ADES) and Foro del Agua—are at the forefront of a growing movement to bring this most basic human right, access to clean water, to all people in El Salvador.

As the coalition writes on Facebook, “Water is a human right for all. This vital liquid is necessary to overcome COVID-19. The State seeks to guarantee health to the population through the implementation of sanitary measures, but it has forgotten that the human right to water must be guaranteed first.”

While AJWS grantee partners address existing problems worsened by the pandemic, they are also rising to fight new, devastating human rights abuses. As we reported in April, El Salvador’s particularly harsh approach to social distancing has taken shape in the form of “containment centers”—jail-like settings for people who have broken the country’s strict lockdown policy. People sent to these centers must be isolated for 30 days; most are tested for COVID-19, but never told their results. There is little public oversight over how they are treated by security forces while in isolation, creating a vacuum in which human rights are disregarded.

As of early May, nearly 4,000 people were being detained in 91 containment centers—many of them held without any indication of when they might be released. The containment centers are crowded and have extremely limited sanitation, making it nearly impossible to practice safe social distancing. The government detained these people in the name of public safety, but conditions within the centers make their own safety impossible to protect—these containment centers threaten to exacerbate the pandemic by exposing thousands of people to conditions conducive to the spread of the virus.

This situation reached a boiling point on May 4, when over 300 people being held indefinitely in a sports arena in the capital city of San Salvador protested their detention. They had been held captive even after El Salvador’s Supreme Court ordered their release.

AJWS grantee partner La Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho (FESPAD) is providing these detainees with emergency legal aid to push for their freedom, while monitoring other human rights violations perpetrated by security forces tasked with guarding them.

As the pandemic trudges on with no end in sight, AJWS grantee partners are providing immediate critical aid—but they are also doubling down on their pre-pandemic work to defend the human rights of the most vulnerable people. In El Salvador, AJWS grantee partners have long been entrenched in the struggle for universal access to clean water, a right that is more important now than ever. Moreover, AJWS grantees have long fought to make El Salvador’s “flawed democracy” more democratic, just and subject to the rule of law. Amidst this crisis, our grantee-partners will not allow a corrupt government to punish poor Salvadorians for the existing unequal distribution of resources—or to distract the public from the inalienable truth: All people deserve to live with dignity, respect and safety. Their efforts embody the very mission of AJWS.

In Guatemala, many rural indigenous communities have long had to fight for their ancestral homes. Without legal documentation proving ownership, the farmland these communities depend on has been sold from under their feet, with security forces violently evicting them. AJWS grantee partners have been at the front lines of these battles for years, fighting to avoid evictions and succeeding in helping some communities plant roots on land they officially own for the first time. Unfortunately, for vulnerable communities that have yet to find a permanent place to live, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the devastation of subsisting in limbo.

This has been the case for the families of Laguna Larga, a remote, rural area in Northern Guatemala. In 2017, Guatemalan security forces threatened to violently evict them, forcing them to flee north towards the Mexican border. For the last two years, AJWS grantee Bufete de Derechos Humanos (BDH) has supported this community in their ongoing legal battle to reclaim their land, as well as providing medical care and food. The community has lived through tremendous trauma and hardship, and three years after being chased from their homes, these families today remain in limbo: They survive in a makeshift camp straddling the two countries—without access to water, healthcare, food or basic sanitation.

These unsanitary conditions place this community at tremendous risk for a COVID-19 outbreak. The community has appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to secure a provisional return to their village—where they could more easily and consistently abide by measures to prevent the virus’s spread. With incredible patience and poise, the Laguna Larga community has even agreed to return to their makeshift camp once the pandemic is over, if only the government will provide them with a home to shelter in now. Through this entire ordeal, AJWS’s grantee partner has remained by their side—and will not end this fight until the community has a home to call their own.

Further, we have long supported the right of rural indigenous communities to live with dignity and without fear that their ancestral lands will be stolen by force—and we will continue to support grantees defending this human right during the pandemic and long after it ends.

Guatemala’s denial of basic human rights for vulnerable communities has also cruelly manifested in its prisons. Since the pandemic began, police have been arresting community leaders and activists under trumped up charges—and holding them indefinitely. And the families of these community leaders have been unable to contact their imprisoned family members or provide any support, due to Guatemala’s strict curfew and transportation shutdown, as well as the lack of funds to pay for accommodations near the prisons or courts.

Thankfully, an AJWS grantee partner is working directly with trusted hotel owners to coordinate shelter for these families, so they can accompany their loved ones to court. Because of their deep ties to these local business owners, our grantee partner is able to help families enduring an immensely stressful time—a prime example of why AJWS chooses to support experienced, innovative, and local organizations. This work reflects AJWS’s long-term commitment to supporting Civil and Political Rights in Guatemala by supporting legal advocacy and demanding that the Guatemalan government, including its powerful military, be held accountable and operate under the rule of law

In Washington, D.C., AJWS is working with Congressional representatives and their policy staff to push forward legislation and policies that will help protect the world’s most vulnerable people during this crisis. This week, AJWS’s Advocacy team advanced several group letters to Congress, with immense coalition support, to address some of the most pressing global human rights issues today:

—The repeal of the dangerous and discriminatory ‘Global Gag Rule’ has been an AJWS priority issue for years—and last week, AJWS and our coalition partners took another key step toward this goal when a group of influential members of Congress sent letters to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Global Gag Rule is a United States policy blocking federal funding to any international non-governmental organization providing any form of abortion counseling or services, even if these services represent a fraction of their healthcare work and are achieved without U.S. funds. Since access to healthcare—reproductive and otherwise—is an absolute necessity during the pandemic, we demanded of Pompeo that global health funding for COVID-19 provide humanitarian exemptions to the Global Gag Rule’s restrictions and support healthcare clinics across the world to provide necessary services. The letters also called for immediate funding of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)—the UN’s agency tasked with bolstering access to reproductive healthcare.

This initiative is being championed by Reps. Jackie Speier, Barbara Lee, Diana DeGette, Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey in the House, and Senators Patty Murray and Jeanne Shaheen in the Senate. In addition, 109 other Representatives and 19 other Senators signed their support to provide humanitarian exemptions to the Global Gag Rule and funding for UNFPA.

While these letters represent an immense mobilization of support for global sexual and reproductive health, they are short-term advocacy asks, due to the current crisis gripping the globe. AJWS will continue to work with our coalition partners to advocate for the full repeal of the Global Gag Rule and increased funding for international sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights.

—Last week, Senator Ed Markey and Representative Dina Titus sent a letter (co-signed by 45 other members of Congress) to the U.S. State Department and USAID calling for the promotion and protection of the rights of LGBTQI+ people and other vulnerable communities around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. AJWS worked closely with the staff of Senator Markey and Rep. Titus to elevate the voices and concerns of our LGBTQI+ partners in the letter, and we helped to secure additional support from other Senators and Representatives. Read the full letter right here.

The letter pushed for the United States government to use diplomatic power to intervene on human rights violations against marginalized populations and ensure that LGBTQI+ people are included in the government’s short and long-term global pandemic responses. The letter asks that the United States government support international responses providing safe, nondiscriminatory and sustained access to healthcare services, including sexual and reproductive healthcare. Both Senator Markey and Rep. Titus are also leaders of the GLOBE Act. AJWS has strongly endorsed and advocated for the GLOBE Act—bold legislation that would require all U.S. foreign agencies to prioritize LGBTQI+ rights in their work, including access to health care for sex workers and other at-risk groups. To push this momentum forward, this week, AJWS launched a petition mobilizing our supporters around these same issues, demanding that our elected leaders stand up for the rights of LGBTQI+ people around the world during the pandemic.

This information is accurate as of May 14, 2020.