8.8.08 is one of the most auspicious days on the calendar, and now that it's been picked as the starting date of the Olympics, all the more brandished as a symbolic date by commercials, medallions, youtube specials, and flickr projects.
But 8.8.08 also marks the 20th anniversary of the 8,888 student massacre in Burma, the largest protest against the military junta to date, making it a solemn and emotional tandem to the Olympic games. One organization is looking to mesh this sense of global unity with the international community's responsibility for human rights violation the world over and, on this date of 8s, specifically for Burma. The organization--The Global Justice Center.
The GJC works to ensure that women actively make and enforce public policy and law, and are equal partners in all governmental and judicial bodies. They train emerging women leaders in transitional democracies and conflict areas to enforce their right to full participation, advise NGOs on legal strategies for changing national laws to reflect international standards. They also use international law to counter historical and cultural norms that prevent women from taking an active role in government, or violate women's human rights in any other way.
On 8.8.08, their work will be manifested around the globe through a set of events called B8--a kick off to a new campaign called Global Justice for Burma. A unique proposal, the campaign gives action to the enthusiasm for a fast growing movement to stop the atrocities in Burma by building political will to refer the Burmese Military government to the International Criminal Court.
We caught up with the Vice President and Senior Counsel of the Global Justice Center, Andrea Friedman to talk about the GJC's ambitious goals and how she got involved.
"I was Founding President of the Harvard chapter of Law Students for Choice and we lobbied the administration for a course on reproductive rights and suggested Janet as the professor. I met her and said I want to be your TA, to work for you, and basically that 'I want to be you when I grow up.'"
That Janet is Janet Benshoof, an internationally recognized human rights lawyer who has established landmark legal precedents on women's reproductive and equality rights, the right to free expression, freedom of religion, and gender crimes in transitional justice law. Selected by the National Law Journal as one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America", and the MacArthur fellowship for her singular contributions to advancing women's legal rights, it's no wonder Andrea was smitten.
But Andrea's work on social justice issues began as early as high school when she visited Nazi concentration camps in Poland, continued with her success launching the first Women Waging Peace Colloquium at Harvard's Kennedy School for Government and her application to law school specifically to learn how to advocate for women's rights, all of which eventually landed her a job with Janet...well, kind of.
"I kept working with her and eventually I asked her for a recommendation and she said 'I'm happy to write you a recommendation, but why don't you come work for me instead?' And I said 'work where?'"
The answer--Janet's kitchen table. But from there, the Global Justice Center went to take on a project training the judges of the Iraqi High Tribunal and she has since worked on issues everywhere from Kyrgyzstan to US foreign policy itself, and of course Burma. Within three years, the organization went from two powerful women in the kitchen to a distinguished organization commanding serious respect and impact on international law, its interpretation and gender perspective.
"Looking back, I wonder, 'how did we do it?' It takes a lot of belief that you can make it happen. But you take it on piece by piece and take on the task at hand. It's a powerful idea and a powerful idea has a life of its own--you can almost work with it and follow it."
Growing an international organization within three years takes drive. Yet Andrea's inspiration for getting involved with justice on international gender issues originated far from Iraq, during a campaign for the presidency of the student body at Tufts University.
"I always thought I could do whatever I wanted and it didn't matter what my gender was. It wasn't until I was campaigning that I met real resistance. One of my friends said 'well I'm supporting you, but my friends don't want a 'chick' for president.' I was shocked." The realization of the disparity both between women's perceptions and realities of their potential and that same perception a mere generation apart drove Andrea's pursuit.
"I remember, around the same time I read a column from 1976 by Ellen Goodman in a compilation of her work from the Boston Globe. It was about the first women who were awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, this prestigious gateway to power that until then was reserved for men. And the recipient was saying something to the effect of, "I don't really think it matters that I'm a woman.' Yet just a few years earlier, she would have been denied this opportunity just because she was a woman. I realized that it was something I would have said, and it was a real wake-up call. My mother had a friend who couldn't get a scholarship because a man who needed to support his family was given preference; that woman went on to do groundbreaking cancer research. To have my generation, one generation later, saying 'it doesn't matter'; reading that column really struck me and made me realize how much we take for granted the gains that have been made without realizing how insecure many of them are and how far women still are from having real power. You can't undo 3,500 years of discrimination overnight. In doing international work, seeing so many women who couldn't dream of having the freedoms we have here--the light bulb went off and I couldn't help but work on these issues and addressing discrimination in any way I could."
The effort to indict the military regime of Burma did, however, start far away--Andrea joined Janet on the Burma border where she met with Burma groups and helped train nonprofits. "Once you meet the people and hear about the issues, it's hard not to get involved. The international community has a real responsibility to do more to help the people of Burma."
Such a movement demands reflection, and to be sure, it's changed Andrea's views on the potential of people.
"It's really reinforced the idea that individuals have more power than they realize. Every movement is made up of committed individuals--people who believe in something and are unwavering in their commitment to seeing it through. It's amazing how powerful that belief in an ideal can be. As Margaret Mead said 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.'
In every movement, in every country, there are so many commonalities and similar threads, and so much of progress is about the individuals, believing in them, investing in them, and giving them the tools to change the world."
B8 events will be held in New York, San Francisco, London, and Delhi. Guests will include Dr. Sein Win, the MP elect of the Burmese government in exile, monks and members of the 8888 protests. For more information, you can visit www.globaljusticeforburma.org
Jerri Chou is the Editor of All Day Buffet, a website and organization that brings social causes and the creative community together. It's a simple idea: Inspire Action. Change the world. Have Fun. Because doing good shouldn't feel like a chore visit www.alldaybuffet.org
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