Educational Exchanges and the Promotion of Human Rights

On Monday of this week, in a small graduate seminar at American University Washington College of Law (in Washington, DC), a beautiful, humble, passionate heroine explained the history of the fight for women’s rights in her country, Yemen, and shared her story of fighting against early marriage of young girls by bringing divorce applications in the courts.

Shada Nasser, a lawyer with a doctorate from the Czech Republic, appears before the Supreme Court of Yemen. In 2008, she was awarded the Glamour Woman of the Year award as the lawyer for Nujood Ali, the youngest girl ever to obtain a divorce. She and Nujood have met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton twice. Nujood’s story was told dramatically in the 2010 book I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, a chapter of which is devoted to her lawyer and champion, Shada Nasser. Nujood grew up in a family of 16 children, and was sold in marriage by her father at the age of 9 to a man in his thirties. Her father believed that selling her would protect her from a kidnapper lurking around. He also believed that her husband would not immediately demand to have sex, but that turned out not to be the case. Nujood is still afraid of the dark. One day when she was ten, she woke up, left her husband’s house, got into a taxi and told him to take her to the courthouse. When she arrived, she asked for a good lawyer because she wanted a divorce, and she found Shada Nasser in the courthouse. After a path-breaking, well-publicized trial, Nujood was eventually granted her divorce. The rest is history.

Early marriage is common place in Yemen, particularly in rural areas. Although previously the law set 18 as the minimum age for a girl to marry, under the current law there is no minimum age. According to a UNICEF report, about a quarter of girls marry before they are fifteen. More surprisingly, girls’ education is not on the increase in Yemen as it is in many developing countries. As Shada informed us, because there is pressure to marry girls early, education is not a priority (particularly in rural areas).

While Shada continues to bring divorce applications on behalf of young girls in the courts of Yemen, she is not always successful in obtaining divorces for her clients. (She has been more successful for 10 year-olds than she has for 15 year-olds, for example.) She presses for legislative change through the media, by bringing court challenges, and through every means possible in Yemen.

At present, she is a Humphrey Fellow (a Fulbright Exchange activity funded by the U.S. State Department) at American University, where she is studying with a group of mid-career government officials and lawyers from other countries. This year, a majority of her colleagues in the Humphrey program are women who are strong leaders in their own countries. There is a female Court of Appeals judge from Jordan; a female judge from Bolivia; a female attorney in the Supreme Court of the Philippines who works for justices of that Court; a female lawyer from Zimbabwe who has established legal aid and women’s legal centres in her country; a female lawyer from Chile who works for the Ministry of Justice in advancing judicial reforms in the courts, access to justice and labour rights; and a female environmental lawyer and economist from Angola who works for BP, and who wants to work in environmental policy for her government when she returns home. There are also three males in the program: judges from Egypt and Turkey, and a leading commercial litigation and arbitration counsel from Bangladesh. They are all remarkably young, exceptionally accomplished for their years, and leaders in their fields. A passion for human rights, respect for the rule of law, and service to their country are common elements motivating all of them to strive for justice.

The Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program brings together accomplished mid-career professionals from designated countries around the world to 17 different universities in the United States. With students of this calibre, both U.S. students and the international students benefit significantly from the interaction and fellowship that this exchange provides. Canada would do well to provide much greater funding opportunities for similar exchanges for mid-career leaders and professionals in countries where the promotion of human rights and the rule of law are important priorities.

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