Jubilee Campaign Joins Numerous Advocacy Organizations to Highlight Vulnerable Women’s Voices at UN CSW 67

WASHINGTON, D.C. 17 April 2023 – This March, Jubilee Campaign was blessed with the opportunity to attend the 67th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UN events and conferences have regrettably been held exclusively online without the physical space to meet new partners and advocacy organizations in person. In 2023, however, the UN headquarters in New York City opened its doors once again, drawing wide participation from foreign delegations, noteworthy women’s right leaders, and survivors of gender-based discrimination and violence. At the CSW 67 conference, Jubilee Campaign not only participated in UN official meetings, but we also were able to host two amazing side events discussed below.

Coerced Religious Conversions, Forced and Child Marriage in Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria

Each time Jubilee Campaign engages with the UN CSW, we offer an oft-overlooked dialogue regarding the double persecution of women of faith due to their intersecting identities as women and as members of either the majority faith (which may abide by religious creed that subjugates women) or as members of minority faiths (which are regarded as ‘others’ and face institutional and societal oppression). At CSW 67, and on the Eve of International Women’s Day, Jubilee Campaign was joined by Christian Freedom International, Coptic Solidarity, Stefanos Foundation, and FoRB Women’s Alliance to host Coerced Religious Conversions, Forced and Child Marriage in Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria where survivors and advocates shared personal testimonies and experiences.

Caroline Doss of Coptic Solidarity shared the stories of the abduction and forced marriage of Coptic Christian women and girls in Egypt, drawing from her organization’s report Jihad of the Womb. Despite the Egyptian government’s claims that marriages of disappeared and reappeared Coptic girls and women are consensual, the circumstances of the victims’ disappearances indicate (1) abduction, (2) premeditation, (3) intention to coerce victims to marry their captors, and (4) subsequent subjection to marital servitude and forced conversion to Islam. Reprehensibly, the government fails to intervene and rescue trafficked Coptic girls and women because the constitution and judiciary system promote conversions to the majority faith.

In April 2020, Coptic woman and mother of three, Ranya Abd al-Masih, disappeared under suspicious circumstances and reappeared just days later in a video wearing a niqab and claiming that she had left home and converted to Islam. Al-Masih’s testimony that her drastic change was according to her own will has been widely questioned, as in the video she appears to be crying and emotionally distressed. Upon the return of Al-Masih to her family months later in July, a local bishop confirmed that she had been abducted by two women in a vehicle and subsequently sexually, mentally, and “spiritually abused”. Caroline Doss additionally shared the case of one young Coptic woman who was kidnapped on the side of a road alongside her child and shoved into a car by a man who wished to convert her to Islam against her will. “It is unacceptable that to kidnap a young Christian woman and her child and force them to convert to Islam is not illegal. Police do not consider it illegal”.

Ella Elwin, a Pakistani Christian and a speaking representative of Voice for Justice, shared one noteworthy case among the hundreds to thousands of Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan each year who are kidnapped by middle-aged and often already married Muslim men who force them to convert to Islam and marry them. 13-year-old Christian girl Zarvia Parvaiz was kidnapped in Rawalpindi in April 2022, after which she was forcibly married to Muslim man Imran Shehzad. Despite that Zarvia’s family submitted a First Information Report (FIR) to local authorities, petitions for the recovery of Zarvia were rejected after she gave a false testimony under duress that she had left home, converted to Islam, and married freely. The justice system rejected evidence which exhibited that this was clearly not the case, such as transcriptions of phone calls in which Zarvia lamented to her family that she was kidnapped and that she greatly wished to return to her home and family. Upon her rescue in November 2022, Zarvia explained that she was subjected to horrific torture in captivity, including forced drug and alcohol ingestion, vaginal and anal rape, starvation, forced strenuous labor, cigarette burnings, and electrocution, all of which drove her to attempt suicide.

Non-state authorities such as Muslim institutions and clerics as well as Islamic non-governmental organizations are complicit in many of these cases, as they solemnize child and forced marriages, forge fake birth certificates and faith conversion documentation, and more. Similarly, the justice system is complicit as they knowingly accept these fraudulent documents, ignore authentic evidence of the victims’ statuses as minors, and accept victim testimonies made under duress and threat by the perpetrators custody and control, under which the victims often remain throughout the length of trial proceedings.

Finally, we welcomed Mark Lipdo of Stefanos Foundation who shed light on the prevalence of Islamic militant abductions of young girls, often from educational institutions, many of whom remain in insurgent captivity as marital slaves who are tasked with raising the next generation of militants, and also as domestic servants who maintain the militant base, cook, clean, and more. One of the most noteworthy cases is that of Christian girl Leah Sharibu who was kidnapped in 2018 at the age of 14 by members of Islamic State West Africa Province. Though the other hundred girls abducted alongside Leah from Yobe State’s Government Girls’ Science and Technical College were soon released, Leah remained in captivity as revenge for her steadfast devotion to her Christian faith and refusal to convert to Islam upon the militant groups’ demands. Regrettably, Leah has remained in captivity for four years to this day and has since changed religions, forced to wed a militant, and birthed two children as a result of marital rape.

Highlighting the Role of North Korea’s Resilient Women

Opening our second UN CSW side event, Moderator Suzanne Scholte, President of Defense Forum Foundation, offered the following remarks: “During today’s event we also want to press that human rights issues must be at the forefront regarding North Korea. They are the key to ending this brutal dictatorship. In fact, a dear friend and the highest ranking defector, the late Hwang Jang Yop, described human rights as ‘the Achilles’ heel of the Kim dictatorship’. We know that Kim Jong Un initiated a brutal crackdown and a shoot-to-kill order on the border because North Koreans were accessing information from the outside and starting to learn the truth about their circumstances; starting to understand what human rights meant; starting to understand that South Korea was a prosperous nation; starting to understand that Americans weren’t yankee imperialist rulers occupying South Korea, [a discourse which] they’re fed from childhood as propaganda.”

Keynote speaker, Ambassador of South Korea to the United Nations, the Honorable Hwang Joonkook, emphasized that “Because the ongoing human rights violations in North Korea are committed by the government and its agencies, rather than certain criminal organizations, the case of human rights violations in North Korea has no parallel in the international community.” Ambassador Hwang notes that already a decade has passed since the UN’s establishment of the Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in the DPRK (North Korea), and that regrettably there have been no meaningful improvements in addressing rights violations, but rather a deterioration of the status of civilians. Vulnerable populations, including women and girls, are most affected by food insecurity and insufficient and inadequate healthcare, both of which have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We will continue todo our part to keep building momentum for a breakthrough on the human rights situation in the DPRK. I believe that this morning’s meeting will contribute to our further efforts.”

We also were honored to have the South Korean Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights, the Honorable Lee Shinhwa, to provide remarks via video: “The OHCHR’s (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) recent report on Promoting accountability in North Korea (A/HRC/52/64) also highlighted heartbreaking cases of female victims of transnational human trafficking, forced labor and marriage, sexual [violence], and forcible repatriation. Women [in North Korea] face gender-based discrimination and violence. As a woman myself, I empathize with the suffering and pain endured by North Korean women and girls, and I am dedicated to actively exploring ways to protect their basic rights.”

H.E. Ambassador Hwang Joonkook

H.E. Ambassador Lee Shinhwa

Defector Han Songmi tearfully shared her story. Born in 1993 in the midst of a national famine, she witnessed on many occasions her biological father beating her mother. “This kind of domestic violence was committed in my surroundings whether it was day or night – husbands beating their wives.” North Korean women have no opportunity to seek redress for the aggressions committed against them, and they are expected to accept beatings. Living in the DPRK, Songmi was totally unaware that domestic violence was a form of women’s rights violations and gender violence. After she divorced her husband, Songmi’s mother and Songmi lived in a barn for over two years eating just rice. Eventually, in search of a better life for herself and her daughter, Songmi’s mother left her with relatives in North Korea so she could escape to China to work and earn money to bring Songmi to her. “My mom was the center of my universe; then, when was 12 years old, she suddenly disappeared. I felt that my universe had collapsed.” Upon her own escape in 2011, Songmi suffered multiple “terrible moments”: coming to the decision to commit suicide if she was captured; falling into ice while crossing the Tumen River and experiencing agonizing pain all over her body; being kidnapped by brokers; and having to separate from a best friend she made in China who shared similar experiences with Songmi. Finally, after escaping through China, Thailand, and Laos, Songmi reunited with her mom in South Korea. “I would like to thank my mom from the bottom of my heart for giving me two different lives: one where she gave birth to me, and one where she rescued me from North Korea”. Myriad North Korean children to this day remain in the DPRK, separated from their parents, unaware that they were not abandoned but that their parents are working abroad in hopes of extricating them as soon as possible. Songmi expressed that she feels encouraged that human rights violations in North Korea have been met with international scrutiny and censure.”I’m grateful that there are people in this world who are concerned about the status of women in North Korea.”

Another defector, Ji Hannah, escaped to South Korea in 2016. While in North Korea during the Arduous March, her husband passed away due to complications from liver disease, leaving Hannah no choice but to work in the illegal and unsafe market sector. But after the North Korean government seized all of Hannah’s earnings in 2009 and later returned her money which devalued by 99 percent, Hannah decided to escape the DPRK. She promised her sons that she would set up a new life for them in China first and then pay their way to join her, but she was captured while trying to defect. For two months in detention, Hannah was provided only one daily meal and was confined to a tiny cell with no toilet. In another detention facility, she was stripped naked and digitally penetrated by a female officer who was checking Hannah’s pelvic cavity for any money she might have hidden. After being released from detention and having her possessions seized by authorities, Hannah decided to attempt a second defection; however, she was arrested in China and repatriated to the DPRK, where she was detained once again. Hannah recalled being physically tortured in attempts to coerce her to confess, but she remained resilient by thinking about her sons. After another two-year correctional sentence during which she suffered innumerable additional violations, Hannah’s third escape was successful, and she was able to rescue her children. “What I have said so far is only a small part of the human rights violations in North Korea, and our brothers, parents, and friends are still suffering. On behalf of the 25 million North Koreans, I hope our testimony will be an opportunity to improve rights in North Korea. I beg you to diplomatically pressure the Chinese government so that it’s inhumane act of forcefully repatriating defectors will stop.”

Suzanne Scholte and defector Songmi Han

Defector Ji Hannah and translator Grayson Jang
(Defense Forum Foundation)

Lee Haeun, a newer defector who escaped North Korea just three and some years ago in 2019, had previously been detained in the DPRK in 2015 after she was apprehended for engaging in illicit trading activity in the border regions near China in order to earn a sustainable income. “At that time, I had an eleven-year-old daughter, and for her, I had to survive and live.” Haeun witnessed and experienced horrific treatment in detention, being viciously interrogated, forced into stress positions, and made to engage in strenuous physical activity to the extentof falling unconscious. “Could you imagine how painful it was? I had to bear the pain and shed tears while biting my lips. I got comforted remembering my daughter’s sweet appearance.” When one woman made a mistake, the entire detainee group was severely punished. “However, my suffering was far less than other women in my cell.” Those who tried to escape prison would be brutally beaten with birch tree bats, leaving their skin swollen and discolored and their legs temporarily immobilized; soon afterwards, they were executed for their insubordination. As a result of trauma she endured living in and escaping the DPRK, Haeun has suffered migraines, depression, insomnia, and panic disorder, afflictions which her daughter similarly experiences. “After I settled in South Korea, I came to realize that women can enjoy freedom and God-given human rights.”

Our final defector speaker, Lee Seohyun, left North Korea alongside her entire family in 2014. Her story – though largely dissimilar to the other panelists as she was born into an elite family in Pyongyang exhibits that a family’s status and livelihood wholly depends on their devotion to the North Korean government. Only when she was presented with an opportunity to study abroad in China did Seohyun learn the reality of ordinary North Korean women, such as their vulnerability to starvation, poverty, domestic and sexual violence, and human trafficking. “Before I learned those facts, I was pretty proud of my country and myself. The more I got to know the reality of my country and the truth of the leadership during my study in China, the more I was struck in my heart. Those things I believed were wrong.” Seohyun tried to remain hopeful for transformation that would guarantee civilian rights and freedoms, her optimism vanished when her best friend, a fellow North Korean student, was abducted from China by DPRK authorities and sent to a political prison camp with her entire family after her father was executed for his association with Kim Jongun’s uncle, Jang Songthaek. Kim had previously ordered the assassination of Jang for allegedly being too politically ambitious and holding traitorous beliefs about the ruling Workers’ Party. Seohyun could not believe that her friend, an exemplary student and model citizen in North Korea, had been punished for her father’s seemingly minor transgression which the autocracy considered unforgivable. “Our panelists have endured immense oppression and hardship, survived, and discovered their courage to stand for better futures for all North Korean women. I am confident in the belief that when North Korea is liberated and the Kim dictatorship is overthrown, […] women will be at the center of the country’s transformation.”

Defector Lee Haeun and translator Esther Kim

Defector Lee Seohyun and Ann Buwalda

Jubilee Campaign Executive Director Ann Buwalda rounded out our panel with some closing remarks and recommendations. “These are stories of real people, and the atrocities in North Korea continue through today. As organizations, as NGOs, we must continue to put pressure on our own governments to put pressure on the North Korean government.” As previously mentioned, the currently inactive UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea published its findings nearly a decade ago in 2014. “That report presents many of the same style testimonies, but hundreds of them. And yet there are deniers of persecution taking place in North Korea [….] As long as we continue to raise these profiles and raise the fact that these atrocities are happening, [they] cannot be committed in silence.”

(1) We urge the North Korean government to ratify its 2010 Women’s Rights Act after comprehensive revision, as it remains vague and fails to outline criminal prosecution for violence against women. We would also urge the North Korean government to remodel the Socialist Women’s Union into an entity advancing gender equality and women’s rights rather than an institution of “social control and material coercion”.

(2) We urge the Chinese government to justly categorize North Korean defectors as legitimate refugees rather than as economic migrants, as this new classification would guarantee their equitable access to education, employment, and healthcare opportunities. We also call upon the Chinese government to uphold its obligation to the principle of non-refoulement as stipulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

(3) With regards to South Korea, we urge the government to cease making concessions to the North Korean government by unjustly cracking down on defector-operated organizations which offer support to recently defected refugees and which publicly condemn the North Korean government’s human rights violations.

(4) We recommend the immediate resumption of investigative and reporting activities of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.