We had an all-day meeting on Friday about Digital Identity at the United Nations.
There are almost two billion people born with no identity. There is no record of their birth. There is no proof of their existence. As a result, these people can disappear without a trace. There is no evidence of their disappearance because there is no evidence of their existence. Many of those who disappear are girls, sold into sexual slavery. Many others are victims. Victims of war. Victims of politics. Victims of human traffickers. Victims of the inhumanity of humans to humans.
This is the reason why identity is important. So we can find these victims. So we know that they have disappeared. So we can give them hope.
The meeting was full of stories that touched my heart. Stories about refugees in Calais, abducted girls in Nigeria and sex slave trafficking in India. I’m going to start by sharing these stories as it sets the context of the meeting. These stories show the problem of identity, or the lack of one. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about solutions.
The refugees story came from Jaz O’Hara who talked about being frustrated watching the news about people in Calais gathering from overseas, and being talked about as though they were objects rather than humans. To find out the truth, she went to visit the Calais camp and discovered lots of fascinating stories about real humans. The day after she wrote a Facebook update that now has over 65,000 shares. I wanted to repeat all of Jaz’s update here, but will just provide you with a little insight:
[We met] a 23-year-old from Dafur, Sudan. He told me that the Gangaweed had come to his village on horseback when he was 18, burnt it to the ground and brutally shot many people, including his dad, just for being black. He was arrested, accused of opposing the government, and put in prison for two years. As soon as he got out, he went back to where the village once was, desperate to find his two little brothers, little sister and mother. He was told his sister was alive and in a nearby town so he went looking for her. She wasn’t there. He searched towns and cities until he was again arrested, as travelling through the country is not permitted. Unable to face any more time in prison, he spent all the money he had to be smuggled to Libya. Here he started his journey, on foot and alone to England.
England..where everybody is always smiling and no one has problems, he told me. “Is it this cold in England?”, he asked in the middle of a sunny day in August. His expectations, and the reality of his life if he ever does make it to England, make my heart hurt.
He told me he doesn’t feel the hunger (the refugees get one free meal a day they have to queue for hours for), or the cold (I cant even begin to imagine winter in this camp), he just feels the pain of his lost family. Each time he spoke the word family, his voice broke and he put his head in his hands. Crying, he told me that every time he closes his eyes, he sees his mother, telling him he is a good boy, and that he is doing the right thing. ‘Why then, am I living like an animal?’ he asked me.
Jaz decided that leaving these people to live like animals wasn’t fair, and so she and her brother set up a new non-profit organisation, the World Wide Tribe, to help all refugees (over £40,000 raised so far but give more here) as well as a charitable fund to actually do something and make a difference for the Calais refugees (over £150,000 raised, but give more here), and I admired the fact that she was actually doing something.
Jaz was followed by another emotional presentation about the situation in Nigeria with Boko Haram. Again, we’ve all heard that this ruthless group took a school of 276 girls as prisoners two years ago – yes, it’s over two years now and more than 200 girls are still missing. It’s pretty disgusting that this can happen in the 21st century, and so R. Evon Idahosa decided to do something about it by founding Pathfinders Justice Initiative, or PJI for short. PJI is an international independent agent of change which aims to identify and expose pockets of injustice against women and girls in the developing world. Inspired by the story of the Chibok girls, R. Evon – a trained English Barrister and an American lawyer who worked as a partner in a national defence law firm in New York for over a decade before venturing full time into activism on behalf of women and girls – has been campaigning for the recognition of their abduction for two years.
This is illustrated well by R. Evon’s views on the news of the release of one of the Chibok girls, Amina Ali, last week:
As quickly as my heart swelled with joy, it was also haunted by the reality that Amina’s time in captivity came at an insurmountable cost; a cost that we may never know or ever be entitled to know. Her eyes bore the piercing pain of terror and innocence lost, while her arms carried a four or five month old nursing baby, presumably the result of a forced marriage and rape … [and] there is a further cost to the Boko Haram insurgency that we often do not hear of or ascribe enough dignity to. It is the cost that lies in the sunken faces of the family members of the Chibok Girls. We must continue to remember the far reaching implications of the Boko Haram insurgency on those surviving through the stress of losing their daughters. They too are living with trauma, high blood pressure and other anxiety related illnesses resulting directly from the abduction of their children and the Boko Haram insurgency that has ravaged North-East Nigeria over what is approaching a decade. 19 parents of the Chibok Girls have, in fact, died. Amina Ali’s father is reportedly one of them.
In its brief two-year history, PJI has been instrumental in assisting over 200 women and girls in West Africa (primarily Nigeria and Cameroon) trapped in modern day slavery and surviving through rape and child sex abuse.
Lucy Liu – yes, she of Charlie’s Angels and Elementary – has made a film. She made a film that had an impact. The film is called Meena. Meena’s story inpsried the reason why the meeting at the UN was held last week.
Meena was eight years old when she was kidnapped by her uncle and sold to a brothel. For over a decade she was forced into sexual slavery. She gave birth to two children while in captivity, whom she later rescued after her own escape from the brothel. Her story has been brought to life in a powerful and important short film, the directorial debut of Lucy Liu. I implore you to watch this film. It’s only 20 minutes but, if you feel you don’t time, just take 90 seconds to watch the summary of the film:
If you have 20 minutes, watch the whole film:
All in all, it is clear that human trafficking is a problem of identity. The first thing that the abusers do when they abduct someone is destroy their identification papers. That is why we need to get rid of paper and create a digital identification system. How that will work is still a challenge, but we must make it work. More about this tomorrow.