2014 Human Rights Conference: Rights of the Family

Conference Summary

Webster University’s Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies hosted its seventh Annual Human Rights Conference on October 8-9, 2014. Held at Webster’s home campus in Saint Louis, Missouri, the conference focused on the Rights of the Family in coordination with the 2014/15 Year of International Human Rights (YIHR) theme.

posterOn Wednesday morning, Washington University law professor Susan Appleton provided a framework for family rights law in the United States. She highlighted how family rights within U.S. law and Supreme Court cases are ultimately about protecting choice, self-determination and  liberty in private life. While many examples showed positive developments toward greater respect for family diversity in the U.S., we also see connections to gender discrimination and state controls on sexuality within law and policy making. Appleton noted that the “gold standard” in families is still marriage, and there’s little space for relationships that look different from this norm. There are also sometimes  consequences for protecting the family as a unit, rather than focusing on individual rights. For instance, we see cases of intimate  partner violence when respect for family means that individuals suffer harm. Another issue that Appleton raised was the potential conflict between parental rights and children’s rights. Do children have a right to make their own choices, even when that choice opposes the parents’ wishes? For instance, in cases when children want to attend sex education classes that their parents opted them out of. 

Building on this legal background, Kate Kuvalanka – a professor of family studies at Miami University in Ohio – began her plenary lecture by highlighting the need for legal  protections for lesbian and gay parents who aren’t biologically connected to the child. This approach forces us to re-conceptualize our traditional understanding of the family. She outlined progress in the U.S. toward marriage equality, but also noted issues like health care, poverty, and non-discrimination in employment that all affect LGBTQ families but are  rarely addressed in that context. She also asked  the audience to honor November 20 at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, in which we remember the transgender victims of intolerance who died from murder and suicide. Kuvalanka’s “The TransKid Project” studies families with transgender and gender-nonconforming children, looking for ways to fight stigma and save lives. Kuvalanka reports that knowledge must be shared, including among pediatricians and health insurance companies, to understand the perspectives of transgender children and avoid stigma, persecution, and risks of suicide. Her project is ongoing action research, and it is only one piece of a larger puzzle for investigating LGBTQ issues around the world.

 jacqbhabhaJacqueline Bhabha of Harvard University then turned the discussion toward adolescent rights, including the rights of young people undertaking dangerous  migration  in places like Mediterranean Europe  and Central America. She argues that “the cost of inaction, the cost of  not thinking about this, is dramatic.” Bhabha highlighted the connections  between migration, inequality, and sex trafficking. In many cases, the  need to GET OUT of bad situations at home forces minors into hopeless  situations elsewhere. The line between consent and coercion is  therefore blurred, since poverty and violence inhibit free choice. Another “desperate exit strategy” is child marriage in places like Syria, where parents may see marriage as security for their children against  harassment, poverty, and rape. Other “costs of inaction” on this issue include the fact that only 6 percent of girls in rural India attend university, while many former child soldiers in Sierra Leone now work as sex workers. Bhabha argues that we need to use a rights-based approach to combat these social ills and fill the vacuum of protection. While some extreme circumstances galvanize public attention – such as the 2012 case of gang rape in Delhi, India – we see continued ambivalence toward the social and economic concerns of adolescents. Bhabha’s own work focuses on the concept of “positive deviance,” studying the ways in which young people fight negative norms and strive for something better in their own lives. For instance, a study of 19-year-old girls in India who attended college despite all odds, shows us the impact of key mentors throughout adolescence. Bhabha contends that we need consistent movement toward investing in social and economic infrastructures that support young people in establishing new, more positive social norms. 

 Three breakout sessions split the group into three classroom spaces on Wednesday afternoon: 

  • Pamela Sumners from NARAL Pro Choice Missouri talked about political challenges related to abortion rights.     
  • Hasmik Chakaryan and Stacy Henning from Webster’s Professional Counseling program discussed methods for assisting non-traditional families through major life transitions.
  • David Nehrt-Flores from Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates outlined the challenges that U.S. immigration policies create for migrant families.

To round out the first day of the conference, Sara Shoener – a researcher with New York City’s Human Resources Administration – shared her doctoral research on female survivors of intimate partner violence. She provided incredible stories of women who struggled not only against their abusers, but also against a system that was supposed to support them. Well-intentioned actions and resources may sometimes put families at risk. According to Shoener’s research, the courts prioritize two-parent families and sometimes open up partners and children to further abuse. Determined to protect the father-son relationship, for instance, one judge allowed unsupervised visits with a father who regularly beat and tormented his young child. The federal welfare system also promotes and privileges two-parent families, including marriage. For instance, President Obama praised marriage in a State of the Union address while Mitt Romney argued that stronger families would reduce gun violence. The internalized bias of survivors, as well as community-enforced biases that pressure women to “suck it up and keep the family together,” often leads to increased violence and security risks. Particularly striking was the fact that a court distributed brochures entitled “Kids Need Dads” right outside a protection order court, where women went to seek restraining orders against their abusers. In fact, claims of abuse were often used against women who participated in Shoener’s study; they were called petty and told they were trying to alienate fathers.

 lkOn Thursday morning, Webster University professor Lindsey Kingston discussed the connection between family rights and statelessness. There are approximately 13 million stateless people in the world, meaning that they do not have legal nationality to any country. While the right to a nationality is established in international law, statelessness also serves as a “root cause” of additional rights violations such as the inability to attain a basic education or legal  employment, discrimination and inequality before the law, and vulnerabilities to human trafficking. Kingston outlined how statelessness often begins in childhood (with a lack of birth certificates and state recognition, for instance) and creates lifelong human rights challenges. Using case study examples from places such  as North Cyprus and Egypt, she noted that stateless people are often “invisible” and outside of government protection. Other issues include gender discrimination in citizenship laws that often render women and their children stateless, obstacles  to family reunification in times of crisis, challenges to the right to health (including  family planning and reproductive health), and emerging concerns related to statelessness and commercial surrogacy.

 Breakout sessions again split the group into three smaller classroom spaces,  providing opportunities for dialogue and brainstorming:

  • Kevin Drollinger, Executive Director for Epworth Children and Family Services, outlined actions and potential solutions for giving voice to older youth in foster care.
  • Webster University professor Don Conway-Long discussed issues related to “Men, Masculinities, and the Family.”
  • Ann Rosen discussed her photography exhibit and ongoing work related to family. Her exhibit “In the Presence of Family” was on view at the May Gallery during the conference week.   

Kathryn Stam, a professor at State University of New York Polytechnic Institute (SUNY PI), shared stories and images related to her work with central New York’s resettled refugee population. She argues that families face challenges and separation not only during initial crises (such as war and conflict), but also during the resettlement process and because of problems in their country of resettlement. By collecting Facebook images and narratives, sharing stories in the “Refugees Starting Over” project in Utica, and managing the Nepali Folk Collective musical group, Stam studies the lived experiences of resettled refugees and hopes to share their stories with others.  

Joining Stam was Jenjira May Htoo, a SUNY PI graduate student who was resettled to the United States in 2007. A member of the Karen minority group, May’s family fled Burma to Thailand years before resettlement. She lived in a series of refugee camps in Thailand, where she had access to some resources (like shelters and medicine) but sometimes still faced scarcities related to food, clean water, and proper sanitation. Without income, many refugees sneaked out of camps to undertake illegal employment or suffered from severe depression. Here in the United States, May notes that life is better but that many refugees still face challenges related to culture, lack of transportation, language, and the stress of everyday life in America. Many resettled refugees cannot find employment, for instance, and are unfamiliar with laws and paperwork processes. Yet she ended her lecture on a positive note; according to an elder in her community, “The first generation plants the seeds. The second generation gets the shade. The third generation gets the fruit.”   prof

Following the plenary lectures, many speakers gathered for a roundtable discussion moderated by Webster professor Kate Parsons. The panelists included Sara Shoener, Ann Rosen, Kathryn Stam, Jenjira May Htoo, and Lindsey Kingston. Many Webster students and faculty affiliated with the undergraduate International Human Rights program, as well as the Women & Gender Studies program, also participated in the discussion. The roundtable touched on a variety of family rights issues, but one thread of conversation that was particularly lively related to the place of marriage within U.S. society. Why is marriage privileged in laws and policies, as well as in social movement such as the “marriage equality” movement for gays and lesbians within the United States? Participants considered the social pressures to marry, as well as the oft-neglected legal consequences of marriage in cases when relationships fall apart. “Family still has an awful lot of cultural baggage,” reflected Professor Bill Barrett. Ann Rosen noted: “If we can redefine family as a group of people who support each other…then maybe more people will participate in these conversations.”  

Lastly, Marc Solomon’s lecture on “Securing Human Rights in America: Lessons from the Freedom to Marry Movement” took on this issue and outlined the human rights battle for marriage equality in the United States. The National Campaign Director for Freedom to Marry, Solomon visited Webster University during an “amazing and historic week”; because the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a variety of cases, the number of states with marriage equality climbed from 19 to approximately 35 in a few days. This means that more than 60 percent of Americans would soon live in a state with marriage equality. This represents a dramatic shift from perspectives in the early 2000s, when the Vatican called marriage equality in Massachusetts “a nationality tragedy” and the decision was attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. This issue was the “third rail” for politicians back then, said Solomon; “touch it and die,” with public approval ratings around 30 percent. Yet activists took on the clear (aspiration and inspirational) goal of marriage equality as part of a broader LGBTQ movement, arguing that people should no longer “learn to settle” for second-class citizenship. “To be denied a right is an indignity,” said Solomon. “It hurts.” Gays and lesbians were encouraged to “come out” and tell their stories, to talk to people who were unsupportive in hopes of changing their opinions, and to be active in political elections. “We weren’t trying to change marriage, we wanted to be a part of it,” said Solomon. He notes that while “we’re definitely winning,” it is imperative for activists to keep fighting until marriage equality is gained in all 50 states. “No fight like this is quick or easy,” he said. “The work of changing people’s views about something important is always hard.” 


Webster’s 2014 Annual Human Rights Conference highlighted the need for further study, debate, and advocacy related to the rights of the family. For more information on the speakers click here.

The Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies will offer a variety of related human rights programming throughout the 2014/15 academic year, so please check the university calendar for updates and visit our website. Next year’s conference will focus on the theme of the Millennium Development Goals in October 2015.

For more information about the Institute's Year of International Human Rights, click here.