Ruth Elizabeth Goldstein

2013 Human Rights Defender Award

rights_goldstein.jpgMy dissertation project stems from over ten-years of engaged research into human rights issues, with a particular focus on women. In 2001, I left for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, “The Dialectics of Implementation: Women’s Human Rights and Health Reforms” in Mali, South Africa, Uganda, and Morocco. I worked with local NGOs, researching the recommendations from the U.N.’s International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Beijing Platform for Women. In Mali, I researched female genital cutting (FGC); in South Africa, HIV/AIDS; in Uganda, gender-based violence inflicted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); and in Morocco, domestic violence. I sought to understand how these countries were implementing such wide-ranging human rights laws when many of them conflicted with the diversity of cultural practices of their people. To do this, I needed talk to the people affected by the human rights reforms or lack thereof. Over the course of the year I lived with families, worked in schools and with local nonprofits, struggling to learn with working proficiency Bambara, IsiXhosa, Buganda, and Moroccan Arabic.

Since then, I have maintained my affiliations with human rights NGOs in those four countries in Africa, but have shifted regional focus to Latin America. In 2010, I left for two years of fieldwork in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru, researching the traffic of women, gold, and plants employed as natural Viagras along the Interoceanic Road. The Interoceanic Road, Latin America’s newest and longest runs from Brazil’s Atlantic Coast to Peru’s Pacific Coast, dipping into Bolivia, facilitating easy access to once impassable land in the Peruvian Amazon, flush with streams of gold. The rise in the price of gold has made it worthwhile to mine for gold dust, transformed into solid form via mercury.  My doctoral project addresses the massive internal migration from the Peruvian Andes to Peru’s Amazonian region of Madre de Dios, the resulting deforestation and mercury-contamination as well as the trespassing onto indigenous lands, labor exploitation and (forced) prostitution along the side of the road.

To address the proliferating human rights issues in the tri-frontier area and abuses that impacted women in particular, I joined with governmental, nongovernmental, healthcare and pastoral workers to form a multilateral working group on gender-based violence (La Mesa Multisectorial para la Integración del Enfoque de Género en el Desarrollo Regional de Madre de Dios). The group’s collaborative efforts to investigate and push for protective measures for women by domestic violence and sexual violence from sex-trafficking has led to an increased attention from law-enforcement officials. A women’s police force, crackdowns on sexual exploitation and growing programs in schools to teach sexual health and awareness have begun in a region where there had, until recently, been no paved road.

The questions of when and why one intervenes remain a constant one for me as an anthropologist. The ways in which social scientists, human rights workers and policy-makers imagine human agency affects human rights interventions and laws. Questions of how and when to intervene as well as what kind of intervention is appropriate pursue me as much as I pursue them. When must someone be protected against themselves or against others and what gives one human the right to make that judgment for another?  When does the very act of writing about human atrocities and characterizing them as human rights abuses signify a kind of humanitarian intervention? Where is, and how does one come to, and write “the end”? How does anthropology (re)produce notions of the body, gender, race, and humanity at large?  These questions are at the core of my research and I believe that they have ramifications for human rights laws and anthropological practices, interventions and abstentions.