When she thinks about what's been happening in Afghanistan, Cheryl Thomas imagines a hypothetical woman who, with the Taliban back in control, faces the terrifying prospect of losing the safety and basic freedoms she's had for the past 20 years.
"Her rights have just been eliminated," Thomas said. "She is in danger if she even steps out of her house."
Thomas, founder and executive director of the Minneapolis-based Global Rights for Women, predicts that with the Taliban returning to power, women will again be forbidden to attend school or work and that they'll risk violent punishment if seen in public without a burqa and a male relative. She is dismayed that other countries aren't doing more to protect them.
"The situation in Afghanistan is a testament to how much our world leaders at every level are willing to sacrifice women's lives and freedom," Thomas said. "An entire country of 40 million people can take away the human rights of half their population and the world stands by. When we allow that to happen to one country, it will have a ripple effect. Women and girls all over the world are watching this — as are men and boys."
This is not new work for Thomas. A former trial attorney, she's spent nearly 30 years working to pass laws protecting women around the globe from violence and oppression.
Newsweek magazine in 2011 named Thomas one of 150 "Women Who Shake the World." In July, the National Association of Women Lawyers awarded Thomas its 2021 Arabella Babb Mansfield Award, named after the United States' first woman lawyer.
Thomas will speak at noon, Wednesday, Sept. 15, at Global Rights for Women Now, a virtual event, whose other speakers include Sen. Amy Klobuchar and prominent women's rights activists.
"Cheryl is so smart, she's so modest," said Carol Arthur, former executive director of the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis and a former member of the Global Rights for Women board of directors.
"What she does is bring police officers, judges and advocates from this country who have actually done the [enforcement] work to train officers, judges and advocates in other countries."
"She is a phenomenal woman, with a fierce feminist heart, tempered with wisdom, the basis for all her work globally," said Imrana Jalal, an international human rights lawyer from Fiji. With Thomas, she co-led a United Nations Expert Group that developed the "Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women," that countries throughout the world use to develop laws.
"Cheryl might be a U.S. citizen, but she is a feminist sister to women all around the globe," Jalal said, "especially in the developing world, where the struggle for equality is being fought on every front."
In the 1990s, Thomas said she "began reading about the global catastrophic numbers related to violence against women and girls. As a lawyer, I was struck by the reality that there were very few laws in the world … that prohibited the major form of violence that women suffer, and that is domestic violence and sexual assault."
In 1993, she developed and raised money for a Women's Human Rights Program within the established Advocates for Human Rights organization. She served as the program's director, focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and northern Africa.
Thomas founded Global Rights for Women in 2014. The international advocacy organization works with other organizations, including the United Nations, and partners with local activists to draft new laws and train governments to enforce them.
Through her work, Thomas said she has witnessed horrors "way more than you can even imagine," including beatings, rapes and punishments for rape victims, female genital mutilation, young girls being forced into marriage, women disfigured after being splashed with acid or who, attempting to flee abusive husbands, are returned by police because leaving one's husband is against the law.
Thomas and other activists have been working on an international treaty to end violence against women around the world. Of course, laws aren't always effectively enforced, even in the United States, Thomas said. But a law changes perspectives — acknowledging that a behavior is unacceptable is a powerful first step.
"I think laws create a vision of a different world," she said. "Once it's passed, it becomes a community norm."
Thomas shared something she wrote on Facebook in response to a friend who asked what she could do to help women in Afghanistan.
"[D]on't look away from these 20 million women and girls and their Taliban abusers who now call themselves a government," she wrote. "We are supporting Women for Women International and Women for Afghan Women, both [organizations that] work directly to serve women there. … Use your influence wherever you can — recognize opportunities to act — support laws and policies like the new push for the [Equal Rights Amendment], the movement for a global treaty prohibiting violence against women, find out what your local women's rights advocates are prioritizing at the legislature. Support them. Get your friends to support them. Don't look away. Act."
To register for the Sept. 15 event, visit app.mobilecause.com/e/80UwJw?vid=lbfw3. For more information, contact email@example.com.
Katy Read • 612-673-4583