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Event Focuses on Gender-Based Abuse



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2018

Hanover — Any other balmy Saturday in the dead of winter, Lucia Joseph might go skiing in short sleeves or otherwise find ways to decompress from her second-year studies at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine.

So why was the young Greater Bostonian spending most of this Saturday’s daylight hours inside the college’s Life Sciences Center, listening to presenters at the sixth annual regional conference of Physicians for Human Rights, or PHR, lead discussions about the evil that men do to women?

“It’s good that there are events like this conference,” Joseph said after a workshop on “Ending gender-based violence: strategies for work and life.” “Sure, it’s hard to keep up with classwork and labs and still get sleep and exercise, but conferences like this are an excellent way to remember that there’s a life outside medical school, and to find out about how to take care of people.”

During the strategies workshop, Abby Tassel, assistant director of WISE, an Upper Valley nonprofit that offers counseling services, was advising first responders in general and medical professionals in particular to take their time with women who appear to be survivors of domestic and sexual violence, question carefully and listen closely to help them describe and report what they’ve been through — especially if they fear reprisals from their abusers at home or on the job.

“If you see or sense something, bring it up,” Tassel said. “You can start by saying something like, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you. Here is a local program where they might be able to help you. Would you like me to go with you?’

“When you’re not ignoring it, you’re changing the world.”

As more women come to the Upper Valley from around the world, many of them fleeing domestic abuse or persecution and often juggling low-paying jobs with immigration issues, social service agencies are confronting still deeper complications.

“We see people from every continent,” Kate Semple Barta, an immigration attorney, who founded the Welcoming All Nationalities Network in the Upper Valley in 2011, said during another workshop. “People like living here. The schools are good. It’s safer. They don’t have to worry about their kids so much, especially the young mothers.”

On the other hand, Barta continued, many of these women are crumbling under the multiple pressures in their lives, particularly those needing help with their immigration status.

In one of two case studies she shared, one client from Jamaica described undergoing abuse at the hands of an abusive husband who is a citizen of the United States after her work visa expired, but putting up with it in pursuit of the longer-term goal of bring her children to the States from a homeland where, she said in a WANN video, “I’ve been raped multiple times.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” the woman continued, adding that a friend told her about WISE when “I was so stressed I was too sick to work.”

“Right there,” Barta said, “the bottom drops out. ... She eventually succeeded in bringing her children here, so it’s got a good ending. You don’t get a lot of those.”

Reza Hessabi, a second-year medical student who co-organized the conference, said between presentations that the school’s chapter of Physicians for Human Rights began planning to focus on the subject of women’s rights in September.

By October, revelations about sexual harassment and assault vaulted into the national spotlight, with women publicly accusing the likes of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

“As we were getting started, a lot of it had to do with President Trump and some of the things he said during the campaign and his presidency, how he’s made women feel with his comments,” Hessabi said. “With everything that’s been happening since, we had something happening outside that made it even more relevant to the conference.”

Indeed, medical student Natalia Zbib, a co-organizer, said at the end of the conference, some 200 people from a variety of walks of life registered to attend at least part of the two-day gathering — the best attendance since the Geisel chapter of Physicians for Human Rights began hosting the regional conference in 2013.

Before giving the final presentation of the conference on Saturday afternoon, storyteller and sex-education author Cindy Pierce attended the WANN workshop as well as the keynote address by Holly Atkinson, a medical doctor whose research, as director of the Mount Sinai Human Rights Clinic in New York City, focuses on the cultural and economic factors that lead to sex trafficking of women and girls.

Among other revelations, Atkinson pointed to the availability on Amazon of the book Pimpology: The 48 Laws of the Game, which among other things offers step-by-step instructions on how to lure a vulnerable girl or woman into prostitution.

“I was talking with a couple of doctors I know afterward, and we were all just incensed,” said Pierce, 52, a mother of three teenagers who still lives in her native Etna. “A lot of the things that came up at the conference were heavy, but at the same time, we need to hear the reality.”

Pierce added that the enthusiasm and diligence of the organizers and of many of the attendees balanced out much of the dire news about the continuing challenges women face.

“I’ve been to conferences with medical students, where they’re often on their laptops or their phones,” Pierce said. “I was at three talks today, and they were locked in and focused. I felt so much hope in the room. ... Thank goodness we have this whole generation of idealistic kids who can get a lot done. You get a feeling from those students that we’re going to be in good hands.”

To learn more about the services of WISE of the Upper Valley and about the Welcoming All Nationalities Network, visit wiseuv.org.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.