Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2004

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The Fight for Human Rights

The Fight for Human Rights
LaShawn Jefferson ´88

The Fight for Human Rights

LaShawn Jefferson ’88 of Human Rights Watch is battling injustice with words and action.

By Jordana Gustafson ’00


Walk into the office of LaShawn Jefferson ’88 on the 35th floor of the Empire State Building, and you can’t help but notice the view. But spend five minutes talking to Jefferson, and you quickly realize she has little time to admire the vista of Manhattan. Jefferson is the executive director of the Women’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization. She has worked with women in Haiti, Kenya, Uganda and Peru, with street-children in Colombia, and with maquiladora workers in Mexico and Guatemala. She spends time traveling, both domestically and internationally, giving speeches at colleges and universities, training staff in fact-finding research and advocating for and attending meetings on international women’s rights.

The second of six children, Jefferson was raised in Washington, D.C., by her mother; her father passed away when she was a child. She left home for New London after walking with Banneker Senior High School’s very first graduating class. Connecticut College, she says, was a warm nurturing community that set her out on the right foot.

“I’m a minority student, I’m from the inner city, far from home, still growing up … and yet I always got the sense from the staff and deans that the students really were the priority,” said Jefferson, who double majored in government and English. While at CC, she worked as a tour guide and as a library assistant, was active in UMOJA and SOAR, and was both a student advisor and a housefellow.

Upon graduating, Jefferson received a Watson Fellowship to return to Madrid, Spain, where she had studied abroad. She wanted to take a closer look at what she thought might be similarities between two outcast groups — Spanish gypsies and African-Americans — as their respective governments sought to integrate and assimilate them into mainstream society.

Jefferson spent a year as a volunteer at a gypsy relocation camp just outside Madrid, where she taught basic Spanish literacy. She spoke with the women about their lives — about marriage and balancing families and jobs.

“I could see the troubles they were having in terms of establishing their own identities and finding their sense of equality in what were very oppressive and sexist relationships,” said Jefferson, who is fluent in Spanish. “I [grew] close to a lot of the women [there]. It was very hard to leave."

Jefferson left Spain, but she did not forget either the women or their stories.
“There are these kind of life-changing things that happen,” she said. “One of them was probably going to college; the other was probably getting a Watson.”
Back in the U.S., Jefferson enrolled in Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where she earned a masters degree in international relations and international economics, focusing on Latin American studies.
Jefferson took a job as assistant business news editor at Knight-Ridder Tribune news in Washington D.C., biding her time until the right job came along.

“I had, over time, realized how much I really wanted to do international work,” said Jefferson. “I wanted to do socially meaningful work … that had to do with the advancement of women’s rights.”

When she saw an advertisement for a fellowship program with Human Rights Watch, she applied for the job and got it.
Jefferson’s first mission was in 1993 to Port au Prince, Haiti, where she was tasked with compiling a report on the use of rape as a tool of political oppression. Specifically, she looked at how sexual assault was used to target female members of families suspected of supporting the ousted leader.

Through her work there, Jefferson learned to transfer to written word the body of knowledge she collected through interviews.

“Haiti crystallized for me the rigors of the work,” said Jefferson. “I think that when you’re very young and it’s your first job, you don’t always deconstruct the different parts of what it takes to be a human rights activist. People think they can just run off and scream their heads off about an injustice, and that remedies the abuse, and it doesn’t.”

In the last 10 years with Human Rights Watch, Jefferson has spent countless hours listening to and recording the atrocities visited upon women across the globe. She cites human rights violations against women all over the world: rape and conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Angola; crippling property rights abuses in Kenya; HIV/AIDS in Kenya and Uganda; and widespread discrimination against women in the labor force in Guatemala and Mexico.

When President Bush visited Africa last fall (October 2003), Jefferson drafted a letter urging him, in his conversations with the Kenyan and Ugandan presidents, to emphasize the importance of focusing on women’s rights when addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemics in their countries.

Jefferson says that while vocal and visible protests may be a part of human rights activism, the practical leg-work that she does and trains others to do, is a crucial first step. Researching and writing compelling reports enables activists to expose, in a systematic way, the abuse and discrimination that women suffer throughout their lives, so that existing law may be used to advance women’s rights.

Executive director since July 2001, Jefferson now focuses less on research and more on providing strategic vision for her division. This includes deciding where, why, and how it will focus its efforts, being a public voice for the institution and “lots of fundraising.”

While Jefferson is no longer in the field as much as she used to be, the women for whom she tirelessly works are always foremost in her thoughts. Work as a fully committed, global women’s rights activist is all-consuming. Marion Doro, Lucy Marsh Haskell ’19 Professor Emeritus of Government, says of her former student, “LaShawn Jefferson’s work with the Human Rights Watch is a reassuring contribution to civility and civic responsibility at a time when our sensibilities about fairness and equal protection are challenged by incredible violations of human rights, and we should not only take notice of that but also take pride in it.”


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