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Lois Whitman ’76 – A Pioneering Advocate for Children Around the World

When Lois Whitman ’76 graduated from Smith College in 1948, teaching and social work were the professions most of her classmates gravitated to and were more-or-less expected to pursue. “It was a different world then for women’s college graduates,” she observes. “No one in my class went on to law school, and only a very few to medical school.”

Social work was gratifying and Whitman showed her enthusiasm for the profession by pursuing a master’s in social work at Columbia University. Two decades later, she began to think about returning to school for a law degree. Her interest was first triggered by the spotlight President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty threw on “the important changes that lawyers were able to make in the lives of the poor.”

After returning to the workforce following several years at home raising her three children, Whitman came to know a lawyer in Philadelphia, where she lived at the time, who ran a project providing for poor children the quality of legal work that middle-income children were able to receive. “So I decided I had made a mistake,” she recalls, “and should have gone to law school, which I started at the age of 46.”

As for her decision to attend Rutgers School of Law–Newark, Whitman says: “I chose Rutgers because of its reputation for helping students do public interest work, and for its significantly increasing the enrollment of women and minority students.”

After receiving her J.D., Whitman represented clients for a number of years before turning her attention to public policy work. She practiced poverty law at Bedford-Stuyvesant Legal Services in Brooklyn and then at the New York City Human Rights Commission where, first as a staff attorney and later as general counsel, she worked on discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. “I moved on to public policy,” she explains, “because of Human Rights Watch’s work on investigating horrific abuses and working to change them, naming and shaming governments and other entities.”

 Lois Whitman and staff    
Lois Whitman with current and former Children’s Rights Division staff.     
     
Whitman joined the New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Helsinki Watch Division in 1984 and became its deputy director in 1990. In 1994, appalled by what she learned during a research trip to Turkey about police abuse of children and finding no organization comparable to HRW that could help them, she persuaded HRW to set up a division focused on children. Since then, she has conducted human rights investigations and led missions to countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean and has written reports on abuses of children in Liberia, Northern Ireland, and Turkey, as well as other human rights reports. These days Whitman leaves the fieldwork to others, but continues to serve as director of the division, managing a staff that has grown over the years to nine.

Human Rights Watch staff typically spend several weeks in the field researching an issue, write a report with recommendations for steps to be taken to address the problem, and then advocate through NGOs or government or international channels for change. The issues on which the Children’s Rights Division is currently focused – including child labor, child soldiers, attacks on education during armed conflict, HIV/AIDS, orphans and abandoned children, refugees and migrants, and street children – mirror the exploitation and neglect of children around the world. Indeed, its most recent reports cover violence against students and teachers in Thailand; the Kenyan government’s failure to provide palliative care for children; and the frequent use of child labor in tobacco farming in Kazakhstan. In November the organization spoke out against the Guantanamo Bay military jury sentencing of Omar Khadr, captured by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan at age 15.

   

“I must say that all of our issues are daunting — none are simple. When you are dealing, for example, with child labor in a country like India, you are dealing with patterns that have existed for a very long time. You have to try to raise the child labor issues to a higher level and make at least some minimal change.”


Whitman is particularly proud of the division’s work on child soldiers and, more generally, children in armed conflict. She explains: “During the drafting of the statute that set up the International Criminal Court, we played an important role in making sure that children under 18 would not be prosecuted at the ICC; we were able, working with others, to convince governments that those who bore the most responsibility for involving children in armed conflict should be prosecuted, not the children themselves.

“We also helped to have listed as a war crime the use of children under 15 as soldiers. As a result, several dreadful men are on trial or have been indicted for this crime.”

Asked which of the Children’s Rights Division issues are the most difficult, she replies: “I must say that all of our issues are daunting — none are simple. When you are dealing, for example, with child labor in a country like India, you are dealing with patterns that have existed for a very long time. You have to try to raise the child labor issues to a higher level and make at least some minimal change.”

In her almost two decades as director of the Children’s Rights Division, Whitman has seen the group have enough of an impact not to be despairing of even the most seemingly intractable abuses of children’s rights. “I’m hopeful about a good deal of our work,” she offers. “We’ve been able, for example, to make sure that HIV-positive children in Kenya get their fare share of treatment; before our reporting and advocacy, a much smaller percentage of children than adults were receiving treatment. Also in Kenya, we helped to end corporal punishment in schools that had resulted in serious injuries and occasionally deaths carried out by teachers and principals against students. In the United States, we were instrumental in making significant changes in correctional institutions for children.

“I honestly never believed, when I persuaded Human Rights Watch to set up the Children’s Division in 1994, that we would be able to accomplish as much as we have.”

As for law students who hope to make their mark in international human rights, Whitman advises that they take “whatever courses and opportunities are offered in the field, as well as volunteer to help one of the organizations and try to get relevant summer internships.”

Throughout her careers as social worker and attorney, Lois Whitman has pursued public service with a quiet modesty that masks her passion for justice. What drew her to Rutgers School of Law–Newark — a reputation for helping students do public interest work — also led her to support the school’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). As founder and director of HRW’s Children’s Rights Division, she has helped to improve the lives of countless forgotten children around the world. With her generosity, she has helped to see that future Rutgers Law School graduates who share her commitment to serving the underserved receive indispensable LRAP support as they begin their careers.