Protecting Women Refusing to be Victims of Violence

Oct 19, 2013

"Our goal is to truly provide justice to incredibly courageous women and girls who have suffered things that make us uncomfortable. They have suffered things that are hard to speak out loud." In this wise, inspiring talk, Miller-Muro tackles uncomfortable ethical questions, such as cultural relativism and our responsibilities towards those in trouble.


JENNIFER OTTERSON MOLLICK: Good evening. I'm Jennifer Otterson Mollick, and I'm the program coordinator for the Carnegie New Leaders program here at the Council. Welcome to tonight's event.

One of the core themes of the Council as we lead up to our Centennial in 2014 is citizenship and difference. So we are especially pleased to welcome Layli Miller-Muro of the Tahirih Justice Center. Thank you, Layli, for speaking to us tonight on protecting women refusing to be victims of violence.

Now I would like to introduce our moderator for this evening, Carnegie New Leader Liana Sterling. Liana works in intergovernmental relations at the New York City Mayor's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where she covers health, social, and labor policy issues that affect New York City's fiscal and budgetary planning. She has worked extensively on the implementation of recent federal health reform at both OMB and the New York State Insurance Department. Early in her career, Liana spent time working in D.C. for a U.S. senator. Liana holds an MPA and MPH from the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health, both at Columbia University, as well as a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College.

Please join me in thanking Liana for moderating tonight. Liana, I will now turn the floor over to you.

LIANA STERLING: Thanks, Jennifer. Thank you all so much for being here. It's so nice to see you. I think we have a wonderful program in store.

I'm very delighted to welcome Layli Miller-Muro, who is the founder and executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting courageous immigrant women and girls who are refusing to be victims of violence, through legal services and public policy. Since 2001, she has led the organization in its service to over 14,000 women and girls, growing it from a staff of six to over 40 and expanding its offices to Houston, Baltimore, in addition to the Washington, D.C., area.

In recognition of its sound management and innovative programs under Layli's leadership, Tahirih won the Washington Post Award for Management Excellence, and its innovative use of pro bono attorneys to quintuple its resources was featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Layli founded the organization in 1997 following her involvement in a high-profile case that set sensational precedent and revolutionized asylum law in the United States.

Fauziya Kassindja, a 17-year-old girl who had fled Togo in fear of a forced polygamous marriage and a tribal practice known as female genital mutilation, was granted asylum in 1996 by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals. This decision opened the door to gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum. Using her portion of the proceeds from a book she and Ms. Kassindja co-authored about the case, entitled Do They Hear You When You Cry?, Layli established Tahirih.

Prior to joining Tahirih as executive director, Layli was an attorney at the law firm of Arnold & Porter, where she practiced international litigation and maintained a substantial pro bono practice. Prior to joining Arnold & Porter, Layli was an attorney-advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice Board of Immigration Appeals.

Layli is a frequent lecturer and has appeared in numerous news outlets, including Fox News, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Layli has been named among Newsweek/Daily Beast's 150 Most Fearless Women for 2012, Goldman Sachs's 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs, and Feminist Press 40 Under 40. Layli lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and three children.

Please join me in welcoming Layli Miller-Muro.


LAYLI MILLER-MURO: Thank you so much for having me.

I'm honored to be here. I am excited to be able to talk to you this afternoon about the work that we do, about the amazingly courageous women that we support, and then the ethics involved in what we do and how we do it and what's happening to them and why it's happening to them. I look forward to a good discussion.

The Tahirih Justice Center is a nonprofit organization. We are lawyers mostly. We provide free legal services. I know that for some people the legal services are the less interesting part sometimes of helping people in need. But you should know that without attorneys and without support, immigrant women and girls who may be unlawful or lack legal status, women who want to divorce their husbands but retain their children, human trafficking victims who may be entitled to 20 years of back pay for backbreaking work that they had done for long periods of time, need lawyers. That's how they get justice. So it might sound kind of unsexy in some ways, but it's important, really, to providing justice.

Lawyers are not enough, though. To really help someone find justice in the truest sense of the word, you also need to rebuild your life and you need to rebuild your soul and you need to rebuild your self esteem. So we have social workers on staff who help our clients with emergency housing needs, with English as a second language training, psychological care, and medical services.

Our goal is to truly provide justice to incredibly courageous women and girls who have suffered things that make us uncomfortable. They have suffered things that are hard to speak out loud. They have suffered things that you might turn away from as you read about them or click on quickly to the next story so that you don't have to see the details and then get that knot in your stomach which happens when you're seeing something that you know is not okay, but you're not really sure what you can do about it.

Those are our clients. It is our job to be uncomfortable, it's our job to hear their stories, and it's our job to respond and to react.

One of the ethical implications in the work that we do is the fact that our job is to support women and girls who are fleeing lots of things, including cultural practices. They may be fleeing female genital mutilation. They might be facing a forced marriage. They might be facing an honor crime. They might be facing domestic violence, human trafficking. There's a long laundry list of forms of abuse against women and girls that no religion, no culture, no society is immune from. Our clients represent the gamut of that.

But often people will say to me—if you didn't notice, I'm white—people will say, "What are you doing involving yourself in these issues?"

I think that's an ethical question for us. In some ways, I have a cop-out answer to that, which is that I'm just the lawyer. What we do, at its core, is serve the needs of our clients. Our clients have decided for themselves. We didn't go to their country. We didn't go into their house. We didn't go into their neighborhood and tell them what they should think or what they should be okay with or not okay with. That wasn't our job. Our job was to be there when they decided that for themselves, to support them in whatever way they define support and what they need.

For example, we had a client who was in our office who was there because she wanted protection for her daughters, who were going to be subjected to the same female genital mutilation that she had been subjected to as a young child. As a mom, she decided that this would end for her family, for her girls. Something that had gone on for generations and generations and generations she decided would stop there.

But we also noticed that she came in regularly with bruises on her face and sometimes she had bruises on her arm. We said to her, "If you are not happy at home, if you are being beaten up, in the United States we have laws to protect you. We happen to have lawyers here who can help you. We have social workers who can help you access emergency housing."

Her answer to us was, "No. I deserved the beating because dinner wasn't ready on time. I believe, as a good wife, that was my duty. I didn't follow the rules. And my husband is kind, because he only beats me with his hands."

It was not our job to judge that. It was our job to make sure that we talked about it with her, and we made sure she was fully aware of the resources available to her and the law available to her. But our job wasn't to judge her.

Our job was, however, to help her 100 percent in the way that she wanted us to, for the thing that she came to us for.

But our clients, just as we are all, are on a spectrum of empowerment, and all of us are on a journey towards empowerment, as women and as men. Every society, every culture, has its own journey with regard to the equality of women and men in achieving that. At the Tahirih Justice Center it's not our job to judge where people are on that spectrum. It's our job to fully support wherever they are to get them to the next evolution, the next step up, to help promote the equality of women and men.

I often think, in some ways, our job is to create the stage, to kind of form a barrier of security around the stage, to give the microphone, and then to allow our clients to say what they need to say and do what they need to do.

So that's our job.

Now, people will ask what they think is an ethical question around cultural relativism that goes beyond the answer I just gave. I think people confuse the question, frankly. People will ask the question very broadly: How can you be involved in that, because it's a different culture? But they are not clear, I think, even on their own question. I would like to divide it for you into three questions. I think that kind of visceral cultural-relativist question really has three sub-questions under it.

The first question is, should we care? Should we care about what's happening to people in other countries, in other cultures, who are part of other religions that we don't really know and don't really understand? Should we care?

The next question is, should we do anything about it? There's an argument. You could say, "Yes, I care, on some philosophical level." There are some, by the way, who will say, "I don't. That's not my business, and I don't care." I think most people aren't saying that, though. I think most people care. But the next question, then, is, should we do anything about it?

Then there's a third question. If you have answered yes to the first two questions—"Yes, I care, and yes, I want to do something about it"—there's a third question that's very important that I think is the real question people get hung up on, which is, what can I possibly do?

I think, unfortunately, that last question is veiled in the "should we care" question or "should we do anything about it." I believe, as a world citizen, we should care and we should do something. But I do think there's a very legitimate conversation to be had around what to do about it. And I don't claim to know the answer to that.

But I think there are two guiding principles that, if you care, if you want to do something about it, might help us engage in the most productive and supportive way. I think the two principles have to do with humility and intending to be of service to others.

What I mean by humility is that I think it's very common, particularly for people from the West, to believe that we have it right or that we have the answers or that we might know the exact way to go about something. I think humility only comes after thinking that and then being wrong like a hundred times. Then you begin to realize, "Oh, gosh, maybe I don't actually know 100 percent how to do something." That humility, I think, is important to trying to engage.

In order to achieve that humility, it's important to not be afraid of mistakes. I mentioned trying and failing about a hundred times, and I mean that, actually. I mean that seriously. The only way one will do that and learn humility and try to learn as much as you can about what truly would be helpful is by being okay making a mistake. That means going into a community that you don't know and saying something dumb. It will happen. It's okay, because it will happen like a hundred times. That's okay, so long as you can develop the humility that would allow you perhaps to ask for feedback, to invite others to let you know how you were perceived, what would really be most helpful in this situation and that kind of thing.

There are two principles, I think, that might help as we try to be helpful with issues that we don't understand firsthand. Those two issues are humility, as I was talking about, and service. What I meant by being of service is that I think a lot of people engage in charity or philanthropy with a mix of selfish and selfless motives. We all do, if we're honest. I think that charity or being of service to others is at the same time the most selfish thing you can do, as well as the most selfless thing you can do. We all derive a great deal of benefit from being of service to others. It makes us feel good. We learn a lot when we're doing it, and there are lots of self benefits. So we have to be honest, I think, about that, that that's what service is.

But we have to maybe then be conscientious about the selfless component of it and make sure that it is dominating over the selfish aspect of engaging in service. I don't know the perfect way to do that, but I do think that to try to be humble, to try to truly be of service, the most beneficial thing is to simply ask for feedback.

I was in Ghana being of support to a local legal rights/women's organization there. I was there to be of service to them. I thought I had some ideas of things that would be useful, but I knew there was a lot I didn't know. I had lots of conversations with them about what I could do that would be truly most helpful to them.

Sometimes their answer was, "We want you to be the keynote speaker, because that would be helpful to us."

Sometimes their answer was, "We want you to sit in the very back of the room and nod enthusiastically about everything we say." That was most of service to them.

Other times it was maybe making an introduction—again, not speaking much, but making the introduction.

I don't know. I don't know the best way. Only you will figure that out as you try and fail—lots of times—to seek the ways you can be of service.

So this cultural-relativist question, as you can tell from my answer—I think we should care. I think we should be involved. We are all on the same planet. We are all suffering because others are suffering in other parts of the world. But we should stress over this question of how: What is the best way to engage? I don't know the exact right way to do that. But I think if we're deliberate about trying to selflessly be of service and if we have a degree of humility that allows us to be open to feedback, then maybe we'll do some good or maybe we'll figure it out.

The issues that Tahirih Justice Center clients face are varied. I mentioned to you some of the laundry list things: human trafficking, female genital mutilation, honor crimes, domestic violence, and things like that. Those things are not the problem. Those things are the symptom. The real problem is the lack of equality of women and men. Until we get that right, in society we will always find creative expressions of violence against women and girls or of somehow the manifestation of the inequality of women and men.

I want to talk a little bit about that, because I think people find either fascinating or disturbing the very specific issues that we work on. But I think it's important to step back, actually, and look at the why and the overarching question around why these things happen, and happen again and again, in just slightly different ways.

Even in the United States, there is this thing called forced marriage that we hear about in Pakistan or in Yemen. I was reading to my daughters the story of "Sleeping Beauty" the other day. I don't know if some of you remember that story. It was a girl who was promised in marriage at her birth. Then she was kept in seclusion for 18 years, to not meet or see anybody else. Now, there were fairies, and then she happened to meet a guy in the woods. But then she was told, "No, no, you can't even think about that guy because you have been promised to marry someone else. The honor of the family is involved. This is not a choice that you have. You have to marry him."

She said okay. She went back to her castle, and lucky for her, it happened to be the same guy that she saw in the woods. But it could have been very, very different.

That's forced marriage. If you are of a European background, we have that in our own culture.

So these concepts are not foreign. As I said before, I think we are all on a spectrum, in different stages—different cultures and different societies, with regard to different stages of evolution—and humankind as a whole, just like an individual, matures and evolves. We all do it at different paces and at different stages.

But humanity right now, I would argue, is in kind of a stage of adolescence. If you think about the qualities of adolescence, you can see a lot of qualities that are evident in societies today. Adolescents are often striving for identity or independence—a lot of "I can do it by myself" and "I can do it without you." Countries, cultures, and people all over the world, particularly over the last 50 years, have been doing that intensely.

Another quality of adolescence is the failure to recognize long-term implications for short-term behavior. I live in Washington. We are doing that now. We do that a lot. We are in that stage of adolescence where we fail to recognize long-term and interdependent implications of short-term behavior.

Another quality of adolescence is that an adolescent has the physical or material capacities of an adult. An adolescent can give birth. An adolescent can take a life. An adolescent has the material, physical capacities of an adult, but lacks as of yet the spiritual, the emotional, the intellectual maturity to go along with those physical capacities, to use them to their fullest. Humanity is the same. We have incredible material capacities. There is no good reason materially that anyone goes hungry. And we have the ability to annihilate the entire planet. We have incredible material capacity, but right now we lack the emotional, the spiritual, the intellectual maturity to use those material, physical capacities to their fullest.

So we're in this awkward, bumbling, acne-filled, lots-of-attitude-and-hormones—I have one who is entering that stage right now—humanity is in this very volatile stage.

One of the issues that we have to get right in order to enter into adulthood is the equality of women and men. This perspective comes from my values. It comes from my religious beliefs. I want to share with you an analogy from the Bahá'í Faith, which is my religious tradition, that illustrates this point.

The analogy is that humankind is like a bird with two wings. One is that of the male and one is that of the female. Until both of these wings are equally strong and coordinated, the bird of humanity will remain handicapped and will be unable to soar or fly to its fullest potential.

So there's this kind of illustration of the handicap that we're all suffering because of the profound lack of equality of women and men. What I like about this analogy is that, if you haven't noticed, you actually can't stick the right wing of a bird on its left side nor can you stick the left wing of a bird on its right side. They are different. They are unique. But they have to be equally strong in order for the bird to fly.

I think also through this analogy we can see that the equality of women and men is not a women's issue. It is a men's and a women's issue, because we're both flopping around on the ground together, and we're both unable to fly and to soar and reach our fullest potential.

This issue of the equality of women and men, which is the core—the violence that our clients suffer is the symptom—is one of those key issues we have to get in order to allow us as humanity to exit the stage of adolescence into a more mature stage of adulthood. Will it take 100 years? Will it take 200 years? Might it be in my lifetime? I doubt it, but it would be wonderful. I don't know. But it's clear that humanity is beginning to grapple with these issues.

Another ethics issue that I'll throw out relates to what we do. I have talked to you about the underlying subject matter, the suffering of our clients and what we are doing to help them. But I want to talk to you a little bit about the way we help them. I mentioned that we provide free legal services, but Tahirih only has a little over 40 staff. We're in three cities, in Houston, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Baltimore, Maryland. But we cannot alone represent all of the women that come to us.

The way we do our work—we don't have the resources that are required to help the women and girls that we need to serve. We receive many, many phone calls per week, and we're only able to provide full legal representation for about one in ten of the women that call us, which is particularly heartbreaking. As I mentioned, they are heroes by the time they have come to us. They have already decided to leave their families, to leave their cultures, to leave their communities, and they have sacrificed a great deal to demand justice for themselves and their children. It is one of the most heartbreaking things I have to do to recognize that we don't have capacity.

In order to increase our capacity, we partner with pro bono attorneys. It was mentioned that I used to be an attorney at a corporate law firm. I learned there that there are some wonderful, wonderful people who happen to have money and who are doing mergers and acquisitions, but went to law school because they cared about justice. It feeds their soul to be able to provide free legal representation for our clients. It is more a gift to them than it is even to our clients.

Tahirih has a network of 1,200 pro bono attorneys from 214 law firms that provided last year $10.1 million in donated legal services. What that does is, it turns every dollar donated to us into four dollars of impact for our clients.

The ethical issue there is the extremes of wealth and poverty in society. The ethical issue there is what people commonly call the Robin Hood effect, which is the idea that we rob Peter to pay Paul, but completely consensually and willingly, and very generously.

But people, particularly in the United States, particularly in New York, have great wealth. There is an extreme that is hard to comprehend sometimes. There's an interesting YouTube video about it that some of you may have seen called "Wealth Inequality in America." It's mind-blowing when you look at it.

Many of us are immune to the gap. Many of us don't even see the gap, maybe given the world that we operate in. But the gap is absolutely profound, and we have become desensitized to it.

Just prior to coming here, I was at a different meeting, actually with a different Carnegie foundation that was about a mile away. I thought, I've got time. I was early. So I thought, I'll just walk here. It was a very luxurious walk. It was on Park Avenue, and I walked along. I'm walking in my fast New York pace. I had to step it up from my normal D.C. pace. I was walking pretty fast, and I passed something.

It wasn't until mid-block that it dawned on me that I just passed a woman sitting on the side of the street with a baby that looked no more than six weeks old. She had a sign. I didn't read it. I didn't even stop. I just realized that this was a person who needed help. The fact that she had a baby—those of us who have had children, you know, when you have a small infant, they should not be sitting on the side of the street. You also know that it's hard enough to help yourself take a shower, let alone get a job or do whatever might be required to help that child.

I kept walking. Somehow, I rationalized that I had already passed her and it would be weird to turn around. So I walked another block, and my stomach started to hurt. Then I thought, "Well, I've got a long walk. I've already walked two blocks. How weird would it be to walk back two blocks?" Then I started to feel nauseous, and I thought, "Darn it!" So I turned around and I gave her 20 bucks. I just thought, this is very sad. But most people, of course, walked by. And this was Park Avenue.

Well, this is everywhere. We are desensitized, because it's very hard. I think there's a protective mechanism that we all have, because it would hurt too much to really realize the differences.

But I also think that we have become luxuriously used to not being uncomfortable. It is okay to be uncomfortable, and it's actually really important as a human being to every once in a while feel discontented, to be really pissed off about something that we see that shouldn't be, and to be uncomfortable.

I think it's an ethics issue, because we live now in a world with such extremes in wealth and poverty. We have become desensitized. There are lots of things that allow us to be that way. I am that way. We are all that way.

But I think that it's an ethical question we should ask ourselves almost on a daily basis: What did I not notice today that should have bothered me because I didn't want to be bothered? It's a hard question. I'm not suggesting that you live a life of constant pain and feeling of discomfort, but I am suggesting that we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable a little bit more, maybe, than we are already.

With that, I'll stop. I guess we're going to have a little bit of a conversation and then open it up to questions.


LIANA STERLING: Thank you, Layli. That was so much food for thought.

Before I ask you to talk a little bit more about your work at the Justice Center, can you share a little bit about some of your early experiences and your background that led you into this field?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: It was mentioned very briefly in my introduction. The Tahirih Justice Center was created as a result of my involvement in what became a high-profile case. I was a law student at the time, and I happened to be working, in the summer of my second year in law school, for an immigration attorney, who was hired by the cousin of a young woman—she was 17 years old—from Togo, and she was going to be forced to undergo female genital mutilation and she was going to be forced to marry a 45-year-old man as his fourth wife.

It just had happened that a number of years earlier, I had done service with, actually, the Bahá'í community in Gambia and was exposed to female genital mutilation and became interested in it. So I wrote a law journal article when I was in law school on whether or not female genital mutilation could be a basis for political asylum. At the time it could not. Our refugee and asylum laws were developed after World War II and were developed to expressly protect people who were facing [persecution surrounding their] politics, race, nationality, membership in a particular social group, and religion—these are the five grounds on which you can be a refugee in the United States. If you didn't notice, gender is not one of them. So women were not allowed to receive protection in the United States because of forms of persecution inflicted because of gender.

I made what was a hypothetical, kind of a legal academic argument at the time in a law journal article that you should be able to receive asylum on that basis. But then, as fate had it, I was now representing a young woman who had the same fact pattern. I argued her case before the immigration judge, and we lost. Then I took the case to American University's International Human Rights Law Clinic, where an army of law professors and law students worked on the case, and I continued to work on the case. It was appealed to the highest immigration appellate court. There she won. Her case set legal precedent and opened up the doors to what we now call gender-based asylum.

There was commercial interest in her story and in my story of helping her as a law student. So she and I wrote a book together. It's called Do They Hear You When You Cry? It was published by Delacorte Press in 1998. I used all of my portion of the proceeds of the book to start the Tahirih Justice Center.

I, however, was not involved in the first six years of the organization's existence at the operational level. I was on the board. But I had some very wise mentors, who reminded me that I didn't know what I was doing. I still don't, really, but I really didn't when I was 23. Based on their advice, I worked for people. I was mentored. I was heavily edited. I was trained and tried to learn how to be a lawyer first. Then I came to Tahirih, and that has been my full-time job since.

LIANA STERLING: You just mentioned that the case broke ground in the precedent. Is that safe now or are there challenges to that precedent or other challenges within this area of law?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: There are a lot of challenges, actually. There are many forms of persecution, not all of which are clearly seen as grounds for protection. Domestic violence is one of those, for example. Also recently there was a very bad precedent decision that came down that said that if the threat of female genital mutilation is to your children, you cannot receive protection.

So there is a lot of work to be done in this area.

LIANA STERLING: You mentioned in your talk a lot about the obstacles, resources, awareness, discomfort that we have to move through in order to tackle this. Are there ways that we can maintain hope or things we can do to actually make a dent?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: I think that there's a lot we can do to maintain hope. People ask often, how do people do this work? I must say, it does take a special soul. Not everyone is cut out to be on the front lines and to hear stories of torture and abuse every day. We have had staff who have been diagnosed with secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. We try to do our best. We have a support group on Fridays. We have personal time, where, if you sat and listened to an eight-year-old talk about being raped ten times a day, you might need to walk around the block afterwards. We really encourage staff to do that.

It is hard work. But it's exciting work and it's positive work, because they have said no, because they have escaped, because they are now demanding a change, not just for themselves, but often for their children, sometimes for their entire communities and for their families. We are helping to create long-lasting systemic change through individuals. Then we also lobby on the Hill to make sure that laws and regulations protect our clients.

So that's the good news, that change is happening, not only because of our advocacy, but because of the women themselves. They have said no, and they have said no to something that their mother didn't say no to and her mother's mother didn't say no to. So it's really very positive and exciting.

LIANA STERLING: When you founded Tahirih, was that fulfilling a new niche, so to speak, in this legal advocacy community?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: Yes. In fact, one of the things that happened as a result of the publicity in the case was that I began getting lots and lots of phone calls from women. My name was in the paper. They looked me up. It was clear to me that there was a huge need for services to women in these circumstances. I tried to refer them to other organizations, and there were none. That is why Tahirih got started.

LIANA STERLING: And how did you go through making some of the management choices in order to do what you've done, which is to maximize and leverage these resources of attorneys? How did you think through that, and how did that work?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: At a management level, I think there is a strategy answer to that and then there's a personality answer to that. At the strategy level, we are very deliberate. We regularly assess the return on investment of certain programs and certain ways of doing things versus other ways of doing things. We try to create efficiencies and ask the question, are we efficient in these ways? We do strategic planning every three to five years. That guides our direction. Then within that, we do an annual goal-setting process, and then we have a quarterly reporting process. So there's a strategy answer to that, from a management perspective.

But then there's also a personality answer, which is that we could have all the right strategies in place, but without the right people there, it doesn't matter. I hire directly. It's something I care a lot about. We are bigger than we used to be, but we are still small enough for me to meet everybody. It's just critically, critically important that people align with the values of the organization and the work ethic that we try to promote.

LIANA STERLING: I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more about that. We're here thinking about ethics. How do you think young people in an organization can operate ethically? What are the challenges as an employer for enabling people to work ethically?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: When I am interviewing and then hire, I hire first for ethics, actually. People need skills. People need baseline skills. But people can learn things. You cannot learn values. You have that. You either have your values and your ethics or you don't. I think early as a manager, I believed I was a therapist. I thought that somehow I could get people who didn't learn how to share when they were three years old—somehow they were going to share. I realized at some point, I can't do that; that's not my job, and I will fail.

So I'm actually quite obsessive about making sure that we have the right values in someone, the right level of maturity. I would say there are three things that I really look for in particular.

One is looking for whether they externalize blame for things or whether they own their role in it. I was interviewing somebody and she gave me an example of something that didn't quite work well. I said, "Oh, what did you learn from that?"

She said, "I've learned to not trust anyone."

I said, "Oh, okay. So it was everyone else's fault?"

She said, "Yes, absolutely."

I was trying to ask her, "Well, what might you have done to help"—I don't know, whatever situation. I couldn't get that out of her. She saw no role in it. There was no ownership. That's a huge red flag for me and, I think, kind of a setup for an ethical disaster.

My father, early in his career, was a warden in a prison. I asked him what his experience was working with prisoners. He said they all have the same story: It was always the other guy's fault. Not that anyone who externalizes blame would be a criminal, but I do think it exonerates you on some level for your own behavior.

So that question of whether one is externalizing or internalizing responsibility is really important to me.

I also look for maturity levels. You should know, I don't hire finalists because of what I see on their Facebook or what I see on their Twitter account. I hope you know that. If you don't know that, I'll tell you that. I know a lot of other employers who do the same.

Basically, I'm looking for maturity level. If someone is still in that stage of adolescence, I don't want them here. I want adults who are beyond some of those adolescent qualities. There are different ways to see that in someone. So I think maturity, emotional maturity, is important as well.

LIANA STERLING: I could just keep firing away, but I'm going to open it up to the floor here.

QUESTION: My name is Sylvana Rochet.

You said something earlier that really resonated with me. You said this is a women's issue, something that impacts women, but it is something where both men and women need to be part of the solution and that both men and women are implicated in it. I'm wondering, from what you have seen, what do you think is some of the low-hanging fruit to get men to be more involved and to be able to make a difference in this? What are some immediate things that can be worked on?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: Thank you to the three men that are here. Your being here is wonderful. I often find only a few guys in audiences about this topic.

I think just caring about it, caring about the fact that an entire half of the population suffers violence. One out of every three women is subjected to violence. That should bother all of us.

Also there are very strong indicators—if it doesn't bother you on a moral level, there are scientific indicators around how society does not benefit and suffers from the lack of equality that relates to health indicators, economic indicators, agricultural production indicators, and all kinds of things.

So I think the first step is for men to care and to recognize how we really are all suffering for the lack of equality of women. But then there are a lot of things that men who do care can do. I think sometimes they are very subtle things, like being encouraging of women in small ways, noticing their brain more than their appearance.

I recently had a tirade on my Facebook about how my daughters were treated in public. Strangers and even acquaintances seemed unable to say anything to them other than about what they were wearing or how cute they looked or what their hair was like. And we don't do that to boys. We don't.

I think there are very subtle things that happen all day, every day, that send women messages about appearance being more important than their contributions, that their voices are less important than their appearance, these kinds of things. So I think there are a lot of subtle things. But noticing is very, very important.

Then, with regard to violence, one out of every five women in the United States has been raped. It's a statistical fact. People think it's a low fact, because it relates to reporting rapes. Frankly, whether you're a man or a woman, if you have a room of 10 women, the thought might cross your mind that there might be two women in here who have suffered in that way—to be conscious about that in what we're caring about and what we're realizing. It might also help explain why some women are distrustful or have baggage in different ways.

So I think there's a mindfulness and then also an intervention and an engagement that, when men do it, will be very important.

I should say, by the way, that with something like 90 percent of our clients, when they tell you the story of their life and then how they got out, often, there was a man who believed in them. It was the father who wanted them educated. It was an uncle who helped them escape. We recently had an Afghan client who was educating young girls in her basement and the Taliban threatened to kill her. Her uncle helped her escape, and they executed him for that.

Fauziya, my first client that I mentioned to you—her father protected her from female genital mutilation. That's when she was 17. That's pretty old. Usually they are mutilated younger. He protected her, but then he died, and when he died, her protection ended, and she was then forced into this marriage.

But many of them had men in their lives who told them, "I believe in you," or "You don't have to tolerate this," or provided a helping hand.

So the role of men in a very direct intervention in something like 90 percent of the clients that we serve is very, very important. Men have an important role to play—subtle and dramatic.

QUESTION: My name is McKenzie Price. I'm a Carnegie New Leader.

I have a question, but something that you said struck a chord with me. I used to work at a human rights organization. What you were saying about not putting yourself culturally into a culture—kind of knowing your boundaries, that kind of thing—our Africa director was often asked at college campuses, "Who are you to say what another human culture can do? Who are you to say this and to judge?" And he would always say, "No woman ever asked to be raped. No one ever asked to be tortured or to be killed for any of these reasons," and always kind of put people on the back foot a little bit. So that was interesting.

I have a question about how your organization operates. You have an office in Houston, Baltimore, and D.C. But there are a lot of other immigrant communities throughout the country, such as Somalis in Minnesota. Do you have partner organizations that you work with or social workers that focus more on different ethnic groups or religions that can branch out from that? Or are you more focused?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: We do. We sit on several national coalitions on different topics. Tahirih, for example, manages a coalition on forced marriage in the United States. A part of that coalition is lots of grassroots groups, religious groups, ethnic groups, English as a second language teacher associations. So there's a cross-section of communities both geographically and topically that we work with. We do that in lots of spheres.

But maybe you're asking a different question. To collaborate is not enough. Women need services. They need lawyers. They need social workers. They need hardcore help, not just people who write papers about it or who sit in a room and talk about it. They actually need help.

We do, as an organization, feel that pull. The board just recently approved, actually, a five-year strategic plan where we intend to open up a total of five offices throughout the United States. That means two more offices. My challenge is to fundraise for that and to allow that to happen. But we feel a very strong compulsion to respond to the calls we're getting from around the country.

By the way, the whole cultural relativism thing—if I might be a psychoanalyst for just a moment—I think when people ask that question, it's usually a way to rationalize not helping. I think it makes us feel better.

I did that as I was walking away from this woman today. I found a gazillion reasons in my mind. She's probably milking the system. She probably just wants to be there. Who am I to—no, no, she's there with a baby. And I was kind of like, darn it, there's no way—and I saw her; she was not drug-addicted.

But we do that. We rationalize not helping. It's very easy to say, "I don't understand that. It's kind of weird. The names are foreign. I don't understand it." It's a way to rationalize not caring. It's a way to rationalize not being involved.

But what you said is absolutely right. Nobody asks to be tortured. Nobody asks to be raped. When you listen to the voices of our clients, that's absolutely clear.

But I think, unfortunately, that voice, rather than being rooted in a real desire to be respectful of someone else's culture, is often rooted in a desire to rationalize our non-involvement.

QUESTION: My name is Nora Lavori. I was once an idealistic young lawyer and then got very practical as life went on.

I've heard you talk about the origins of your work in the international sphere. It's very interesting to me that you're here in this country. I gather that you're working with international clients, in essence, but you're using American law to advance their causes of justice. I wondered how that actually works and whether there is some sort of impact that you can see that your work is having on domestic issues that we have. We may not have a culture that supports genital mutilation or other things, but we clearly suffer from some of the same problems and certainly the inequality of women.

Can you please tell us about the impact that your work is having on our problems in this country?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: What I would say to that is that these are our problems. You're right about the fact that we litigate under U.S. law. As a lawyer, you also appreciate, I'm sure, the sad fact that we don't have international law that jurisdictionally we are able to use in cases like this. By definition, when women have fled issues from abroad, they are fleeing countries and legal systems that do not protect them, countries where domestic violence is not a crime, where female genital mutilation is not a crime, and these kinds of things. So by unfortunate definition, they need another legal system in order to protect them.

We actually did a study of our clients. Only 30 percent of them were fleeing abuse abroad. Seventy percent of them were fleeing stuff happening here. Human trafficking, for example, is something happening here. The people using the brothels are American guys. The people who are hiring domestic servants who are often being abused are here, and may be Americans. The mail order bride victims that we have been helping are married to very middle-American guys who very deliberately wanted to look abroad to find women whom they viewed as traditional and subservient, who didn't speak English and don't know the laws. Domestic violence is something, obviously, that's happening here.

Forced marriage—Tahirih did a survey with the Urban Institute two years ago and found over 3,000 confirmed forced-marriage cases in the United States. These are U.S. citizens, sometimes first generation immigrants, but not always. We actually are working on a coalition with women from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, women from the conservative Mormon communities. There's a spectrum that our communities are intersecting of service.

So these issues are here, actually. There's a lot of intersection.

QUESTION: I'm Peter Diamond.

I have a practical ethical question. The story that you told us about the woman whose husband was beating her suggests that there are instances where you have to make a decision as to whether or not you actually help the person and where she may not actually be exercising choice; she may be under duress. Can you talk a little bit about the process that you undertake to determine whether or not a woman is actually capable of exercising choice?

LAYLI MILLER-MURO: Let me reframe the question and divide my answer into children versus adults.

From a legal perspective, children don't have agency. They don't have legal agency to have informed consent and that kind of thing. So there's kind of a heightened standard of protection that we are allowed when it comes to children. In Texas, our lawyers are mandatory reporters. In D.C., there are different ethics rules and there's a different standard around client-attorney privilege. But in any case, when it comes to children, we're able to intervene more forcefully, I'll say, in something that is clearly going on that is clearly abusive and wrong.

When it's an adult who is sitting in a lawyer's office who can help her, who is aware of resources available to her, but absolutely feels pressure to not be able to do anything about it—no matter what she's telling us, she may be under duress in many ways. She may fear losing her children. There may be lots of circumstances that are taking away elements of choice—that is absolutely true. From a legal perspective, we cannot go in commando and take her out of her house. It does require her to make a choice.

That is hard. That is very hard. Our clients who make that choice do so to their detriment. Sometimes they never see their children again. Sometimes they never speak to their family again. They are completely ostracized from their communities. And that is a horrible life sentence. There are very few of us who can truly relate to that.

They may be destitute. We had a client who was a bank manager in Lagos, Nigeria, who was really very wealthy, given relative standards, who had an MBA. She had a child who had dwarfism. It was just what happened to her child, but her family believed it was a curse. They thought the way to cure the curse was to bury the child up to her neck and beat her with a spiritual stick, and if she then survived that ritual, she would be cured.

So she fled. She fled that situation and came to the United States. The child had been treated at Johns Hopkins, and she was able to come here. She was destitute when she got here. She was living in a homeless shelter.

People sacrifice a lot. But that takes a great deal of heroism. That takes a great deal of courage. Not every client is willing to do that.

It's our job, as I mentioned before, to support them to the degree to which they are willing to stand up. Then what's heartbreaking is that, even then, sometimes we don't have the resources to help them as much as they need help.

But it's an interesting ethical quandary. It keeps us up at night. We wish they would make different choices sometimes.

But to your point, too, this is not a foreign thing. Statistically—let's say domestic violence, for example, and this is an American study of American women—it takes some women an average of seven times to leave, come back, leave, come back, leave, come back, leave, come back, leave, come back, and leave and come back—seven times. If you are that person's friend, if you are that person's lawyer, you could be frustrated with that person. But that is a statistical fact.

It takes great courage to leave everything, great courage.

LIANA STERLING: Thank you, Layli. Thank you so much. Please, everybody join me in thanking Layli for her wonderful presentation.

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