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This Human Rights Day, Here’s One Way You Can Help Victims Of Abuse Get Justice

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By Sanamdeepsingh Wazir

“How would you like it if you were just expressing your feelings and someone just put you in jail?” This is how an eight-year-old American school child asked King Salman of Saudi Arabia not to flog imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi. This was one of millions of messages sent on behalf of Raif during the 2014 Write for Rights campaign, the world’s biggest human rights campaign, held every year by Amnesty International. Letters, emails, SMS messages, faxes and tweets sent by hundreds of thousands of people around the world express support for the victims of human rights abuses like Raif Badawi, and call on the authorities to put right their wrongs.

The cases Amnesty International supporters take up are rarely cases on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Often they are cases of people whose story has not been told. They are people jailed for their peaceful dissent, tortured by authorities or discriminated against. Sometimes they are people who challenged the authorities, sometimes they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Al Azhar school, Bengaluru (2)The 12 stories of the Write for Rights 2015 campaign show why we need to stand up for human rights more than ever. In Myanmar, Phyoe Phyoe Aung helped organize a protest against a new education law. She now is in detention facing a lengthy jail term along with scores of other peaceful student activists arrested after police broke up the demonstration.

In Malaysia, political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known as Zunar, posted tweets the government did not like. He now faces a lengthy prison sentence under the Sedition Act. His tweets had condemned the jailing of an opposition leader in Malaysia, where the government is going to enormous lengths to silence dissent and debate, and lock up its critics.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala organized an event which encouraged young people to hold the government to account. They were arrested at a press conference in March 2015, labelled “terrorists” and accused of planning to violently overthrow the government. They have been detained ever since. Their movement is called Filimbi (‘whistle’ in Swahili), a youth movement that encourages people to get involved in peaceful political debate and action.

The campaign helps people like Phyoe, Zunar, Fred and Yves by mobilizing a secret weapon that governments fear: Your voice.

Change does not happen overnight. It takes constant hard work to keep up a flow of small acts of solidarity and letters to authorities that together build up the pressure. Often we start with small victories: better conditions for a prisoner, such as gaining access to medical care, or being able to see their families.

We try to keep the case alive, we ask our supporters to write to the authorities, we contact journalists to keep the story active. Anything to make sure the person’s case remains in the spotlight. We mark their birthdays and the anniversaries of their arrest or conviction. We broadcast the voices of family members calling for justice and seeking redress. When leaders who can make a difference embark on high-level foreign visits, activists are there so that they cannot forget prisoners of conscience who languish in jail.

The results are a testament to the power of a story to mobilize solidarity across borders and societies. Time and time again prisoners of conscience tell us how much support from the outside world meant to them.

Soni SoriZila Parishad High School, Ameerpet village, Rangareddy, Telangana, an Adivasi school-teacher, and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, a journalist, were critical of human rights violations committed by security forces and armed Maoists in Chhattisgarh. They were arrested in 2011 and accused of transferring funds from a corporate mining firm to armed Maoists as “protection money”. Soni Sori, in letters to the Supreme Court, said that when she was in custody, police officials had stripped and sexually assaulted her and given her electric shocks. A government hospital which examined her reported that two stones had been inserted in her vagina and one in her rectum, and that she had annular tears in her spine.

Amnesty International India declared Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi as Prisoners of Conscience, which led to supporters across the world writing letters demanding their release. Two years after their arrest, Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi were released on bail. Soni Sori told Amnesty International, “The efforts of the organisations that supported my cause have given me strength and created impact.”

Ihar Tsikhanyuk is a Belarusian LGBTI+ activist beaten by police for being gay. He still faces homophobia in his country, but he says when letters from Amnesty International supporters started arriving in 2014, people in his building started to address the issue of homophobia and ask him about it. More than 172,000 people took action raising awareness of challenges faced by LGBTI+ people: “When I feel I am left with no hope, I’ll get a letter out and it will inspire me. The confidence in myself returns.”

On good days, higher authorities are moved, or shamed, to re-investigate a case. On great days, authorities bombarded by tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of messages, relent and set a prisoner of conscience free. Those are days that remind us why we fight for human rights.

Tun Aung a doctor in Myanmar had tried to calm down crowds as violence surged between Muslims and Buddhists in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012, but was jailed for 19 years for “inciting violence” and other charges his supporters say were fabricated. Thanks in part to more than 120,000 messages sent to the authorities in Myanmar calling for his release, Dr. Tun Aung was transferred to a prison with better conditions, and provided with medical treatment. Finally, he was released from prison in January 2015.

Cynics may say that these individual victories are not enough to turn the tide of repression. But we cannot see people abandoned to despair. Every victory gives hope to other prisoners that the day will come when justice is done and they will go free. In the end, this is about ensuring that victims are not alone. It is about international solidarity: ordinary people being ready to spring into action when leaders and governments fail to respect human rights. No victim of injustice need ever be completely alone, even if their only ally is a schoolchild on the other side of the world writing a letter on their behalf.

About the author: Sanamdeep Singh is a Campaigner at Amnesty International India.

Image courtesy: Amnesty International

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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