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3 Brave Women Who Risk Their Lives for Justice

Despite death threats, exile and violence, activists remain undeterred.

The three honorees speak at the AJWS luncheon.
Photo Credit: AJWS


Activists challenging the status quo here in the United States frequently put their bodies on the line by risking arrest or police brutality. But around the world, the simple act of speaking up for basic human rights, whether it's pushing for an end to genocide, fighting impunity for crimes, or supporting the dignity and rights of women, all types of nonviolent resistance can risk death threats, torture, violence, harassment and exile.

Last Monday, Human Rights Day, New Yorkers at a benefit luncheon for the American Jewish World Service, a human rights organization headed by Ruth Messinger, met three women who are organizing for rights around the world, women who walk daily in harm’s way and have seen unimaginable atrocities, but are undeterred in their struggle.

Before the panel, I was lucky to meet the three honorees. I spoke to Khin Omar from Burma, Cecelia T.M. Danuweli from Liberia and Claudia Samayoa of Guatemala about the moments that spurred them to take that initial risk and speak out for dignity and equality in their homelands. Later, they engaged on these same questions in a panel moderated by Mara Liasson from  NPR before a lively audience of 250, mostly women and donors, who left feeling humbled, inspired and rededicated to their own activism.

Fighting for justice in Burma

Khin Omar realized her life would never be the same when, as a young woman, she survived a repressive crackdown on student demonstrators in Burma in 1988, witnessing beatings and violence from the riot police and narrowly escaping. “I got home that night, my body shaking,” she said, and from that moment on, she “became a different person.”

She said that for her, human rights activism wasn’t really about abstract ideals of democracy and civil rights, but about what she had witnessed: “injustice without rationale."

"I wanted to do something," she said. She spent months as an organizer playing “cat and mouse” games with the authorities, she told me, and eventually there was no safe place left. She had to flee. When she left to join the resistance in the rural area near the Thailand border, she learned about the country's civil war and the use of rape as a weapon of war. “This struggle is not only in the city,” she said.

She was granted political refugee status in the US and has spent the ensuing years traveling, getting educated, spreading awareness, and becoming committed to feminism and gender justice in addition to peace and civil rights for Burma’s ethnic population through her work with the Burma Partnership.

Omar has been fighting for her country for over two decades. “You come to ‘I can’t do it’ moments. But those of us who stand up once can never be suppressed anymore,” she told me. “We’re not alone--as women in particular. If there is a success in one place, it is a success for all of us.”

Omar worries that with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and her election to Parliament, and the recent visit from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, the West thinks the conflict is over--and US companies will rush in to exploit new markets and resources “in an area where conflict is taking place.”

“[Suu Kyi] is trying hard, but Burma remains engaged in a civil war. Ethnic women are still raped and killed. Political prisoners still exist,” she said.

Standing up for peace in Liberia

Cecilia T.M. Danuweli has worked side by side with Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee to bring a cessation of violence to Liberia, which is scarred by a long civil war and the brutal rule of Charles Taylor. ”Hell broke loose in our country,” Danuweli said. The women of Gbowee's peacemakers group were known for their public mobilizations, “sitting there in the rain and sun as silent witnesses for peace” Danuweli told attendees at the ceremony.

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