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3 Brave Women Who Risk Their Lives for Justice

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

Danuweli has advocated against violence against women, keeping vigil outside the courthouse where perpetrators were being tried as well as beginning an “intergender dialogue to end violence” with separate sessions for men. Although some of the stories she has to tell are gruesome and disturbing, including every kind of brutal killing imaginable, she told me that telling them brings “healing, relief, self-esteem.”

Her own story is particularly painful. Journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen, who was at the luncheon, relates it:

Danuweli told her a story that she repeated for the benefit of the luncheon audience. As part of Liberia’s reconciliation efforts, she met with a man who began telling her about the man he had murdered and then cut up along every joint in his body. It was Danuweli’s stepfather. His disjointed body parts were given to her sister in a plastic bag to take home for burial. When she recognized that it was her own family’s story and began crying, the murderer said, I don’t care, and just walked away, she related. “He thought he was talking to somebody else, not the victim. People should hear what is happening in Africa. We live with the pains” of the bloodshed, Danuweli said.

Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, represents progress, but Danuweli, who works with the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding,believes that with all-male power structures still in place, Liberia remains in danger of backsliding into conflict.

“Don’t think because a country signed a peace accord things are okay,” she told me. Without strong efforts at repatriation and changed norms, “patterns start repeating.”

Protecting human rights in war-torn Guatemala

Claudia Samayoa was in the United States just weeks after receiving threats against her life --which was nothing new to her.

Her work with Guatemala’s Human Rights Defender’s Protection Unit aims to protect peacemakers, human right workers and civilians from the threat posed by oligarchs, an army and warlords in a region recovering from a decades-long civil war, genocide against the indigenous people and an epidemic of femicide. In some regions, women who speak out on politics are accused of having a “pact with the devil” Samayoa told the audience, saying “The price of war is paid on our bodies."

Her work has put her under serious threat of bodily harm before. Her car has been tampered with and she has had to flee. Samayoa told me that her activism has always arisen from a feeling that what she was doing was “never enough.” With every campaign, she asks herself “to invent what has not been invented. What else can be done?”

When she receives a threat, she remembers that her efforts are working. “What they want is conflict,” she says. “Every time we get attacked it’s because something is changing.” And the double impact of gender discrimination persists. In every class, ideology and sector, Samayoa told the audience, sexism and harassment are prevalent. “We need a culture change,” she said.

At home, whether we're occupying Wall Street, campaigning for an end to domestic violence, or fighting for immigrant rights, we have so much to learn from activists around the world who have put their safety on the line for a better future for their families.

And it's no coincidence that they're all women.

"Women have a role to not only promote human rights and women's rights," Khin Omar told me, "but to bridge gaps. There are different experiences, but when we come together we have strength."

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahmseltzer and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.

 
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