Speaking out for justice
Female defenders of human rights share their experiences and look at ways to take action against abuse
Thailand, Fiji, Burma and Pakistan have all made international headlines over the past 15 months as military leaders either seized power or tightened an already firm grip on their people. The global reaction varied: bemusement in Thailand's case, with clips on TV that showed soldiers toting flowers in their rifles, to horror in that of Burma, as grainy images captured on mobile phones showed soldiers brutally kicking demonstrating monks.
A recent forum that brought together women activists from different parts of the world told many other stories - of how women struggle for human rights under the military regime and in the climate of fear that prevails in their countries.
In Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, a group of women has been taking to the streets almost every day for the last eight years, shouting "Go Musharraf! Go! Go Musharraf! Go!"
"We refuse to let them take our freedom of speech," says Azara Talat Sayeed, in Bangkok to share her experiences of the women's campaign against President General Pervez Musharraf, who ousted Nawaz Sharif's elected government and took control of the country in a 1999 coup.
Sayeed's fight and constant involvement in demonstrations has come with a price. Four years ago, she was removed from her post as a university lecturer and now works for the grassroots organisation Roots For Equity.
Speaking at the forum organised by the Women Law and Development Networks (WLD), Sayeed told women activists and law scholars from different parts of the world that dictators learn from each other.
Recently, she said, 22 women protestors in her country were arrested. And two of the founding members of WLD Pakistan, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, were served with arrest warrants. Jahangir, who is also the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, has now been released after being under house arrest since November 3. Her sister, Jilani, Special Representative to the United Nations Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, still faces arrest.
Sayeed, however, sees each protest as a success because under Pakistan's martial law any protest is prohibited.
"But we challenge them. We are constantly protesting against the military regime. If we allow ourselves to be scared off, we won't have a country," she says.
For as long as the international community and the European Union say "no comment" and the United States says nothing, women need to join hands, she adds.
Conditions in the Republic of the Fiji Islands, which has seen four coups in the past 20 years, are similar to the situation in Thailand and Pakistan, notes Virisila Buadromo, who shared her experiences of protesting against the military junta.
"But because we are a small chain of islands and a small nation, we don't attracted media attention," she says.
Buadromo, a lawyer and coordinator of the Fiji Women's Rights Movement, has many stories to tell and says women's issues in her country tend to be overshadowed by the bigger political situation.
Last year, Fiji's military rulers cracked down on coup critics including the women's movement. Buadromo herself was one of the six pro-democracy activists arrested and assaulted by the military in the early hours of December 25 for taking part in a peaceful protest. Her colleague was warned on the phone, and threatened with rape.
Buadromo has worked closely with women in the communities to raise awareness about violence and abuse against them as well as inform them of their rights. She also mentors young women to be active citizens and participate effectively.
"We try to raise awareness that a democratic system is important to promote women's rights," says Buadromo, who is also a regional council member of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).
On November 29, International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders, Buadromo, Sayeed and female defenders of human rights of the WLD networks from Asia-Pacific, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America met together in Bangkok for the first time in the 20 years since its founding.
The WLD members had come together to join the international "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence" campaign.
Started in 1991, the campaign is organised every year to mark the link between November 25, the International Day on the Elimination of Violence against Women, and December 10, International Human Rights Day.
This year, the campaign calls for "Demanding Implementation, Challenging Obstacles" to achieve results in improving women's protection from violence.
In many countries in Asia, African and Latin America, the might of the military, rather than the rule of law, reign supreme. Governments rely more and more on their security forces to ensure stability on all fronts, says Mary Jane N Real, coordinator for the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders.
Many of the violations faced by female defenders of rights involve sexual violence, such as rape as a form of torture, sexual harassment and other forms of sexual abuse.
Burma is one example where evidence shows that the military junta has used sexual violence as a weapon of war against women of ethnic groups. As the Women's League of Burma has documented, hundreds of women protesters and rights defenders were arrested in the recent crackdowns on the peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks. Some women were forced to confess in front of the state-run media that they had had sexual affairs with monk protesters. Many women activists have gone into hiding.
On November 4 in Colombia, Yolanda Becerra, president of the Organisation Femenina Popular (OFP), working to make people aware of the need to defend life and re-vindicate the rights of women, was threatened by two armed men who entered her apartment and destroyed everything while shouting death threats against her. Some of her colleagues and their families have been killed or abducted, and branches of the OFP have been destroyed since 2001.
"The threats and risks faced by these women rights defenders illustrate the growing political repression in countries worldwide. It implicates many of the governments that have increasingly used the same legal systems, which were actually put in place to protect citizens, to legitimise the criminalisation of political dissent," says Real.
"Under the guise of 'countering terrorism', many governments swiftly revived or adopted legislative and administrative measures that actually curtail civil and political freedoms."
In Thailand's restive southern provinces, many women are still put in detention under the Emergency Decree that allows the military to detain them without any charge for 30 days. They are taken from their homes when the authorities raid their houses and cannot find their husbands and brothers suspected of being members of Muslim separatist insurgency groups.
The latest manifestation of militarisation in Thailand is the policy to deport pregnant migrant workers, as announced by the junta leader turned deputy prime minister Sondhi Boonyaratglin.
It's important for female rights defenders to fully understand how male and female migrant workers will be affected by such issues, stresses law scholar and prominent women's-rights activist Virada Somsawasdi, a founding member of the APWLD.
To Virada, all women who act on, speak out and write about their own rights or those of others are defenders of human rights.
"It's the little women on the streets, the women who rally against state and community unjust treatment, the young and old women who stretched their arms to guard the monks protesting against the military junta in Rangoon - they're real defenders of women's rights," she says.