Hearing about the reality of human rights

Victoria Harrison Neves writes from Bangladesh about her first mission as an Amnesty International press officer – as part of the organization’s delegation to the country.

I joined Amnesty International just six weeks ago as their Senior Press Officer, after a decade working in journalism. I felt I had a reasonable idea of what human rights work involved and thought that Amnesty’s remit was, in the main part, civil and political rights – issues like prisoners of conscience, freedom of expression, rule of law and fair trials. I had an intense month getting a feel for the organisation before joining the mission to Bangladesh, a country I didn’t previously know either. (Yes, it has been a rather steep learning curve.) What I have come to realise more during the visit is the full breadth of human rights and consequently the potential breadth for our work in this area. On the first day of the mission, we met members of civil society, lawyers, journalists and victims of human rights violations. We heard the experiences of local activists and victims from Dhaka and beyond and listened to their thoughts about what needs to be done in Bangladesh, in order to help us prepare for our meetings with government officials later in the week. I personally interviewed several of them, what I especially picked up on was a real energy and dedication despite the frustrations and challenges they also face. We then spent a day and a half outside Dhaka visiting a local NGO’s projects in Tangail and Rajshahi. Just getting out of the frenzy of the city was in itself a chance to get more of a feel for Bangladesh, seeing the villages and paddy fields along the way, plus the nail-biting moments with buses, trucks and rickshaws on the roads, the local restaurant staff and security guards recognising Irene, but the government minister not realising who she was when he was leaving the service station restaurant we were arriving at. Our first stop was a village microfinance meeting, the women were there to hand over their next loan repayments and discuss the pledges they make when they take these loans – to allow their girls to go to school, to encourage them to marry later. Irene was happy to sit on the mats amongst them and talk about their projects. She and they at ease with each other. At a human rights class in a nearby village, women and young girls were being taught about the law by a volunteer trained by BRAC, the same local NGO. Human rights and legal issues had been simplified and made relevant to their lives. They were learning about the law that prohibits dowries and about the legal age of marriage. The BRAC team who were accompanying us on the visits explained that, in many villages, the elders are the ones who are approached to settle disputes and who hand out justice. Women and their female relatives were participating in an antenatal class outside the home of a local health worker at our next stop. She had been trained to treat a number of simple illnesses like diarrhoea and also worked as the local midwife. She told us that she visited around 300 families in the area every 20 days. During these visits, she also identified pregnant women and brought them to these monthly sessions where they were taught the importance of nutrition during pregnancy and given supplements and, in the latter stages, told about the birth itself, what to do if there are problems and where to seek medical help. Their husbands discuss the same issues in separate groups to avoid embarrassment for some of the women. In Elenga, young children who had either dropped out of school or never attended were at the local primary school. The corrugated iron shack hid one of the neatest classrooms I have ever seen. The children were sat on mats in a horseshoe facing the teacher and blackboard, with all their shoes laid out in a circle outside the classroom. Lines on the mats indicated where they should sit and where their books should go. School work hung on the walls and decorations and mobiles from the ceiling. After demonstrating their counting skills and singing and dancing for us, they asked us questions like what village schools are like in our home countries. At the final stop, only two of the delegation were able to participate. We were greeted by a crowd offering us flowers and taking photos. I then found myself with David, my colleague, and the BRAC NGO representatives at the top table at a legal aid clinic. I hadn’t expected to be involved to this degree, nor did I know what to expect from this meeting. As the first young girl spoke of seeking legal advice after she was raped, I asked the media and our own camera crew to leave. They were visibly distressed to be talking about these issues and particularly in the presence of the cameras. Several of the girls were rape victims and had been given legal assistance by BRAC, only one of the six or seven present had actually seen the perpetrator jailed, the others had been seeking justice in most cases for around three years. There was a female victim of an acid attack, another woman who had been raped, fell pregnant and gave birth to the child and was seeking maintenance and a third was pursuing an attempted rape case, but the hearing had been repeatedly delayed and her husband had been threatened with death by the defendant’s family and had to flee. There were men too, one pursuing a case where his three-year-old daughter had allegedly been murdered by neighbours with whom he had a land dispute, another who was seeking justice for the death of his aunt who died giving birth to a child who was the product of rape and a third who was also an acid attack survivor. In each case, the person had first gone to the local elders to seek redress but, without joy, they then approached BRAC for legal assistance. They all admitted they were too poor to have taken up legal cases without the lawyers BRAC provides, but at the same time also acknowledged corruption in the lower courts in Bangladesh means that richer defendants can still bribe court officials to repeatedly delay hearings. I found my first meeting of this kind very moving and intense. I still have a vivid picture in my mind of the small, shy girl dressed in yellow who was now fourteen and still in school, but had been raped at the age of eleven and was still going through the legal process. In London, you can sometimes feel removed from the subjects that you are writing about. It was the same as a journalist covering news stories. Plus, human rights issues can sound very legalistic. Hearing about the reality from the people who suffer them, makes it all so more real. It sounds somewhat of a cliché to me, so many editors have spoken over the years about the need for getting the human face or voice behind the issues, but it is very true. It really is the way to bring home the issues and the importance of the work of human rights activists and campaigners here and around the world. We are now back in Dhaka preparing for our meetings with government officials and the end of mission press conference, but reflecting on the first few days of the visit, I think I better understand the basis for Amnesty International’s new global campaign that launches next year and will focus on social and economic rights. Visiting Bangladesh and some of these communities spells out the link between poverty and human rights for me. Projects like those we visited highlighted how the poor often suffer discrimination, human rights abuses and challenges accessing justice. Education, empowerment and participation can help them overcome these.