"I maintain a positive attitude and recognize success": Six South Asian women tell their stories

To mark International Women's Day 2019, we spoke to six women human rights defenders, each from a different country in South Asia. We asked them about their struggles, where they derive their strength from, and what challenges they face.

AFGHANISTAN: Laila Haidari

Laila Haidari is a rights activist, working to rehabilitate drug users in Afghanistan

How would you describe the change you want to see in one sentence?

A society where women are no longer economically dependent on men, are aware of their rights and remain unharmed from domestic and social violence.

Where do you get your power and strength from?

I don’t sit in an office, away from the trenches. At the Mother Camp of Mother Trust Organization (MTO), I see scores of men undone by drug addiction, who have lost everything but still have the courage to better themselves. I draw strength from that resilience every day.

What challenges are you facing and how do you deal with them?

Mother Trust Organization has helped over 5200 drug addicts but steady funding is still an issue.

Afghanistan’s patriarchal traditions create a difficult environment for female activists. A cleric once called me a “whore” for living with 40 men in one house, even though they are poor people I am trying to help. Bribery is rampant, where women are often asked for sexual favours.

Bravery and being unafraid of judgement have paved the way for me.

What is your message to all the women human rights defenders around the world?

The peace process between the Taliban and Afghan government is in the works. Peace always expresses security and tranquility, but for Afghan women, making peace with the Taliban is akin to issuing death warrants for them. The Taliban does not recognize our rights and we remember that they beat, executed and stoned us.

What I want from women is to not let others sacrifice us in a political bargain and show their support by using the #AfghanWomenDemandRights hashtag.

 

BANGLADESH: Sara Hossain

Barrister Sara Hossein is a prominent lawyer who is working to protect civil and political rights in Bangladesh

"I want to see the end of sycophancy, truth denials and rights violations" (Photo credit: Getty Images)

If you could describe the change you want, what would it be in one sentence? 

To no longer live under autocracy, near and far, and to see the end of the sycophancy, truth denials and rights violations that accompany them. 

Where do you draw your strength from? 

Family, friends, extraordinary colleagues and history. 

What challenges are you facing, and how are you tackling them? 

Vilification and threats to people and organizations nationally and regionally who enable protection of human rights. 

What is your message to women human rights defenders across the globe? 

Let’s remember that human rights are also women’s rights, as women human rights defenders we should stand up for the human rights of all.  At the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, women’s human rights defenders succeeded in demanding that women’s rights must be understood as human rights. But as women’s rights defenders we need to stand up for human rights of all irrespective of gender race nationality, sexuality, political belief, class, caste, and community now more than ever.

 

MALDIVES: Fareesha Abdulla

Fareesha Abdulla is a lawyer and human rights defender in the Maldives

If you could describe the change you want, what would it be in one sentence?

I would like to be able to experience a time when respect for fundamental rights and liberties is the norm in the Maldives.

Where do you draw your strength from?

I maintain a positive attitude and recognize success as progress, and accept failures as temporary.  

What challenges are you facing, and how are you tackling them?

The main challenges are the limited understanding of what human rights means in the Maldives, and deliberate efforts by certain groups of people to deliberately mislead the public with regard to human rights. I address the challenges by using the law and logical arguments.

What is your message to women human rights defenders across the globe?

Human rights has become, and will remain, one of the most important global issues.

 

NEPAL: Charimaya Tamang

Charimaya Tamang is a pioneering victim-turned-activist against trafficking of women in Nepal

"If we work together, we will be bale to create a world where equality prevails"

If you could describe the change you want, what would it be in one sentence? 

An environment where everyone enjoys freedom from heinous crimes such as human trafficking and everyone victimized is enabled to live a life with dignity and self-respect.

Where do you draw your strength from? 

My power and strength comes from my own experience of being trafficked and the lessons learnt from that experience to move ahead as a change maker. I also give credit to the help that I got and remain inspired from the supporters to Shakti Samuha, the organization that I founded to fight against injustice in an organized manner.

What challenges are you facing, and how are you tackling them?

Nepali women are still forced to live as second-class citizens in many respects. This is evident in the challenges that women human rights defenders face in their own family, society and country. Nepali WHRDs have shown their courage to overcome these challenges and struggle for others. I am also one of them.

What is your message to women human rights defenders across the globe?

WHRDs from various countries must work consistently, share each other’s stories of women’s problems, their struggle for solutions and achievements, coordinate with each other to make our future endeavors impactful.  If we work together, we will be able to create a world where equality prevails.

 

PAKISTAN: Veeru Kohli

Veeru Kohli is a human rights activist fighting to eradicate bonded labour in Pakistan

"I want bonded labour eradicated from Pakistan" (Photo credit: ABC News Australia)

If you could describe the change you want, what would it be in one sentence?

I want bonded labor eradicated from Pakistan, and the government to rehabilitate the former freed bonded laborers and give them land to build their settlements.  

Where do you draw your strength from?

I joined the fight against bonded labor because I was a bonded laborer myself. When I see children of the poor who are victims of bonded labor, I can relate to their pain because it reminds me of what my children went through. I don’t want anyone to suffer like that again.

What challenges are you facing, and how are you tackling them?

Our lives are continuously threatened. I have been threatened with violence and rape. I have been given death threats many times now. When I contested for elections, feudal lords filed false police cases against me and my family. I have been arrested by the police. There were times when even the police told me that some influential land-owing waderas (feudal lords) can get me killed and the police colludes with them also. But I decided that even if my life is lost for this struggle, I would not care. The financial instability and the lack of funds also make me more vulnerable. When I am busy working on cases of bonded laborers, that day I cannot work to support my family.

What is your message to women human rights defenders across the globe?

It is great that women are coming out to demand rights, they are marching. My message is for them to keep standing up for those who are oppressed, the poor, the disenfranchised, to never be scared of those in power and give into their intimidation.

 

SRI LANKA: Sithi Umma

Abdul Wadood Sithi Jameena, a.k.a. Sithi Umma, campaigns against enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and for truth about her own son who went missing in 2009

If you could describe the change you want, what would it be in one sentence?

I need answers. I need the truth. Why was my son taken? Who took him and what right do they have to take my child?

Where do you draw your strength from?

God

What challenges are you facing, and how are you tackling them?

This year will be 10 years since my son was taken. I follow protests around Sri Lanka and I still have no answers. If those in power lose their child, the army, navy, air force and police work to find their child but since we are ordinary people who struggle for earnings , there is no solution for us

 What is your message to women human rights defenders across the globe?

The pain of losing a child without a reason should stop with me. Losing your child without an explanation is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. This sort of thing should stop.