By Sara Vida Coumans, Amnesty International’s Global Youth Manager
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit young people hard, disrupting education, putting their jobs at risk and making their futures uncertain.
But young people have also been some of the most active in responding to the pandemic and campaigning for human rights. Seven young activists, from Malaysia, Afghanistan, Senegal, Poland, Australia and Kyrgyzstan, told Amnesty about the amazing initiatives they set up or are involved in to support their communities.
DEFENDING WOMEN’S RIGHTS
In Poland, Sandra Grzelaszyk, 20, has been campaigning for women’s rights, in particular their right to access abortion. Poland already has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, and earlier this year a bill was brought before parliament which would ban abortion in cases of severe and fatal foetal impairments. Unable to protest in the streets because of the lockdown, Sandra and her fellow campaigners moved their activism online. They posted pictures and videos inviting people to make their voices heard by signing Amnesty International Poland’s petition to stop the bill becoming law. So far more than 80,000 people have signed the petition.
“Leaders are using the pandemic to increase their power or change the law. We were really angry that the government could do something like this during a really hard time for everyone, without them having the opportunity to protest their objections. The choice to have an abortion is an individual choice every time. Only the woman herself can know what decision is best for her. I don’t think the foetus is more important than the life of a woman. People can have different plans for their life, not everybody wants family and children and that’s okay. I see people who want to control women’s bodies, but women are not property. I am a woman and I just want to live my life without fear or being controlled just because of my gender.”
DISTRIBUTING FACE MASKS
In Senegal, Mamadou Diagne, 25, has been distributing face masks to some of the people most exposed to the risk of COVID-19 and to try to slow down the spread of the virus. So far, he and his fellow volunteers have distributed 1,000 masks to market traders, who must wear face coverings and use hand sanitizer under rules set by the mayor. The masks themselves were donated by a former Amnesty activist now living in the Netherlands.
“People are happy to receive these masks because it hasn’t been possible for everyone to get hold of them. The traders are in contact with people all day long, so they are more exposed than others. If they catch the virus, they can spread it very quickly. We also want to distribute masks to beggars and talibés (children who are forced to beg by Qur’anic school teachers). They are vulnerable because like traders, they are in contact with people all day. Fighting this pandemic is not easy. People have a fear of this coronavirus. If they hear a rumour that this person or that person has COVID-19, they are stigmatized and the infected person is shamed.”
In Malaysia, Heidy Quah, the 26-year-old founder of Refuge for the Refugees, has been helping some of the most marginalised people in society. Heidy’s NGO provides schooling to refugee children, but during the pandemic she has adapted to meet the needs of refugee families. Heidy has been distributing essentials such as rice, eggs and milk powder to refugee families who have been hit hard by the “movement control order” which was introduced to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Heidy has also been speaking out about the Malaysian government’s treatment of refugees during the crisis. On the pretext of fighting COVID-19, the government has rounded up thousands of undocumented migrants, including children, and put them in detention centres. Heidy’s Facebook posts denouncing the deplorable conditions in these centres have resulted in death threats, online harassment and questioning by the police – but she is determined to use her voice. Her right and the right of other activists like her to freedom of expression has been defended by Amnesty.
“The mass arrests led to overcrowding in detention centres. Because of overcrowding, we saw a spike in cases in detention centres. We’ve seen a big spike in numbers of COVID-19 cases in detention centres, and because of the cramped environment, it spreads like wildfire. We’ve heard stories of babies being born in detention centres, and upon birth, they are declared COVID-19 positive. This is how dire the situation is right now. I really cannot imagine what it’s like to have to be worried sick for my safety. My frustration is why do we need to treat other human beings in such a nasty way? How would I want to be treated if one day I get detained? What would I want the communities around me to do? What can I do with the privilege I have? It isn’t about having a fancy house, big fancy cars and holidays. What it really is, is having a voice. And having my voice counted for.”
BRINGING BOOKS TO CHILDREN
In Afghanistan, 19-year-old Mohib Faizy, an Information Technology student at the American University of Afghanistan, has been bringing books to hundreds of children who would not otherwise be able to access them. Using a video recording tool, Mohib has recorded himself reading children’s books that contain powerful messages about humanity. The videos are then posted on the Facebook page of LEARN, an NGO that focuses on providing quality education to Afghan children, and are also sent on flash drives to teachers and children across the country.
“My friend Pashtana Durrani, who is an Amnesty activist, shared a site with me which contains many Pashto and Dari books for children. I chose only those that were really useful and had a great message for children. I always read the book before I record it. In many districts, children do not have access to schools. We are creating schools for them. Our plan is to eventually distribute tablets preloaded with these books to help needy students who have shown their eagerness to learn and get an education. I always wanted to improve my society, so is a great chance for me to serve my people.”
USING ART TO SUPPORT MARGINALISED VOICES
In Australia, 21-year-old Fin Spalding, a member of Amnesty Australia’s National Youth Advisory Group and one of its national LGBTI leaders, is developing an online “Artivism” campaign, combining art and activism in support of LGBTI people. The campaign will showcase works of art by LGBTI people on the theme of visibility. Not only will the campaign provide an avenue for people to express themselves, but it also aims to highlight the plight of individuals who are at risk simply for who they are. The campaign will be launched on Instagram in August.
“It is a well-known fact that the queer community has used art in order to express ourselves and we as a community have pushed the boundaries on what art is. This campaign is about visibility in the COVID-19 pandemic and shining a light on Queer people within Australian society. But while this campaign will also bring light to the discrimination that the Queer community faces, it will also work to shed light on the artistic talent which is in the Queer community such as drag artists, fashion and make-up.”
HELPING LGBTI PEOPLE QUARANTINING IN UNSAFE SPACES
In Kyrgyzstan, Farkhad Musazov, 24, has been involved in supporting LGBTI youth who are quarantining in unsafe spaces, which can include their family homes. Through his organization, Kyrgyz Indigo, Farkhad has helped LGBTI youth in need of psychologists, advocates and lawyers by making their contact details available online. Kyrgyz Indigo, one of Amnesty’s partners in its annual Write for Rights campaign, also provides humanitarian aid and a safe space in five temporary shelters for LGBTI people, including activists. It has also teamed up with another organization, Labrys, to distribute food, personal hygiene products and protective equipment such as medical gloves and masks to hundreds of LGBTI people in the country.
“Many LGBT+ who have lost their jobs and income during the pandemic have been forced to return to their families. But they are finding it difficult to express themselves. Their families want to control their behaviour and speech. In addition, the older generation are mostly very conservative and religious which means LGBT+ can face a lot of tension and hostility at home. Many suffer domestic violence at the hands of their families and have nowhere to turn to.”
ENSURING NO ONE IS LEFT BEHIND
As a refugee from Syria, 20-year-old student Hasan Al-Akraa understands the difficulties that refugees face better than most. Even in normal times, it can be a challenge for refugees to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, but COVID-19 has made life even more precarious. Hasan recently linked up with Amnesty to share his experiences of being one of many youth activists supporting migrants and refugees. Through his Al-Hasan Volunteer Network, he has been providing food parcels to refugee families in Malaysia where he now lives. He has also been crowdfunding to pay hospital fees and rent for struggling refugees, in particular, single mothers, orphans, the sick and families with six or seven mouths to feed. He does it because he can’t ignore the suffering around him.
“During the movement control order (MCO), everyone was struggling, not just refugees. Malaysians too. But we need to understand that those who were struggling even before MCO, now it’s like a double struggle. We cannot just forget about them. That includes refugees, low-income families, the PPR (People’s Housing Project) families. We don’t want to see families in the streets. We don’t want to see children living in the streets, somebody in a hospital waiting to deliver a baby but not being accepted in the wards, we don’t want to see someone die, or their health conditions get worse without us stepping in. We don’t want to see anyone going to bed hungry – that is a hard no for us. It’s very important for us to help. Anybody who comes forward, we help.”