Women Leaders Take On Human Rights Struggles

As daily news stories like this New York Times report about the second assassination of a head of women’s affairs in Afghanistan tell us, women are often the canvas on which extremism and violence are played out.

For three human rights activists who spoke at an American Jewish World Service benefit luncheon, “Leading the Way: Women Organizing for Human Rights,” on December 10 to mark Human Rights Day, threats to their safety are part of their everyday lives.

Liberia’s Cecelia T.M. Danuweli has helped, along with Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, to bring peace to war-torn Liberia through her work with the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding. Khin Omar works with the Burma Partnership and Claudia Samayoa works with Guatemala’s Human Rights Defender’s Protection Unit. They spoke at the panel discussion, attended by some 250 AJWS supporters, about their work and challenges.

Journalist and social justice advocate Letty Cottin Pogrebin first met Danuweli when she visited Liberia on an AJWS trip in June 2012. 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 step-father. 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.

She was motivated to become a human rights activist by her mother’s rape, she said. Gang rape was common during Liberia’s Second Civil War, which lasted from 1999 to 2003. There was “rape and mayhem everywhere you look. Hell broke loose in our country. I could not just sit there and watch this.”

Burma’s Khin Ohmar began her human rights activism as a student, after seeing other students mowed down by the military when they had been peacefully protesting the government regime. More than 3,000 students in all were killed. The military junta began moving against ethnic minorities in 2005 and tens of thousands of ethnic Karen people now live as refugees in Thailand. While a ceasefire was reached in January 2012, “on the ground the reality is nowhere near peace,” she told luncheon attendees.

During Guatemala’s long civil war, which took place from 1960 through 1996, some 200,000 people were killed and another 40-50,000 forcibly disappeared. The overwhelming majority of the violence, according to reports, was conducted by government forces.

Since then, however, violence has been focused on women. Since 2001, one of every five people killed has been a woman, and 25% of those tortured are women, Samayoa said. The new war is a product of organized crime, she said. “Now again we are the ones suffering the violence,” said Samayoa. “War is played out on our bodies.”

Pogrebin said that hearing Danuweli’s story during her AJWS trip to Liberia was horrifying. But knowing that American Jews are helping efforts by Danuweli and the other speakers is inspiring. “Knowing that she is working for peace and this Jewish group is helping her is for me an actualization of what we Jews are supposed to do on this planet,” Pogrebin said in an interview after the luncheon. “Knowing that Jews can help non-Jews still, that we don’t have this myopia only just care about anti-Semitism and Israel, but that we care about human suffering. That’s what makes me proud of AJWS,” she said.

The luncheon, which took place at the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan, raised about $180,000, according to AJWS spokesperson Suzanne Offen.

Your Stories

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