Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Remembering the courage of women human rights defenders with SOAS students

In celebration of International Women’s Day, today I gave a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London about the work of the Peace Brigades International, my experiences of working with PBI in Colombia, and the courageous lives of women human rights defenders PBI accompanies in Colombia and many other countries of conflict.

I had the opportunity to talk about the important role PBI plays in opening up political space and providing moral support for local human rights defenders to carry out their work without fear of repression. Human rights defenders are essential to the creation of any strong and inclusive democracy. They are key to monitoring, reporting and promoting human rights. They also have a substantial role in the strengthening of peace through dialogue and justice. They enable civil society to claim their rights and to seek justice through non-violent and legal means. Many human rights defenders, in particular women human rights defenders, face threats to themselves and their families on a regular basis, others are stigmatised for tackling issues not traditionally dealt with by women, and yet more have been victims of physical and sexual violence, and even been forcibly disappeared or killed. Yet, such women continue with their valuable work and they deserve our support and recognition.

It was refreshing to be able to share my experiences of working with PBI and the human rights NGOs in Colombia, to relate the courageous work of the Organizacion Femenina Popular (Popular Women's Organisation) and the female group of human rights lawyers, Luis Carlos Perez Lawyers Collective, amongst others, and to have the time and space to show PBI’s video, ‘Bearing Witness’, as well as the documentary I created of PBI’s work and my experiences in Barrancabermeja in Colombia, which I entitled ‘The Story of Barrancabermeja'.

I myself graduated from SOAS in 1997 with an MA in Area Studies, and remember the radicalism in international issues, the heated debates and student activism even back then. I was very happy to re-visit the School and to see that SOAS has not changed, and still continues with its strong student activism and direct action. I felt this energy throughout during my visit and my talk.

There were student union elections taking place this week at SOAS with posters and messages of various candidates throughout the student’s union meeting room. Without doubt, this is an important year for elections with an even more important role for student union reps in a climate where specialist colleges like SOAS are threatened with the removal of all funding for teaching due to fees and cuts being imposed by the Government.

Thank you to Debra Stanislawski for inviting me give this talk and help raise the profile of the work of PBI and the courage of women human rights defenders PBI accompanies. Debra is also a PBI colleague who’s worked in Nepal and who is currently studying an MA in Human Rights Law at SOAS.

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