People's Stories Advocates

View previous stories

2018 Aurora Humanitarians
by Aurora Humanitarian Initiative Committee
24 Apr. 2018
The Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity recognizes three humanitarians for their selfless commitment to fighting sexual violence in India, advocating on behalf of Rohingya people in Myanmar and protecting Central American immigrants in Mexico.
Today, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity Selection Committee announced three humanitarians as potential recipients of the 2018 Prize. Each individual was chosen for their exceptional courage, far-reaching impact and endless commitment to preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes in the face of adversity. The Aurora Prize, granted by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, named:
Mr. Kyaw Hla Aung, Lawyer and Rohingya Leader, Myanmar – A Rohingya Muslim who, despite being imprisoned for a collective 12 years for peaceful protests against systematic discrimination and violence, uses his legal expertise to fight for equality, improvements in education and human rights for his community. He has nominated international organizations that provide medical aid and assistance to refugees in Myanmar.
Fr. Hector Tomas Gonzalez Castillo, Founder of La 72, Mexico – A Franciscan friar who has provided shelter, food, water, counseling and legal assistance to more than 50,000 Central American immigrants along their often-harrowing journeys through Mexico, providing aid to all, including those who suffer traumatic attacks, attempted kidnappings and expulsions from their own countries. He has nominated organizations working to promote human rights for those living with HIV/AIDS and to provide cultural education to Mayans in Mexico.
Mrs. Sunitha Krishnan, Co-Founder of Prajwala, India – A gang rape survivor turned women’s rights advocate who used her trauma as motivation to rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate victims of sex trafficking and forced prostitution back into society, creating an organization that has positively impacted the lives of more than 17,800 women and children. She has nominated organizations that fight gender imbalance and sexual violence and trafficking throughout India.
The three humanitarians will be honored at the third annual Aurora Prize Ceremony in Yerevan, Armenia on June 9, 2018. Of the three nominated, one will be chosen as the 2018 Aurora Prize Laureate at a ceremony on June 10, 2018. The Laureate will receive a grant of US$100,000, as well as a US$1,000,000 award, giving them the unique ability to continue the cycle of giving by supporting organizations that have inspired their work.
Each humanitarian was invited to nominate up to three organizations to receive the US$1,000,000 award. Mr. Kyaw Hla Aung nominated Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International, the Malaysian Medical Relief Society, and International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC). Fr. Héctor Tomás González Castillo nominated El Oasis San Juan de Dios and La Escuela de Agricultura Ecológica U Yits Ka''an. Mrs. Sunitha Krishnan nominated Prajwala, Stop Trafficking & Oppression of Children & Women (STOP), and Sanlaap India.
The Committee shortlisted the three Humanitarians as finalists from 750 nominations for 509 unique candidates submitted in 12 languages from 115 countries.
“These are Humanitarians who sacrifice so much on the front lines of today’s most desperate humanitarian crises,” said Vartan Gregorian, Selection Committee Member, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, speaking on behalf of the Selection Committee. “Although from vastly differing circumstances and locations, these Aurora Humanitarians exemplify a universal capacity to protect the most vulnerable''.
Apr. 2018
Saving Rohingya''s children, by Kyaw Hla Aung.
For decades now, I have watched my people suffer persecution, harassment and oppression. The Rohingya community continues to be the victims of a humanitarian crisis that the world has been reluctant to confront, until the exodus into Bangladesh made us impossible to ignore. Today, the Rohingyas are mostly stateless.
With many aid agencies and international NGOs now on the ground in Myanmar and Bangladesh, the scale of this crisis is coming to light. Thousands of people, including hundreds of non-Muslims, died between 2012 violence and 2017. As of today, there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Whilst the regional powers debate some form of political solution, we as a people must look to protect our very existence, and ensure we survive to the next generation. To do so, we must defend our children, who have had their childhoods interrupted through no fault of their own.
As a result of the refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya children remain at risk. This is an entire generation of this our people, and unless they are returned to some kind of normality, and have access to basic schooling and education, I fear they will become a lost generation.
In 2018, the International Rescue Committee estimates that more than 500,000 Rohingya refugee children will go without any form of schooling or formal education. This is largely due to restrictions on their movement, poverty, and the lack of schools in Rakhine State.
For children everywhere, school is about much more than just learning. It provides a form of routine and a sense of normality, as well as discipline. Many of these children have been through incredibly traumatic experiences, and school presents a brief respite and a way to cope.
It is also the place where young people make friends, play, and remember what it''s like to be a child. Today, 50 percent of Rohingya refugees are children. If they are ever able to return to their homes, it is vital that they maintain a sense of community.
More urgently, education is also a form of protection from exploitation and abuse, such as child labour, human trafficking and forced marriage. These children are some of the most vulnerable in the world, and in addition to persecution in their own country, they are at risk from organised gangs looking to recruit or enslave them. Without education, these children have no structure, no place of safety during the daytime and no realistic employment prospects, making them even easier prey for criminals.
Whilst the refugee crisis has worsened this issue, it is far from new. For decades now, Rohingya children have struggled for access to basic education, which has limited their employability as they grew into adults. Over eighty percent of our community is illiterate. For the most part, young Rohingya adults are seen by non-Muslims in Myanmar as unskilled and unemployable. The perception of our people as uneducated only worsens tensions within Myanmar and reinforces the view that our community is a burden on the country.
This is a lesser talked about problem facing the Rohingyas. “We must ensure that our next generation has a basic education and can help us rebuild. I know this myself from first-hand experience. Having been fortunate enough to receive a formal education and qualify as an attorney, I have spent my life championing Rohingyas’ rights and battling inequality within Myanmar at great personal cost.
Whilst there are now several charities and NGOs working in our refugee camps to set up improvised schools, education generally receives less than two percent of foreign aid funding. The schools that are being set up are very basic and are only aimed at certain ages. We need qualified teachers and basic facilities in our communities and are calling for greater levels of government aid and funding to make this happen.
I will not give up hope, and I will continue to work alongside aid agencies and governments to ensure our children, and our people, have a future.
Apr. 2018
For India''s sex assault victims, an unending burden, by Sunitha Krishnan.
I was just fifteen years old, a defenceless child, when I was raped by eight men whose faces I can''t remember. Like many young girls in India, I never stood a chance. I became a victim through no fault of my own. This is a story that, sadly, is all too common in my country and in many others across the world.
Sexual violence is a physically traumatic experience, but the scars of abuse run much deeper than just our skin. The bodily pain young girls feel from these assaults is just the beginning of their horror, as they are left to confront the mental strain by themselves. Too often, these women are ostracised and shamed by their own families and communities, at the time of their greatest need.
Despite being victims, those that survive sexual assault in India are often persecuted by authorities and community leaders. Whilst their assaulters walk free, women are made to feel like the real criminals. Rape still carries a social stigma in my country and many others, and women like me are rejected and vilified by those they rely on for protection.
A number of high-profile cases in recent years, have brought to light the scale of sexual violence in India. The numbers are horrifying. In 2016, the National Crime Bureau received 34,000 reports of rape. In the same year, the Bureau recorded over 19,000 sexual assaults against minors. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, and one can only imagine how many cases go unreported or ignored.
In part, it is a cultural problem. Marital rape is not considered a criminal offence, and many believe that prostitutes are deserving of these crimes, or at least undeserving of sympathy, due to the nature of their work. Shockingly, a report last year from Human Rights Watch found that 25 percent of cases in India are still judged by the ''two-finger'' test.
Whilst societal attitudes need reform, it is also a systemic problem. Organised crime is the force behind our Red-Light Districts, where many women are enslaved and trafficked. According to the U.S. State Department, over 800,000 people are trafficked in India each year, and a third are forced into sex work. Of those trafficked, over 50 per cent are children. Beyond my country, sex slavery is a global market worth nearly $100 billion. Each year, some two million women and children, many younger than 10 years old, are bought and sold around the globe.
Our most pressing concern should always be to prevent these crimes in the first place, and to bring the perpetrators to justice. I do both of these, however I primarily focus on working with the victims, rehabilitating them, and helping them to lead normal lives once again.
I established Prajwala to rescue and rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking and sex crime. Through our advocacy work with local governments, we can ensure that these women have compensation, legal citizenship, housing and jobs as they leave the shelter and return to society with dignity. Without these resources, victims of sex crimes and sex trafficking often end up back on the streets, or worse, dead.
Today, I can only live in hope that one day our authorities will rise to the challenge and make a genuine attempt to tackle sex crimes in India. This is a distant vision, and in the here and now, our efforts can better be spent working with the victims and returning them to some form of normality.
As a society and a culture, we must learn to blame the perpetrators, not the victims. We must welcome those who are abused back into our communities, instead of pushing them away. In doing so, we can send a powerful message as to whose side we are really on.
Apr. 2018
Central American refugees escape one horror, start of another, by Tomas Gonzalez Castillo.
It’s a sad fact that for many U.S.-bound Central American refugees, escaping their own country is the end of one horror, but just the start of another. Those who flee the Northern Triangle states of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in search of a better life face a perilous journey. In their attempts to reach the United States, they risk persecution, abuse and murder.
According to the UNHCR, from 2011 to 2016, the number of people from the Northern Triangle who have sought refuge in surrounding countries increased by 2,249 percent. Last year alone, over 110,000 people fled the region to begin their journey to the United States through Mexico.
These men, women and children all face risks such as enslavement, forced labour, prostitution and human trafficking. Those that do survive often arrive in their host countries with mental and physical scarring from all they have endured, at the hands of those they turned to for protection.
Whilst much of the international community, and authorities in the region, have ignored the problem, it was brought to the world''s attention following the San Fernando massacre in 2010. This appalling and senseless atrocity saw 72 undocumented migrants kidnapped, tortured and killed whilst traveling through Mexico. The grip that drug cartels have on much of Mexico and surrounding countries means that refugees, or those without documentation, are essentially at their mercy.
This massacre was on a truly shocking scale, but sadly, events like this are far from a one-off. I''ve heard first hand from refugees, about the unimaginable abuse they have faced from organised crime rings on their journey North. Stories of entire families, or groups of refugees, being murdered by Mexican cartels for refusing to participate in serious crime, or work without pay, are countless.
A recent study by the International Crisis Group estimated the number of refugees that have been victims of sexual exploitation over the past five years was more than 50,000 in the region. Doctors Without Borders confirmed in a recent study that 39 percent of Central America’s refugees had been extorted or forced into gangs.
This is why I founded La 72 in 2011, a shelter for refugees named after those killed in the San Fernando massacre. My mission remains clear; to defend the basic human rights of these refugees. This includes protecting and rehabilitating victims of kidnapping, sexual assault and serious violence. We provide shelter, support and advice for those forced to flee these states through no fault of their own.
We''re incredibly proud of the work we have done since opening our doors. We have provided humanitarian aid, accommodation, mental and physical health care and legal assistance to over 75,000 people. But our situation, and that of refugees across the region, isn''t sustainable.
We welcome 80 new arrivals each day. In Northern Guatemala alone, up to 400 people cross the river into Mexico daily. Instability in Venezuela will continue to worsen, drastically increasing the number of refugees using the Central American route to reach the United States.
At La 72, we are hugely grateful for the cooperation and assistance of our NGO partners. But, to achieve genuinely sustainable and effective solutions, what we have is simply is not enough. We need greater recognition of this problem from the governments of Central America, Mexico and the United States.
We need to increase cooperation between governments and aid agencies in our region, to ensure that refugees can access the services that are offered, and to provide shelters such as ours with the funding we need.
No one man or woman alone can be expected to solve this problem, and the crisis doesn''t respect borders. I am hopeful, however, that with the right political commitments and continued activism, we can protect our brothers and sisters in their time of need.

Visit the related web page

The history of wartime rape has been a history of denial
by Pramila Patten
UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict
April 2018
(UN Security Council Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict – Statement by Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten)
The focus of this debate, on “preventing sexual violence in conflict through empowerment, gender equality, and access to justice”, could not be more timely, or more in line with my own vision for advancing this mandate.
When I took up office last June, I outlined a three-pillar priority agenda, namely: converting cultures of impunity into cultures of deterrence through consistent and effective prosecution; addressing structural gender-based inequality as the root cause and invisible driver of sexual violence in times of war and peace; and fostering national ownership and leadership for a sustainable, survivor-centered response, that empowers civil society and local women’s rights defenders.
Another important first, is the participation in today’s debate of Ms. Razia Sultana, on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. Ms. Sultana is the first Rohingya woman, born in Northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, to brief this Council on the plight of her people.
Her presence here is a historic opportunity to give a face and a voice to a community that has been denied a nationality, denied an identity, and even denied a name.
Her perspective will be particularly valuable on the eve of the Council’s first visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Indeed, voices from directly-affected communities provide the “ground truths” that must guide our action, and I trust that her message will be heard and heeded.
The annual Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict provides a critical opportunity for taking stock of how we are progressing, or regressing, in this agenda. The data and trend analysis presented in the annual Report of the Secretary-General serves not only to measure progress, but also to inspire and accelerate it.
It was exactly one decade ago, in 2008, that this Council adopted the groundbreaking resolution 1820, which elevated the issue of conflict-related sexual violence onto its agenda, as a threat to security and impediment to peace. It urged us to “debunk the myths that fuel sexual violence”, and indeed the notion of rape as an “inevitable byproduct of war” or mere “collateral damage”, can never again serve as an alibi for inaction.
Since then, the issue has been systematically included in the mandates of peacekeeping missions, reflected in the designation criteria of sanctions regimes, addressed in ceasefire agreements, and excluded from amnesty provisions. Women’s Protection Advisers have been deployed to field missions to generate actionable information, and pursue a protection dialogue with parties to conflict. Today, we are supporting thousands of survivors we were not reaching a decade ago.
Resolution 1820 demanded nothing less than the “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians”. In that respect, while significant normative and operational progress has been achieved, it is clear that words on paper are not yet matched by facts on the ground. We have not yet moved from resolutions to lasting solutions.
I believe we are at an inflection point in this agenda, and must urgently consolidate progress – by ensuring accountability – or risk a reversal, resulting in wartime rape being once again “normalized”, due to the frequency and impunity with which it is committed. The past decade of enhanced political momentum to combat sexual violence has coincided with a confluence of global crises, including mass migration and displacement, rising violent extremism and terrorism, the resurgence and spread of conflict, and the proliferation of arms. These factors have created the conditions for renewed patterns of violations.
Indeed, the report before us shows that sexual violence continued to be employed as a tactic of war, a tactic of terrorism, and a tool of political repression in 2017. Across a range of settings, it was used by parties to conflict to attack and alter the ethnic or religious identity of persecuted groups, and to change the very demographics of disputed regions.
The threat of sexual violence continued to serve as a driver of forced displacement, and has inhibited the return of uprooted communities to their areas of origin, especially in the absence of accountability for past crimes. In this way, conflict-related sexual violence has led to the dispossession of land, resources, and identity.
Trafficking of women and girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation continued to be an integral part of the political economy of war and terrorism, generating revenue for combatants and armed groups. Women and girls have also been “gifted” to combatants as part of a perverse system of rewarding and socializing recruits.
A rising trend noted in the report is the recourse to negative and harmful coping mechanisms in response to the risk of rape, in environments of instability and indigence. Early marriage has spiked in contexts where families have no other means of providing for, or safeguarding, their daughters. This has resulted in more repression, in the name of protection.
Indeed, sexual violence both arises from, and reinforces, unequal gender relations, impeding the realization of women’s rights and freedoms. In several contexts, victims were forced to marry their rapist in the name of restoring social harmony and family “honor”.
Survivors endured multiple, intersecting stigmas in the wake of sexual violence, including the stigma of association with an armed or terrorist group, and of bearing children conceived through rape by the enemy. Often, these women and children are viewed as affiliates, rather than victims, of violent extremist groups, and vilified as threats to the communities they seek to rejoin. The divisive force of stigma prevents family reconciliation, in some cases leading to renewed displacement, with survivors fleeing to escape reprisals by their own relatives or communities.
Stigma can have lethal repercussions, including “honor killings”, suicide, untreated diseases (such as HIV), traumatic fistula, unsafe abortion, maternal mortality, extreme poverty, and high-risk survival behavior. Stigma and victim-blame give the weapon of rape its uniquely destructive power, including the power to shred the social fabric, and turn victims into outcasts. It is also the reason that sexual violence remains one of the least-reported of all crimes.
The plight of children conceived as a result of wartime rape demands urgent attention. These children may be left Stateless, in a legal limbo, and susceptible to recruitment, radicalization, trafficking and exploitation, with wider implications for peace and security. Colombia is the only country in which children conceived through rape are legally recognized as victims, though the fear of stigma has prevented many from coming forward to seek redress.
Male survivors of sexual violence have had their social status, identity, and sexual orientation called into question. In some countries, this can even result in their arrest.
Despite some landmark cases, such as the ICC ruling in the trial of Bosco Ntaganda in 2017, mass rape continues to be met with mass impunity. This means that the vicious cycle of violence, impunity and revenge continues unabated in many nations torn by war. For instance, it is a travesty and an outrage that not a single member of ISIL or Boko Haram has yet been convicted for sexual violence as an international crime.
Although the report before us paints a bleak, at times harrowing, picture of brutality, it is also important to highlight the progress achieved at country-level. For instance, the Armed Forces of Côte d’Ivoire were delisted last year, following the adoption of concrete action plans and concerted efforts to prevent and punish sexual violence. No new cases or allegations concerning members of the Ivorian armed and security forces were recorded in 2017, which shows what is possible when political will and risk-mitigation measures are in place.
Several other States continue to implement Joint Communiqués and action plans to curb conflict-related sexual violence, such as CAR, DRC, Guinea, Iraq, Somalia, and South Sudan. I look forward to other parties that appear in the list, such as the Myanmar Armed Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces, adopting similar communiqués or frameworks of cooperation with my Office.
Another instructive example is that of Colombia, which elevated gender justice to the heart of its peace process, resulting in thousands of survivors receiving reparations for sexual violence. In the DRC, a former parliamentarian in Kavumu, South Kivu province, was convicted in 2017 for the rapes of 39 children committed by his militia, as a crime against humanity. This trial brought an end to the serial rapes in Kavumu, and helped to disband a militia that was threatening local security. In addition, hundreds of prosecutions have been undertaken by the Congolese authorities, with support from MONUSCO and the Team of Experts on the Rule of Law, which is part of my Office. A number of significant law reform initiatives took place in 2017, to delink rape from adultery and “morality crimes”, as seen in Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan.
The history of wartime rape has been a history of denial. On my visits to countries of concern, I still encounter attempts to deny or downplay this issue. Yet such an approach serves no one: not the Government, not the credibility and efficacy of national institutions, and not the people trying to come to terms with the past and build a better future. No problem can be solved through silence. We will never be able to prevent what we are unable or unwilling to understand.
At this critical juncture, we cannot lose focus. We must keep the searchlight of international scrutiny on this historically-hidden crime. When I think of what is at stake, I think of the thousands of women and children who remain in the captivity of groups like ISIL and Boko Haram; I think of the women released – pregnant or with children – from the grip of a terrorist group, who are forced to choose between their babies and their communities of origin that refuse to accept them; I think of the faces of the survivors I have met in the DRC, Iraq, Darfur, Nigeria, Guinea and in the teeming camps in Bangladesh; I think of the Bosnian man who reduced the room to tears by describing his struggle for identity and belonging, having been born of wartime rape and orphaned by prejudice and stigma.
If the Security Council resolutions on sexual violence tell us one thing, it is that wartime rape is preventable, and not inevitable. Addressing it is our collective responsibility. The survivors are watching and waiting – we cannot afford to fail them.
Looking forward, I would like to propose three recommendations:
Firstly, I call on the international community to give serious consideration to the establishment of a reparations fund for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, to help them rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Reparative justice is what survivors want most, yet receive least.
Secondly, we need a more operational response to stigma alleviation, because stigma kills. Socioeconomic reintegration support for sexual violence survivors and their children must infuse peace-building, reconstruction and reconciliation efforts.
In cases where survivors face ongoing risks, I encourage States to adopt “special quota projects” to help relocate women and children to third countries, following the precedent set by Germany to protect members of the Iraqi Yezidi community. Similar consideration should be given to the most vulnerable Rohingya women and children.
And thirdly, we need to marshal sustained political resolve and resources equal to the scale of the challenge. The gender-based violence response in humanitarian settings remains chronically underfunded and we see, time and time again, how a lack of resources translates into a lack of protection. The report before us should serve as an alarm and a “wake-up call” to the onset of any “donor fatigue”.
Despite all the challenges, what gives me hope is the way that women – from Liberia, Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the DRC, and elsewhere – have used their experience as survivors of sexual violence to mobilize political movements for peace. They have become galvanized and organized in response to this threat, and have begun to channel that impetus into political aspirations, to ensure that the dark chapters of their nation’s history never repeat. We must support these efforts to enhance women’s participation and influence, because, after all, empowerment is protection.
* Access the 2018 report on Sexual Violence in Conflict via the link below.

Visit the related web page

View more stories

Submit a Story Search by keyword and country Guestbook