This past week, I stumbled upon the following headlines as I scrolled through the BuzzFeed app on my phone:
- “Venezuela Arrests and Hides Leading Human Rights Activist and Social Media Organizer.”
- “Nine LGBT Activists Arrested in China—But Gay Pride March Still Planned.”
- “Some Egyptian Men Say New Law To Ban Sexual Harassment Won’t Make A Difference Because ‘Women Like It.’”
Are you shocked or angered by those headlines? If you answered yes, you may have an affinity for human rights activism, or you actually care about humanity. In any case, the world needs more people like you. I find it depressing and revolting that these are the headlines we are reading in the 21st Century. Why is it so difficult to accept others for who they love? Why are women and men still not viewed equally? Unfortunately, those are simple questions with complex answers. All I can say with confidence is that we need activists to lead us in the fight against human rights’ abuses. We need individuals who challenge mental models, social constructs, ignorance, and inequality. We need fearless leaders who fight for what they believe in despite all the forces working against them.
The people in the world with this type of resolve give me hope.
I still remember tabling in college and asking passing people if they would be interested in signing a petition. Many refused to sign. They justified their decision by saying, “One signature does not make a difference.” I encountered this defeatist mentality for 3 years. It literally takes less than fifteen seconds to sign your name on a piece of paper, but I realized that wasn’t the challenge. The challenge was fighting ignorance. As a college student, my human rights work was both tiring and invigorating. It consumed my undergrad years.
As Co-president of the Amnesty International (AI) Chapter, I educated college students through campaigns and petitions about abuses, such as torture in Zimbabwe prisons and censorship of the civil war in Sri Lanka. I planned human rights awareness weeks, candlelight vigils, movie nights, and interactive events. I invited a doctor on campus to speak about the healthcare system in Colorado and set-up a gallery featuring those without healthcare around the world. We made valentines for the Women of Zimbabwe Arise group and mailed them across the world to stand in solidarity. We played thought-provoking documentaries, such as ‘Cry of the Snow Lion’ about Tibet and ‘Offside’ about gender discrimination in Iran. We even held Urgent Action nights when we wrote letters to free a prisoner of conscience. I cannot express how rewarding it feels to receive an e-mail saying that the person I wrote a letter for has been freed. Those e-mails stimulated my determination to continue my human rights work.
After I graduated, it became harder to rally others in support. I did not have a student organization or the funding to aid the process. However, as a working professional, I continue to donate each year to AI and remain a dedicated member. I have also had the pleasure of presenting a workshop to high school students. In 2013, I presented “What does it mean to be a leader? An Exploration of Leadership, Advocacy and Human Rights” at the 4th Annual Colorado Asian American Leadership Conference for Next Generation Voices. I presented again for Minds Matter Denver in 2014. The goal of this workshop was to simplify the concept of leadership for teenagers. The students discussed and engaged with the thirty basic human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We applied them to our personal lives, and I showed them examples of human rights activists from around the world. Together, we determined what characteristics those leaders had in common. It was a gratifying experience for me to witness the transformation of high school students. They truly engaged, asked inspiring questions, and made eye-opening comments. After only presenting twice, I realized that I want to continue to provide workshops that increase awareness and challenge mental models.
As a member of AI, I receive countless e-mails calling for action. I recently received an e-mail about one of the latest global campaigns. Hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted by an armed group of terrorists called Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram is an Islamist group that does not believe in education for women. The Nigerian military has shown minimal interest in bringing the girls home. I immediately sent a message to Ambassador Ade Adefuye, urging the Nigerian government to ensure the right to a safe education for these children and that the Boko Haram be brought to justice. I pray for those girls and hope they find light amidst the darkness that has capsized their lives.
AI is not only a notable human rights organization, but a global movement with more than 3 million supporters, members, and activists in over 150 countries and territories. My involvement with AI has made me a more empowered and globally-aware double minority (South Asian American female). As a human rights activist, I inspire and motivate others while challenging their perspectives in order to gain a better understanding of the world. I can say with certainty that knowledge and awareness have the ability to make a tiny human feel powerful on this massive planet. My passion for human rights and the realization of the power that I possess as a single individual has continued to fuel my desire to impact positive change.
Human rights activism does not need to be hard. Here are some simple ways to start:
- Visit http://www.amnesty.org/ to read up on the current human rights campaigns. This website is the most credible source for human rights abuses.
- Read or watch the news to increase your awareness on global affairs.
- Become an AI member by signing up on www.amnesty.org.
- Once you are an AI member, sign petitions! Adding your name to a petition using your e-mail address is quick, easy and makes you feel powerful.
- Make strides toward combating inequality and negative social constructs through empathy. For example, if your friend uses the word “gay” out of context, you have the power to call him or her out and say that is hurtful or offensive.
Happy Amnesty International Day!
Abhi Ramaswami, Guest Contributor