5 human rights violations you might not have heard about

30 November 2017

5 human rights defenders CAFOD works with

CAFOD works with people around the world who are threatened, attacked and sometimes killed for their work defending human rights. 

Around the world courageous individuals go out of their way to defend human rights.

These human rights defenders bear witness to the suffering and injustice they see in their communities, and we must do the same. We must stand by them. It is important to think about the work our partners are doing around the world to defend the rights of people who are vulnerable and marginalised.

Meet five defenders working on human rights violations you might not know about. Share their stories on your social networks to bear witness to the incredible work they do.

1. The right to live and work in peace

Maisoon Badawi - human rights defender - occupied Palestinian territory

Human rights defender Maisoon Badawi - occupied Palestinian territory

Maisoon Badawi – a Palestinian citizen of Israel – works as a field researcher for our partner Yesh Din, a human rights organisation working in the West Bank.

Every day, Maisoon drives to the occupied Palestinian territory, accompanied by one of Yesh Din's volunteers. There she meets with Palestinian men and women who have been victims of crimes committed by ideologically motivated Israeli citizens (mostly settlers) attempting to take control of land in order to expand illegal settlements. She also meets people affected by offences committed by Israeli security forces personnel.

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Maisoon meets people just after they or their families are victimised, and tries to reach out in their time of great need. She tried to make sure they receive justice despite facing obstacles in the Israeli law enforcement system.

"First and foremost, it's important for me to let these people know that someone is willing to listen to them, to help them feel that they have a voice", she says. "Many Palestinians don't know that they can file complaints and I try to explain how the legal system works and how we can help them".      

Every few months, Maisoon holds workshops for women in Palestinian villages, to raise awareness of their rights, identify cases of abuse or violence caused by Israeli citizens or security forces members, and help them file complaints against them if they wish to.

"Every morning I ask myself, who will I meet today? Will I be able to help this person achieve justice? Many times I feel helpless in the face of the brutal occupation, but then I get energy and encouragement when I see those affected fighting to protect their rights".

2. Land rights activist

José Batista Afonso - human rights defender - Brazil

Human rights defender José Batista Afonso from Brazil

José Batista Afonso is a land rights lawyer working for our partner, CPT (Pastoral Land Commission), in Marabá, South-East Para state, in the Brazilian Amazon.

For more than 20 years, he has defended the rights of landless communities to own land, thrive and live peacefully in this region.

Unequal land ownership is one of the root causes of poverty and human rights violations in Brazil. Large-scale farmers and mining companies dominate huge tracts of Amazonian land, which is deforested and often acquired illegally, to breed cattle and exploit natural resources. This has a detrimental impact on the environment and the people that need this land to survive.

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“Traditional populations, including indigenous people and landless farmers, have lived here for centuries and live with the forest without causing damage to it. It is essential to defend the territories of these populations,” says Batista. 

“We need to confront the fact that if we cannot stop these human rights and environmental violations in the Amazon, we must at least keep up the struggle to reduce these crimes. This way, we can create a different reality from the reality we have today.”

Growing up, Batista’s family was also landless and experienced the same challenges in their struggle for justice. His work involves legally defending the poorest farming families in a region where state protection, justice and the rule of law are almost entirely absent.

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Brazil is the most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental defenders. Batista has received many death threats over the years for defending landless communities, who are violently evicted, threatened, and killed for defending their rights to land and protecting the environment.

His support is crucial to these families who would otherwise have no-one to defend them – to train and empower them to defend their rights, build a strong legal case, and defend them in court.

3. Justice for women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence

Thérèse Mema Mapenzi - human rights defender - DR Congo

Human rights defender Thérèse Mema Mapenzi from DR Congo

Thérèse Mema Mapenzi is the Sexual Violence Programme Leader for our partner, the Justice and Peace Commission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

She works on the ‘Listening Rooms’ project, which offers medical referral and counselling to those who have suffered sexual violence. Their stories are usually difficult to listen to, but it’s vital they’re heard.

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“The Listening Rooms offer a safe place for women to talk and make friends with other women who have been raped,” says Thérèse. “We also support the women to become financially independent, helping them rebuild hope and bring stability to their households.”

“When many have been disowned by their families and communities after their attacks, the Listening Room becomes their family and offers a crucial life-line in very hard times”.

“In many villages, humanitarian and local organisations have left because of the economic crisis; the church is the only one left in the village. For this reason, a great number of people come to us. The frequency of the Listening Rooms has had to double.”

“If we can put an end to sexual violence, if we can start to heal the wounds of the past, and if we can combine justice with peace, then ours can be a future built on hope, not one forever shrouded in fear” says Thérèse.

Find out who or what a human rights defender is?

4. Defending vulnerable refugees

'Sara' - human rights defender - Lebanon

Human rights defender  'Sara' from Lebanon

Sara (not her real name) is the coordinator of a refugee shelter run by our partner, Caritas Lebanon.

We have changed Sara’s name and cannot share her photograph because the cases she deals with are too sensitive and she has received threats because of her work.

“I get a lot of threats,” says Sara. “Sometimes the police tell me not to take my car when I come to work.”

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The shelter provides a safe house for vulnerable refugees, with more than 1000 people staying each year. Most are women and children or unaccompanied minors who have suffered gender-based violence.

Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world, hosting over one million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as well as more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees. This has led to an increase of refugees arriving at the shelter. Some of the women and children have fled abusive partners or parents, forced prostitution or forced marriage.

The impact of fighting, displacement, poverty and unemployment has increased domestic violence in some households. “In most domestic violence cases – we ask them what their partner was like before the war in Syria, and around 30 – 40 per cent say yes, they were violent, but the rest say no. They say their husband became more anxious and aggressive when they arrived in Lebanon, and that they also have no family to support them.”

“More trafficking cases are coming from Syria,” says Sara, who last year worked on a major case involving 32 Syrian women who were victims of trafficking and forced prostitution in Lebanon. The women were forced to have sex up to 50 times a day and were held underground. This was a dangerous case and staff at the shelter were threatened.

“People ask me why I do this work. Sometimes I find it hard to express it, I love this work. I am very happy when I go home and feel I am helping someone.”


5. The right to water 

Javier Jahncke is a human rights defender from Peru

Human rights defender Javier Jahncke from Peru

Javier Jahncke is the Executive Secretary of our partner Red Muqui, a Peruvian civil society network working on the social impact of mining.

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In 2009, Javier was accused of ‘terrorism’ along with 34 other activists after campaigning for the rights of local people to have a say over a planned mine. Javier also received death threats and his family were put under surveillance. In March 2017 there was a referendum on mining in Javier's area. An overwhelming majority rejected the proposed mine under the slogan ‘Yes to water, no to the mine’. People were concerned that the mine would contaminate water supplies and destroy the area’s rich biodiversity.

The case against Javier and the activists was later dropped and all charges dismissed. This was seen as a major victory for the right to freedom of speech. However, speaking out against mining continues to be a difficult and dangerous activity.

“Injustices bother me, especially those linked to economic power imposed against people’s rights. This is reflected in extractive mining activity, which to a large extent represents injustice and oppression,” says Javier.

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