Human rights activist Rothna Begum on the heartbreaks and triumphs of her work

As a researcher with Human Rights Watch, Rothna Begum has documented some heart-wrenching crimes against women and a few heart-warming triumphs too. It is with these stories, collected over the past decade or so, that the young activist has set out to spread awareness about the evils that haunt the women of our world – more specifically, the Middle East and North Africa. Rothna was one of the speakers at the 8th edition of TEDxGateway that took place on 4 February 2018 in Mumbai, and in an interview with Firstpost, said a major obstacle she faces, is the idea that human rights do not matter.

“We have presidents or populist leaders who don’t believe in women’s rights. They are dismantling news and making it very difficult for immigrants and people of different faiths and backgrounds. When you see this kind of rhetoric used by the leaders, it becomes very problematic,” she says.

As someone who works in the Middle East region, Rothna believes that Saudi Arabia is a particularly difficult area. “It is a country which has no criminal court and has the male guardianship system. It’s like, if you are in Saudi Arabia and if you are a woman, you must have a male guardian from birth to death. You can’t travel abroad, you can’t marry or pursue higher education without the permission of your male guardian. They have to be present your entire life.” Over the years, activists have hammered out some wins. So now women can stand for elections and will also be allowed to drive.

Rothna Begum is a researcher with Human Rights Watch

Rothna Begum is a researcher with Human Rights Watch

A major part of Rothna’s brief involves looking out for migrant workers in the Middle East who fall prey to the dreaded ‘kafala’ system. In other words, surrender entirely to the will of the employer who takes away your passport and dictates terms of your job, which could be completely different from what was stated in the contract. This could mean that you work for 20 people instead of two, get paid half of what was offered or worse, not get paid at all. This is apart from the physical and sexual abuse that many of the workers endure. However, there’s hope. “Now there is an International Domestic Workers Union made of unions and associations around the world. This is a huge step forward,” says Rothna.

In 2015, Rothna was in Iraq documenting some of the worst episodes of human oppression – the abuse of Yezidi women by Islamic State. Recounting the horror she says, “Yezidi women and girls were captured in 2013 when the IS came and took up towns. They executed a lot of young men and arrested women, girls, boys and men. They separated them and detained them in houses and hotels. Then they started to check how long their hair was or how tall they were and documenting those details. They did this for the IS markets where IS men would come and choose the women they would marry or turn into their sex slaves. They were trying to wipe out the entire community by raping the girls. To add to that, abortion is illegal in Iraq, even in cases of rape. So, what happens to women who are impregnated through rape?” Since then, activists’ efforts have led to the establishment of a network of psychologists who help these women cope with the trauma. “But there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” stresses Rothna.

It is however, in such times of horror that suddenly, one sees a ray of hope — however bleak. Of one such instance Rothna says, “I was interviewing this 16-year-old girl who was subjected to terrible abuse by the ISIS in Iraq. Her entire community was executed or detained to be sold as slaves — including her. She befriended a girl who faced similar situations and they tried to commit suicide before they were sold. They ended up being sold to the same house, to two brothers. The girls finally escaped together. Now they live miles away from each other in Iraqi tents but they are in touch on a daily basis, over phone.”

Uplifting as they may be, such episodes are far and few and Rothna admits that there are times when the process gets emothionally draining. “It just weighs on you. You carry everyone’s story. You write about it, document it and it stays with you. Sometimes, I feel drained. There have been moments when I have lost the thought of what humanity is all about. But you need to take care of yourself so that you can work on championing your rights. I turn to three different things duirng times like these - nature, children and animals. They are very reviving. These three things are all about life and they remind you that there is innocence around and that beauty exists, even when you see the most horrific stuff.”

Rothna is also very appreciative of the #MeToo movement that has garnered mixed reactions from different quarters. The hashtag started on social media to garner attention towards abuse and discrimination at work, is the beginning of a longer battle, she hopes. “The #MeToo movement has been incredibly important for the issue of sexual harassment against women particularly at the work place and public. I think it brought to light what we, as women need. Some men were not aware of what they were doing in terms of their actions and didn’t realise the enormity of what was going on. As women you know that this happens to every other woman. We know that there is a certain sense of sexual harassment that is normalised at work place. This movement helped to break and pierce that image.”

Updated Date: Feb 08, 2018 15:29 PM

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