Today marks 41 years since the UN began celebrating women’s achievements on 8 March. To celebrate International Women’s Day and to honour these achievements we highlight four strong women who – in their own way – have fought human rights violations such as torture, sexual violence and other forms of ill treatment.
The advocate: Helen Bamber, Founder of the Helen Bamber Foundation
The late Helen Bamber worked tirelessly in the human rights field for more than 60 years, helping thousands of torture survivors worldwide. Starting out in the former German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen after World War II, she later became an early member of Amnesty International.
In 1985 she established the UK based torture rehabilitation centre Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture – now known as Freedom from Torture. Twenty years later she founded the Helen Bamber Foundation, which is a human rights charity that provides therapeutic care, medical consultation, legal protection and practical support to survivors of human rights violations.
Named European Woman of Achievement in 1993, Helen Bamber was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1997 and in the same year also received a lifetime Human Rights Achievement award for her work. She passed away in 2014.
The caregiver: Uju Agomoh, Founder of Prisoners Rehabilitation And Welfare Action
Dr. Uju Agomoh is the founder and Executive Director of Prisoners’ Rehabilitation And Welfare Action (PRAWA) — a Nigerian NGO working on security, justice and development with initiatives in several African countries. She is a board member of several associations and committees and has served as Federal Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria (NHRC). She was also the Special Rapporteur on Police, Prisons and Centers of Detention of Nigeria from 2001 to 2008.
As the Executive Director of Nigerian NGO PRAWA, Dr. Uju Agomoh’s work includes training, assessment, documentation and provision of support services to prisoners, ex-prisoners, torture victims and their families. She has undertaken over 1,000 prison assessment visits to over 100 prisons in Nigeria in addition to prison visits in South Africa, Gambia and Rwanda. Her work has facilitated the training of over 5,000 prison officers in good prison practice and international human rights standards in Ghana and Nigeria and she established the first victim-offender mediation scheme in Ghana, Gambia and Nigeria.
Not surprisingly, she has become one of Africa’s most prominent experts on a range of issues in the human rights and anti-torture field. She has spoken out against the poor conditions in African prisons and police violence just as she has advocated for prison reforms, access to justice, rehabilitation and social development of prisoners.
Waris Dirie, Supermodel and Founder of the Desert Flower Foundation
50-year-old Somalian supermodel and human rights activist Waris Dirie was only five when she underwent the inhumane procedure that is female circumcision, more accurately known as female genital mutilation (FGM). Unlike many girls who die from haemorrhaging, shock, infection or tetanu after FGM, Waris Dirie survived. But she was in extreme pain and continues to suffer from the aftereffects.
At 13 she ran away from her village when she learned that her father had arranged to have her marry a man in his 60s. She ended up in London where she was spotted by a photographer and became a successful model, fronting campaigns for some of the world’s biggest fashion houses.
Finding it difficult to embrace the success of her modelling career while knowing that thousands of girls undergo FGM every day, Waris Dirie set out to raise awareness about the practice that she calls “torture” against young girls. She became the UN Goodwill Ambassador in the fight against female genital mutilation and in 2002 founded the organisation now known as the Desert Flower Foundation, which supports victims of FGM directly with healthcare and medical treatment. The foundation opened a medical centre in Berlin in 2014, which is expected to be the first of several centres to offer FGM victims reconstructive surgery.
The anonymous victim: BC
Eighteen-year-old BC grew up in the Rukum District of Western Nepal. She was just one when her father died and three when her mother remarried and left her with her grandparents.
BC’s grandparents arranged her marriage to a boy from the same village when she was 15. Immediately after the wedding she was subjected to violence from both her husband and in-laws. After six months of marriage she fled to the capital city Kathmandu to live with her mother, but was forced to return. Upon her return she was arrested and detained despite the police not having a proper arrest warrant.
She was later brought to a hotel room and raped by the officer investigating the case. BC did not file a complaint as she was afraid she would be detained again. She became pregnant as a result and had an abortion in secret. Living in terror, she told no one what had happened, suffered in silence and felt increasingly more hopeless.
It was not until a local NGO referred her to the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal (TPO Nepal) for rehabilitation that she received the treatment she so desperately needed. At the time she suffered from dizziness, palpitations, headaches, restlessness and was very weak physically. She blamed herself for what had happened, had trouble sleeping and contemplated suicide.
TPO Nepal gave her post abortion medical care and treatment for other physical problems. She also received regular counselling and legal support from the centre’s legal officer. Her physical and mental state have gradually improved and she no longer contemplates suicide.
She filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) about the police with the support of the centre’s legal officer. This complaint is now pending in the NHRC.
There are many incredible and strong women in the human rights movement. Who would you like to celebrate, honour or remember?
Last year we also focused on strong women who have played an important role in the anti-torture movement. Click here to read the blog.