In over 25 years of working side-by-side with human rights defenders from 108 countries, one could say we’ve WITNESSed it all. But we continue to be awed and inspired by individuals, collectives, and organizations fighting for change. Whether it’s women creating short videos to fight gender stereotypes in Syria, grassroots campaigning to promote dignified narratives and just laws for LGBTQI persons in Malaysia, or compassionate storytelling led by women for HIV persons in South Africa to shed light on otherwise invisible communities, we are privileged to know and work with these powerful groups using video for change.
In honor and in celebration of International Women’s Day 2018, WITNESS’ regional teams highlight the women and organizations who inspire us.
Justice for Sisters and SEED Foundation, Malaysia
Liberated T, Syria
STEPS, South Africa
Voces de Mujeres, Mexico
Be sure to check out our new video “5 Things to Never Do when Interviewing Survivors of Sexual Violence” featuring writer, producer and activist, Agunda Okeyo. You can watch it below and read the guide this video is based on, Interviewing Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, which is available in 7 languages!
Justice for Sisters and SEED Foundation, Malaysia
Despite a glaringly appalling record of gross mistreatment and dehumanization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and inter-sex (LGBTQI) persons, Malaysia maintains that it treats the community equally, although it acceded the CEDAW in 1995.
Article 377 of Malaysia’s Penal Code criminalises same-sex activity with sentences of up to 20 years of imprisonment, or fines and whipping. Religious laws and policing punish men who crossdress in public with combined punishments of a fine, jail term and whipping. A fatwa that exists since 1983 prohibits sex change operations, which are understood as unnatural modifications to the human body. The Ministry of Islamic Development or JAKIM endorses “conversion therapy”, which calls for LGBTQI persons to “repent”, “seek guidance from God” and enter into heterosexual marriages by transformation through an extensive reprogramming of sexual orientation.
Defying the state’s intrusions into their intimate lives and the fear-mongering by religious leaders, who call for a tight control over the use of social media by LGBTQI persons, activists have taken to video to assert their rights, and to fight for their lives and dignities. Nisha Ayub, co-founder of grassroots campaign Justice for Sisters and the non-profit SEED Foundation, uses Facebook Livestream to dispel myths about transgender people, to voice her outrage at hate crimes, and to call for just laws. She also recently called out a popular local radio station for being transphobic in a video advertisement, which has since been taken down.
In June last year, Nisha successfully lobbied the Health Ministry to revise its discriminatory guidelines for a nation-wide video competition on adolescent sexual and reproductive health. The Ministry revised its gender dysphoria category with “gender and sexuality” and affirmed its commitment to the non-discrimination of LGBTQI persons. Nisha was joined in her efforts by the Malaysian AIDS Council, who uses video to break the stigma around LGBTQI survivors of HIV/AIDS.
In February this year, activist Arwind Kumar took to YouTube to respond to a homophobic checklist that was recently printed in a Malay language local newspaper. In his viral video, Arwind directly addresses the writer of the article to say:
“There are much more important issues in this country that need to be addressed, and THIS is not one of them. If you really want to educate society, then explain to them the traits of a paedophile, a molester, a murderer, a kidnapper, those kinds of people who actually endanger the life of another… how the hell does a gay person endanger your life?”
Liberated T, Syria
In Arabic, words are feminized with a ة character—often called “the silent t.” However, Liberated T breathes life into all things feminine with a series of short videos documenting the exact ways that Syrian women are impacted by the war. “We want to shine a light on how our society treats women,” one of its founders told WITNESS MENA.
“Some well-known (male) activists are pro-human rights, but don’t see gender-based violence as a human rights violation. These activists—and this mentality—is one of our main targets.” On Liberated T’s carefully-curated website and social media pages, one can browse vignette-style videos describing everything from women rebuilding their homes from the ruins of Raqqa to the difficulties of having one’s period while under siege. “We use video to reach our audience in an impactful way; each video is produced by someone within our network of activists on the ground” the founder continues, speaking to the challenges of video and verification.
While Liberated T and their women-led team continue to shatter gender stereotypes by using the power of video in online spaces, that also means they have to carefully navigate the dangers of such spaces. For women speaking out in some of the most dangerous places in the world, the threat of digital violence, negative comments, and doxxing are an all-too-real risk. Nevertheless, Liberated T holds the conviction that the impact of video advocacy, however far-off, is important. “We are documenting these extraordinary women, in hopes that our next generation will be more open-minded.”
Voces de Mujeres, Mexico
Launched in 2015, Voces de Mujeres is a storytelling project based in Mexico comprised of women’s collectives and communication groups that focus on highlighting women’s stories of struggle and social transformation through a visual medium. Individual projects include thematic issues such as violence against women and gender non-conforming people while challenging and changing the way women have traditionally been represented in the media.
The project brings together 20 female activists and community organizers from all over Mexico to partake in workshops, training them on various communications tools and documentation techniques, therefore allowing them to develop and strengthen their audiovisual skills and empowering their individual voices and stories creatively. Over the course of six months, the participants are able to hone in on their storytelling skills and produce a final video piece. In 2017 the project kicked off its second year of workshops with a new group of participants featuring the stories of gender dissidents, indigenous women, poets, journalists, footballers, land defenders and more as participants continue to raise awareness and fight against social and institutional injustices.
Most recently, Voces de Mujeres was hosted by CCEMx in Mexico City for 16 Days of Activism against gender violence—a collaborative and interactive exhibit featuring panels, videos, and art from participants in conjunction with Luchadoras, Social TIC, Subversiones, La Sandía Digital and WITNESS Espanol.
Social Transformation and Empowerment Project, South Africa
Women have been second class citizens for much of South Africa’s history. Activists fighting for women’s rights are using video to leverage the transformative power of narrative and highlight voices that are often silenced. The Social Transformation and Empowerment Project (STEPS), one of our long-time partners in South Africa, is an NGO that uses storytelling to educate and empower on human rights and environmental issues. STEPS creates documentaries on pressing social issues, organizes community screenings, and trains facilitators to use documentaries for awareness and advocacy.
The encouragement and support from STEPS helped Mariam, featured below, produce a participatory film about becoming a young mother at 15 years old; in the process of filming, Mariam encourages other young mothers to continue their education, adding:
“I also want to go back to school. I just want to let young girls like you know what I experienced mustn’t happen to anyone.”
Marianne Gysae and Elaine Maane are inspiring community trainers for STEPS to guide people to spark productive dialogues about films to generate building blocks for change: compassion, solidarity, a sense of connection, and understanding. Marianne has been involved in media for development projects in Southern Africa for more than 20 years. Elaine promotes the visibility of people living with HIV through working on projects dedicated to this cause, in addition to her book about her experience of living with HIV. Marianne and Elaine boost the diversity of media content and ownership in South Africa and amplify people’s ideas and opinions throughout the world.
Women at the forefront of visual activism, Brazil
Daiene Mendes is an inspiring 28-year-old journalist leading a campaign to amplify the voices of the women—especially youth—who are at the vanguard of the movement to transform mainstream narratives about favelas, and who use the power of video and social media to protect their communities. Her previous work includes coverage of the Rio Olympics with The Guardian, serving as Executive Director of a local news publication Voz das Comunidades (Voices of the Community), and working with the Communications arm of Amnesty International. Daiene believes that a smile can serve as both protection and an impactful tool for resistance. She has recently joined the WITNESS team as our Social Media Guru for WITNESS Português.
Fran Silva was born in São Paulo, but moved to the city of Recife as a young child. A powerful memory that still captivates Fran is that her mother made sure to pack their family photo album—an album full of notes and narratives about the pictures held within—in her suitcase before leaving São Paulo. Fran subsequently developed a strong link between memory and photography, evolving her work to focus on producing videos and photos that not only mark singular moments and historical facts, but ones that have the power and emotional sensitivity to touch people and bolster their most positive emotions.
Monique Evelle is a journalist and reporter with the Profissão Repórter program on Rede Globo, a nationally syndicated television network in Brazil. She has faced the inequalities and structural injustices of a segregated and racist Brazil, which have inspired her to promote black stories and the people behind them to the forefront of Brazilian conversations.
Anna Lekas Miller is WITNESS’ MENA Communications Consultant based in London. She has reported from the Middle East on the Syrian refugee crisis, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and other issues for a variety of publications, including The Intercept, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, and VICE.
Izzy Pinheiro is WITNESS’ Program Assistant based in Brooklyn, NY. She has worked advocacy campaigns including health care for Syrian refugees in Jordan, sexual violence prevention on college campuses, and redressing rights abuses in South Africa.
Meghana Bahar is WITNESS’ Asia Communications Consultant—a gender and media expert, with 18 years of experience in transnational women’s and human rights movements as an activist, journalist, writer, media and communications specialist.