By The Carter Center’s Human Rights Program
“We live in a world of such disparity that the only commodity some women have is their body. We have no option but to be with these women on the streets as well as with women in the church pews working to end these inequalities.” – Fulata Moyo
Fulata Moyo is haunted by a young woman, maybe 14-years-old, whose swollen belly shows the late stages of pregnancy. She remembers how it felt to look at her:
“It was like I could not see in her, in her face and her eyes. She was not in her body. She was… it was like I was meeting a body that didn’t have a life in it,” said Moyo.
The ghostly young woman was staying at a church-sponsored center for sex trafficking survivors in Thailand that Moyo visited in 2010 for her work leading the World Council of Church’s program on Women in Church and Society. Moyo was troubled, and asked the center’s leaders what they did for these girls. She was told that they taught them to forgive their captors and abusers, because God tells us to “forgive those who sin against us.” In the young pregnant woman’s case, she should “embrace the baby as a gift from God.”
“And looking at these girls,” Moyo says, “it was clear to me that they did not even listen to this girl, maybe even ask her, ‘What are you feeling? What are your questions?’ I thought that was so important.”
Moyo believes that religious scripture must be applied in context. Rather than the rote teaching of forgiveness for healing survivors of sexual trafficking, she believes religious communities should approach scripture in the context of women’s experiences to also help raise awareness of issues that dehumanize women, like trafficking.
She cites an interpretation of the Bible’s book of Ruth, in which two widowed women depend on each other to survive, as a text on trafficking. Placed in this context, Moyo sheds new light on Naomi’s motivation for instructing Ruth, a widowed daughter-in-law, to marry her employer as means to secure their futures.
“Ruth and Naomi are so deprived that Naomi had to use young Ruth to rescue back the possibility of their livelihood. Naomi was not unlike the traffickers, the women who are mediators. They intermediate because most of them are desperate, and they have to use someone else,” said Moyo.
Remembering the young pregnant woman in Thailand that was “like a body without a life,” Moyo wonders:
Are there Ruths and Naomis in our communities, and do we know their stories? Now, what can our faith communities do to help them?
Fulata Moyo is a systematic theologian serving as the World Council of Churches’ Programme Executive for Women in Church and Society, with the mandate to coordinate women’s global work in all WCC’s member churches in all the 8 regions (North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, the Pacific, Middle East, Africa). Moyo received her doctorate from the School of Religion and Theology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in the area of gender and ecological justice and sexuality in the context of HIV and AIDS. She is also the General Coordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and a member of the Scholars in Action project of The Carter Center’s Mobilizing Action for Women and Girls Initiative.
Human Rights Defenders: FAQ
Q: Who are the Human Rights Defenders?
Human Rights Defenders can be lawyers, teachers, farmers, journalists, doctors, and many other things, but they have made a decision to stand up against injustice. They face complicated and sometimes controversial issues and bring them to light for all to see. They are truth tellers, diagnosticians who analyze the health or weakness of their nation’s democracy, with the aim of finding effective remedies. For the most part, Human Rights Defenders are those who dedicate their energies to holding governments accountable to international standards of human rights that are well-defined by numerous treaties. They are not diplomats or politicians, though individuals may migrate between those roles.
Q: What is the work of Human Rights Defenders?
Human Rights Defenders have a specific job – to defend the victims of violations and to watch and tell the world whether internationally recognized human rights are being respected by governments or those with control over the lives of populations in cases of conflict or breakdown of the state. They rush to the front of the battle that is always waged between the limits of power of the state and respect for the liberties of the individual.
Q: Do Human Rights Defenders advocate violence?
Human Rights Defenders do not use or defend violence to further the cause of justice, but rather they seek to build institutions that will make justice and protection of human rights a permanent pursuit within their society.
Q: Why is the work of Human Rights Defenders so important?
Human Rights Defenders work toward realization of all human rights around the world by linking individual human rights problems to a global movement. By reporting and disclosing human rights violations in their respective countries, they provide an alternative to the governments’ picture of events, trends, and progress on the ground. They serve as a system of early warning in identifying dangerous oppressive trends by governments or other powerful groups and sound the alarm for the public and the international community.
Q: What challenges do Human Rights Defenders face?
Promotion of human rights is frequently viewed by governments as an attempt to change the existing power balance within a country; therefore, defenders are frequently threatened by governments and other groups who may feel threatened by the information presented by Human Rights Defenders. Human Rights Defenders have been subject to torture, arbitrary detentions, and extrajudicial execution.
Human Rights defenders experience harassment by security officials, including constant monitoring of their movements and communications, and it is not unusual for them to be denied travel documents. In the context of the war on terrorism, under the scope of “security measures,” various laws were passed in a number of countries prohibiting the publication of human rights violations and have been used against human rights activists to prevent their work.
Q: What does The Carter Center do to support Human Rights Defenders?
The Carter Center, under leadership of President Carter and U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, convenes annually the Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum, a gathering of human rights activists from all regions of the world. The forum generates a picture of the state of global democracy and human rights movements and further reports to public and U.S. policy-makers. Read more about the Human Rights Defenders forums.
Q: How could you become a Human Rights Defender?
While there is no one formula for becoming a Human Rights Defender, one characteristic common to all Human Rights Defenders is standing up to injustice in one’s community or country in the face of difficult obstacles. Some Human Rights Defenders created organizations that provide legal, medical, or other social services. Others investigate and report on injustice around them. On a very general level, identify an issue in your community and SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER.