Why I am an Amnesty International activist

As 2013 is drawing to a close, it’s time for celebrating with friends and family, but also a time of looking back on the year that was. As a member of the Amnesty International Cambridge City group, I can’t say that I am particularly an expert when it comes to Human Rights, nor have I experienced any abuse of my Human Rights worth mentioning. I would like to tell you though, what Human Rights mean to me.

So first of all a little bit about me and Amnesty International. We moved to Cambridge 15 years ago because of my husband’s work. I was pregnant at the time. This of course wasn’t a great starting point for finding a job. Having been a member of Amnesty International in The Netherlands, I decided to join the local group in order to meet some people and do something useful. Since then I have held a few positions in the Cambridge City Group and I am currently chair. I am also a trainer, a  regional representative and as such I am on one of the subcommittees of the board.

What I feel I am most of all, is an Amnesty activist, or maybe better, an activist who believes very much in the aims and the way of working of Amnesty International.  Amnesty International is 52 years old, but activism is older. Activists have put a stamp on this world through, for example, the suffrage movement and the anti-slavery movement. Activism is probably as old as the first political system.

So does this mean that I lock myself to gates and regularly get arrested? Obviously not. Luckily we live in a country where I can use my voice, pen and computer to speak up for what I believe in. One of Amnesty’s straplines states that “We are ordinary people from across the world standing up for humanity and human rights. Our purpose is to protect individuals wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied.” Now here they use the word, purpose, but I so strongly feel that as a citizen and as a human being I have the responsibility and even the duty to stand up for justice. To explain this better I probably need another quote, this time from the 18th Century statesman Edmund Burke. He once said "All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing" .  I’ll forgive him his 18th century view of gender and will interpret that with men he also meant women.

Edmund Burke has provided us with a wealth of quotes and I think I need to give you an additional one to explain my thinking. “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” Or to phrase it differently “Doing nothing because you can only do little is a mistake”. When combining the two it means that good men and women can stop evil from triumphing by doing something, even if it is a little.

I don’t see my role as purely a protest, or complaining one, even though that sometimes seems to be what we end up doing most. Activism is for me a way to participate in the global “democracy”. So I have a voice, but I have also ears and a brain and listening and thinking is as much a part of changing this world for the better as shouting. We need to try to understand issues in depth, before we can advocate a solution and sometimes the issue isn’t what in first instance we think it is.

I’ll give you an example. Amnesty ran for a few years a campaign which was called Stop Violence Against Women. Now Amnesty has always written letters and petitions with regards to women and female victims of human rights abuses, so in a sense this was nothing new.  But some aspects were new to me. One of the focusses was domestic violence and how we perceive violence against women in our society.

As a teenager I had an abusive boyfriend. So I started with this campaign with the assumption that I knew most things under the sun that I should know about this. But I learned so much, about society but also about myself. A large part of this campaign was how we viewed domestic violence. It came out with some shocking statistics, like one in three girls expect to be beaten by a boyfriend.  The way it works in this world, is what you expect you get. So if one in three girls in the UK expect to be beaten up, women worldwide probably expect the same. It should thus be no surprise that the World Health organisation stated in a recent study that 30% of the women worldwide are victims of domestic violence at the hands of their partners.

Because domestic violence seems to be accepted as part of society, Amnesty started the Stop Violence Against Women campaign by making us think how a world would look without violence against women.  Initially I totally dismissed this, thinking it was the same as role play which in my opinion is always unreal thus ineffective. But then at a conference they were filming people and asking them the question “How would this world look without violence against women.” …….

Of course I desperately tried to avoid being dragged in front of the camera, but I did overhear one of my colleagues and friends answering the question. He said “At night when walking behind a woman I will never have to be worried that I am frightening her.”

Being a feminist, I had never, and I mean never, realised the impact that violence against women has on men. Of course when daughters and wives are victims, the men who love them also share the pain, I’d gotten that far. But that it shapes our society further than just the simple division of perpetrators and victims, I’d never given a thought. What I came to realise was that the only way to stop domestic violence is, if the vast majority of society no longer expects it and fights it with all means possible. 

Let me be clear, I mean that it is just as important to sign petitions and letters as it is to speak up in the pub when friends make a domestic violence joke. It is about tackling attitudes such as that a woman asks to be raped if she wears a sexy outfit. It about educating our daughters AND sons that sexist music videos like Robin Thyke’s Blurred Lines should never have been released and it is sad, if not disgusting, that the song made it to number 1. Watching naked girls dance awkwardly around fully-dressed predatory men while they sing “do it like it hurt”, is totally outrageous. As such I would recommend you all to visit the end violence against women website, which is www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk
To sum up, with regards to violence against women, I am saying that we should stop accepting that it is there, as that is the only way to stop it.

Now let me extrapolate this line of thought, as I think it goes beyond our borders. If we expect the police in Tajikistan, to use torture to get confessions no matter what we do, then they will. If we expect the Chinese to continue to return North Korean refugees no matter what we do, then they will.

If we expect the Zimbabwean police to arrest the members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise when they demonstrate for things like affordable bread, no matter what we do then one of its leaders and human rights defenders Jenni Williams probably would have been raped and tortured in prison in 2003.  But because people believed that they should speak out, she hasn’t. She strongly believes that it were phone calls from Amnesty to the police which saved her from this fate. And the continuous pressure from Amnesty members is helping to protect her and others to this date.

Let me finish with a personal story which explains why 2013 has been such a wonderful year for me.  In 2004 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I have been very lucky, the treatment was successful and my boys still have their mother and I still have them, as well as their little sister who was born nearly two years ago. So being 9 years in remission, having had this long wanted third child, I decided early 2013 that I should set myself a challenge, to close this chapter of my life.

Therefore on 6th October I ran the Royal Parks Half Marathon for Amnesty. Not in a time worth mentioning, but I did it and was actually quite pleased with the result. More importantly, the support from family and friends has been overwhelming. I raised an incredible £2,318.34 plus 142 Euros for AI Netherlands. Receiving the support and warm messages from over one hundred lovely and wonderful people has left me on more than one occasion with tears in my eyes, and I am embarrassed to say, that due to the volume, I haven’t even managed to thank all of them personally.
Now having heard about my illness, you may wonder a bit why I didn’t decide to run for a cancer charity. However, I know, and so evidently do my friends and family, that I ran for an organisation that campaigns on many issues close to my heart and also stands up for the rights of cancer sufferers.

One of the most emotional Amnesty letters I have ever written was on behalf of a Palestinian man, who also was diagnosed with the same disease as myself. However, he was not allowed through the checkpoints to get to the hospital for his treatment. He was refused treatment for political reasons.

Now I do not know what happened to him, but I do know what happened to Karima Abu Dalal. She died in 2008 at the age of 34, being diagnosed also with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in her thirties like me. The Israeli authorities repeatedly refused her a permit to travel to the hospital in Nablus in the West Bank, for a whole year and then she died. So she has had to say goodbye to her 5 children.

Karima is one of the reasons why I am an activist as she shouldn’t have died. Because Amnesty campaigns against human rights abuses like the one committed against Karima and her children, I am an Amnesty International activist. 

Liesbeth ten Ham

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1 comment

Many thanks for sharing so many intimate details of your life to explain why you are so passionate about protecting other peoples rights. I hope more people like you can stand up protect our Human Rights. Especially at a time when Britain's human rights laws are under threat of being rewritten by the conservative government.


Emma Hart 6 years ago