Monday, December 8, 2014

Staying safe in conflict zones

Staying safe in conflict zones: advice from women social entrepreneurs

Ashoka fellows leading social change in troubled areas talk about how they protect themselves and stay strong for their team

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  3. 5Meera Vijayann 

  4. Meera Vijayann is communications manager Ashoka India and writes on social enterprise, gender and development.

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  6. 7Guardian Professional, Wednesday 18 June 2014 14.08 BST

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Human rights defender Sumaira Abdulali has been physically assaulted while fighting for the rights of young sand miners in Mumbai Photograph: Awaaz Foundation

Few will remember the death of Pakistani activist and social entrepreneur Fareeda "Kokikhel" Afridi. Shot dead by extremists on her way to work, Afridi was the founder of Sawera (Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas) in a tribal region in Pakistan's far-flung northwest hinterland.

Her work, like that of many other women social entrepreneursin such areas, is phenomenal, yet threats and violent attacks are often the daily reality of working life, says leading human rights defender Hasina Kharbhih.

As the founder of Impulse Social Enterprises and Impulse NGO Network, which provides livelihood opportunities for vulnerable communities affected by human trafficking in North-East India, she has faced several death threats and has been assaulted in front of a local court when fighting a case.

She has developed the "Meghalaya Model" (or Impulse Model), which has helped change the lives of more than 20,000 local women artisans. But keeping an organisation thriving in such conditions can be a monumental task.

Staying strong

"It's very psychologically draining when you have to go through a phase where you are being threatened," she says, "but the other issue is that, when you are running an institution, you have to build a psychological frame that tells your team that things are going to be OK. If I become weakened in the process, the team will collapse or the institution will collapse."

In North-east India, political instability has worsened the problem of human trafficking, which leaves marginalised communities feeling powerless as they struggle in the prevailing system. Building a strong support network with agencies, community bodies and the police in cases of emergency, is mandatory for any social entrepreneur working in these fragile areas, says Kharbhih.

The relentless pursuit of justice has often left many disillusioned in several developing countries, particularly in the South Asian region. Facing fundamentalist forces, religious conservatism or being arrested under false pretences when fighting those in power can feel both defeating and fruitless, but Kharbhih offers some advice for others in this situation.

Know your rights

"When these kinds of attacks happen and when its starts affecting your personal life, many tend to give up. But knowing the law in the area you are based can be very helpful," she says.

It is crucial for social entrepreneurs, especially women working in dangerous areas of oppression and conflict, to learn their rights, legal provisions and equip themselves with all the legal knowledge necessary to ensure their safety, says the social entrepreneur.

"This is very critical," she says, "When you know the law, you can actually stand up for yourself even if the whole system is going against you. You will still have massive support from across the world because they know what you are doing is legally right."

She has successfully sought help and support from organisations like the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, Front Line Defenders and BHRPC (Barak Human Rights Protection Committee).

Sumaira Abdulali, founder of the Awaaz Foundation, agrees: having worked in the environmental sector in India for more than 10 years, particularly against illegal sand mining, bio-diversity threats and pollution, she has faced physical assault during mining inspections.

She also says that maintaining transparency is key to establishing one's integrity and self-protection. "I think one mistake activists or women social entrepreneurs make, in general, is that they tend to work in a secretive manner and no one knows what they are doing," she suggests. "The truth is, letting the outside world know – the public and the press, is a safety mechanism in itself."

Abdulali says that when she ventures into hostile zones she always informs her lawyer and makes sure she is accompanied by a trustworthy person within the community or support network.

At Ashoka, we are proud to work with women like Abdulali and Kharbhih who are bravely venturing into areas that are unfamiliar and using the necessary levers within a system to successfully bring about change. They are creating a safer path for those who wish to follow in their impressive footsteps.

For more news, opinions and ideas about the social enterprise sector, join our community.

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