It takes courage to stand up against brutality and oppression in countries where the law often counts for little. Each year, York offers temporary shelter to those who fight for human rights. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

LIFE is tough in Nairobi's Mathare slums. More than 500,000 people live cheek by jowl in desperate poverty.

The 'houses' are tin shacks: the 'streets' muddy alleys. They are so narrow, says Ruth Mumbi, that you often scratch your arms on the overhanging tin roofs.

Most people survive on less than a dollar a day. With no sewage system, typhoid and cholera are commonplace. There is little work; no access to health care or contraception; no privacy.

Children as young as 12 use the alleyways to have sex. And crime is rampant – robbery, murder, rape, domestic violence.

"A lot of young people opt for crime so that they can have something to put on the table," says Ruth, who grew up here.

There are small seeds of hope, however: among them the Bunge la Wamama Mashinani. It means the 'grassroots women's parliament', says Ruth, flashing a smile. She helped found it, and now acts as coordinator.

"We wanted to create a space for women to come together to discuss the challenges they are facing. Most women felt that we were not being fully heard."

The Bunge has few resources – not even a building. "We usually use small open spaces in the slums to hold our debates," Ruth says.

"It is quite a good experience. We drink a cup of tea, discuss the challenges, celebrate the diversity of our group. It is about the strength of women."

In a place such as Mathare, that strength matters. The slum is riven by racial divides as well as crime – in 2006, fighting between rival Luo and Kikuyu groups saw at least ten people killed and hundreds of homes burned.

But the young men who go out to rob, and rape, and kill, all have mothers or wives, Ruth says. "At the end of the day, they go back to their households, to their women. We should be talking with our kids to stop this."

The Bunge also lobbies for better access to health care – and better access to justice for women who are raped or abused. The law can be an impossibly expensive business when you are struggling to put food on the table for your children.


Ruth Mumbi

"So we have been working with pro-bono lawyers and women's rights organisations to provide free legal representation to women," Ruth says.

It can be dangerous being a human rights worker in Mathare, however. Police corruption and brutality is commonplace, Ruth says – there are illegal arrests, forced evictions, disappearances, extra judicial killings and executions, even torture.

In one case, a young man who had been tortured by the police wanted to lodge a complaint. A key witness simply disappeared. That was in 2009. "We have never found his remains," Ruth says.

As a human rights worker, she herself has faced harassment and intimidation. In 2011, she and a colleague were charged with incitement and remanded for two days in prison after leading a protest about the high death rates at a local maternity ward. The harassment continues.

"They have started intimidating me," Ruth says. "Telling me to stop, sending threat messages, sending my mother messages telling her daughter to shut up or else." And who is this shadowy 'they'? "I believe they were the police."

Ruth, who was a finalist in the Frontline defenders Human Rights Awards in 2013, is now on a six month placement with the University of York's Centre for Applied Human Rights – one of a handful of 'human rights defenders' the centre accepts on six month fellowships every year.

The aim of the placements is to give those fighting for human rights around the world a breather, as well as the chance to forge contacts with other human rights workers and organisations around the world.

"Being in York has given me a calm space, where I'm not worrying about who is behind me, who is listening to me," Ruth says. "If I go back home, I go back home knowing that definitely I have been in a human rights city."

 

Other human rights defenders in York tell their stories...
 

Ahmed Al-Kolaibi, Yemen

Ahmed grew up in a mountain village in Dhamar in rural Yemen where the law counts for little, and what matters is tradition and custom. For more than 30 years, his village and other neighbouring villages have been engaged in tit-for-tat 'revenge' wars with their neighbours.

When he was seven, Ahmed lost his own father in one of these revenge killings. An uncle was also badly hurt As he grew older, Ahmed, now 27, began trying to persuade other young men in his village that the killings were senseless.

The village elders, incensed that he didn't want to fight for the 'honour' of his village, decided to make an example of him.

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Ahmed Al-Kolaibi

"They punished me. They took my house, they took my land, because they wanted me to be an example," he says.

He went to Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, where he began to work for a peace-keeping organisation, the Dar Al-Salam Organisation. He works as a mediator in the warring villages, trying to arrange truces between rival sheikhs. He has helped train 360 other mediators - and has even secured the release of abducted foreigners. But being a mediator is very dangerous. "We have lost 15 people," he says quietly.

It can also be deeply frustrating. Once, trying to negotiate a peace between two villages, he was told that 25 people had been killed in one, only 23 people in the other. Before the fighting could be resolved, he was told, 'we have to kill two people from that village so it is 25/25'.


Valdênia Paulino Lanfranchi, Brazil

Valdênia grew up in the slums – or favelas – of Sao Paolo, Brazil's biggest city. Home for her mother, father, three brothers, two sisters and herself was a small house with a tin roof. Her mother took in sewing. Her father worked in a factory until, in his mid-40s, he became ill.

Because of poverty, many children end up on the streets, where they're at risk of violence, abuse, disease and hunger. They have little chance of an education – and many girls end up in prostitution, Valdênia says.

"They serve the men sexually." Women and young children in the slums are also the victims of police brutality, she says.

When she was14, Valdênia helped open a 'safe' house for young girls who worked as prostitutes. The police didn't approve. "Who controls prostitution?" she says. "The policemen, and the men who have money."


Valdênia Paulino Lanfranchi

She lived with the girls for ten years, then helped open two human rights centres to help families in the favelas. She went to university, and got degrees in education and law.

Eventually, after suffering repeated attacks and threats, she and her husband Renato, also a human rights worker, moved to Paraiba, in north eastern Brazil.

There Valdênia, now 47, joined the Oscar Romero human rights centre, working to protect the rights of local 'indigenous' people.

She also, in 2011, became Police Ombudsman for Paraiba – the first woman to hold the post. It brought her into conflicts with 'those in power'. "I was then a victim of everything from raids on the headquarters of our organisations to sexual violence and death threats."

Brazil is supposed to be one of the world's emerging democracies. "But we have more than 100 human rights defenders threatened with death," she says. "We have inequality, poverty, hunger. Why? What has happened?"


Katsiaryna Borsuk, Belarus

Katsiaryna was born in a village not far from Chernobyl, a year after the nuclear accident which made it infamous. The village was radioactively polluted. When she was four, her family were evacuated to the city of Gomel where, as a child, she was taunted for being 'radioactive' herself.

Many people of her generation have chronic health problems, she says - her own brother has problems with his eyes and his throat.

Interested in environmental protection, she studied natural sciences at university in Gomel. She got caught up in student environmental protests, then became involved with the youth movement.

When she graduated, she began working for a banned youth organisation – one that promoted democracy and civil rights. She was several times questioned by the KGB.


Katsiaryna Borsuk

"They pretended to not be KGB. But they took notes," she says. "They mostly took you somewhere. Once, they came by car, and interviewed me in the car."

In 2012, although heterosexual herself, she became involved with Gay Belarus. Homophobia is widespread in Belarus, and there are very few people willing to stand up for LGBT people, she says. They are regularly subjected to homophobic attacks - attacks which are often filmed and posted on social media. Her organisation works with the victims of homophobia, trying to convince families to prosecute cases, talking to police and prosecutors' offices, arranging free legal representation and even psychological support.

But it is not easy. "The police are homophobic. They won't protect you. Even if people are killed – there have been murders – the police don't take the case."


Hikma Rabih, Sudan

In York, Hikma can wear jeans – something she'd never be able to do in her own country. "Sudan is a very patriarchal society," the 33-year-old human rights lawyer says. "Women cannot wear trousers, and I cannot go out in public without a scarf on my head. I want to wear my trousers."

Born in North Darfur, she graduated with a law degree from Elnileen University in Khartoum in 2002, then started work as a protection officer at a refugee camp in South Darfur for civil war victims. In 2009, her organisation was closed down by the government.


Hikma Rabih

"The Government is not supporting human rights," she says. "It needs to cover dirty work."

Undeterred, in 2011 she set up a legal aid centre in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. Her organisation provides legal aid and representation for women who would otherwise have no chance of getting justice.

Because of strict adultery laws, women who have sex outside marriage face 100 lashes, she says: married women who commit adultery can be stoned. If a woman is raped, but fails to prove it in court, she can be given 100 lashes as an adulteress. "The men always go free," Hikma says.