Syeda Jebeen S. Shah

My husband, Nakibul Ghani Ahsan, and I were very honored to be invited by Ms. Flavia Agnes, to attend this prestigious event. Since it was an International event, I wore my assamese traditional Muga Mekhela-Sador and Loka-Paro jewelry set, which got admiration from everybody. And we again felt honored to find Ms Agnes sitting there in a beautiful silver-grey assamese silk saree, probably honoring the home state of her assamese son-in-law, my younger brother, Syed Miran Shah (Director of Marketing, Sales and Affiliates for Southeast Asia for CNN International, HBO, Cartoon Network, etc.). The entire evening was a truly inspiring and a humbling experience.

On Thursday, Dec 8th. Global Rights\\' 2005 International Human Rights Day Dinner was held at the Capital Hilton, Washington DC. This year\\'s theme was \\"women fighting for rights\\". Three Internationally renowned Human Rights Defenders were honored at the event, for their relentless efforts in fighting for the rights of minorities in general, and women in particular. Mrs. Binta Mansaray of Sierra Leone, The Honorable Epsy Campbell Barr of Costa Rica and Ms. Flavia Agnes of India.

Mrs. Binta Mansaray, Head of the Outreach program of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, has been a peace and human rights activist for years, and has extensively interviewed victims of war-related crimes, like rape and sexual violence. The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Mission Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, both have used Mrs. Mansaray\\'s extensive work with more than seven hundred survivors of war-crimes. She mentioned at the event, how just by listening to those endless and horrific stories, she and her colleagues themselves have become \\"second hand victims\\". Mrs Mansaray calmly narrated the story of a woman, who was asked to sing and dance, while her husband\\'s throat was being slit. Then she was gang-raped. Next day, while her young son was heard crying, she was asked again by the group to sing and dance, while they slit his throat. That victim had asked her, \\"what is peace? They talk about peace now; but I will never know peace until the day I die\\". Mrs Mansaray has been advocating the rights of refugees, of Internally Displaced Persons at both the National and International levels. And has been working for women\\'s rights, access to education, proper shelter and access to good health care etc.

The Honorable Epsy Campbell Barr of Costa Rica, is the Founder of the Black Parliament of the Americas. This organization is working towards the inclusion and adequate participation of Afro-descendants in the political field. She mentioned that out of 150 million Afro-descendants, there are only 50 representatives in the Parliaments in the Americas. For years, she has been a human rights activist and has been fighting against racism and for equality, in her otherwise democratic country, and hopes to bring about changes in her neighbouring countries as well. This year, she was selected as the Best Member Of Parliament. President of the Citizen\\'s Action Party, Ms Campbell Barr is running for the Vice-Presidentship of Costa Rica. Ms Cambell Barr\\'s two young daughters were also present.

Ms. Flavia Agnes, a lawyer at the Mumbai High Court. She has been an advocate of women\\'s economic independence as a crucial component of gender equity. Ms Flavia Agnes is a pioneer of the women\\'s rights movement in India. Through MAJLIS, an organization which she co-founded, Ms Agnes and her colleagues work relentlessly to protect and advance the rights of minorities, specially women and children, and to spread awareness about violence against women, and to increase the access to justice for rural women. Their model is so effective that various other groups in other parts of India have adopted that. After the 2002 Gujarat Riot, MAJLIS started a legal advocacy program for sexually violated women in the relief camps. Ms Agnes narrated a story about two young sisters, whose entire family was killed in Gujarat. While they were trying to escape, the younger one fell behind; but the older sister kept on running, for she saw a mob approaching. The little girl cried for her sister to help; but all she could do was to watch from her hiding place, her little sister being gang-raped, and then killed right in front of her eyes. Now, everyday she blames herself for not being able to protect her little sister. It is only one incident of countless horrific ones. And that most of the victims were between the ages of 12 and 32. Ms. Agnes mentioned how in India we have got very good laws; but there is the need to make sure that the laws get implemented. Ms Agnes is also a prolific writer, her autobiographical book, \\"My Story Our Story...of Rebuilding Broken Lives,\\" has been translated into many languages. This is a sad but very inspiring book, for Ms. Agnes knew physical abuse first hand, as a very young wife, and mother of three young children. But she made her choice, and took care of her own destiny, and that of her three young children. And now each one of them is a very successful professional, in their own field. \\"Law & Gender Inequality-The Politics of Personal Laws in India\\" and \\"Women and Law\\" (co-edited) are few of her other publications. (I would also like to mention that Ms Agnes is also involved with film production. For a musical documentary, ‘Scribbles on Akka’, Ms Agnes had received the National Rajat Kamal and a cash prize of Rs 10,000/-as the Producer, and Madhusree Dutta, Executive Director of MAJLIS, had won as the Director, in the Best Anthropological / Ethnographic Film category. This duo had also won National award for Best Film On Social Issues : Memories Of Fear, Producer : Flavia Agnes, Director : Madhusree Dutta. Both films are related to women\\'s issues).

The reception started at 5:30 PM, and after the cocktail hour, dinner was served at the banquet hall. And I am happy to mention that the main course was Indian: Tandoori chicken, rice, naan and chana daal.

The brilliant Zain Verjee, an anchor of CNN International, Atlanta, was the moderator for the evening. After dinner, she interviewed the three remarkable ladies on their experiences, visions and goals etc. Around 410 guests, comprised of human rights activists, supporters, sponsors, and various Ambassadors, were kept entertained by Sunny Sumtar and the Washington Performing Arts Society\\'s Men and Women of the Gospel Choir. The songs were really very uplifting, and almost everybody was compelled to join in by clapping their hands. We were quite disappointed by the absence of our Indian Ambassador, while the Ambassadors from Sierra Leone and Costa Rica made it a point to be there. When the Ambassador of Afghanistan and his lovely wife were introduced to me, His Excellency expressed very candidly, their love for India. What a couple!

Honorary Co-chairs, The Hon. Bill Clinton, The Hon. Mary Robinson (Ex-President of Ireland, Commissioner of Human Rights at UN), and The honorable Madeleine Albright could not attend. But sent their video messages. So did, Senator Hillary Clinton and others. Board Chair Jim Fitzpatrick also spoke briefly.

Everybody bade farewell to Ms. Gay McDougall, who had been the Executive Director of Global Rights, since 1994. She is the first minority expert of the UN. Ms McDougall has worked extensively with the UN, as an expert in the UN treaty body, she helped oversee the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CERD). She also woked for a 4 year term as member of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the Human Rights Commission of the UN. She was one of the five international members of South Africa\\'s 16-member Independent Electoral Commission, which made the first non-racial election possible in that country. In fact she was with President Nelson Mandella casting the first vote. Considering her brilliant achievements, Ms McDougall is such a humble person. She was speechless when given a Global Rights\\' Award by Zain Verjee.

Mrs. Rosa Parks, who passed away this October, was also remembered. She was that courageous young African-American seamstress, who was arrested 50 years ago on December 1st. in Montgomery Alabama in the segregated South, for not giving up her seat, to a white bus rider. That event started the civil rights movement in America. It is amazing, what that one act of courage has been able to achieve in the last fifty years, now America has an African-American Secretary of State; not to talk of Oprah Winfrey, the very rich talk show host, the William sisters in Tennis, the list goes on. Rosa Park\\'s legacy is for everybody.

Human rights violations anywhere in the World is very disturbing; but it is more disturbing to read about such incidents taking place in our beloved Assam. Human Rights Commission of Assam, is stated to have given a bad report recently. As they say, the strength of a chain is in its weakest link. No society can be truly called civilized, and developed, even if one segment of the society is left behind. In order to make progress, we all have to support each other, regardless of any difference: gender, religious, linguistic, racial, or economic. Human rights awareness must be spread among the people at all levels. People must know what kind of treatment is acceptable, and what is not, both from others and towards others. There must be love, respect and trust at every level of human relationship. Every life is precious, and unique, and is deserving of everything good that life has to offer. Each person needs to feel that. Many a time people get conditioned by circumstances, and by negative suggestions. And then they cease to dream for a better and happier life. It is a moral duty of the fortunate ones, to help those people in need, so that these vulnerable people find the courage and the hope to take the first step. It is important that we realize that life is not just about making a living, it is also about making sure that each human-being around us, is a truly living-being, leading a happy and peaceful life. I quote Mrs. Parks: \\"Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die-the dream of freedom and peace\\".

Syeda Jebeen S. Shah
New York City
9th. Dec 2005