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‘Being a part of the human rights family is what drives me every day.’ – interview with Shahindha Ismail, Executive Director of Maldivian Democracy Network, The Maldives

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FORUM-ASIA interviewed Shahindha Ismail, Executive Director of Maldivian Democracy Network on how she got involved in the human rights work in the Maldives.

Maldivian Democracy Network is a member of FORUM-ASIA and works to promote human rights and the values and principles of democracy in the Maldives. They undertake a wide range of activities under their broad mandate, including awareness raising, monitoring, reporting, lobbying and advocacy.

How did you, as a person/individual become involved with the human rights movement? And how did you become involved with FORUM-ASIA?

I volunteered to work at the office of the Member of Parliament for my constituency in 2004 where activists organised “free debates”, which were open discussions about the state of affairs in the country. This was following the then president Mr Maumoon Abdul Qayyoom’s announcement of the “Roadmap for Reform” and called on the public to freely discuss democracy. I learnt about the human rights atrocities in the country through seven debates, after which the debates were banned. Shortly after the debates, the government arrested activists, and there was a mass demonstration calling for reforms. Over 300 people got arrested and tortured, detained for months, among which my colleagues, family members and friends were also detained. I joined a few people who survived the crackdown to help families of those in detention, and formed the Maldivian Detainee Network months after the incident.

A friend of the organisation, Mr. Mohamed Latheef, sponsored my organisation to attend a human rights defenders forum held by FORUM-ASIA in Nepal in 2005, where I was introduced to a world of knowledge, experience, support and most importantly the spirit of solidarity. I have been involved with the work of FORUM-ASIA since then.

What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?

I worked in the commercial area before moving to human rights. The difference I felt was overwhelming. Despite the fact that I spent almost each day documenting torture and helping or even comforting families of those in detention, I felt at the end of the day that I achieved something. Every single day feels like that. Of course my work does not have its share of immense disappointments and even fear, but having reached even one person in need and having made a small difference to help them meant that I could sleep knowing that I achieved something. It cannot even compare to a profit balance of a company at the end of the month! The support and love I have received from those I help, from my family and from my friends and colleagues means the world to me. What means the most to me is that my daughter, Sarah, believes that what I do is very admirable and noble, and I can see that she is learning about caring for people in a different way too. My motivation grows every day! The place of my work and the people I work with have become a second home and family to me, and I am happiest doing what I do.

What excites you the most about your work and the contribution you make?

Making a difference. It does not matter how big or small it is. At times we are faced with monstrous situations and when we come out of it saving a life, it is like completing a marathon. At other times we manage to influence policy, changing something for the better in the long term. Having young people join the movement is especially exciting, knowing that the movement will live on long after we are gone.

Please tell us one of the most inspiring or challenging moments for you in your work in the past?

The most inspiring moments are when I meet defenders who have come out of absolutely horrible situations wanting and ready to take on the fight once again. I cannot even list the names of all the great defenders I have met and been inspired by. However, I would like to remember Sunila Abeysekera (may she rest in peace), whom I shall never forget. The inspiration, the strength that she has passed on to us is invaluable. I am grateful for the times I was able to spend with her, sharing her experiences, achievements and worries.

Some of the most challenging moments would be when we try to reason with learned law-makers, government officials and even presidents over obvious atrocities and we are given no choice but to take to public petitions or protests. It is challenging because we know that their decisions are not made because they do not understand, but because they do not prioritise the livelihoods of the people. It is challenging knowing that a handful of people cannot possibly prevent generations being corrupted in their views of right and wrong, and their attitudes towards humanity, love and tolerance.

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights?

I am lucky to not have faced some of the situations that my fellow defenders face around the world. The crackdown on human rights itself, and the feeling that people trying to defend these fundamental rights are being killed, abducted, disappeared or held captive is in my view the biggest challenge to our work.

How do you deal with upcoming obstacles in your work? How do you keep yourself motivated to continue?

Learning to appreciate small victories, and having faith has helped me a great deal. It has been important for me to understand that not every battle can be won, and that the more crucial thing as defenders of human rights is to raise your voice when something is not right. The eleven years that I have spent in my line of work has brought me many, many such victories, and at times we have won some battles too. The people that I work with have always been a great motivation for me to continue what I do. Knowing that I am not alone in any feat we take on is very comforting and empowering. Being a part of the human rights family is what drives me every day.

If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

Never, ever stop! There may be times when you feel that the whole world is out to stop what you do, but you must always remember that fighting for your and others’ rights is the ultimate right, and that you are a very special person to be doing it. There is always someone to watch your back. There is always a friend when you’re in need because you do what you do. I have never felt alone in my work as a human rights defender!