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Hina Jilani: the life of a human rights activist

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“Activism is not a drug. It is a choice that is consciously made.” In an interview with Yo Dona, the women’s supplement of Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Hina Jilani speaks about her life as a Pakistani human rights defender and explains why she recently joined The Elders.

The journey of this newcomer to The Elders, the foundation established by Nelson Mandela in 2007, is breathtaking. Born in 1953 in Lahore (Pakistan) and a lawyer by profession, Hina Jilani has been working for 30 years to improve the human rights of women, children and religious minorities in this troubled Asian country. In 1980, she founded the first all-women law firm of Pakistan. Now she opens a new front by joining The Elders, an organisation that promotes peace and justice.

Yo Dona: What brought you to The Elders?

Hina Jilani: I have already worked with several Elders – Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson – in different capacities in the past. I trust them, I share their values and I look forward to working with them to address human rights concerns.

“Building a more just and inclusive World” is the mission entrusted to you by Kofi Annan when you joined the group.

As an Elder, I will continue to work to promote and protect the most vulnerable here in Pakistan, at the regional level in South Asia and at the international level. Of course, I know that human rights cannot be addressed without the good political consciousness of the world that you live in.

What is the legal situation of women in Pakistan?

While the women’s movement has gained many successes, despite the state and society, a lot still needs to be done to improve the condition of women in Pakistan. Violence against women, particularly in the home and family, is a major concern. This takes the form of honour killings and other harmful practices. Several laws have, more recently, been enacted to eliminate these practices. One significant progress in recent years is the inclusion of reserved seats for women in Parliament.

Is it more difficult to change tradition than law?

In order to eliminate harmful social practices we need laws that can become an instrument of social change. We must remember that impunity encourages social repression. The victims cannot be allowed to suffer while society changes its attitudes, and in the meanwhile harmful and cruel practices that violate women’s right to life and to dignity are condoned by society and the state. We have to expose these and to use the writ of the state as an important measure in the elimination of these practices, while doing whatever is necessary to bring about social change as a long-term measure.

How can we, citizens of the world, help put an end to these harmful practices?

It is essentially people affected who will bring about change, and internal struggles that will force society to recognise injustice and oppression. Nevertheless, expression of global outrage against such practices and support for those who are struggling for change, in most cases, gives impetus to these struggles.

Where do you find the strength and courage to fight on a daily basis against injustice?

Defending human rights is not easy anywhere in the world. It is more difficult for those doing so in societies where oppression is ingrained in practices of governance and where there is also impunity for violations by non-state actors. Survival is only possible when you are not only sustaining your fight for justice, but also engaged in strengthening your support base among civil society.

Could you change life?

Activism is not a drug. It is a choice that is consciously made. Most people who have carried out a committed and active struggle will not, at any stage, withdraw completely. However, we must remember that increasing the number of activists and inspiring more and more people to strengthen a movement is an essential element of leadership. Everyone must be open to learn from new ideas and to give way to fresh leadership in order that movements for change do not stagnate and defeat the very purpose for which they are created.

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