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Workshops and Presentations


Presenter and Chair: MENA regional forum on Detention Monitoring, convened by DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, 27 – 30 Nov, 2014, Marrakech, Morocco. Chaired one of three working groups on issues relating to gender, and contact with the outside world; gave a presentation on research findings relating to women in detention. (The other two chairs were the UN Special Rapporteur on VAWG, and a member of Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture).

Sponsored participant, Women and Girls at Risk Working Group workshop to increase opportunities for displaced women and girls to participate and self-advocate for their rights on issues affecting their lives, convened by the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (includes training on reciprocal research methodologies by the Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales), 31 March – 4 April 2014, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Presenter: ‘Healthcare and the Bangkok Rules: Meeting the needs of women in detention’, International Symposium on the Bangkok Rules and Women in Detention, convened by Dui Hua, 3-6 March 2014, Hong Kong.

Sponsored participant, Myanmar Women’s Forum, with Christine Lagarde and Aung San Suu Kyi, via the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society, 6-7 Dec, 2013, Yangon, Myanmar.

Sponsored participant, Training on qualitative research methodologies and ethics, Dignity – Danish Institute against Torture, 21-22 Mar 2013, Copenhagen, Denmark.

 Sponsored participant, What works to Prevent Partner Violence? Discussion with leading academic Lori Heise and Michael Kaufman (founder: White Ribbon Campaign), convened by Social Development Direct, 15 September 2012, London.

2012-10-31 12.33.35Sponsored participant, Consultation on violence against indigenous women, the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact (AIPP) and UN Women, December 2012, Chiang Mai.

Participant,Clinical diagnosis and treatment of torture survivors workshop, Helen Bamber Foundation, 15-16 Nov, 2011, London.

Presenter: ‘The human impact of Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws’, UN Human Rights Council Side Event: Defamation of Religion in International Human Rights Law, organized by an NGO Coalition (including Human Rights Watch, CIHRS and ARTICLE 19), alongside senior OHCHR staff, March 2011, Geneva.

Presenter, Oral and written submissions to the Human Right Council General Assembly on Disappearances and the protection of Human Rights Defenders, on behalf of the AHRC, 2010, Geneva.

Participant, Training workshop for human rights defenders on the interviewing of victims of trauma, held by Dr. Rajat Mitra of the Director of Swanchetan Society for Mental Health, AHRC, August 1-3 2009, Hong Kong.

Convener, Combating Torture in Asia, televised panel among AHRC staff, 26 June 2009, Hong Kong.

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Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in […]

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker

South China Morning Post

For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.”

Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.

[Click for original story in the Post] 

With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the unemployed. There’s morning coffee, Koran reading and a walk in the park with his small daughter; then searching for work, and training at a halal pizza parlour owned by a friend. He feels both frustrated, and lucky. He has certainly seen worse.

After participating in the well known ‘Ghulja incident’ – Uyghur demonstrations in 1997 which were violently dispersed by the Chinese military – Qassim was among those rounded up and detained by the Chinese police.  He was beaten, tortured psychologically and interrogated with electricity, he says. Released after seven months without charge but facing threats and harassment, he decided to try and reach Turkey, find work in a leather factory, and send for his family.

But the slow route through Central Asia and Pakistan put him in contact he says, with a ‘Uighur village,’ just across the border in Afghanistan.  Here he says he agreed to train to fight in return for food and accommodation while he waited for his Iranian visa to process. Post 9/11 bombings in 2001 sent Qassim and many of his companions into Pakistan’s then-freezing mountains, and it was almost a relief he says, to be handed to the Americans.

Except it then took four-and-a-half years before US officials decided that Qassim posed no threat to America, and could be released. By then he had spent six months on a US base in Kandahar, a full year in a 2x2Sqm isolation cell, three more years detained in communal accommodations with some 20 other Uyghur men;  and his family thought he was dead.  “We just had to be passionate,” he says. “And remind ourselves that the situation in China was bad too, so all we could do was wait and hope to be declared as innocent.”

Qassim has found some peace in Albania: a country with food, religion and customs similar to those that he knows, and where he gets by on free accommodation and a USD$300 government stipend. Yet ‘politics’ still weigh heavily on the Uyghur.  A seven-year promise for ID cards and passports by Albania’s Ministry of Interior has yet to materialise for he and the handful of other resettled dissidents, and they can’t find out why. Qassim speaks Albanian, but the ID card issue – along with public suspicion and generally high unemployment rates – leave him a permanent pizza trainee.

The trauma of leaving a family behind has yet to fade. He left a wife and three children in Ghulja, and his ageing parents remain closely monitored, and largely barred from using the internet he says. Although he can call them, with both they and he barred from travelling, he doubts he’ll ever see them again. Qassim’s appeal to have his wife and children join him in Albania failed when China allegedly refused to comply. He has since convinced his former wife to divorce him so that they could both marry again.

Abu Bakker Qasim ARTC Tirana (5)Yet he harbours little anger about his time in Guantanamo. “They know that they were wrong, and they acquitted us,” he says. And he explains that they ‘protected’ the Uyghurs from those they feared the most: the Chinese authorities – who visited the men in Cuba, and requested their extradition as terrorist suspects, (as they have done since without success from the Albanian government). “I can’t forgive,” said an Uzbek friend and fellow ex-Guantanamo survivor in Tirana, Zakir Hasan, who alleges worse treatment by the Americans. “But you’ve got to take into account where [Qassim] came from, what he experienced before.  Ill treatment is relative when you’re not aware of your rights.”

One former US deputy assistant secretary of state has called the situation of Guantanamo’s 22 Uyghur detainees as ‘nothing short of ‘tragic’. Three remain in Guantanamo, despite a US court order to release them.

Qassim now reads the news from home every day.  He laments the way that Uyghurs must “think like Chinese, act like Chinese, everywhere except inside the home.”  He thinks constantly of his parents, and he mentally urges the separatist movement to better organize themselves. But that’s the end of it, for him. These days, he just wants to find work.

“There’s a saying that’s almost the same, at home and Albania,” he says. “’It’s better to stand at your front door looking inside.’ It means, take care of yourself and your family first.”

Zakir puts it slightly differently. “There’s a saying in Uzbekistan that I’ve cleaned up for you. When the Prosecutor kills your father, who do you complain to?”

For now these political exiles are working on the battles they think they can win.



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At Rio+20, diverse women leaders bring ground realities to the forefront

UN Women, 20 June 2012

The Women Leaders’ Forum, a discussion between civil society, government and public sector representatives with UN heads of agencies, has broadened the dialogue on gender equality and sustainability at Rio +20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainability.

Organized by UN Women in collaboration with the Government of Brazil and other partners, the day-long event highlighted the central role of women in sustainable development, and the ways that robust policies can  improve women’s lives by reducing poverty, advancing their economic opportunities, and protecting them from adverse health and environmental challenges. It also highlighted the inequalities that continue to slow global progress towards a green economy and a protected environment.

Delivering the opening and closing remarks, UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet stressed the critical role of the women’s movement. “Twenty years ago, the Rio Declaration emphasized that women’s full participation is essential to achieving sustainable development; twenty years later, women continue to face inequality in rights, opportunities and participation,” she said. “We are here to make our voices heard.”

At the Forum, the Women’s Major Group, a civil society coalition, also presented the findings of a global survey that gathered the diverse voices of women from around the world. The survey and its dissemination were supported by UN Women in the lead up to Rio+20.

Key concerns were raised by the survey and Forum participants—many engaging via social media from across the world  – on the slow progress for gender equality, as outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action, the Rio Declaration of 1992, and other international  agreements and treaties. Setbacks in women’s political participation in some countries were also noted, along with the need to better safeguard women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Many speakers highlighted the way that unsustainable production patterns, such as oil exploitation, continue to threaten eco-systems and community livelihoods, whether by degrading the environment; destroying farms, water sources and fishing grounds; by polluting the air, and fueling conflicts and insecurity; or by creating political tensions and humanitarian crises. Each crisis, due to traditional roles and gender stereotypes, affects women differently and disproportionately to men. Each exacerbates poverty, ill health and mortality.

Yet the Forum also celebrated the resilience and leadership of women, as mobilizers on social, economic and environmental justice, and as entrepreneurs. Among these were the technological innovations led by rural and indigenous women, such as the recycling of waste, as seen in the winning programme of the UN-women supported SEED Gender Equality Award in Nepal; the use of recycled cooking oil as energy; and the transformation of Shea butter into sustainable cosmetic and nutritional products.

The increasing involvement of women in technology and engineering fields were commended as  promising signs of women’s  growing engagement in green jobs, the design of the green economy and better natural resource management. Governments and the private sector were also applauded  for their efforts to promote equal opportunities for women and men through policy and practice.

In her closing remarks, Ms. Bachelet concluded that a shift towards people-centred sustainable development must be anchored in human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, and must lay the foundations of the post-2015 development agenda.

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Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Discovery Magazine, May 2012.  Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay

He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but.

This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker.

And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer.  “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.”

The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the trappings that follow, seems low indeed.

Wang Shu’s career has been defined largely by art and experimentation. Born in China’s northern Xingjiang province and inspired by the vastness of the landscapes, he started to draw and paint early. Architecture, he says, was simply a way to fit his own creativity with his parents’ idea of success. Even today he likens his design process to that of a traditional Chinese painter: he studies the shape and the history of a space, then often sits and drinks tea until the ideas to start to flow.

Yet this doesn’t mean that his work is abstract or out of touch. Amateur Architecture is deliberately small and its projects often local, scaled to fit the average person. “I build a ‘house’ instead of a ‘building’” he has said. “Architecture is a matter of everyday life.”

Before he and his wife, architect Lu Wenyu set up their studio in Hangzhou in the late nineties – a city renowned for its natural beauty and art heritage – Wang Shu spent almost a decade studying widely and working with craftsmen “out of the system,” as he called it, mainly renovating old buildings.

This seems to have been the bedrock of his success; he has an uncanny ability to understand and stretch the boundaries of those who build. It has also given him a lifelong love of China’s historic structures, and a dislike of his country’s liberalism with the wrecking ball.

Wang Shu’s landscapes therefore strike a deft balance between the past and the future. They manage to root down deeply into the Chinese cultural context, and yet feel forward-looking in the way that they use technology, or address space.  His first major project for example, the award-winning Library of Whenzheng College at Suzhou University, is strikingly modern but keeps with Suzhou’s gardening traditions. Since these dictate that buildings between water and mountains should be discreet, he designed nearly half of the library to sit underground.

This sense of heritage and handicraft is often expressed through material choices. The architect likes to use brick or tiles rescued from demolished hutongs (traditional courtyard houses), or material sourced in the area.

He resurrected two million such tiles in his renowned designs for a campus belonging to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. His imposing Ningbo History Museum, modeled in part on an ancient Chinese fortress, works traditional masonry into a unique collage effect, to enrich a fascinatingly modern, off kilter-looking structure.

He may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay.

Though he maintains a relatively low profile, Wang Shu is in demand as a teacher. He was the first Chinese architect to hold a prestigious visiting professor post at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the US last year, and spends much of his time at the architecture school of the China Academy of Art, where he is now the dean.

From here he approaches architecture as an advocate too, often speaking out against the “professionalized, soulless” nature of the profession, and urging younger Chinese architects to work locally and more slowly, with an eye towards history.

In the 1980s Wang Shu caused a stir at a conference by claiming that Chinese architects were simply people who knew how to draw, but who didn’t necessarily think while doing so. While he believes that this has changed, he laments that still, the wider Chinese public” often think of a building as just a container whose functions can change at will.”

He therefore calls himself a scholar, craftsmen and architect, in that order – and with each project, is on a mission to pass on knowledge and broaden horizons. This starts with his own office staff; he recently sent his team home for a full month to prepare for work on three museums. “They all had homework assignments: books to read on French philosophy, Chinese paintings to study or movies to watch,” he remembers. “When we all got back together we had discussions  – then began to work on the projects.”

Many of his peers approve. At only 49 Wang Shu holds a series of awards, from China’s Architecture Arts Award to the French Gold Medal from the Academy of Architecture, and he exhibits worldwide.

Architectural icon, Zaha Hadid, has praised his work for its sculptural power, and the ‘stimulating’ and ‘transformative’ way he uses ancient materials.  Veteran Chinese architect Yang Ho Chan meanwhile, also on the Pritzker jury, was gratified by the way he “shows that architecture in China is more than the mass production of market-driven banality and the reproduction of the exotic.”

Wang Shu’s recognition by the Pritzker jury is a nod to China’s big new role in developing global architectural ideals, and the way that the profession should approach for example, the problems arising from rapid urbanization.

His win praises an architecture that is less about iconic forms and brash statements, and more about buildings that are close to people, their hearts and their histories. In other words, just the kind of anti-hero that we need right now.



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Five Questions for Shishir Chandra: Men’s Action for Stopping Violence against Women (MASVAW)

Shishir Chandra is a community organizer with Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) in Uttar Pradesh, India, an alliance of individual men and organizations that are committed to reducing gender-based violence through education and advocacy. Here he talks about the struggle to challenge gender roles for both men and women in India, and why he believes that young men can and should step up to the challenge.


1. Why do you think it’s important for young people to get involved in these issues?

Although gender equality is such a burning issue, not many youth in India get an opportunity to get involved in advancing gender equality. Young men and boys all over India have had many difficult experiences regarding gender inequality and sexual violence but traditional societal structure discourages them to be open about these issues. Youth join MASVAW because this network provides an outlet for youth to freely share experiences and concerns, and seek recognition of their alternative masculinities, of limiting gender roles.

If men, as perpetrators of violence, are part of the problem of gender inequality, they should be part of the solution as well. The inherent desire for justice and equality is sometimes within themselves and sometimes can be guided by mentors.

2. What major obstacles have MASVAW members encountered?

Rigid religious and familial norms present barriers to young men and boys trying to get involved in gender equality campaigns. Many people believe that to challenge gender roles is to challenge God. Religion also dictates family life, so when one person deviates from set family norms they are also seen as deviating from much respected religious tradition. The Indian family structure can also inhibit involvement because of the ideas of honour and reputation. Therefore, if a youth is affiliated with a group or a movement that his or her family disapproves of, the reputation of both the individual and the family are perceived as damaged. This dual stigmatization is an obstacle for youth who wish to become change agents and active participants in ending violence against women.

3. How is MASVAW responding to these challenges?

Gender stereotypes are perpetuated when discourse on the subject is absent. MASVAW believes that in order to overcome obstacles of negative gender stereotypes, a path must be paved for open and candid discussions, education and advocacy aimed at erasing myths surrounding these stereotypes. MASVAW teaches young men and boys to facilitate these conversations about the possibility of change at home, at school and among their peer group through the forums, trainings and events. We have film shows and discussions, interactive sessions on gender issues in universities, poster making competitions and street exhibitions. We have held debates, and developed special games which can be played by either groups of young women or men, that help to break gender stereotypes. We’ve written activity books for school children on gender issues, and encourage young men to write and publish stories about gender equality and to be role models in their peer groups.

We also have different ways of building networks on university campuses and in communities, and support advocacy and campaigning on issues such as sexual harassment in academic institutions, and the effective implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.

4. Can you given an example of a MASVAW campaign that you feel have had impact in your community?

In 2005, MASVAW led a successful campaign at Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidhyapith University in Varanasi around one case of sexual harassment, which ultimately led to the formation of an anti-sexual harassment committee on campus. When a female student reported that she was sexually harassed by one of her teachers, a group of male students supported her by helping to file a police report against the teacher. The accused teacher was ultimately punished and dismissed. After this incident, female students felt empowered to come forward about their personal experiences with sexual harassment at school

A campaign led by Lucknow University students in Uttar Pradesh for safe public transportation for girls and women is another example of effective youth organizing [see video]. The youth forum at Lucknow University spear-headed and independently organized this campaign for which MASVAW provided logistical support and guidance.

5. What more can be done to better engage youth?

It was my academic advisor at my university in Varanasi who first helped me form a world view with a gender lens, and I know from experience, both personal and professional with MASVAW, that great potential for organizing and norm changes lies in the educational arena. If young people’s potential and courage are recognized, progress will be made toward establishing gender equality in educational institutions through compulsory gender education starting from the primary level. I also feel that youth must be provided with appropriate venues and platforms for facilitating gender equality campaigns. Comprehensive steps to strengthen these platforms, which might include youth and sports clubs as well as student and youth organizations and unions, should be taken in order to discuss action plans for the creation of a more gender-equal society.

The voices of youth are virtually absent from the gender equality policy arena in India and political representation has thus far been weak and ineffective. However, a recent increase in youth participation in voting represents a vital interest in getting involved in policy making process. Young men and women have a right to early and active involvement in suck kind initiatives that promote gender equality. Societies must create an environment where girls and boys are viewed as equals, enjoy dignified labour and easy access to quality education, and live lives free from violence are supported to create equitable relationships.


Video: Hear Shishir discuss his work with male youth to combat unequal power relations between men and women, and transform notions of masculinity. Here he describes a successful advocacy campaign, supported by MASVAW, that mobilized female and male university students against ‘Eve Teasing’ or sexual harassment on public transport in Lucknow. The campaign demanded government accountability on the issue, and gained the support of the initially-resistant local university authorities.

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