Libyian woman holding flag

Reflections on Photographing Women’s Rights Abuses in Conflict

Text and photographs by Samer Muscati, JD 2002, Director, International Human Rights Program

From the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Nexus

Over a decade of chronicling human rights violations around the world, I’ve taken thousands of photographs. But there is one that is especially dear to me.

In July 2012, on the eve of Libya’s first democratic national election, I was working with Human Rights Watch researching barriers to women’s political participation.

I happened upon a slight, elderly Libyan woman wearing a traditional white hijab, holding lonely vigil in the square outside the Benghazi courthouse. Haja had spent many evenings supporting the revolution the previous year. She was a local icon because of her steadfast participation in the protests that eventually led to the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi.

Haja’s kind eyes, gentleness and uncompromising conviction reminded me of my own hijab-wearing grandmother, who had passed away a few months earlier. I admired the fact that she was a woman defiantly standing in the midst of a throng of men in a conservative society, refusing to be silenced.

A few years later, in the summer of 2015, I was in South Sudan documenting the civil war. It was there, in the world’s newest country, that I met another inspirational woman, Nyacour, outside a small, muddy shelter at a camp for displaced persons.

She was one of dozens of women who had escaped marauding government forces and allied militias committing horrific human rights abuses. When Nyacour invited me inside her shelter, I did a triple take: underneath a mosquito net, in a makeshift crib, were her tiny newborn triplets.

I stood frozen in my gumboots, feeling both sadness and exhilaration. How amazing to witness life flourish here. At the same time, these babies transported me back to my own infant twin girls a continent away. When I told Nyacour of my twins, she responded with the most generous smile. We shared a moment forged in the bond of parenthood.

The interviews that I conducted over the years have scarred me, but I am also fortunate to have met incredible women whose resilience and strength continue to inspire me. I learned that hope can exist alongside profound despair.

I have also learned that although misogyny is ingrained into the fabric of every culture, gender inequalities worsen during times of conflict as women face increasing levels of violence, including rape, trafficking, abduction and early marriage.

Women are often the last to flee their homes and towns. During crises, families are more likely to pull their girls out from school, and those girls are less likely to return than boys. Despite this, women still manage to be the glue that holds communities and families together. Yes, they are survivors, but they are also resisters, activists and community leaders.

When it comes to human rights advocacy, how the story is told and who gets to tell the story is just as important as the story itself. As a human rights advocate, I collect information that I use to produce a compelling story to push policy-makers to act. I hope that this information will help end abuses, hold perpetrators accountable and lead to remedies for victims.

Alumnus Samer Muscati is a former senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. His recent photography exhibition, “Uprooted and Dispossessed: Portraits of Women Caught in Conflict and Colonialism,” was named one of the “20 must-see shows at Contact Photography Festival 2018” by NOW Magazine and was displayed at U of T’s Hart House.

An Iraqi girl living in a camp for internally displaced persons in northern Iraq after the Islamic State took over her village. An Iraqi girl living in a camp for internally displaced persons in northern Iraq after the Islamic State took over her village.
An elderly woman from Rubkona County, South Sudan, moved to the UN camp from Bentiu in June 2015, after government soldiers threatened her family.An elderly woman from Rubkona County, South Sudan, moved to the UN camp from Bentiu in June 2015, after government soldiers threatened her family.
A girl stands near a line for clean water at a UN camp near Bentiu, South SudanA girl stands near a line for clean water at a UN camp near Bentiu, South Sudan.  The demand for water is high and women and girls must wait in long lines, sometimes for hours, even before dawn. There, they are vulnerable to abuse from young men drinking at a nearby market.
Josephine Mandamin, an Anishinaabe grandmother, elder and water activist involved with the Mother Earth Water WalkersCanada has abundant water, yet water in many Indigenous communities in Ontario is not safe to drink.  The water on which many First Nations communities depend is contaminated, hard to access, or toxic due to faulty treatment systems. “ My relations with the water from the rivers, lakes, and from the creeks, they are very close to me, they are my family,” said Josephine Mandamin, an Anishinaabe grandmother, elder and water activist involved with the Mother Earth Water Walkers, pictured after a water ceremony and an elder circle in Whitefish River First Nation, in Ontario.
Jaqueline Mutere, 48, in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, which was one of the hotspots of the post-election violenceJaqueline Mutere, 48, is now raising her daughter, born from rape during Kenya’s post-election violence, although, she says she struggled to accept her. Jaqueline started Grace Agenda, a community-based organization, to support survivors of sexual violence particularly women struggling to raise children born from rape. Some children face stigma, rejection, and physical and verbal abuse by immediate family, extended family, and in the wider community, as well as discrimination in acquiring birth certificates.