On March 8, the international community marks International Women’s Day. This special occasion recognizes the incredible advancements and achievements of women worldwide. As part of CVT’s observance of International Women’s Day, we’d like to introduce you to women who are leaders in human rights. Here’s an interview with Darine El Hage, a human rights lawyer and activist. She previously worked with New Tactics in Human Rights, a program of CVT.
CVT: Please tell us a little about yourself.
Darine: I am a Lebanese citizen and have been heavily involved in human rights and protection work in Lebanon since 2002 and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since 2006. Whether on voluntary or professional basis, my involvement has consisted of capacity building, legal analysis, advocacy/lobbying, and management of teams and organizations. I have studied international law and international relations, which has strengthened the theoretical basis surrounding such work. However, at the same time, it raised my awareness that significant efforts remain to be carried out in order to render the international standards more accessible and persuasive to most of the grassroots and decision makers in the MENA region.
CVT: You recently worked with New Tactics in Human Rights as a trainer and mentor. How do you first learn about New Tactics and why did you become interested in working with the program?
Darine: I was first introduced to New Tactics in Human Rights in 2010 as a participant in a training on behalf of Alef-act for human rights in Lebanon, a local NGO for which I was a Director. Although I had a fair knowledge of advocacy back then, the training was an interesting eye-opener for me on the various dimensions that surround human rights violations. Thus, it provided me with new lenses on how to analyze a violation and produce an advocacy plan accordingly. The methodology was used later by Alef in two different projects (related to prevention of torture and child trafficking) which extended my interaction with the New Tactics staff and tools throughout 2010 and until 2012. In 2012, I was contracted by New Tactics to undertake a monitoring and evaluation assignment in the MENA region. This task allowed me to return to the methodology and work with New Tactics team. My work also strengthened my knowledge and allowed me to familiarize myself with real life experiences using the methodology among various NGOs in the region. The most recent involvement was in 2013 whereby I had carried out mentoring and coaching work for New Tactics, focusing on Egypt and Tunisia.
CVT: As a New Tactics trainer and mentor, you helped train human rights organizations in Egypt and Tunisia to help them advance human rights in their societies. How do you now see the interaction of some organizations with the New Tactics methodology?
Darine: Despite having provided several trainings on New Tactics, every time I presented to a different group was like a first time. To think that we are going to avail knowledge to human rights activists is only a narrow way to look at our interaction with them: they teach you much in return. I, personally, have gained significantly. For instance, they helped me see things through their eyes, their cultures, and their feelings. And this is valuable experience for me because we cannot dissociate human rights violations from feelings and culture. This is what the methodology is all about: it focuses on the various social layers, whether national or international, that could trigger or prevent a violation. Understanding these layers help us work around challenges to come out with innovative and effective solutions.
I trained three groups in 2013 from two different nationalities: two groups from Egypt and one from Tunisia. All are highly energetic people, young and active, courageous and resilient. They were eager to learn an advocacy tool that could serve the better cause they are aiming at addressing. I was also amazed by the level of interaction during the training. There was a degree of focus and ownership that they demonstrated and that was shown through the nature of their questions, often challenging and enriching. I observed how the methodology impacted their personal lives before their professional; how they were keen on making the best out of the New Tactics tools until the point of spending extra time after training sessions discussing them and perfectly fine tuning their planning exercises; and how they were keen on applying the tools to human rights subjects dear to their hearts so they ensure they are meeting and addressing a real need in their community. All of these groups were highly proactive to what is the New Tactics methodology. Their energy has renewed my hopes and enthusiasm, and I am confident the methodology has done the same for them.
CVT: What are the challenges human rights defenders face in the Middle East and North Africa and can you share any examples of how they are overcoming these challenges?
Darine: The challenges are various. To name a few: the socio-religious sensitivities to human rights principles; the discrimination against them and their labeling as traitors or foreign agents; and the lack of a protection framework that could guarantee their freedom of expression, etc. But there are also other challenges which are intrinsic to human rights defenders, such as lack of resources, capacities, and skills. All of these challenges are normal, especially amid the transitional phase several MENA countries are going through. The opportunity to introduce change and mobilize oneself to protect human rights has only been possible for them recently. For me, among the crucial challenges is the need to stay hopeful and positive. Unfortunately, I have come across many that have entered in a situation of despair. On the other hand, many others remain optimistic and the proof is their ongoing efforts, courage, and their awareness that, for change to happen on the national level, there is a need to start by impacting the smaller community – even on narrower scale. Many are conscious that it is essential to focus their efforts and know what we can and cannot be done. One approach to overcoming those challenges is to be more strategic.
CVT: Each year, March 8 is observed around the world as International Women’s Day. What roles are women playing in human rights in the Middle East and North Africa region?
Darine: Several women in the MENA region are risking not only their lives, but also they are facing marginalization and social exclusion for the sake of more justice in the region. Similar to their physical security, the latter is serious to their well-being. Although women do not need to be activists or professionals in order to contribute to human rights and social development, women can introduce change to mind-sets and cultures, starting with a smaller circle – their families. Whether professionally or personally, active women are contributing to an ongoing struggle to preserve their identity, dignity, and a status they are entitled to within societies, despite legal frameworks and practices that continue to discriminate against them. This role women play may not necessarily flourish in this life, but will for future generations.
CVT: Who are some of the women who’ve inspired you?
Darine: To be honest, any ordinary woman or girl who has endured injustice and discrimination is someone that has inspired me. I have met many resilient, courageous, and persistent women in my life, most of who are still leading and participating in struggles. These are the women that inspire me and make me feel that everything is possible. The best advocate for human rights is himself or herself a victim of human rights violations. There is nothing more powerful than sending a message out saying ‘ I have suffered but I am spreading the word so others could avoid such grievance. And I will make it.’
Darine El Hage is a human rights lawyer and activist. She is a former trainer and mentor with the New Tactics in Human Rights Middle East and North Africa Initiative, an initiative to strengthen the capacity of local human rights organizations in the MENA region. She previously served as executive director of Alef-act for human rights in Lebanon and has worked with several human rights organization in the Middle East and North Africa on issues such as internally displaced persons and refugees in Iraq.