International: A survivor speaks out

30 April 2010

In this interview given to the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford (UK) survivor Betsy Kawamura talks about her experiences and activism.

Q: How did you first get involved in the field of women's rights, and preventing violence against women and children and what caused you to take it up and devote yourself to it?.

Whilst in Japan in the late 1990’s I met some journalists and activists working in human rights, namely with trafficked/tortured persons from North Korea. In Tokyo I attended the second annual conference on North Korea human rights issues that invited witnesses/survivors of such atrocities, complete with raw drawings of children depicting their lives in the gulags.

The depiction of torture in the children’s drawings and testimonies of the women triggered in me such a powerful and overwhelming response that I was not able to return completely to the corporate world. As I researched further the plight of women and children fleeing North Korea, I understood that the vast majority tragically became victims of human trafficking.

The consequences of such abuse reminded me of my own encounter of gender-based violence as a youngster in Okinawa during the Vietnam War. Women of Okinawa then did not have an adequate ‘voice’ to prosecute perpetrators. I realized then that survivors of trauma globally need strong political support and socio-economic advocacy that would lead them toward empowerment.

This realization ignited my will to work more fully on human rights issues to support other severely stigmatized groups globally, as well as aid organizations and journalists who try to support them. Fortunately today, there are more journalistic coverage and analysis on North Korea human rights violations which would hopefully mobilize investigations now at the International Criminal Court in Hague.

Q: What do you think is the most valuable thing you've learnt throughout
 your work, and what makes it so important to what you do?

That would be the sheer will of survivors to live and be heard despite of sacrifices that can be destructive. There are many survivors of gender based violence, torture and other atrocities I know in the West and East. I am in awe of those who have been heard and are visible despite life-threatening adversities such as torture and assassination attempts. Many of these survivors exist in culturally and politically difficult regions of the world not supportive of human rights, women’s rights or least of all media freedom.

Every survivor I know had experienced a unique set of challenges and obstacles in cultural, political and economic ways special to his/her circumstance. 

I acknowledge the valuable contributions of ethical journalists on reporting on survivors’ backgrounds and ‘sacred’ stories, despite risks to their own security.

Without the contributions and existence of both parties, there will be no story to tell, nor any ‘voice’ to listen to. I do appreciate that many of the reporters and researchers I have met had taken great caution not to ‘cheapen’ survivors’ stories.

Q: What improvements have you seen, and what do you think is the most
 important thing to focus on?

I think the term improvement is a relative one. I have asked myself many times whether the increase of human rights advocates such as myself, researchers and journalists covering disasters – manmade or not – have decreased the number of victims or facilitated more rapid healing from catastrophes. I do not know the answer.

I oddly sense that in terms of gender-based violence, casualties have not decreased. Wars are still perpetuated, with the consequences of gender based violence evident, which war generals I do not think have properly calculated in their battle plans.

I do believe in the positive power of media/press because as we see in North Korea and other parts of the world such as in Sri Lanka, without the stories of reporters, there could be little potential to improve on human rights.

What are most important I feel are the ethos and passion of those holding decision-making power at top levels for change. There are a number of United Nations Security Council Resolutions that aim to help the plight of women in war-affected regions of the world and toward quality of life in general. However, since most of the resolutions are not legally binding, adherence can be impossible and impunity is widespread.

The current United Nations Security Council structure and International Criminal Court procedures are not flawless and can allow for copious amounts of impunity. In cases like this, one has to rely on the real intentions and ethical fibre of decision-makers and judges, and trust that their ultimate intentions are to improve life-quality for the survivors above and beyond their own interests.

Q: Is there a person or organisation you've met or heard of that has
inspired you in the work you do?

Yes - most notably survivors of human rights violations who have ‘come out’ in public despite great risk, public humiliation and wrath. As well as selected journalists who have inspired me to understand the personal crisis of documenting profound traumas. I was exposed to the difficulties of reporting about pain, and of the journalists’ exposure to repeated trauma from not being able to rectify a situation.

It would be impossible for me to write about immense pain without trying to ‘fix’ the situation. For me, healing meant trying my best to ‘fix’ a situation, no matter the cost to myself at times. Media coverage on survivors of gender based violence or other catastrophes can sometimes be very banal - a kind of ‘genericizing’ of survivors can occur.

There is no’ typical’ picture of a survivor - I personally wish to provide a sensitive portrayal of survivors in my analysis and program proposals for meaningful and noble integration into society, i.e. one with dignity.

Other key inspirational persons include women Nobel Peace Laureates, especially those of the Nobel Women’s Initiatives group, which include Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. Another special person to me is the former chair-person of the Nobel Peace Committee in Oslo, Norway, Dr. Ole D. Mjos. He encouraged me to continue on my path of working on gender empowerment despite very difficult times.

Q: What are the most difficult problems you face, and how do you overcome them?

That would be what I call “political deafness, blindness and denial” at the top state-levels by governments or regimes not willing to acknowledge human rights violations. Misunderstanding or lack of belief from the public-at- large at grass-root levels are also very damning. Such doubts and barriers against survivors’ voices by gate-keepers can lead to serious depression and stigmatization of vulnerable communities. In these instances, I try to disassociate myself as an external observer.

I have to keep in mind that at times NGOs, researchers or even so-called specialists may have very little knowledge of certain subject areas, and may not want to take personal, financial or political risks in investigations that could violate their ‘comfort zones’. I think one of the greater challenges I have taken is in disputing unfounded biases that survivors of trauma can not become expert policy makers. I have witnessed tendencies of ‘dumbing down’ of survivor groups and their close witnesses, quite sadly. I found this 'sanitisation' to be incensing at times, especially at high decision-making levels even in developed countries.

Lack of strong economic commitment to assist the actual survivors of stigmatized/traumatized groups is a major source of distress. The only way I have been able to overcome such challenges is to work harder and to continue my advocacy/communication action on larger, global scale.

Creating solidarity within disparate aid organizations can be tough but is key to raising survivors’ rights and life-quality. Sometimes one has to learn to enjoy small triumphs in daily life which can be very meaningful!

Q: If university students, and younger people were interested in getting involved in this field, what advice would you give them?

Be prepared to lunge into your work with your hearts and minds. This is necessary! Sometimes you may find yourself ‘bearing the cross’ of those who have suffered atrocities without being heard at all – neither by the NGOs, journalists or state leaders ... and this can be heart-breaking.

Please keep in mind that many may turn their backs on covering difficult subjects due to fear of the subject matter itself, or persecution by dissident groups including assassination attempts. Sometimes a case is so terrible it is too painful to work with for length of time. Such has been the case for me regarding North Korea.

Advocacy work requires great intellectual and emotional tenacity – there is zero-tolerance for laziness. Being disappointed is a regular part of one’s job. A great skill to have is in-depth understanding of legal issues and political implications of survivor groups. Diplomatic negotiation skills and relationship-building are crucial in working with state leaders who may be hostile toward human rights. This may be especially relevant for war-affected and unstable regions, such as Sri Lanka and North Korea. Last but not least, I do believe that having patience and great humour is vital to one’s longevity!

The plus side of this work, at least for me personally, is hope in transforming pain into something beautiful and transcendent. ...And knowing that a super-achiever with the right will and heart can become a Nobel Peace Laureate!

Q: What achievements do you personally believe you've made in this field?

I hope to have created some awareness of the long- term consequences of trauma from gender based violence – and basically all types of crimes against humanity, such as those occurring now in North Korea. I wish to acknowledge the great significance of invisible wounds and witnesses’ efforts to interpret pain.

I also laud the efforts of various humanitarian organizations, NGO’s and individuals who put aside their own internal interests and needs for those of survivors. Society often mistakenly thinks that invisible wounds do not hurt. Nothing can be further from the truth. I hope to undo the draconian chains of humiliation put upon marginalized groups.

I try my best to abstain from polarizing ‘survivors’ from ‘non-survivors’ to emphasize equal dignity, and aim to steer people toward their highest possible potential, regardless of their past. I also wish to elucidate the inefficacies of the United Nations Security Council structure and International Criminal Court protocols for positive change, with the valuable contributions of survivors and their witnesses. I wish to support ‘voices’ for an international legal system which no country will be immune to practicing basic human rights. And such ‘voices’ should be steered by hearts and minds.

Thank you very kindly for this interview for the University of Bradford, Department of Peace Studies.

Betsy Kawamura, London, United Kingdom, 12 December, 2009.

Text updated by Betsy on 30 April 2010.

Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford (UK)