Global Roundup:Young Women Raise Awareness about Uyghur Genocide, Trans Activism in Tbilisi, Resilience of LGBTQIA+ Dominicans, Malawi’s 1st Pride Parade, Period-Proof Panties for Japanese Adolescents

Compiled by Inaara Merani

(Assembly, a Malala Fund Publication) 

The Uyghur population in China have often faced discrimination for practicing their religion and cultural traditions, and for speaking their own language. Uyghurs have been placed in detention camps, marking what is believed to be the largest imprisonment of people based on their religion since the Holocaust. In recent years the situation has worsened and the international community has yet to act on these injustices. 

Despite the lack of international action, however, young women in the Uyghur diaspora have refused to let this fight die down and have continued to advocate for this cause. Many in the diaspora have acknowledged how difficult it has been to witness what is happening to their people in China, unable to do much from halfway across the world. 

If we have the ability to speak our language, believe our religion, be who we are without fearing for our lives, then we should use that to help our people at home not fear for their lives. - Mehliya Cetinkaya

Mehliya Cetinkaya, a 15-year old Uyghur student, has been attending protests with her mother for as long as she can remember. Cetinkaya’s mother left East Turkestan in 2002 in order to fight for her own freedom and raise awareness about what has been happening to her people. When she is not studying, Cetinkaya spends her free time organizing, speaking at conferences, running the Alberta Uyghur Association, and she also serves as Student Liaison for Canada at Campaign for Uyghurs.

Campaign for Uyghurs runs an Instagram account which offers Uyghur women and girls an opportunity to speak about their experiences candidly. The organization’s Instagram amplifies the voices of Uyghur women and girls and spotlights the people behind the scenes. In a recent post by 18-year old Shahnura Kasim from Germany, the young woman explained how she had been unable to speak with the family in East Turkestan and feared for their safety. Berna Ilchi, a university student in Canada, also spoke out on the Instagram page recalling what it was like receiving a phone call from family in 2020 after not speaking for 5 years. 

A lot of times I think people can look at news reports and get overwhelmed by seeing numbers and seeing the depths of the horrors that are happening to the Uyghur people right now...And it's sometimes easy for people to kind of disconnect that from themselves. - Julie Millsap, Director of Public Affairs and Advocacy for Campaign for Uyghurs 

Cetinkaya, Kasim and Ilchi are equally engaged in the Uyghur diaspora, constantly attending protests and speaking out against the genocide. Ilchi also volunteers with Tarim Network, which connects Uyghur youth around the world. Their outspokenness, however, scares them because the consequences of speaking out against the Chinese government are unprecedented. Through their activism, these three students hope to educate the international community on the genocide taking place in China, and inspire them to take action.  

Yes, my family is there, but not just my family. Millions of Uyghur people, millions of children, and they need our voice. I don’t know if I can stay silent for two or three people when I know there’s a whole genocide against my people. - Shahnura Kasim 

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Bart Nikolo, a transgender man in Georgia, fights for LGBTIQ rights both at work and in his spare time | George Nebieridze 

With an absence of support from the Georgian government, the LGBTQ+ community has suffered. Many trans people who are unable to pass as cisgendered are forced into dangerous and often illegal work, making it extremely difficult to access healthcare, housing, mental health services, and unemployment assistance. During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, the government failed to address the needs of the most vulnerable communities in Georgia, including those enduring socioeconomic problems and gender and identity-based discrimination. 

Bart Nikolo, a trans man living near Tbilisi, Georgia, has been supporting the LGBTQ+ community for years. After being horrified by the bigotry and discrimination he faced when he came out as trans in 2006, Nikolo started Equality Movement in 2011, an NGO dedicated to queer advocacy. 

Word of my desire to help [other LGBT people] spread fast. I discovered that there were hundreds of people who needed it – more than you would think. - Bart Nikolo 

In 2018, Nikolo and Giorgi Kikonishvili, a gay rights activist in Georgia, created a private Facebook group called LGBTQ News. Today, it is home to almost 4000 members from Georgia, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Members offer advice on how to safely “be queer” in public, as well as provide support to one another facing difficulties in the expression of their sexuality. From this Facebook group, Nikolo and Kikonishvili also started the Transgender Solidarity Group which raised money for trans sex workers who were forced out of work during the pandemic and were excluded from government aid. Some of this money was spent on food which was delivered to the workers. In a short period of time, the need for assistance grew from 40 individuals to over 100. 

Nikolo is also always creating petitions, engaging in outreach with other NGOs, and generating court cases which could possibly change the law. In 2019, he filed a case at the European Court of Human Rights, advocating for laws which would allow trans people in Eurasia to legally change their gender without having to undergo expensive sex reassignment surgeries. This case is still ongoing. 

When he is not advocating for the LGBTQ+ community during the day, Nikolo spends his nights gathering branches and leaves to distribute to sex workers, who wait for their clients outside, in order to create small fires to stay warm in the cold nights. Alongside other activists, Nikolo has been a beacon of light for the trans community in Georgia through his dedication to supporting the community and ensuring their rights are recognized and delivered upon. 

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Lorenza Espinoza and Denise Paiewonsky. (Fundación Tiziano De Stefano Foundation)

While homosexuality is not criminalized in the Dominican Republic, the LGBTQIA+ community has been subjected to constant discrimination, humiliation, social exclusion, and varying forms of abuse by public authorities, religious leaders, politicians, and society in general. In Dominican society, like many others, sex and gender are understood in binary, resulting in a rigid idea of sexuality and furthering the notion that heteronormativity is the norm. 

To address this issue, Dominican photographer Yaisa Grassals Castillo created the exhibit “Sin etiquetas: retratos humanos”, translating to ‘without labels: human pictures’. This exhibit was created from a place of positivity, celebrating the diversity of those who have made their way through society amidst prejudice, stigma, and mistreatment, and those who have broken stereotypes and live their lives with pride. 

The exhibition features a series of portraits and short stories of LGBTQIA+ Dominicans from a number of backgrounds. The NGO, Tiziano De Stefano Foundation, supported Grassals Castillo in the creation of this collection as a way of demonstrating the value of photography as a means of communication. 

It was created to try to highlight, give visibility to a community, and especially to those people, who, despite all the obstacles they’ve been presented within the Dominican Republic, have managed to get ahead...These are the people who have decided to live authentically to themselves, no matter what may have changed, and have shown that they, too, can succeed. - Yaisa Grassals Castillo

Grassals Castillo recognized the importance of moving away from prevailing stereotypes and unjustified prejudices, and thus wanted to highlight positive stories of members of the LGBTQIA+ Dominican community, who are living their lives authentically. Despite the positive changes in societal perceptions of the community, discrimination still prevails and there is still much work to be done. The exhibition was scheduled for release during Pride Month last year, however was postponed till October due to the pandemic. 

But we really wanted to promote visibility in the LGBTQIA+ community because they are common, ordinary people, like you, like me, and they have the same rights as you and the same rights as me. - Yaisa Grassals Castillo 

Shedding light on the experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community is extremely important, as the community is often othered because many believe they have strayed from ‘societal norms’. Grassals Castillo wanted to amplify the stories of many LGBTQIA+ Dominicans who often do not get the attention they deserve. She wanted to demonstrate that these individuals are more than just what makes up an acronym; they are human beings who are worthy of respect and their rights, just like everyone else.  

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People take part in Malawi’s first Pride parade in Lilongwe. Photograph: Amos Gumulira/The Guardian

In Malawi, same-sex relationships are punishable by law, with a sentence of 8-14 years in prison; this law dates back to 19th century British colonization. Over the weekend, LGBTQ+ activists in Malawi made history by holding the country’s first ever pride parade. 

On Saturday, around 50 activists carried signs in English and Chichewa, marching in the capital of Lilongwe. Some held signs reading “Pride Unites the World”, and “Malawi Is For Everyone”. Twenty-nine-year old activist Andreas attended the pride event over the weekend, and felt very proud to be part of this historic moment for the country. 

To be gay in Malawi is tough, and it takes a lot of guts to be open like I am...I have been through a lot, including insults and discrimination. I’m lucky that I have a loving family which accepted me the way I am. - Andreas

Malawi was the first formerly colonized African country to attempt to decriminalize homosexuality, however in 2016 the Malawi High Court issued a ruling which reinstated penalties for homosexuality. Activists used this pride parade to call on Malawi’s President, Lazarus Chakwera, to stop persecuting members of the LGBTQ+ community, urging him to decriminalize same-sex relationships and support the community. 

Many members of the LGBTQ+ community in Malawi still face stigma, discrimination and often persecution, and are constantly living their lives in fear. Many have been denied housing, blackmailed by police, rejected by their families, and forced to hide their sexuality in public. 

LGBTQ+ activists have been fighting for years to overturn this abhorrent law and decriminalize homosexuality, and it does not look like they are backing down anytime soon. 

The community is here to seek dialogue with the government and address issues affecting us...The government says it’s implementing policies that represent people, but why should they ignore us? - Eric Sambisa, director of the local advocacy group Nyasa Rainbow Alliance

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Photo taken on May 20, 2021, in Tokyo, shows Mayumi Miyaguchi, owner of an apparel company in the city of Osaka, who has produced a line of "absorbent shorts" for elementary and junior high school girls. (Kyodo)

In recent years in the US and Europe, period-proof panties have become increasingly popular, although they are not widely available. Every year however, women, girls and menstruating people spend thousands of dollars on menstrual products, many of which can be ineffective and dangerous for the environment. 

Mayumi Miyaguchi, owner of an apparel company in Osaka, created a line of absorbent shorts for elementary and junior high school girls. When Miyaguchi’s daughter began menstruating, she would tell her to tuck her products away so they were not visible, but then realized that it was strange for girls to have to hide their products when there was nothing shameful about using them. 

It's weird that girls have to sneak around when they have their periods...My daughter's generation should have more freedom. - Mayumi Miyaguchi

When her daughter first had her period, she ordered period-proof panties from the US but they were much too large for Japanese children. This is when Miyaguchi decided to take things into her own hands. Using her experience as a woman and an underwear consumer, she was able to commercialize period-proof panties by herself. Miyaguchi wanted to create a product which eased the burden on families by making a product which would not wear out when repeatedly laundered, and she was successful in doing so. While most period-proof shorts cost around 6000 yen, or $54 a pair, Miyaguchi set the price at 3900 yen, or $35. 

She named the brand “Girls Leap”, hoping that girls will enjoy their lives to their fullest and take leaps forward. She is now unable to keep up with demand as the product has received praise and positivity from young people across Japan. 

In the future, Miyaguchi hopes to design period-proof products that can be worn under leotards, for those who perform ballet, and she also hopes to create products which will combat incontinence, something which is often experienced among postpartum women. 

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Inaara Merani (she/her) is a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa where she studied  International Development and Globalization with a minor in Women’s Studies. She is an Ismaili Muslim Canadian who is deeply passionate about human rights, social justice and feminism, and in turn, dismantling the patriarchy and ensuring that all women have safe and equal access to all their rights. She hopes to pursue a career in law so that she can continue to fight for the rights of women and other marginalized groups everywhere. She also enjoys reading, travelling and spending time with her beautiful cat. 

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