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Human rights activism in action

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Learn more about Jenny Villatoro.
Jenny Villatoro
Program Manager, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative

Juan Miguel Rivera is the Northern Triangle regional vice president of programs at International Justice Mission. We chatted with Miguel about human rights and his hope for the world.

How would you define the term human rights and why do they matter?

Human rights are basic rights and freedoms we all have simply because we are humans. There’s no “pre-condition” or process to “grant” human rights. They are based on moral principles and belong to every person. The fact that human rights are inherent to every human being is quite important because it means that no matter where you are, regardless of race, sex, religion, nationality or any other status, you have human rights.

Why should supporting civil society and protecting human rights matter to Americans and others in free societies?

The first reason should be moral; we care about human rights and the role of civil society in protecting them because we value human dignity. But we also must recognize that there are several global problems generated by frequent violations to human rights. Human rights issues such as gender inequalities, weak political institutions, and poverty fuel global challenges like mass migrations and displacements. Issues such as inequality, climate change, and transnational violence require a global response.

What gives you hope about the future of human rights in Central America?

The struggle for human rights in Central America has been an uphill battle. Generation after generation, we’ve seen widespread human rights violations. However, I remain hopeful because I’ve seen first-hand all the fantastic work done by human rights defenders, civil society organizations, and others. Central Americans are strong, courageous people working hard to build a more prosperous and safer future, which gives me hope.

Who are some of the most inspirational figures in your movement and why?

I work in the field of countering gender-based violence and access to justice. Therefore, I’m continuously inspired by the stories of survivors of violence. I learned from survivors that hope can be real even after something wrong happens. Survivors living in environments where there’s widespread violence and high rates of impunity face a brutal challenge when seeking justice. Yet, their perseverance is building a better future for them and all. Two collective figures come to my mind right now: the My Story Matters movement, a survivor-led movement doing advocacy to increase equal access to justice for victims of gender-based violence and sexual violence against children, and the women of Sepur Zarco, a group of Q’eqchi women who were systematically raped and enslaved in Guatemala back in 1982 but did not give up until they obtained justice in 2016.

Tell us about the International Justice Mission.

My organization works to increase equal access to justice for all. In partnership with governments and local communities, we work to build a more just world where everyone can expect to be safe and protected. Specifically, in Central America, we work to protect women and children from gender-based violence and sexual violence.

Because we are talking about human rights and hope, there’s one story that comes to mind right now, and that’s the story of Debbie. Powerful men in her community sexually assaulted Debbie when she was younger. Her struggle for justice required perseverance and courage, but, unlike many other stories in our region, she found the support she needed to pursue justice and heal. I had the opportunity to hear Debbie’s story a few months ago, she said very loud and clear: “Today, I’m a professional woman, a social leader, a mother and many other things, but I’m no longer a victim… and I’m committed to using my voice to help others”. To me, this is an excellent example of both things, hope and human rights activism in action.