Two bootcampers were recognised for their very different campaigns with nominations and medals this month; Maryan campaigns for mortuaries and bereavement, Maria is an LGBTQ+ human rights defender.
Bootcamp grad Maria Munir is an activist who has worked on gender identity issues in the media including standing up to President Obama on the HB2 North Carolina Bathroom Bill. Maria was recently awarded a medal from the Paris Bar Association for lawyers at the top of their game.
Congratulations on your award! Can you tell us a bit more about what it signifies?
I went to the Human Rights Defenders World Summit 2018 in Paris and gave a talk about women and LGBTQ+ defenders, and received a medal – which was totally unexpected! Breaking with tradition, Paris Bar Association awarded the medal to human rights defenders to symbolise that by fighting for human rights, we are honorary lawyers. For someone who comes from a poor family in rural Pakistan to have achieved this is an immeasurable source of pride for my family. It also lends legitimacy to my work, and I hope to use it to bring human rights campaigning into the mainstream.
How did you get involved in human rights campaigning?
At 7, I made my first speech to local politicians about the illegality of the Iraq Invasion. I always had a huge sense of duty to use my power to empower others. I led a monthly event for Pakistani women and children in Watford for several years, translating for politicians and trying to get people engaged in democracy. I didn’t realise I was doing human rights work at the time – even when I led a national campaign for facial palsy awareness. Through my work with ITV and Fixers UK, I created a poster campaign and featured on TV to show facial palsy doesn’t just affect older people. The result was people contacting me saying that they felt visible. Even when I was consulted by the Civil Service to overhaul their graduate and apprenticeship schemes to be trans-inclusive, I didn’t realise it was human rights work viscerally until I came out to Obama and instigated international change. I also met with the Deputy High Commissioner for Pakistan and delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street on human rights violations in Kashmir. It was only when I started receiving threats and intimidation for my LGBTQ+ work that I realised there was support for human rights defenders like me to continue our work in a sustainable way.
What can readers do to support the campaigning you’re doing at the moment?
The Gender Recognition Act consultation may be over, but there’s a non-binary call for evidence coming soon. Also, we have to keep up the pressure on the UK government to analyse responses carefully, and to act on our recommendations. To reduce stigmatisation, especially after reports on the mental health issues trans people often face, cis allies can share stories of trans people through the Stonewall website, or visit My Genderation and start conversations on how we can support trans people.
Maryan Whyte’s campaign “Mortuary for Moray” was nominated for The Herald Society Awards. The Whyte Family Trust’s “Mortuary For Moray” campaign aims to raise public awareness and to create pressure on local authorities; the NHS; Police Scotland; and the Scottish Parliament to ensure fit-for-purpose mortuaries across Scotland. The campaign is being spearheaded by Maryan’s family whose traumatic experience at Spynie Mortuary in Elgin drove them to fight for change, and to prevent others from going through the same agonising situation.
Congratulations on being named a runner-up against such large organisations! Can you tell us a bit more about how you were nominated?
As a matter of fact we were nominated for it totally unbeknownst to ourselves. We were delighted to become finalists in the group for Campaigner of the Year. One of the local councillors here in Moray put us forward; so it’s a question of people can put you forward and we take it from there. It was a formal occasion with a red carpet and over 300 attendees.
What is that you want different about the way we process bereavement and are supported in way we process bereavement?
There are areas of research which show that partner loss is the most severe common form of bereavement. Traumatic circumstances around the death can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Despite this knowledge there is no standard training for GPs in helping patients to cope with grief, there are no National Institute for Health & Care Excellence (NICE) pathways for grief to which a GP can refer. The rule of thumb is no assistance for the first six months unless a patient is showing clear indications of suicide. Organisations like Cruse Bereavement will give 2 initial sessions but then nothing until the obligatory six months have passed and this is only, if thought to be an absolute necessity.
As a society we do not deal well with death. We don’t seem to know how to speak to someone who has been bereaved; how to support a person in their grief or indeed how to approach the subject of death and dying. We have little cultural support at this time. Services must understanding and be sensitive to the needs and wishes of the individual. Within society in general we need an open dialogue about death & dying so that we can prepare ourselves and our families to ameliorate the impact of the loss and all that it means.
You’re campaigning on something that is connected to a deeply personal story. How did you ensure that whilst sharing your story you were also taking care of your own needs?
Self care is one of the workshops we covered at Campaign Bootcamp. I realised that initially I neglected myself because it took so much energy to take a complaint about what had happened forward and because it was so difficult to find out who to complain to. For me I have had to learn to pace myself, it has taken a long time and has proved personally costly.
At meetings I deliberately state how I prefer statements around death and related issues to not feel filtered. Now, I no longer have to hear people painfully struggling to ‘take care of my feelings.’ If I think I might find parts of an agenda very distressful, I will excuse myself and return when I am more in control. I state no fuss to be made if I become emotional and somewhat tearful. I’ve found it works for me and means I can react to how I feel on a given day. I have ‘recovery days’ when I know I’m going to be tired or emotional. If at times emotional days come unexpectedly (e.g. when people stop me in the street to tell me of their situation) I accept my feelings and allow them space. I also just take time out and try to relax at home!
I volunteer at events with a creative arts organisation where I meet totally different people and find it incredibly therapeutic to think of and explore a hugely diverse world. Being with others who can empathise with you because of their similar experience is invaluable.
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