She used to travel covertly and communicate using multiple SIM cards to remain untraceable while conducting undercover investigations. She takes on powerful warlords, business magnates and politicians, and takes under her wings battered women, who have fallen victim to sexual crimes and violence, from all over the world.
The life of Singaporean Natasha Latiff might sound like a Hollywood movie synopsis, but there is no glamour in her work at non-profit human rights law organisation Women for Justice Organisation Afghanistan (WJOA) and Strategic Advocacy for Human Rights (SAHR) – an organisation she founded in 2008, while studying law at the University of Warwick in the UK.
To begin with, she describes her cases as being “inscribed in failure”. SAHR does not have huge funds to fall back on, yet it takes on highly complex high-profile cases. “The women coming to us usually have exhausted all avenues for seeking justice as their offenders can range from military personnel to prominent religious figures or those tied to organisations with power and money, including those who have the might and the influence to bribe the authorities and threaten them while intimidating and threatening the victims,” shares Latiff. “Yet it is even more important that we take these cases, for they stand for the principle of justice.”
And, unlike movies where the good guys always win, her fight is one that has seen witnesses and victims tortured and killed. Even her life has been threatened. “The threat of being killed is very real,” recalls the legal adviser who lived in Afghanistan for five years.
“There certainly were people out to get human rights defenders, especially women defenders, and there were many ways one could be killed such as being collateral damage in a suicide bomber attack.”
It takes more than courage to do what she does. It takes conviction.
Challenging the Odds
Sexual violence is considered a health pandemic by the World Health Organisation because of its many repercussions, spanning psychological trauma to STD issues. In conservative cultures, rape victims are often deemed as shameful and expelled from the community, and thus driven to poverty and forced to turn to prostitution, leading to other sets of problems. Yet, for the severe, far-reaching and multi-fold impact acts of sexual violence, it is shockingly invisible.
Latiff shares that, by estimates, one in three women or marginalised persons – such as children from poor families and those from LGBTIQ communities – in developing countries would have experienced some form of sexual abuse. Yet only some 10 per cent of these crimes are reported. Further, just one per cent of the cases reported get a conviction – hardly a motivation for the victims to seek justice.
“There is a lot of stigma and shame for victims of sexual crimes, and they very often have to put themselves through a lot of injustice in their journey to justice, getting blamed along the way, humiliated and re-traumatised through inappropriate questioning and tests,” shares Latiff.
“But why should causing physical harm by penetration of the penis be treated differently from the penetration of the knife? The framing of rape with erotic words obscures the gravity of the issue. You often hear arguments about how the perpetrator couldn’t control his sexual urges. By that token, you can also argue how a murderer couldn’t control his urge to kill. It doesn’t make sense. When rape happens, we need to understand that there are many elements of thoughts and actions that lead to it – and which affect how the crime is processed after. These stem from gender stereotypes of the woman’s role in society and the expectations of her. Even the most educated and progressive society can carry a lot of prejudice against women,” observes Latiff, who also shares that in many countries, rape victims are considered “soiled” and unfit for marriage, and thus a source of shame to the family.
Latiff makes it her mission to stand up for the brave victims who dare to voice out.
Starting with just three law students, SAHR has grown into a global movement of human rights defenders fighting cases of sexual violence against women everywhere – from Colombia to South Sudan and from Afghanistan to Vanuatu. With collective resources, connections and might, they have managed to greatly advance cases that have been stagnating for years – be it in the form of settlements in principle or even getting influential offenders to stand trial.
“We cannot always hope for a conviction. I push for some form of accountability and recognition of the crime that has been committed by removing him from office and ensuring he is a fugitive for the rest of his life – these are successes for us,” says Latiff, who was recognised as a Human Rights Defender in 2016 by the Geneva-based organisation International Service for Human Rights, and named a change-maker in Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Conference in the same year.
“When rape happens, we need to understand that there are many elements of thoughts and actions that lead to it – and which affect how the crime is processed after. These stem from gender stereotypes of the woman’s role in society and the expectations of her. Even the most educated and progressive society can carry a lot of prejudice against women.”
“But why should causing physical harm by penetration of the penis be treated differently from the penetration of the knife? The framing of rape with erotic words obscures the gravity of the issue. You often hear arguments about how the perpetrator couldn’t control his sexual urges. By that token, you can also argue how a murderer couldn’t control his urge to kill. It doesn’t make sense.”
Changing Systems and Mindsets
Latiff tells all her clients that they have two fights: one is their personal fight for justice and the other is against indifference. And, with unlikely wins for every case that gets turned around, SAHR offers specialist knowledge on strategies and tools that can lead to winning solutions.
On a macro level, the lessons from each case are also translated into advocacy and awareness-raising interventions designed to challenge and change policies and practices.
Latiff continues to build a network of human rights defenders – from legal consultants to forensic scientists and media advocates. “Singaporean women are independent, financially strong and intellectually on par with their male counterparts. We can be an influential force if we channel our power where it matters most,” says Latiff. She is currently canvassing for funds to achieve the goal of providing each defender with US$3,000 (S$4,000) to use over six months to a year to fund casework.
There are currently 141 cases from Indonesia to Kenya that have not been taken up by SAHR because of the lack of funding. “Human rights work, something at the crux of humanity, should be done at a competitive market rate,” opines Latiff.
But you don’t have to be a lawyer to help. “You simply need to join the global community that supports the survivors, be it through skills or time – and there is nothing more important than to be present for somebody who is suffering,” says Latiff.
“It is not like we run Amnesty International. We are just a small team doing what we can, and galvanising the actors in the justice system to take responsibility and accountability. For the issue is not one that a single organisation – or even a government – can tackle alone. It is something that starts with the awareness of a single person,” encourages Latiff.
The Peak is working with Money FM 89.3 to interview The Peak’s featured personalities on radio. Listen to Latiff’s segment below.