The chaos and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for many. Particularly for those working to end trafficking in persons (TIP), resources redirected towards fighting the crisis are resources directed away from the systems designed to support victims.
With an active message anchored in its #ChooseToChallenge theme, this year on International Women’s Day we recognise and celebrate women in leadership, and especially those working to alleviate the severe impacts of the pandemic. A world that chooses to challenge is an alert world, and from challenge comes change.
Indonesian-born Ms Nurul Qoiriah has been choosing to challenge and call out bias and inequity for over 20 years. In her current role as Victim Rights and Inclusion Director with the Australian Government-supported ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking initiative (ASEAN-ACT), Nurul provides technical support to government agencies across the ASEAN region. Her priority is to ensure victim rights, equality and social inclusion measures are mainstreamed in country-led counter-TIP strategies. This includes victim-centered and gender-sensitivity approaches, Do No Harm principles and identifying issues in justice system processes – which, she believes is a ‘long fight to undo massive misconceptions and prejudices.’
‘Victim rights and equality and inclusion are paramount in strengthening justice systems in the region,’ says Nurul.
Many victims of trafficking are not always given their full rights, Nurul explains. For example, judges who have not considered victim compensation, or when victims of trafficking are associated with irregular migrants and smuggling. It is in these instances that victims are not correctly identified and supported.
While a 2018 UNODC report reveals that women and girls represent more than 70 per cent of detected trafficking victims globally, Nurul is quick to clarify that men’s rights as victims are often overlooked, and dedicated support for people with disability (PWD) and LGBTQI+ victims is still lacking.
Nurul’s experience in human rights is unlike most. On an International Organisation for Migration (IOM) mission to northern Nigeria she met with the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls following their rescue; a case which she emphasises as having a ‘double layer of victimisation.’ And on the Bangladesh-Indian border Nurul supported Rohingya refugees at makeshift camps where she witnessed numerous types of exploitation, including incidents involving child trafficking and forced marriage.
Nurul’s firsthand experience has shaped her leadership roles, including as IOM’s Head of Office in Hong Kong, followed by a Chief of Party role with the USAID-funded Counter-Trafficking in Person program in Cambodia. As a recognised specialist in victim rights, she says her progression was no easy feat.
Early career aspirations
Nurul first studied maths at university with the intention of becoming a teacher but took a strong interest in journalism when she became editor of the campus magazine.
‘My mother, as a Javanese Muslim, held traditional views about what women should be and journalism was not a career she approved of. Instead, I moved to Jakarta and worked for an NGO in labour migration, and it was the first time my eyes opened around this issue of migrants' rights violation.’
Nurul also has her own experience of gender-based discrimination. As the National Protection Officer with UNHCR she facilitated training for the national government, including police, border guards, immigration officials, and the military, with mostly male representation. ‘At that time, I was a very young female and some of them even challenged me when I spoke about international law,’ she says.
When Nurul moved to Hong Kong with the Asian Migrant Centre she became directly involved with migrant workers and exposed to their stories of hardships.
‘I could see they were happy providing for their families, but at the same time experiencing exploitation and abuse. It completely changed my perspective and my commitment. This is what I wanted to fight for.’
Committed to the cause, she turned down a full scholarship at Hong Kong University and instead negotiated part-time arrangements to continue working while studying a Master of Law in Human Rights. With no previous background in law, Nurul says she worked twice as hard to keep up. And on Sundays she empowered migrant women working as domestic workers, coordinating training to educate them on their rights.
‘It will be more powerful if they [migrants] use their own voice; to dare to tell their story to their community, and the country. This also changes the law,’ she insists.
Drivers for change
Nurul believes female leaders are an important driver for change to end human trafficking regionally and globally.
‘Women are able to influence legislation,’ Nurul says firmly, while explaining how the West Javanese Governor’s wife was seminal in the roll-out of a major proposal. Her support resulted in the Governor allocating provincial budget to integrate TIP victims back into society with planned support through local agencies. It is clear from her long list of wins that support from champions – local agencies, activists, politicians’ wives, nuns and priests, you name it – has led to positive results.
Her advice to young and aspiring women with a keen interest for human rights: you will easily gain knowledge by reading, but don’t stop there.
‘Information is so accessible now for the new generation. But if you only learn based on what you read, it will never touch your heart. Take part, get involved in a practical way and ignite a spirit to do more,’ she encourages.
Nurul Qoiriah lives and breathes her own advice. She continues to advocate and drive change for vulnerable and marginalised groups through her ASEAN-ACT work. She has and always will #ChooseToChallenge.
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