Volunteering with the Center for Victims of Torture

Kaushalya RajathuraiBy Shalya Rajathurai

Image: Kaushalya "Shalya" Rajathurai

The first face of CVT I met was Beth Wickum, the charming Director of Volunteer Services. Soon after our first meeting, she found the perfect custom made volunteer role for me, with New Tactics in Human Rights! CVT launched New Tactics in Human Rights in 1999 with the creation of an international advisory committee with partners in Turkey to study various tactics used globally to combat human rights abuses. New Tactics focuses on documenting and sharing effective tactics used by activists worldwide, training and mentoring human rights defenders, and building a dynamic online global community of human rights activists. To date, New Tactics has directly trained 1,506 participants from 546 organizations! New Tactics also has an office in Amman, Jordan to cater to the Middle East and North Africa region.

In a previous life in Malaysia and Singapore, I worked as an attorney before relocating to Minneapolis. Volunteering has always been an integral part of my life, previously as a Human Values teacher for youths for Project ATMAH (Action to Mobilize All Humanity) at Selangor, Malaysia in the aftermath of a racial riot, and weekly visits to the elderly living alone with the Singapore Lions Befrienders. I was thrilled to continue my volunteering journey with such an important global human rights endeavor, New Tactics in Human Rights. I received a friendly email from Brent Jensen, the Online Community Builder for New Tactics and on a lovely summer day, I went to CVT’s headquarters at University Avenue West, St Paul to start my volunteer work. I met the other New Tactics team members, Emily Hutchinson, the Program Manager, Nancy Pearson, the Training Manager and Nancy Thorne, the Communications and Program Coordinator. The team welcomed me warmly and I instantly liked all of them.

My first assignment was writing the summaries for the monthly online conversations on the New Tactics website. This website has drawn more than 95,000 users from 205 countries and territories this year! I think these monthly online conversations on selected human rights topics are simply brilliant. This is because human rights activists are given a platform to freely exchange ideas and express their views to a global audience. Anyone can register with the New Tactics website and contribute. Besides the monthly conversations, there are already more than 220 tactics available on the New Tactics website. This gives hope to an activist who may be struggling alone in a remote part of the world wondering how can one encourage more women to take part in politics. Ideas for this were discussed and shared in the monthly conversation in May entitled “Empowering Women in Political Partnership and Leadership”. I also learnt how photography can be an invaluable tool in advancing human rights causes during the monthly conversation in June.

My work also involves research and publication of new tactics to advance human rights causes. During the course of my research work, I was most impressed by Ujamaa Africa which by its defense training programs for school children in Kenya, No Means No Worldwide, had effectively lowered the number of rapes among school children. New Tactics in documenting this as an effective tactic to reduce rape, assists in publicizing the tactic and organization. This would hopefully encourage other countries with endemic rape among school children to try a similar approach. It was also interesting to research for new online conversation topics and to find the appropriate experts to be the conversation leaders.

One of the highlights of my stint here was the Restoring Hope Breakfast, a charity fundraiser by CVT. I was shocked by the number of guests who were willing to forego some shut-eye at 7am (registration and networking) to support CVT in their exemplary work. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a long-time supporter of CVT was the special guest for this event. Among the highlights of this event for me was the story of a 10 year old Syrian girl who was kidnapped, beaten and starved. She saw a little boy being beaten to death. This girl suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, depression and anxiety. But with the help of CVT Jordan’s individual psychotherapy sessions, this little girl gradually learnt to be a little child again. The whole event was well organized and I was pleased to assist as an usher.

CVT is a great organization and with the current mass displacement of people, CVT’s niche expertise in rehabilitative care is needed more than ever. New Tactics gives hope to human rights activists and organizations who are most often isolated with a limited range of tactics available. New Tactics’ invaluable Strategy Toolkit used in trainings and website information together with the support of the online global community gives fresh impetus to activists everywhere. And I feel privileged to play a small role.