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Dhaka, 1st October 2010: In a cultural award ceremony attended by several prominent South Asian activists at the Bangladesh Shilpkala Academy, the Meeto Memorial Award for young South Asians was given to Akeela Naz, a farmer and woman’s leader from Punjab, Pakistan, whose untiring work has helped trigger land reforms in favour of thousands of landless farmers. The inaugural ceremony was attended by over 400 members of the civil society, artists, activists, academicians and diplomats. Many guests came for the programme from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Iran and other parts of the world.
Delivering the keynote address at the occasion, Sunila Abeyasekera, well-known, award-winning international human rights and women’s activist from Sri Lanka said, “I am extremely happy to be associated with this award instituted in the memory of Meeto, a very fine young woman who I had the privilege of knowing personally. Meeto’s short life stands as an example of beauty, artistic and intellectual achievements and deep commitment to a syncretic South Asia. This Award is not just a tribute to Meeto and her work, but also recognition of the achievements of many young South Asians like her who are living their dreams for a better world”.
Offering a word of thanks, Dr. Hameeda Hossain, prominent human rights activist, author and the founder of Ain O Salish Kendra, expressed her happiness at this unique South Asian award which was not only choosing South Asian individuals but also moving from one South Asian country to another. (The 2009 Award ceremony took place in Delhi, India). Dr. Hossain said that the Award was a very valuable contribution to the South Asian world of human rights work.
Khushi Kabir, the founder of Nijera Kori and a member of Sangat’s Core Group, said she was delighted to host the award in Bangladesh. Anis Haroon, intellectual and activist and the Chairperson of the Pakistan Women’s Commission from Pakistan; Abha Bhaiya, Suneeta Dhar, Rukmini Rao, Nandita Gandhi, leaders of the Indian women’s movement and Jwala Saha, member of the Communist Party of Nepal Maoist and member of the Nepal Constituent assembly were among some of the many other activists that attended the ceremony.
The Award was handed over by Anusheh Anadil, singer and cultural activist from Dhaka and winner of the 2009 Meeto Memorial Award. Anusheh and her group of musicians enthralled the audience with their performance.
On this occasion South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) released their latest publication entitled “Religion A Tool for Discrimination in South Asia?” This book based on studies in different countries illustrates how policies and programmes, educational texts, media and administrative measures, have exacerbated discrimination against religious minorities in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This book is dedicated to Meeto Bhasin-Malik, who helped set up the SAHR network and who was committed to building communal harmony.
Citation: Akeela Naz
In Punjab, Pakistan, Akeela Naz is seen as the persona behind the ‘Thapa force’, an army of protesting women farmers, each wielding a thapa (a stick used to wash/strike clothes with). Outside the region, she is known as a grassroots revolutionary fighting for the rights of a million landless farmers. Nearly two decades of tireless struggle, grit and gumption have brought Akeela close to a victory and this award!
Born in 1976 to a landless farmer’s family, Akeela’s young life has been a saga of struggles. As one of the five siblings, the family lived in dismal poverty in even though both her father and mother toiled day and night in the farm. Her parents were among millions of poor farmers who were forced to pay heavy revenue (in cash and kind) to companies and military agencies that did not even own the land. Fed up of endless exploitation at the hands of corrupt and abusive officers and rising revenue payments, farmers of the region launched an uprising called the Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (AMP) or the Tenants Association Punjab. The movement demanded ownership of land by tenant farmers who had laboured and cultivated these lands for over a century, yet had no legal rights over it.
Young Akeela dropped out of college and joined the struggle in its early days. With membership of several thousand tenant farmers from across Punjab, the AMP raised the slogan of ‘Maliki ya Maut’ (ownership or death) and approached the local and provincial administration. All their efforts at engaging the government on the issue went in vain. In fact, the authorities intimidated the farmers through armed police and paramilitary rangers. At one occasion of protest, a few farmers were killed during police firing and hundreds, including women and children, were injured.
Though Akeela was one of the many who joined the AMP, she was the first woman to do so. Over the years, her involvement and role in mobilizing farmers, especially women farmers, became crucial to the struggle. Starting the year 2000, Akeela actively campaigned across the Punjab province and organized women into self-defense committees. Women learnt to use their thapas as a weapon for self-protection and to guard their lands and families against encroaching police forces. Akeela’s army of women came out in full strength during a massive public rally in March 2010. This turned out to be decisive event for the farmers. It finally forced the government to give in to AMP’s demand of land ownership by tenant farmers. Akeela was one of the main interlocutors during the ultimate parleys with the government.
During her activism, Akeela also leveraged the opportunity of massive gatherings of women to fight for peasant women’s inheritance rights. She mobilized women around issues of health, literacy and domestic violence. In 2008-9, Akeela registered the Peasant Women Society with the objectives of empowering women farmers with education and vocational training.
A Christian by birth, Akeela has worked in the face of threats and dangers with total dedication for the rights of the marginalized. This young brave leader, now the General Secretary of the AMP, has been selected for the Meeto Memorial Award 2010 for her commitment to justice and courageous fight for rights.
The Meeto Memorial Award for Young South Asians is managed by ANHAD and Sangat.
For more information, please contact:
Meeto Memorial Award Secretariat
ANHAD, 23, Canning Lane, New Delhi 110001