Iranian child rights activists seek asylum abroad
In May last year, renowned scientists and brothers Shahin and Jahangir Gavanji, were severely beaten by fundamentalists for campaigning for children’s rights in Iran.
A fanatical group in their home city of Isfahan alleged the brothers’ campaigning work – particularly against child marriage – promoted ‘anti-Islamic values’.
A group of motorcyclists descended on their home, assaulted them with truncheons and electric cables and threatened to throw hydrochloric acid into their faces.
Fearing for their lives they fled the country to an undisclosed location. Now they calling upon governments around the world to grant them asylum.
Talking about the attack, Shahin Gavanji, 35, told New Internationalist:
‘They wanted to blind us. They shouted: “Away with you, you are representatives of America, Israel and the United Kingdom”. It was horrible. I still remember the voice which said: “We will kill you both.” My brother Jahangir lost 30 kilos in one month because of the stress, and his leg is now numb and he cannot walk properly.’
Shahin, who chairs the Asian Council of the World Academy of Medical Sciences (WAMS) and is an international peace ambassador, explains why he and his brother felt compelled to act.
‘My brother and I are very well-known in our country, so we thought that we should use our voice to help children and make a better world for them.
‘Child marriage is a big problem in Iran, as well as child labour. Physical and sexual abuse of children [is] totally ignored.’
To break the silence on child abuse, he and his brother Jahangir, 29, launched several campaigns from 2016 onwards in Iran and abroad, including the first national campaign against child abuse in Iran and the Global Campaign for the Prevention of Child Marriage in 41 countries.
‘Education is the most powerful way to help change the world,’ Shahin says. Together, the brothers would hold regular five-minute classes in streets across the country to help child labourers recognize and prevent different types of abuse.
‘We see a significant number of children who blame themselves and are even afraid to tell their family or anyone else about the abuse they have suffered,’ he explains.
According to BBC monitoring, more than half a million child marriages are registered in Iran every year. The Persian-language news site Entekhab estimates up to 40,000 of them are between the ages of 11 and 14, and more than 300 of them are girls under the age of nine.
In addition, UNICEF estimates that there are three million child workers in Iran. Iranian NGOs say it’s likely to be as high as seven million. Under Iranian law, it is illegal to work under the age of 15, but due to poverty and organized crime, the law is rarely enforced.
An estimated 14 per cent of Iranian children are forced to work in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Usually these children work in the streets, in automobile or rug factories, or in the sex industry, according to international child NGO Humanium.
The Gavanji brothers received awards for their scientific achievements in their country and were voted the best young inventors and scientists of Iran in 2009 and 2010. They won several medals and awards at international science festivals in Germany, Poland and Croatia.
Their child protection work has also won them official recognition. They are Iran’s ambassadors for ‘My Body is My Body’, an international educational programme against child abuse, available in 21 languages. They have translated the programme into Farsi and organized information classes for children and their parents in Iran.
With the support of the WAMS, they created a national project to raise awareness about the negative physical and mental health consequences of child marriage.
Their work was previously well received within the country and abroad.
‘Every day we received support from children and their parents. We were also invited by many people to organize our classes in cities and in the countryside.’
Yet their educational programmes continue to attract the wrath of fundamentalist groups who believe them to be corrupting Iranian youth
‘They say that our activities, especially our campaign against girl brides promotes the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and because of that, children and future generations will lose their “Islamic spirit”,’ Shahin explains.
After the attack, Shahin and Jahangir sought refuge in the countryside for a few months, but then in September decided to flee the country, leaving behind their families, research projects and campaigning work.
They are now living in hiding in a small room in an undisclosed country, and hope their plea for asylum in Canada or in another country will be heard.
‘We want to make our voices heard by the United Nations. We ask all journalists, human rights organizations and governments to listen to us and help us. We are desperate.’
Sign the petition to support Shahin and Jahangir’s claim to asylum.
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