Standing up for human rights in the time of COVID-19: Sandra Martinez, UN Volunteer
Sandra Martinez is no stranger to armed conflict, growing up in historic Santander, a region tucked away in the northeastern part of Colombia, close to the Venezuelan border. However, as a little girl in pigtails and pinafores living in this beautiful though troubled part of the world, she had no inkling that, as a 31-year-old, she would be working in Africa as a UN Volunteer with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
“Looking back at my life, I think I’ve always had a need to understand the politics of conflict, not just in my own country, but also across the world,” reveals Sandra. Her education— Sandra hold a Bachelors degree in Political Science and a Masters in International Relations— could be seen as indicative of this deep-rooted desire. “But, more importantly, I wanted to be of service to people who were affected by violence and ensure they get the justice they deserved,” she continues.
It was Sandra’s personal determination to be of service to humankind that influenced her professional journey. She began her career in the private sector in Colombia, implementing projects benefiting refugees, displaced people, landmine victims and the conflict affected. Sandra then moved to Guatemala to work for a Swedish nongovernmental organisation called SweFOR, protecting human rights defenders. Finally, in December 2019, her application to the UN Volunteers programme was accepted and she was deployed as a Human Rights Officer in Bor, in the Jonglei region of the world’s newest country.
This is Sandra’s first time in Africa and in South Sudan. And this young UN Volunteer has got one of the toughest jobs within the mission! “My work as a Human Rights Officer involves monitoring adherence to international human rights and humanitarian laws and reporting on violations of the same, including conflict-related sexual violence,” explains Sandra. There are no intermediaries or third parties and she directly interacts with survivors of abuse or violence, not an easy task anywhere in the world, let alone in Bor. “I find it empowering, humbling and heartbreaking all at the same time, especially when many of them break down while telling me their stories. However, it fuels my passion to do the best I can for the people of South Sudan,” she states.
It has been a steep learning curve for Sandra, travelling on missions every week, sleeping in tents and forgoing the day-to-day comforts many people tend to take for granted. But the hardships involved in serving as a Human Rights Officer have done little to dim her optimism. “My own discomfort is always put into perspective when I meet South Sudanese communities, especially women, who have gone through so much here, yet remain some of the most joyful, hopeful and resilient people I have ever met,” says Sandra.
The onset of COVID-19 in South Sudan hugely impacted everyone, including Human Rights Officers. However, Sandra is proud that despite all the lockdowns, quarantines, preventative measures and movement restrictions, she and her colleagues have continued their important work. “We went on fact-finding missions to places which witnessed intercommunal violence, investigated and reported on the human rights implications on communities…our Human Rights team continued operating under very difficult circumstances at almost full capacity,” she reveals.
Furthermore, she believes that the ongoing pandemic has taught her a stellar lesson: “I’ve learnt that while COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate in terms of transmission, the impact of the virus is disproportionate across the world. Take the case of differently abled people or remote communities that lack healthcare facilities in South Sudan. For me, it is a stark reminder of the socio-economic inequities here.” Sandra has seen firsthand, through her work on the frontlines in and around Bor, how this virus has exposed and aggravated the vulnerabilities of the least protected—displaced women and children, persons in detention, people living with disabilities, and so forth. “In my opinion, this is why monitoring and assessing the crisis through a human rights lens, placing the spotlight squarely on the most vulnerable, is crucial to ensure no one is left behind,” she points out.
When asked if she had any message for people reading her story, she was eloquent and passionate, saying that that each of us needs to stand up for human rights in our societies, especially for the underprivileged and those most at risk. “It is incumbent upon all of us to shoulder individual responsibility to ensure the collective consciences of our nations remain intact. It starts and ends with us,” she continues.
Sandra hopes that in future, she will carry her experiences as a UN Volunteer in South Sudan to contribute towards sustainable peace in her own country, Colombia. But at present, she is devoted to the work she is doing: “As a woman, as a UN Volunteer and as a Human Rights Officer with UNMISS, I am committed to making sure that the rights and dignities of the communities we are here to serve are protected every single day,” she states, adding that, “A prosperous, peaceful future for the people of South Sudan will continue to remain a cause dear to my heart no matter where life takes me.”