Ida Karlsson interviews Rebiya Kadeer, president of World Uyghur Congress
Stockholm (IPS) – Rebiya Kadeer has taken up a campaign for the rights of a people usually far from world headlines: the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority in China.
Before she was arrested and imprisoned for nearly six years for criticising the Chinese government, she was a top official in the National People’s Consultative Conference, an influential political body. She lives in exile in the U.S. since her release from jail in March 2005.
She has a multi-million dollar trading company in her homeland, that the Chinese call Xinjiang. She was once the seventh wealthiest in China. She did more than run a successful business for herself; she set up the Thousand Mothers Movement to empower Uyghur women to start their own local businesses.
She is now president of the Washington-based World Uyghur Congress, a federation of exile groups speaking up for the Uyghur people.
Question: What is the position of Uyghur women in your homeland?
Kadeer: The Uyghur people live in an open prison. The suffering the Uyghurs face is unbelievable. For example, China has so-called family planning policies, but it is really abortion policies. China strictly limits the birth of Uyghur children. As a result China conducts a lot of abortions every year against the wish of Uyghur families. Many of the so-called doctors involved in the abortion processes are not really doctors, and therefore mothers also die during the process.
Hundreds of thousands of young Uyghur women are forcefully transferred from rural Uyghur families to factories in eastern Chinese provinces to work as cheap labourers. They are promised high pay but in the end they are locked up in factory compounds where they have to work up to 14 hours a day with little or no pay.
Many women are deprived of their right to keep in touch with their families, and they do not have the right to return to their families. If they flee from the factories and return to their hometowns they are arrested and severly punished. Many young women are also forced into prostitution. Many Uyghur children have been arrested by the Chinese authorities and are imprisoned.
What is your message to young Uyghurs in your homeland?
Kadeer: I encourage them to preserve their own ethnic identity and to do their best to create peace for all people in our country. I also urge them to study our history, even though the Chinese government does not allow this. To young women I say: have confidence in yourself. They will be mothers in the future and in our language we have a saying: ‘Mothers use the right hand to shake the cradle and the left hand to shake the earth’. Self-confident women will have self-confident children.
What have you been able to achieve for Uyghur women?
Kadeer: While in my homeland I established the Thousand Mothers Movement. I thought that if I had the opportunity to help Uyghur women, then that would in turn help the next generation. Thousands of mothers welcomed this initiative. We helped orphans and homeless children, and educated them. We also offered job training, and helped Uyghur women start businesses.
The Chinese government stopped the programmes although this was a non- political movement and we were following Chinese laws and regulations. We were actually trying to help the Chinese govenment by creating employment for unemployed women and education for young children. That was the reason why they allowed us to register in the beginning. But the authorities felt threatened when they saw that so many Uyghur women welcomed it.
Are others now carrying out similar projects?
Kadeer: There are some Uyghur women organising something called the Gracious Mothers Movement doing pretty much the same thing. Some of them were earlier members of the Thousand Mothers Movement.
It is ten years since the Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was adopted. The resolution calls for addressing the impact of conflict on women, and to engage women in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
Kadeer: I strongly support the resolution. I hope it can be implemented. It is important that the UN protects women in conflicts and guarantees their rights. My intent with the Thousand Mothers Movement was to create peace and opportunities for women and to protect their rights. The UN should not turn a blind eye to womens rights issues in big countries such as China. Therefore it is important that the UN implement the resolution and not just think it is a great idea.
Has the resolution had any impact in your homeland?
Kadeer: No, no impact at all. In fact nobody knows about the existence of the resolution. The UN did not send anyone to investigate the situation and carry out a fact-finding mission — to find out the truth instead of the Chinese propaganda saying that we live happy lives under Chinese rule.
If the United Nations was concerned about the rights of Uyghur women, China would never have been able to forcefully transfer hundreds of thousands of Uyghur women to Eastern China to work as cheap labourers. The key reason why we had a protest in my homeland last July was because of the forceful transfer of Uyghur women.
We raise the Uyghur womens issue, the U.S. and the European Union have also raised it — but so far the UN. The international community should not look at the Uyghur issue as China’s internal issue but as a global human rights issue.