The Reebok Human Rights Foundation, set up by the sports company, is honoring four activists under the age of 30 for their efforts in areas as diverse as treating AIDS to helping sexually exploited children. In New York, VOA Correspondent Barbara Schoetzau spoke with the winners from China, Kashmir, the United States and Zimbabwe.
As a law student in Zimbabwe, Otto Saki organized a boycott after riot police shot and killed a protesting student. Now 24, Saki is a veteran human rights activist, working with families who lost their homes in the government-sponsored mass eviction campaign.
"As we have been assisting them with their provision of legal services what came to our mind is that it was not enough to offer to take their cases to court," said Otto Saki. "You would be talking to someone who has not had a decent meal for the past two or three weeks. You will be talking to someone whose kids have not been going to school and have just been playing around. That presents complexities in the nature of help that you can render to an individual. We actually are now ending up involved in humanitarian work."
Saki says risk is an everyday part of the work he does. That is a lesson Khurram Parvez learned in 2004 when he lost a leg in a landmine explosion in Kashmir. When Parvez was 13, his grandfather was killed by a police officer during a protest demonstration. He says he had to find a way to channel his pain and anger away from violence. As a university student, he started the Students Helpline to encourage peaceful approaches to end Kashmir's ongoing strife. He now works with a variety of human rights groups that monitor human rights abuses and provide legal aid to families affected by the conflict.
"I learned that people can respond to injustice by nonviolent means also," said Khurram Parvez. "You do not have to be violent. That is the key."
Twenty seven-year-old Li Dan credits the 1998 movie Philadelphia, about an America facing the stigma of AIDS, with spurring his activism. He abandoned his studies in astrophysics in Beijing to work with people suffering from the disease, to educate the public and lobby the Chinese government. He opened an orphanage and school for AIDS orphans, which local officials shut down. He thinks the Reebok Human Rights Awards will have a positive effect on his efforts.
He says the award will help him find funding and give him legitimacy with the people, who are distrustful of charities. He also think the international recognition will improve his organization's relationship with the government.
Rachel Lloyd left a dysfunctional home life in Britain to live on the edge, eventually becoming a teenage prostitute in Britain and Germany. Lloyd was fortunate. At 19 she found help with a church on a military base in Germany and came to the United States. Now she is trying to rescue other sexually exploited children. In 1998, Lloyd founded GEMS: Girls Education and Mentoring Services, to give support to underage girls in the sex industry in New York.
"As I started working with women, I began to see younger and younger girls," said Rachel Lloyd. "I was 22 then so a lot of the girls were not that much separated from me in age. It was amazing to me to find that even though we were from two different cultures, two different countries, and two different continents that our stories were so similar. I felt very compelled to begin GEMS."
Reebok awards $50,000 to each honoree in an annual ceremony in New York. Since the start of the program in 1988, 84 people from 38 countries have been honored.