5 Inspiring Times Someone Just Like You Stood Up for Social Justice

A new United Nations report details how volunteers have called out injustice and reshaped policies around the world.

Students protest against the gang rape and killings of two girls in New Delhi in May 2014.

Jun 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

The United Nations today released its first report highlighting how volunteer efforts can make governments more responsive, accountable, and sensitive to citizens’ needs. And governments better listen up: The number of volunteers globally is expected to exceed 1 billion this year—that’s larger than China’s working-age population, according to the 2015 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report: Transforming Governance.

Little data previously existed on volunteers worldwide, but this report marks the first global survey of how everyday citizens have called out injustice and reshaped policies in their own communities. Drafted by an internal research team at U.N. Volunteers, it’s a collection of case studies and analysis on how volunteers have transformed policies and redesigned societies, Amanda Mukwashi, chief of UNV’s Volunteer Knowledge and Innovation Section and one of the report’s lead researchers, told TakePart.

Despite the success of global volunteerism, however, development programs have still left many communities behind, including youths and marginalized groups.

“The potential of volunteers to help create truly people-centered development is enormous but, as yet, far from fully tapped,” Helen Clark, the administrator of the U.N. Development Program, said today at the launch of the report at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Still, volunteers in a number of countries have made major waves, and the report recounts several of their stories. Below, the highlights of five times everyday citizens across the globe took social justice into their own hands:

1. Brazil: Calling Out $57 Million Worth of Corruption

In 2000, the mayor of Maringa, a municipality in southern Brazil, was accused of misusing $57 million of public funds. His secretary led the fight for change, galvanizing support from civil society. The public scrutiny gave birth to the Maringa Social Observatory, a new organization focused on creating transparency in government. A completely volunteer-run effort, the observatory reportedly saved the public treasury $7.3 million over four years.

RELATED: The World’s Most Corrupt Presidents and the Corporations That Love Them

2. India: Zero Tolerance for Violence Against Women

After the horrific rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in December 2012, public riots and protests brought women’s rights and safety to the forefront. Within two weeks of making an open call for suggestions on reform, the Indian government was inundated with more than 80,000 submissions from women’s groups, NGOs, and individuals. They asked officials to expedite similar cases, hold perpetrators accountable, and look at “less visible factors that enable violence against women,” according to the report. The high court responded by quickly pushing through the legal case and incorporating suggestions from the committee, all of which set a new precedent for other rape and sexual assault cases in the country.

RELATED: Well Done, World: 5 Times Something Cruel Happened to a Woman and Justice Was Actually Served

3. China: Grassroot Activists Made Air Pollution a Priority

Environmental organizations and volunteers took it upon themselves to measure PM2.5 levels—particulate matter that’s harmful in large quantities—throughout China. Starting in Beijing, residents measured the pollutants consistently, cataloging their findings for scientists. The massive crowdsourcing effort pushed the Chinese government to pay attention to its growing air pollution problem. Moreover, the government agreed to publish the data publicly and promised to lower pollution levels by 2016.

RELATED: This Grandmother Is Standing Up to Mining and Logging Companies in the Solomon Islands

4. Bangladesh: Taking Down the Fast Fashion Industry

When Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in 2013, more than 1,000 workers died. The clothing industry was put under the microscope as a result, and its supply chains were scrutinized by both consumers and the media alike. Volunteers pushed for legal action, calling on companies to conduct independent safety inspections; more than 150 apparel companies around the world signed the accord. The volunteer-led movement is driving a significant change in the fashion industry, which has relied on cheap, fast labor for decades.

RELATED: Is Fast Fashion Unstoppable?

5. Chile: Protecting Small-Scale Farmers

Local Chileans fought back against policies favoring Big Agriculture, making the case that they excluded small-scale farmers and could wipe out age-old farming practices. ANAMURI, a network of 10,000 female volunteers from rural and indigenous groups in Chile, led campaigns to inform the public and the government about the importance of native seeds and healthy farming practices. Their voices were heard: In March 2014, the government withdrew changes to the law that would harm the indigenous populations and their farming.