Today it’s easy to assume that writing letters is a thing of the past, that putting pen to paper is meaningless in the digital age of Facebook and Twitter. If you find yourself agreeing with both of those statements, it may be time to think again.
In the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are going to be picking up their pens and writing letters the old school way. This won’t be an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, it could be a matter of life and death.
These letter-writers will be doing so to save lives and to protect people from ill treatment. They’ll be taking part in Write for Rights, an annual “write-a-thon” organized by the human rights organization Amnesty International. They’ll be calling on governments to release prisoners of conscience—people jailed for peacefully exercising their right to free speech or for their religious beliefs. They will also be writing letters of solidarity directly to the prisoners themselves.
“I once had no hope of freedom again,” says Birtukan Mideksa, a former opposition party leader in Ethiopia and someone who directly benefited from the letters that people wrote. “I was arrested and sentenced to life in prison after my political party participated in protests disputing the result of national elections. I had committed no crime. I was targeted only for peacefully expressing my political views.”
Mideksa goes on to explain how Write for Rights changed her life. “When my case was featured in the Write for Rights campaign,” she points out, “thousands of people called for my freedom.”
Letters protected Mideksa during the worst time in her life—and they kept hope alive at her darkest hour of need. Not surprisingly, she is today a passionate supporter of Write for Rights and encourages everyone to take part. “Write with me,” she says. “Be part of Write for Rights.”
People of all ages take part in the campaign and they come from all walks of life. People write alone or with friends around their kitchen tables. They write together in groups in their schools, in workplaces or in community centres.
Despite being a throwback to the way we used to communicate, there is one aspect of Write for Rights that is distinctly 21st century: people go online to writeathon.ca to get the letter-writing cases, to register their event, or find out where their nearest Write for Rights event is.