Mariana is a fearless human rights advocate, who has made the fight for justice, equality and women’s rights her life's work by speaking on behalf of those trapped in war and conflict zones.

In her extensive and rich career, Mariana Katzarova has worked to support women all around the world and transform their restricted, disadvantaged and unequal situations. She worked as an investigative journalist directly in conflict zones, constructed key international laws with international human rights organisations, and established awards and foundations which aim to support women and their own work, all whilst creating awareness and social change. In everything that Mariana has experienced and seen, in all the deeply sad moments and situations she has witnessed and brought to the world stage, she has maintained an unwavering sense of positivity, approachability and, importantly, a strength and desire to keep on fighting and never give up.

Mariana was born in Sofia, Bulgaria where in her late teens and early twenties, she took part in the democracy movement to undermine and ultimately bring down the Communist Government. In 1989, Mariana helped start the first democratic newspaper “Democracy”, which was the first media publication in Bulgaria to break free from government censorship. Her pioneering work opened the doors to other professional roles, including the editor of the democratic newspaper “Free People”, and eventually won a competition among young Bulgarian journalists to study in the United States, where she became the first Bulgarian to graduate from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

On completion of her studies, Mariana worked as a human rights journalist and advocate in conflict zones including Bosnia, Chechnya and Kosovo. The more she worked in these areas, the more she realised that only a minority of war survivors had the opportunity to share their stories or to have their voice heard; the women and children who had little control over the situation in their own country but who experienced the majority of war crimes such as rape, rarely if ever had the opportunity to present their challenges and contributions or to achieve justice:

“It’s the women who are left behind as the men fight and often die in conflict. It’s the women who are the journalists, the peacemakers, the story tellers, and the ones who keep the society alive and maintain humanity.”

Here Mariana found her purpose: to tell the stories of these women and help amplify their voice. Not only that, she wanted the world to know of not just the suffering that comes from living in a conflict zone, but also of the strength, resilience, and commitment of those left behind that allowed their country and their community to continue running in some way.

Mariana’s experience of conflict zones and telling women’s stories was her inspiration for setting up Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR) in 2006. The organisation supports women human rights defenders in countries in the throws of war and conflict. RAW in WAR works directly with women who are active in their communities to strengthen and enable their work on behalf of woman and girl victims of conflict, and carries out its work in areas of conflict or so called ‘forgotten conflict’ where there is limited or no support from the major humanitarian agencies and organisations. RAW in WAR also holds the annual Anna Politkovskaya Award for women human rights defenders from war and conflict in the world, who speak up on behalf of the civilians often at great personal risk. Named after the assassinated Russian campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who became the voice for Chechen civilians during the armed conflict, the award honours the courage of a diverse group of women human rights defenders from different war zones and helps bring their voices and their message for peace and justice to audiences around the world.

While working at Amnesty International as the Researcher on the Russian Federation, Mariana worked closely with Anna Politkovskaya, often investigating the same cases of atrocities against civilians in the conflict in Chechnya. They became close friends and colleagues. When Anna was murdered in 2006 to silence her human rights journalism, Mariana set up the award in her name to keep Anna’s memory alive and to support other women, who like Anna speak out on behalf of the civilians in conflict:  

“The award supports women all over the world – brave women who are risking their lives to seek the truth and tell the truth and are agents of change in their countries, trapped in the midst of war and conflict,” says Mariana.

Her first-hand experience and expertise of conflict zones and the peacebuilding process have allowed Mariana to contribute to initiatives for real change, such as setting up pioneering war crimes tribunals and the women’s network of lawyers in the former Yugoslavia, helping women and children survivors of war tell their stories and contribute to the peacebuilding process in Chechnya, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. Mariana has also worked as an advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Here she worked tirelessly on the issue of ending human trafficking: she brought the voices of survivors of trafficking to be heard for the first time in front of the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly, and developed a ground-breaking commentary to guide United Nations Member States on how to fight human trafficking by putting human rights first. Recently, Mariana spent two years leading the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission’s team in the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, including rescuing more than 150 civilians detained by the armed groups. Mariana is now working with women from all sides on peacebuilding in the current conflict in Ukraine. According to Mariana, including women’s voices in peace talks is critical; she recently addressed the members of the European Parliament and advocated for greater efforts to include women’s voices in all peace talks around the world:

“Women are over half of the global population – 80% of survivors of armed conflict are women but rarely get the chance to have a seat at the table and contribute to the peace process. Those who began the conflict in the first place are later in charge of making and building peace, with the majority of the population and survivors being excluded from the peace process. This is often the reason why peace is not achieved.”

Within her community, her workplace, her home country of Bulgaria, and in any way she can, Mariana promotes social change and gender equality.

In Bulgaria in 2006 Mariana found the Society for Justice Foundation, a human rights non-government organisation advocating to end violence against women and girls, particularly through the arts. Since 2001 Mariana and the Foundation have been running V-Day Bulgaria and One Billion Rising Bulgaria – annual national advocacy campaigns to end violence against women and girls. One Billion Rising Bulgaria is part of the global V-Day movement, initiated by the American activist and playwright, Eve Ensler, author of the “Vagina Monologues”. 

In 2000, Mariana helped bring the “Vagina Monologues” to Bulgaria, to be performed for the first time at Theatre 199 in the capital Sofia. The Bulgarian Government at the time threatened to close down the performance of the Monologues for “use of obscene language”. In 2001, Mariana organised the first V-Day in Bulgaria, which brought together in Sofia women activists from all Balkan countries, as well as Eve Ensler, who came to support the play and the Bulgarian activists. The Vagina Monologues in Bulgaria continued to be performed and became one of the most admired theatre shows in the country. Mariana also took part in organising V-Day events in Brussels and Sarajevo, and participated in a number of V-Day actions in cities around the world, such as in New York, Juarez, London, and New Orleans, among others.

In October 2016, the Society for Justice Foundation initiated a new campaign to end exploitation of women and girls and human trafficking in Bulgaria, called “Face Up”, following the release of a new Bulgarian/French movie about trafficking of Bulgarian Roma girls for forced prostitution, called “Face Down”.

One of the ways Mariana believes we will achieve change is if we involve men in the conversation. “We can’t just talk amongst each other,” she says.

However, Mariana feels the discussion needs to be carefully managed, so that the issue of violence against women, for example, is not reduced by men’s rights activists:

“We can only be successful if we involve men and boys in the discussion on gender equality and ending violence against women. But, we need to be careful not to dilute the message and movement. We mustn’t try to find equality in violence against women, because the statistics tell us that we can’t. The statistics tell us that one in three women will be violated, and that most likely they will be violated by men. There really aren’t a lot of women who rape men. We have to be honest about these differences… Equality is about understanding our differences and solving the issues that we’re facing.”

As Mariana continues her work, she hopes that one day it won’t be needed any more:

“I hope that violence against women is completely eradicated in our lifetime; that men don’t have to struggle with dominant patriarchal power structures and societally constructed masculinities; that women will be listened to in all communities and settings; that women won’t have to wait to be old enough so as to not appear threatening in order to get an opportunity to be in power; that young women will be taken seriously too and given respect and a voice and the ability to influence; and that women will no longer need to be empowered but are completely empowered to be who they want to be, and not need a cartoon character to replace and empower them, such as the recently appointed Wonder Woman as the UN Special Ambassador on the Empowerment of Women, just a month after the United Nations rejected the candidacy of seven highly qualified women to head the organisation as the first woman United Nations Secretary General: We exist, we are real, and we are all wonder women.

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Twitter: @Katzarova