The grannies are revolting: when the older generation protests

“When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.”

– Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist

When populist governments rise, or when free speech is threatened, it so often falls to the steely wisdom of older generations to fight for justice.

Every age group has its heroes and, so often, older generations are the champions of the young.

Index has covered a range of groups since its inception in 1972 and elderly protesters have often featured. Here is a look at some of the most significant.


Across the country, Belarusians are mass protesting current president Aleksander Lukashenko after elections in August appeared to be rigged.

At the forefront of the ongoing protests is 73-year-old Nina Bahinskaya.

The former geologist has certainly become identifiable with the demonstrations. Index’s Mark Frary spoke to her.

“I decided they [the authorities] would not be so harsh to an old lady, that’s why I decided to organise some activities myself,” said Nina.

Bahinskaya began her protesting after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, distributing leaflets critical of the Soviet regime, so has experience demonstrating against oppressive governments.

“I don’t want it to continue because I have children, grandchildren and even a great-grandchild.”

President Lukashenko recently met with Vladimir Putin. In a showing of support, Putin agreed to give the Lukashenko government a sizeable loan. It has furthered concern in the country about the increase of Russian influence.

Bahinskaya echoed this worry, she said: “This is quite obvious that some kind of new annexation is happening.”

See Index’s most recent coverage and Bahinskaya’s interview with Mark Frary here.


In 1976 the National Reorganization Process seized control of Argentina. The military junta were responsible for a number of atrocities. Backed by the United States as part of a ‘dirty war’, the Argentinian government committed acts of state terrorism upon its own citizens, including the forced disappearances of close to 30,000 people.

A higher value was placed upon young children and babies due to a waiting list for trafficked children. Those hopeful of adopting the trafficked children were military families and supporters of the new regime.

Lucia He spoke to one of Argentina’s ‘famous grandmothers’ for Index in 2017. Buscarita Roa, part of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has campaigned since 1977 for disappeared victims to be identified.

She told Index: “Even if you’ve found your own grandchild, you stay because you think of the grandmother who is sick in bed and still hasn’t found hers. To us, the grandchildren we are searching for are all ours.”

The group began protesting at the height of the fear spread by the junta. One of the two founding members of the organisation was disappeared. Its high profile led to infiltration. In 1986, an extract from the book Mothers and Shadows by Marta Traba was published in Index. It spoke of the ‘notorious’ Captain Alfredo Astiz, whose access to the group led to 13 further disappearances.

Despite its reputation, Roa insisted there was little glory in being part of the organisation.

“Being a Grandmother of Plaza de Mayo is not something to be proud of, because having a disappeared grandchild is not something to be proud of.”


In 2018, Annemarie Luck covered one of Japan’s forgotten scandals: the South Korean ‘comfort women’ or, more accurately, sex slaves.

It took until 1992 for survivors to tell their story

Luck reported that some members of the survivors’ group still meet at the same spot every Wednesday outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

They were first issued with a signed apology in 1994 by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and in 2015, an agreement was reached between Japan and South Korea for the equivalent of $9 million.

Victims, as well as South Korean state officials, viewed the agreement as inadequate and protests have since continued.

239 women had registered with the South Korean government by 2016 as survivors of sexual slavery.

The House of Sharing in the city of Gwanju is home to many of the survivors. Team leader at the facility, Ho-Cheol Jeong, told Index of the impact the women he calls the ‘grandmothers’ have had.

Ho-Cheol said: “In a way, these women could be thought of as the original pioneers of the movement against sexual abuse and harassment that’s spreading throughout the world right now.”

Ukraine & Russia

In 2014, Index reported on the Russian government covering up its own soldiers’ deaths from the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Bereaved families were ‘discouraged’ from talking to media organisations.

Since the conflict broke out in February 2014, an estimated 5,665 soldiers have been killed

73-year-old activist and grandmother Lyudmila Bogatenkova faced a retributive accusation of fraud in response to drawing up a list of military casualties.

Bogatenkova was at the time head of a Soldiers’ Mothers branch in the city of Stavropol. The organisation provides legal advice to soldiers, as well as education programmes.

The allegation threatened Bogatenkova with up to six years in jail, before Russia’s human rights council intervened.

At the time, the BBC reported that local journalists were unable to meet the families of perished soldiers due to threats from ‘groups of aggressive men’.


Not all grannies are equally ready to stand up in the face of repression.

In 2013, after Chinese media frequently drew attention to stories of neglected pensioners, a new law was introduced.

The legislation stipulates that adults can face jail time or be sued if they do not visit their parents regularly.

Though brought in to Chinese law, it faced derision from across China and the globe and was not expected to be widely enforced. Many believed it was introduced to serve as an ‘educational message’.

However shortly after it was introduced a 77-year-old woman sued her daughter, who was subsequently ordered to provide financial support as well as bi-monthly visits.

The country struggles with the problem of an ageing population that, as numbers continue to reduce could cause economic growth in the region to fall.

Podcast: The Disappeared: How people, books and ideas are taken away, with Oliver Farry and Michella Oré

In our autumn 2020 podcast we speak with Hong Kong-based journalist Oliver Farry, who discusses the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in the region, which was once a beacon of free expression. And New York-based journalist Michella Oré tells us why, even if Donald Trump doesn’t win a second presidential term, his stint in The White House has sparked a fire in the USA which will be hard to put out. Also Jemimah Steinfeld and Orna Herr from the Index editorial team discuss their favourite articles from the new magazine.

Print copies of the magazine are available via print subscription or digital subscription through Exact Editions. Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship continue its fight for free expression worldwide.

Coca Cola: It’s bubbling up in Swaziland

There’s renewed attention internationally on Swaziland with King Mswati III excesses. He’s getting it from all angles: criticised for squandering the country’s sugar, turning a blind eye to the tax bill  of  Coca Cola, and the continued incarceration of the student leaders, teachers and journalists after the November 2011 demonstrations.

Most recently,  Times of Swaziland columnist Mfomfo Nkambule publicly apologised to King Mswati III for  articles that were critical of the king’s leadership style. In his apology in the paper, Nkambule wrote: “I know what the lion is capable of doing when it is angry or threatened.”

With a personal fortune of about $100m (£64m), King Mswati III presides over one of the worst-off countries in the world, with 64 per cent of the population living in absolute poverty. Political parties are banned and activists are regularly arrested, imprisoned and tortured. The kingdom’s largest opposition party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), was banned as a terrorist organisation in November 2008 and its president, Mario Masuku, arrested under the suppression of terrorism act. With one of the highest literacy rates on the continent at 92%, the media is hugely stifled,  with debate, and progress, completely constrained.

Coca-Cola says that Mswati III does not directly receive any profits or dividends from its Swaziland operation, its biggest in Africa. The plant supplies all of the Southern and Eastern African region, (over 23 million people)  and Coca Cola is often available where clean water isn’t. It’s relatively cheap regionally, at about 25p a bottle, but its production leaches valuable water tables, rots teeth, and most poignantly, say activists, the drinks firm is propping up a dictator.

Local activists estimate that Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest beverage company, contributes as much as 40 per cent of the country’s GDP. The company admits it cannot account for how the money it pays in taxes is used by the Swazi government. Swaziland has the highest HIV rates in the world, at 26 per cent of the population living with HIV and aids.

Mary Pais Da Silva, co-ordinator of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, has called for Coca-Cola to pull out of the country immediately. “Coca-Cola must know they’re doing business with the wrong people,” she said. “At the end of the day it doesn’t benefit the economy in any way. Their profits don’t help the average Swazi, while the King is getting richer by the day.” She added: “The king is milking the country. This is entrenching him more and more, giving him economic strength to crush opposition. Nobody should do business with the regime in Swaziland. They should cut ties and take their business elsewhere.”