Every day around the world, women challenge the status quo of poverty, exploitation, impunity, and war; they question oppressive customs and harmful traditions; they fight tirelessly for human rights.
And while they may not label themselves as women human rights defenders, their beliefs and activism often subject them to marginalization, prejudice, violence, and threats to their safety and wellbeing.
They are sidelined, abducted, made to “disappear,” and killed as a consequence of their work. They face gender-specific repercussions and risks, such as sexual harassment and rape, often with no recourse for personal justice. Their aggressors may be state actors, police, military, politicians, corporations, their community, and even family members.
Today, we mark the 6th annual International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders as part of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. This year the Nobel Peace Prize committee recognized three women from Liberia and Yemen for their critical contributions to peace-making and reform. Yet within days, dozens of women were reportedly injured in Yemen’s second-largest city after government supporters attacked an anti-government rally celebrating the Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tawakkol Karman.
Women activists from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, and Zimbabwe continue to forge progress at grave risk to their own lives and that of their loved ones:
- Ten years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime women candidates, politicians and human rights defenders have told Amnesty International about being increasingly targeted, intimidated, threatened and attacked. Many prominent Afghan women have been killed.
- Russian human rights defender, Natalia Estemirova, was abducted and shot point blank in 2009 in Grozny, Chechnya. Natalia worked with the Memorial Human Rights Centre in the North Caucasus to record eyewitness accounts of mass killings, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings committed in Chechnya. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov threatened her and her daughter after she voiced concerns on Russian TV about the erosion of women’s rights in post-conflict Chechnya, including about women being forced by decree to veil their heads.
- Two brave Indigenous women in Mexico who for 9 nine years have taken on the military and the authorities to demand justice after they were raped by soldiers in 2002. Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo reported the assault and pursued their cases in national and international courts, fighting off intimidation and death threats to them and their families. To date, authorities have undertaken no substantive investigation into the assaults, and no one has been brought to account for the crimes. Send a letter of solidarity to the women and urge Mexican authorities to end impunity for rape.
- Women defenders often are commonly accused of importing “foreign” or “Western” values. Recent reports of Egyptian women protesters forced to take “virginity tests” testify to the power of women’s subversion of accepted norms. Women who take on predominantly- or traditionally male bastions, such as the military, are dismissed as naïve, irrelevant, or are sexualized away. Jewish Israeli women protesting the occupation of Palestinian lands have been heckled “whores” and “traitors.” Afghan women managing domestic violence shelters have been accused of running prostitution rings. Equal rights activists, especially those focused on health, reproductive and sexual rights, are routinely targeted – and at times tortured or murdered – for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This must end. Those who promote human rights must be enabled and empowered to carry out their work. Their work benefits as all by advancing the conditions of all of humanity.