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International Women Human Rights Defenders Day 2020: The women working to make equality reality

A group of raised fists, outlined in orange, against a white background.

29 November is International Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) Day. A day to celebrate and thank women who defend human rights, and all people who defend the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI people. It is also a day to hold States accountable for protecting the rights of WHRDs to protect and promote human rights. Too often WHRDs face violence, harassment, and even imprisonment, simply for taking a stand for equality and human rights.

2020 has been a year like no other, with the continued rise of authoritarianism, police brutality against Black men and women, and the rollback of human rights, and women’s rights in particular. There have been continued attempts to silence women human rights defenders across the world from Iran to Zimbabwe. However, the solidarity between human rights movements around the world in response to these crises has never been so strong.

Equality Now is part of a number of coalitions holding governments accountable for protecting the rights of WHRDs, including calling for the release of imprisoned WHRDs, including Loujain al-Hathloul who is currently on hunger strike in prison in Saudi Arabia. 

This International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, here are just a few of the women and organizations on the frontlines of the movement to protect and promote human rights. 

Azza Soliman – Egypt

Leading human rights defender Azza Soliman, co-founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA),  continues to be oppressed by the government of Egypt. Azza along with other human rights defenders, including Mozn Hassan, the director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, have been for the past five years banned from leaving the country and their assets have been confiscated. Their only ‘crime’ is their progressive work on women’s human rights and calling for the elimination of all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls in Egypt. 

Follow the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance on Facebook.

Dina Smailova – Kazakhstan

In January 2020, Dina Smailova, head of a leading women’s rights organization NeMolchi (meaning, Do Not Be Silent in Russian) in Kazakhstan faced criminal charges for defamation. She had been litigating the “Talgo” rape case in Kazakhstan, which has received much public attention. The defamation charge related to a comment she made about a prominent Kazakh blogger, related to his coverage of the “Talgo” case which revealed the survivor’s personal information and suggested she was “lying” about the incident. Thankfully, in March Dina won the case, and is no longer facing criminal charges for defamation. 

The charges Dina faced are part of a worrying global trend of defamation laws being used in an attempt to silence those who speak up about their own sexual harassment or assault or speak out in defense of others. 

Read more about the “Talgo” rape case and the charges Dina faced.

Joanna Mamombe (a member of Parliament), Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova – Zimbabwe 

On 13 May 2020, Joanna Mamombe (a member of Parliament), Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova attended a peaceful demonstration to protest the Government of Zimbabwe’s failure to address hunger facing vulnerable communities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The three women were arrested at a police checkpoint as they were leaving. 

Following their arrest, they were taken from police custody by five unidentified men, not in uniform, who are believed to be state security agents. They were held incommunicado for 36 hours during which time they reported to have undergone torture, rape, and physical assault. They were rearrested on charges of making false statements prejudicial to the state after their ordeal became public and are currently remanded without bail pending trial for several days, during which time, due to COVID-19 restrictions, they were denied visits from their family or friends. They were eventually released on bail, but the violence against them has yet to be properly investigated, they still need proper medical attention for their injuries, and they still face charges.

Take action to call on the African Union to hold Zimbabwe accountable.  

Loujain AlHathloul, Nouf Abdelaziz, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, and Miyaa Al-Zahrani – Saudi Arabia 

On 15 May 2018, Saudi Arabia began a campaign of arrests of Saudi Women Human Rights Defenders. In the past year, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has further deteriorated. Whilst five of the women human rights defenders detained in 2018 have been provisionally released, Loujain AlHathloul, Nouf Abdelaziz, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, and Miyaa Al-Zahrani remain in detention.

On Monday 26 October,  Loujain AlHathloul, a 31-year-old Saudi women’s rights activist who has been arbitrarily detained since May of 2018 started a hunger strike to protest the conditions of her imprisonment in Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday 25 November, her case was referred to the Specialized Criminal Court where she will face charges related to terrorism and national security. 

As part of the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, we continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Saudi activists. Join us. 

Manjula Pradeep and Manisha Mashaal –  India 

On 14 September 2020, a young Dalit woman was gang-raped in Hathras, India, and died of her injuries. This was one of a number of grave incidents of rape and caste-based sexual violence that lead to widespread public outrage in India, shedding a spotlight on an issue that has for too long been invisiblized by the intersecting caste- and gender-based discrimination faced by Dalit women. Manjula Pradeep and Manisha Mashaal are two lawyers at the forefront of the movement to end caste-based discrimination in India, having founded Wise Act of Youth Visioning and Engagement (WAYVE) Foundation and Swabhiman Society respectively. 

We recently collaborated with them on the release of Justice Denied: Sexual Violence and Intersectional Discrimination – Barriers to Accessing Justice for Dalit Women and Girls in Haryana, India

Take action to call on the Haryana government to address sexual violence and caste-based discrimination.

The migrant women who went public about forced sterilizations in immigration detention – United States 

Earlier this year, a number of migrant women claimed they had been forced to undergo hysterectomies and other procedures whilst in immigration detention in the United States leaving them unable to conceive. A whistleblower complaint, filed on behalf of Dawn Wooten, a nurse and former employee of the detention center in question, includes claims of an alarmingly high rate of hysterectomies performed on Spanish speaking women at the center. 

Since going public with their claims, at least six women have already been deported, and several more face “imminent” deportation. 

Proyecto Matria – Puerto Rico, United States

Proyecto Matria, an NGO which works on economic development for poor and marginalized women, with a focus on gender equality, have faced many threats over the years, most recently from a local conservative politician, but they continue to push forward, following their philosophy of “service with activism”.

Grassroots activists and organizations around the world are on the front lines of the movement to end violence against women, providing safe spaces and services to survivors. Too often, like Proyecto Matria, these organizations face hostility from local and national governments, making their essential work even more difficult. 

Follow Proyecto Matria on Facebook and Twitter

International WHRDs day is part of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence, a time for global action to increase awareness and galvanize advocacy on behalf of women, girls, and marginalized genders.

To build a world free of gender-based violence it is no longer possible to only rely on the grassroots activists who dedicate their lives to doing this work, we must all play our part. Are you in?