Honouring Women Human Rights Defenders

Laura Brown | Nov 28, 2017
A portrait of Sethulo Ncube from ZWLA
At the heart of Womankind’s new strategy is a focus on strengthening women’s movements. Womankind knows that women’s movements are made up of many actors working together to achieve women’s rights and women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs) are at the heart of them.

WHRDs are broadly defined as women who defend the human rights of all, or individuals of all genders who defend the rights of women. They are subject to gender-specific risks and threats due to their human rights work and/or as a direct consequence of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

WHRDs are at the forefront of unyielding struggles for rights, equality and justice. And as they speak truth to power, often becoming visible and outspoken on the issues affecting their lives and communities, they and their families are regularly targeted with violence and intimidation.

Championing women’s rights

Today, Womankind is marking Women Human Rights Defenders Day. This day sits in the middle of the global 16 Days of Activism campaign that calls for an end to violence against women and girls in all its forms. It is an important date to mark and shed light on the work of women human rights defenders who champion a women’s right to live free from violence, as enshrined in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

It is likely that you will have heard of some global WHRDs who are in the public eye. Malala Yousafzei is famous for her fight for girl’s education in Pakistan and a survivor of violence herself because of her activism. Angelina Jolie is well known for highlighting sexual violence against women in conflict. These women play an important role in changing global attitudes towards violence against women and girls through their reach and profile.

At the same time, there are thousands of other women, carrying out this work every day of their lives, who are unseen or unheard of. We stand with those WHRDs, and today we’d like to highlight three women who work to end violence against women and girls at community, country and international levels.

From the ground up

Meet Veronica Nyathi from Gwanda, a rural area of Zimbabwe. Womankind knows Veronica because she was trained by our partner, the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) as a Community Legal Educator. In this role, she has supported many women in her community, who are affected by violence, to understand their rights and the law. In her own words she says:

“I’ve already seen some notable changes in my community. We are helping to combat domestic violence, we have more and more people coming to our community meetings, we have been given the chance to educate people on violence and women’s rights.

"Just this week, I have had a woman come to me with a rape case, which I’m now supporting. I am now a champion of women’s rights and I can help more women change their lives like I have changed mine.”

Sethulo Ncube is the Regional Coordinator for ZWLA in Bulawayo and a lawyer. She leads ZWLA’s work on legal services for marginalised women affected by violence and campaigns for laws and policies that protect their rights. Sethulo recalls one case in particular that reflects how multiple forms of violence are often used against women simultaneously and her role in bringing about justice.

“One case that has remained with me was with an elderly woman in her mid-sixties dealing with a divorce. Her husband left her for someone else and became violent towards her. It was a sad case as not only was her marriage breaking down but she also had HIV and she needed money to travel and get her medicine and food. She was kicked out of her home even though it was her house that she had bought before she was married. I assisted her with the divorce and she managed to get 60% of the value of the house and at the end of it all she was still positive about life.

"It is extremely rewarding when you are able to help women get justice. It is inspiring, you really feel like you have achieved your goal, there is nothing as wonderful as seeing a smile on your clients face and them telling you that they are happy and they are grateful, it is really uplifting.”

Shining a spotlight on the international stage

WHRDs know that campaigning for women’s rights works best when activism at local and national level is accompanied by activism in the international community. Nawal El Saadawi is one such defender, who took her national activism to global levels.

A prominent Egyptian women’s rights activist, doctor and writer, Nawal has brought together her passions and experience in her life’s dedication to advancing women’s rights. Spurred on by her personal experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) and her experiences as a doctor treating girls affected by FGM, she tirelessly advocated for the practice to be banned in Egypt. A ban was achieved in 2008, although Nawal continues to advocate for the full implementation of the law.

Nawal drew attention to the violence against women’s bodies in her 1972 book Woman and Sex, which received international acclaim but led to her dismissal from the Ministry of Health, and positions as chief editor of a health journal and as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt. She was also imprisoned as a direct result of her leadership in the establishment of a feminist magazine called Confrontation in 1981.

Yet Nawal continued to speak out, and took her campaigning to the international stage, writing and speaking out on women’s rights and becoming the United Nations Advisor for the Women’s Programme in Africa and the Middle East.

From the village to the halls of the UN, WHRDs make up a picture of passionate activists, dedicating their lives to the pursuit of women’s rights. Womankind Worldwide honours their work and, during these 16 Days of Activism, we invite you to stand with us.

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