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A Day to Defend Women Human Rights Activists

International Women Human Rights Defenders’ day falls on 29 November each year. Founded in 2004, this day of commemoration looks to celebrate women’s activism in defending human rights around the world. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are counted as female activists who publically look to protect their own rights and those of other women.

Aims of this day include to recognise the growing role that women play in defending human rights and to raise awareness of such important women’s work. Finally, International Women Human Rights Defenders’ day also aspires to help incite the protection of WHRDs.

One may not immediately think that WHRDs need protection in particular as their work often entails protecting others, however, sadly at times these women do need protection too.

Nela Porobic, a WILPF employee since 2013 based in Bosnia, highlights the problems she and other human rights defenders can come across.

Such women have to be very courageous as at times as “you might get physically harmed” she details, adding that “it’s about having courage to put forth issues that are not mainstream.”

“I have been subjected to prejudice and misogyny,” Nela also points out.

Azza Hilal Suleiman’s, an Egyptian human rights defender who was brutally attacked by police when trying to aid a fellow woman during the 2011 Tahir Square peaceful protests, case also shows the abuse and difficulties women can face.

In addition, some question as to whether women should even play any role in defending human rights at all. Nela goes on to confirm this, saying, “as a woman there are particular societal expectations on you, where activism is often put in direct collision to societal expectations of what a woman should do and how she should act.”

Women are not always taken seriously as agents of change, and can in some communities be seen as perpetual victims, unable to take the lead in generating their own empowerment.

Majd Chourbaji, the representative for Women Now for Development in Lebanon and winner of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award, also underlines difficulties she has faced in her role as a WHRD.

A Syrian activist, Majd comes from Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. She was driven to become a WHRD after witnessing massive injustice in her country. It’s a similar story to Nela’s regarding the troubles she has faced.

She specifies, in the beginning of the Syrian revolution when she and her fellow activists “worked on organising demonstrations in order to demand our freedom and dignity, the community opposed us by claiming that our role is to remain inside our houses since this type of work is not for women.”

It is, however, integral that women are involved too in defending human rights. Many human rights violations are perpetrated against women, so they must be active in generating their own security and that for their fellow sisters.

Nela states that “having women human rights defenders is an imperative. As human rights defenders we act when the violation is already there, the important part here is forestalling the violations and this is then where the participation of women becomes so important, because the experiences are gendered.”

Furthermore, as Radhika Coormarasway asserts, in her 2015 report ‘Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, and Securing the Peace: A Global Study on Implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325’, peace negotiations including female influence are more likely to result in an enduring agreement. There is even a 35 per cent increase in the chances of such an agreement lasting 15 years or more. Women make positive contributions to every pillar of defending human rights and negotiating peace at every level.

This year it has been 15 years since United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) was passed. Over the years several amendments have also been added.

UNSCR 1325 has gone some way in debunking such myths, as detailed above in this article, and opening up the way for today’s WHRDs. A land mark resolution, it addressed the changing nature of warfare and of women’s role in violent conflicts. It looked to reaffirm the important part women play in preventing and resolving conflict and defending human rights.

The recognition that International Women Human Rights Defenders’ day generates can really help to develop and grow what UNSCR 1325 started.

Tributes like todays are so important as they highlight to us all the courage of women working in this domain, giving us all the opportunity to offer these brave women our support and applause.