The sheroes of human rights
Human rights are about equality and dignity. And equal access to those rights, which we are all born entitled to. Every woman and every man, every girl and boy, and every individual of any gender, has the fundamental rights set forth in the Declaration of human rights, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary. The right to a life free from violence, among them.
As we close out the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence on Human Rights Day (10 December), we stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of women human rights defenders who are leading the fight for universal human rights and lives free from violence.
These are the faces we may not have seen on newspapers and stories we may not have heard on social media. But they have incredible stories to tell, stories that show violence against women is not inevitable or undefeatable, and that women’s rights are human rights. Women have never stopped and never will stop, striving for their rights.
1) She stood for justice in Guatemala
During the Guatemalan civil war, indigenous women were systematically raped and enslaved by the military in a small community near the Sepur Zarco outpost. 15 of those women, respectfully called the abuelas (grandmothers), took their case to the highest court of Guatemala.
The groundbreaking case resulted in the conviction of two former military officers of crimes against humanity and granted 18 reparation measures to the women survivors and their community.
“To me it’s very important that our voice and our history is known to our country so that what we lived through never happens to anyone else,” said Maria Ba Caal, one of the abuelas of Sepur Zarco.
The abuelas of Sepur Zarco are now waiting to experience justice. Justice, for them, includes education for the children of their community, access to land, a health-care clinic and such measures that will end the abject poverty their community has endured across generations.
2) She claimed land rights in Morocco
After 10 years of advocacy, ethnic Sulaliyyate women of Morocco, who started a nation-wide grassroots movement, finally have equal land rights.
Mahjouba Mhamda is one of the 1,460 women who received a 70 square metre plot of land a through a state-run lottery, which distributed land equally among men and women as part of ongoing efforts to privatize land throughout the country.
“Speaking up for my rights and going against my uncles and [other] male relatives was not only considered rude, but it was like declaring war [against] our tradition that has been favourable only to men,” said Mahjouba, from Ouled Mbarek tribe, in the Kentira region.
“It was a long and difficult journey during which we were insulted and intimidated. But being here today, makes it all worth it”.
3) She fights prejudice in Cabo Verde
Helen Tavares knew she was different, but it took her a long time to accept her own sexual and gender identity because of societal pressure and expectations.
Although homosexuality is legal in Cape Verde, LGBT people suffer discrimination and violence. Same sex marriages are not recognized and there is rampant discrimination against LGBT people in employment and housing.
“I began to go out with boys as a way to “correct” the wrong that was in me. To me, this is a tremendous form of violence, when we do not accept who we are because we are afraid of what society may say,” Helen said.
“My heterosexual relationships didn’t last long… finally, I started to hang out with LGBT people, but it wasn’t easy for my family to accept me… Being LGBT means fighting against prejudice and violence every day.”
4) She defends women’s rights in Kazakhstan
Aiman Umarova is a Kazakhstani lawyer and human rights activist who specializes in sexual offences against women and children, and crimes related to violent extremism and torture. She has dedicated her life to fight violence against women, despite facing threats of violence herself. There have been numerous attempts on her life, intimidation and anonymous slander.
“Combating violence is my way of establishing the truth and fighting for justice and helping those who need me,” said Aiman.
“It is the women who rise against all odds to break the silence that inspire me to go on.”
5) She defended her rights to participate in politics in Mexico
Elisa Zepeda Lagunas, is a Mazatec indigenous leader and women’s rights defender. She has been violently attacked and abused but persists in her political activism.
“They burnt my car, my house and that of my parents, and took me as a hostage to the town square, where they openly hit me,” recalls Elisa. “They told me: ‘this is what happens when you get involved in matters that don’t concern you’.”
She was elected as the first female mayor of the municipality of Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón, in the Teotitlán District of the Mexican State of Oaxaca, in 2016. Two years later, she was elected to the Oaxaca State Congress (where women now occupy a ground-breaking majority of 23 seats, versus 19 for men).
As an elected official, Elisa wants to strengthen prosecution of violence against women in politics and femicide, as well as start a training school for women who want to enter politics.
“Despite all the risks, I ran because it is a great opportunity for me to raise my voice to another level, as a legislator, and we have so much work to do,” she says.
“I feel a great sense of responsibility. It is essential for me to occupy these spaces and to open them up for others.”
6) She helps other young women survive trauma in the Democratic Republic of Congo
“Yes, I survived violence. But I don’t like being called survivors, instead, I want to be seen as victorious. I want every survivor to be called victorious,” says Emmanuella Zandi Mudherwa from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
After being raped when she was just 7-years-old, Emmanuella was rejected by her own community. Six years later, she was raped again, by a family member.
When she started talking about what she had endured, Emmanuella felt like she was finally beginning the healing process. She went on to found her own non-profit organization, “Ma Voisine” (My neighbour) in Kinshasa, to promote girls’ empowerment by girls. She talks about gender-based violence and organizes safe spaces for girls to share their own stories.
Today Ma Voisine has 12,000 members around the country. She collaborates with UN Women on initiatives to raise awareness about gender-based violence.
“Young people are the future and hope of all societies. A traumatized youth is not a potential driving force of a country’s development. And talking about your trauma is the first step to getting better.”
7) She builds peace in Libya
Hajer Sharief is the co-founder of the organization, “Together We Build it”, which aims to promote a peaceful democratic transition in Libya, inclusive of women and youth.
The organization has been working to promote roles of women and young people in peace and security, and to encourage young women to be active in Libya’s peacebuilding process.
“Peacebuilding is not only about stopping violence, it is also about the prevention of violence,” says Sharief.
“To do so, all groups, all voices and perspectives in the society have to be considered. Young people, particularly girls, in the Middle East and North Africa constitute a large percentage of the population, so their role in peacebuilding is very important.”