At the margins of visibility: recognising women human rights defenders

Every small act that stands up to patriarchy or to inequality, whether it is asking to go to school, or refusing to marry the man her father chooses, is an act of women's human rights defense.

Ndana Bofu -Tawamba
23 April 2015

The term “women human rights defenders” (WHRDs) is one that is often measured or judged by a woman's occupation, the educated strategies she employs, or her level of involvement. A woman's visibility on national, regional and international human rights media platforms and conferences often wins her recognition as a WHRD, rather than her small-scale daily activism challenging patriarchal religious and cultural norms and attitudes that subordinate, stigmatize, and restrict women’s potential to thrive.

WHRDs span all levels of activism, joined together by their mutual concerns for achieving justice, liberty, peace, inequality and inequity. They manifest in diverse forms; from community and traditional leaders, market women, teachers, mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and LGBTI activists who defend social and economic rights -  to indigenous women, lawyers, journalists, and academics to advance political and civil rights.

These are defenders who are often overlooked because they don’t fit neatly into the orthodox or ideal definition.  Whether as an individual or collective, in the private or public arena, these women are fracturing patriarchal attitudes, systems and structures that are embedded in every facet of our lives. It is vital that human/women’s rights organizations and the international community remain nimble and forward looking in recognising these women as WHRDs.

International definition of women human rights defenders

Although women’s rights activists have spoken out for their rights and the rights of others for centuries, WHRDs were only given official recognition on an international level by the adoption of the first-ever resolution on WHRDs by the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee in December 2013. It was however deeply troubling that the resolution failed to seize an opportunity to call on States to condemn all forms of violence against WHRDs, and to refrain from invoking any customs, tradition or religious consideration to avoid obligations related to the elimination of violence against women.

According to the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC), the term WHRDs encompasses both women active in human rights defence who are targeted for who they are, as well as all those active in the defence of women's rights who are targeted for what they do.

Globally, WHRDs are on the front line in the promotion and protection of human rights. They are protesting against the widespread violence against women and children; they are seeking justice for the countless victims of human rights abuses and their relatives; they are raising their voices to be freed from violence; they are leading daring and bold initiatives enabling other women, including victims and survivors of sexual abuse, to reclaim their power and own their lives. Because of this, WHRDs worldwide encounter a range of gendered violations and threats carried out by their families, friends, communities, religious and cultural fundamentalists, state and other shadow forces.

Attacks against WHRDs continue to be an impediment to their work. They are faced with threats, stigma, arbitrary arrest and detention, violence, including sexual violence and rape, and even death. The nature of the violations committed against them, including psychological, digital and economic violence, is often a manifestation of deep seated discrimination and gender inequality. The threats against WHRDs have an extended effect of targeting their families and friends. In many countries, violence and the threat of violence have been utilized to intimidate and expel women from the public sphere especially women’s civic and political participation.

In recent times, authorities in many countries have been steadily taking action to obstruct the work of WHRDs. The recent persecution of seven and five WHRDs in Egypt and China respectively is illustrative of the extent of reprisals against those that seek to uphold the basic tenets of human rights. Their incarceration, inhumane public vilification and judicial trials, based on scant and dubious evidence, is a well-orchestrated mechanism bent on serving a warning to dissuade other defenders from debating and questioning what is believed by some to be violations of their liberties, freedoms of association and speech.

Re-defining women human rights defenders

There are several progressive women’s rights organisations and activists that have been courageous enough to push the envelope and re-contextualise and broaden the discourse on the definition and categorization of who falls into the category of a WHRD. Urgent Action Fund-Africa (UAF-Africa), a consciously feminist and women’s human rights pan-African Fund, supports a diverse spectrum of WHRDs - many of whom would not ordinarily identify themselves as human rights defenders - to develop individual and joint strategies for their own security, enabling them to continue their human rights work.

While traversing the African continent, I have encountered goose pimple-raising and extraordinary examples of invisible and unsung WHRD giants. Their courageous, resilient and out of the box quest to achieve justice and liberty for themselves and their communities has not only prompted me to write about it, but challenged me to be consciously inclusive in my analysis and praxis when it comes to leveraging inspirational narratives of women at the margins of visibility. The quest and overzealousness that I have to share what I know and have experienced through others, in order to generate knowledge, provokes catalytic conversations while demonstrating grit and the burning need to achieve social change in seemingly impossible situations is formidable in breaking boundaries. In doing this I have also adapted to a newer way of being, viewing the world and acting. Below are stories of some of these heroines, who have gone on not only to shift power relations between women and men, but also reconfigure the social architectural structures and systems that bind women and the state, culture, and other patriarchal inhibiting factors.

Margaret Dongo, is a Zimbabwean politician, human rights activist and former freedom fighter. As an elected Member of the Parliament of Zimbabwe, Margaret unreservedly spoke for marginalized Zimbabweans. In 2006, Margret took upon herself the huge task of challenging Zimbabwe’s Guardianship of Minors Act in the Supreme Court after the Registrar General barred her from assisting her son to apply for a passport. The Act deemed the father of marital children as their only legal guardian thereby implying that the mother could as well have been a minor herself! Margaret partnered up with the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association and mounted a vigorous and protracted legal battle that argued that Zimbabwean government wrongly and unlawfully denied married women the right to facilitate their minor children acquire legal identification documents.

As a result of her activism, in 2010 the court ruled that both men and women who are custodians of minor children can assist their children to obtain legal identification documents.The burning feminist principle of “The personal is always political” and social justice agenda for women like Margaret is never about whom one is waging battle against, but rather about bringing precedent setting substantive and life transforming benefits to all when the battle is won.

Another humbling story is of a Ugandan woman homemaker whose promising and bright 14 year-old daughter was customarily married off to a 57 year-old man as a replacement for her sister, who passed away during childbirth. The mother was disturbed by this turn of events as in this particular case she would have lost two of her daughters to some of the common vices on the continent; high and inexplicable maternal morbidity and wife inheritance, in this case of an under aged daughter! In her wisdom, the mother consulted with her sisters to assist her daughter to run away from the old man. Her sisters were not convinced that by running away the family would end the ritual of wife inheritances, as other daughters within the family would be posited as replacements. The mother then decided to take her goats, chickens and many bags of grain that symbolised her status of wealth to the old man who was living with her daughter. With luck on her side, the man accepted the material goods and allowed the girl to go back with her mother while he looked for another woman, of his choice, to marry. That 14 year-old girl managed to finish her studies and she is now a practicing lawyer in Uganda, fighting to bring about justice and visibility to the untold forms of agency women in different circumstances face. In my view, this mother and her daughter are also WHRDs in their own right!

One instructive case of women defying the patriarchal odds and setting new legislative and customary law precedence, took place in rural Botswana. In October 2012, the High Court of Botswana passed a landmark decision that struck down a customary law that denied women the right to inherit on the ground that it was contrary to the Constitution of Botswana. The provision that was held unconstitutional was a customary law, which provided that, in matters of intestacy, the last-born son of the deceased inherits the family property, and daughters -  regardless of their birth position within the family - may not inherit.

Ms. Edith Mmusi and her three sisters brought this case to court to dispute their nephew’s claim to their deceased father’s home and demanded that they vacate it.  Their nephew, Mr. Molefi Ramantele, argued that he had a right to inherit the property and evict his aunts because his father had been the last-born male child of the deceased and was entitled to the family home under Ngwaketse customary law. The Customary Court and Customary Court of Appeal had ruled in favor of Mr. Ramantele.  The sisters subsequently appealed with the High Court who ruled in their favor.

In Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim, showed extraordinary determination and courage when she was sentenced to death for apostasy and adultery for consciously marrying into and practicing Christianity. Her case mirrored that of many Sudanese women suffering under the yoke of political and religious fundamentalism, and how Sudan’s legal system often displays patterns of selective enforcement of the law - singling out women, ethnic minorities, and activists with punishments out of all proportion to the alleged crimes committed. (Following an international outcry Meriam was spared the death penalty and moved to Italy with her family)

In these four cases, women, whether in their individual capacity or as a collective, contested and confronted patriarchy in all its manifestations. These women defied systems and structures that serve to subjugate and oppress them. They vehemently opened floodgates for other women in positions to challenge patriarchal and normalized human rights violations to pursue their rights, freedom and liberties - making them WHRDs even if that is not their conscious or primary intention.

How different are these women from, say, Malala Yousafzai, who was attacked  for advocating an education for herself and others? Yet, because of the strength it takes to defy culturally entrenched systems and the punishment that that entails, she is hailed today as a global WHRD. I celebrate her bravery and yet find myself conflicted in thinking that it remains our responsibility to both celebrate women whom we see on mainstream media as well as those who are invisible, whose brave actions have equally powerful effect in changing how communities view women at the local level. The WHRDs spectrum will continue growing and as much as possible, there should not be a scale of who is a bigger defender than the other because that fragments the women’s rights movement. The point is and should be that there is power in our diversity, and whatever comparative advantage one brings to strengthening our movement and helping us claim more rights, the better.

As feminists we have to strive to be more inclusive, and recognize that the personal is political and the political is personal. Every small act that stands up to patriarchy or to inequality, whether it is asking to go to school, or refusing to marry the man her father chooses is an act of women's human rights defense and an act that puts them at risk of violence and retribution. It is with these seemingly simple small acts that have the domino effect to change societies and cultures.  It is therefore imperative for us WHRDs and other interested stakeholders, wherever we find ourselves, to continue pushing the envelope in broadening the concept of who we perceive to be women human rights defenders.  

Ndana Bofu-Tawamba will be speaking at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the Defence of Women Human Rights Defenders, 24-26 April.  50.50 will be reporting live from the conference.  Read more articles by participants and speakers.  



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