Credit: Illustration by Carol Rossetti / courtesy of AWID.Every year, too many women’s rights activists are murdered or disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Some activists live long and full lives, and die of natural causes. Others, exhausted by often thankless work, die of preventable illnesses.
For the last five years, the organisation I work for, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, (AWID) has honoured the memories of activists who have fought for women, girls, and communities that have been denied their human rights for far too long.
Documenting the lives of departed feminists is important work. They are the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Here are five inspirational feminist activists, from South Africa to the Philippines, that you should know, and honour in this period and beyond:
Prudence Nobantu Mabele, South Africa
Prudence burst into the limelight as the first Black woman in South Africa to publicly disclose her HIV status. She founded the Positive Women’s Network, criticised the government for failing to support people living with HIV, and demanded the provision of antiretroviral medicines. She also organised for the rights of LGBT people including lesbians living with HIV.
She was the kind of leader who stood shoulder to shoulder with people who faced and challenged the tyranny of the powerful. She supported Fezekile ‘Khwezi’ Kuzwayo, who bravely named South African President Jacob Zuma as her rapist. She spoke out against the systematic rape and murder of Black lesbians. She was a fighter, and also a Sangoma, a healer who brought her spirituality into her activism.
Edith ‘Edie’ Wilson, United States
Credit: Illustration by Carol Rossetti / courtesy of AWID.Four years ago, Edith Wilson successfully sued the United States federal government, arguing that the 1966 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was a contributing factor to ongoing discrimination faced by gay Americans. Her case helped lead to the 2015 legalisation of same-sex marriage across the country.
Emilsen Manyoma, Colombia
Credit: Illustration by Carol Rossetti / courtesy of AWID.Afro-Colombian activists have struggled for decades to reclaim ancestral land as communal property. Too many have been attacked or threatened by organised armed groups hired by wealthy landowners and corporations opposed to land reform.
Emilsen Manyoma was an Afro-Colombian leader of the Comunidades Construyendo Paz en los Territorios (CONPAZ) group which supports peaceful protection strategies and communities’ access justice including via international humanitarian law. Emilsen documented killings and forced disappearances in her community. In January, she and her partner were brutally murdered. They were decapitated, and their bodies showed evidence of torture.
Miriam Rodríguez Martínez, Mexico
Credit: Illustration by Carol Rossetti / courtesy of AWID.In 2012, Miriam’s 14-year-old daughter Karen disappeared. Amid official inaction, Miriam launched her own investigation, found the remains of her daughter’s body, and uncovered evidence that implicated members of the violent drug cartel Los Zetas in her murder. Subsequently, the principal suspect in Karen’s murder was arrested and imprisoned.
Miriam became an activist leader, founding ‘The Movement for Our Disappeared’ which brought hundreds of families together to search for loved ones who went missing under suspicious circumstances in a region where rival drug cartels frequently clash. Miriam was shot 12 times and murdered on 10 May, Mother's Day in Mexico, when people take to the streets to protest disappearances.
Mia Manuelita Mascariñas-Green, the Philippines
Credit: Illustration by Carol Rossetti / courtesy of AWID.Environmentalist and lawyer Mia Manuelita Mascariñas-Green took on legal cases challenging the destruction of land and natural resources in the Philippines. She was also a volunteer lawyer for the Environmental Legal Assistance Center network, often working pro bono.
In February, Mia’s van was attacked by armed men on motorcycles. Her three children and their nanny witnessed the attack. The Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders, according to Global Witness, an environmental monitoring group.
Deaths of activists like these represent huge losses to communities around the world. Intimidation, harassment and killings are often deliberately designed to end the resistance movements these activists lead.
Some activists have organised to share strategies on peaceful protection methods. Every year, AWID honours departed activists by publishing tributes to them during the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Based Violence campaign.
It is crucial that we hold the memories of these activists in our collective consciousness. They are the giants on whose shoulders we stand, and the foundation on which we build the future of our movements and struggles.