Hidden women human rights defenders in the UK

Without recognising the work of women who seek to protect human rights domestically, the UK government risks seeing the activist’s role as a stage of international development rather than as a core function of democracy. 

Jennifer Allsopp
18 April 2015
 Philip Robins

Focus E15 march, London 2014. Photo: Philip RobinsTwenty years after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s globally resonant speech which declared that ‘women’s rights are human rights’, the term Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) has become a zeitgeist of the international development and protection framework. It’s a welcome response to the acute violence faced by women activists around the world. The term refers to – and is commonly adopted by – both those who fight to secure women’s human rights, and women working to secure the human rights of all. As Betty Makoni, Zimbabwean activist and founder of Girl Child Network, once told me, as WHRDs ‘we hold the front-line.'

WHRD is a label that’s truly international in nature. It encompasses women in Burma and the DRC seeking justice in the face of state violence; activists in the biggest arms producing nations campaigning against killer robots; and those sheltering their communities from the devastating effects of environmental degradation. The term also carries a normative punch, the subject of a number of regional and international instruments and missions including the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; 2013 UN General Assembly Resolution on the Protection of WRHD; 2004 EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders; and work of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

This political resonance, coupled with growing recognition of the commonality of the objectives and challenges experienced by women activists across diverse contexts, provides the backdrop to this year’s Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the defence of women human rights defendersThe Nobel Women’s Initiative is headed by eight female Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Between April 24 and April 26 they will join over 100 women from around the world in the Netherlands to take stock of the progress made to date, explore ways of building global support and scope out the potential for future change. At openDemocracy 50.50 we are publishing articles by participants framing this year's theme, and we will be reporting live from the gathering.

As I prepared for the conference I was curious to see whether the message of solidarity towards WHRDs had reached grassroots activists in my home country, the UK. For while the term is readily employed to serve the government’s development agenda abroad, with ring-fenced funds in the international development budget and consistent attention from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the UK is often accused of operating a politics of denial or ‘double standards’ when it comes to domestic women’s human rights.

I spoke to three women activists who are part of the UK’s increasingly animated civil society landscape about their experiences.

Human rights in the UK: ‘the dustbin of history’?

27 year old Danielle is an environmental activist. Does she identify as a WHRD? ‘I’ve not heard the term before’, she comments, ‘but it makes sense. I see human rights and climate change as being inextricably linked. It’s primarily a huge social justice issue linked to people’s right to survive and our ability to maintain basic human rights. The more we talk about this existential challenge in terms of human rights rather than the environment the stronger it is’. Danielle cites Naomi Klein’s analysis on capitalism versus climate as fundamental to her understanding of the environment, human rights and social justice. She believes that the systemic changes needed to tackle the climate crisis provide ‘a real opportunity to re-establish structures in a more socially equitable way’.

Sarah, a 27 year old London based anti-austerity activist with campaign groups Sisters Uncut and Focus E15 has also never heard the term WHRD. Does it resonate? ‘On some level it does’, she reflects. ‘Human rights is not something I refer to, but a lot of what I do is to defend something along the lines of human rights and social justice. It’s about addressing the lack of social justice for women, people of colour and working class people at the brunt of marginalisation.’ We discuss how austerity in the UK has eroded human rights in concrete terms, devastating the lives of single mothers, survivors of sexual violence and disabled individuals by closing key support services which provided access to food and housing. In the space of a year almost 1 million adults and children have been forced to rely on food banks.

Much of Sarah’s current work centres on the housing crisis. ‘We have a situation of forced displacement’, she explains, ‘working class and ethnic minority people are being pushed out of their communities based on financial speculation.’ I ask whether human rights come into it. ‘Yes’, she reflects, ‘despite problems in the media and the way human rights are presented in Europe there’s a consensus that people should have access to a general level of being.’ But her concern is that human rights alone are not enough: ‘signing up to more legislation is not going to solve a lot of the problems for me. Human rights can help but not take it away. Women’s suffering will stay until certain people stop having massive interests in maintaining inequality and the capitalist system’.

Latefa, an Algerian born activist, is the only one of the three women I interview who has previously heard the term WHRD. It resonates with her work promoting women’s human rights in the UK asylum context. ‘For me’, says Latefa, ‘being a WHRD is a useful identity, it means to fight or give voice to other women who have no opportunity to talk or fight because they’re still under oppression’. The oppression, she explains, can be familial, societal or because of one’s insecure immigration status.

Before she came to the UK, Latefa was a woman’s human rights advocate in Algeria, working with trade unions against sexual harassment and for the promotion of labour rights. ‘I was shocked when I came to the UK and faced racism’, she explains. ‘I remain shocked by what I see here – when I see pregnant asylum seeking women detained or deported. What I see in the UK is relativist human rights, human rights are for some people but not for everyone’. The UK government has been criticised in recent years for slashing legal aid to vulnerable migrants and domestic violence survivors and remains the only country in Europe without a time limit on detaining migrants – including the pregnant, the elderly and the disabled.

Solidarity protest for women refugees

Solidarity protest for women refugees

In her experience it’s hard, says Latefa, for some British citizens to empathise with the human rights abuses happening on their doorstep. She tells the story of a Pakistani lady deported with her child after many years living in Wales: ‘a white middle class woman who knew her asked me, “but you’re not asking for all women who have suffered domestic violence to come here?” Her message was, “domestic violence is a norm in Pakistan so she can live with that; but she can’t live with that in the UK – under my nose.” She wanted to believe herself that she was in the country of human rights. But there are issues that transcend borders.’

At risk defending human rights

Much international work which seeks to protect WHRDs focuses on documenting the challenges, risks and harms which come with confronting such issues. My next question to the activists is, what challenges do they face in the UK?

For Sarah, the main risks in London stem from the police. ‘My experience has been the opposite to what you’re brought up to believe’, she tells me, ‘as a kid you’re told if you’re lost go and talk to a police woman, when you’re an activist it becomes the opposite. There’s a lot of concern about police infiltration and intelligence gathering, raising issues of safety and also welfare’. The second risk comes from physical confrontation with the police. ‘A few years ago I witnessed horrendous stuff happening in the context of the education riots, massive heavy handedness.’ As a woman of colour, Sarah is also concerned about institutional racism.

Danielle has also faced intimidating encounters with the police, including being arrested and prosecuted for actions which involved shutting down core parts of infrastructure. ‘Coal and gas power stations are high stress and high risk’, she explains. ‘It’s quite an intense and terrifying process to go through so the ability to support others is really important’. The best kind of groups she’s been involved with, she tells me, are the groups that respect each other and put effort into building and maintaining relationships. ‘The environmental direct action movement has previously been characterised as very white and very male’, she continues, ‘there’s a certain culture around it. Being a woman in that space is important to distil and dilute that, to bring in a less macho component. The actions I’ve done in all women groups have had a distinctly different tone; we’ve been able to deal with difficult situations with less bravado and more honestly. I’m motivated by the fact more women need to be out there doing bold things.’

For Latefa, like Danielle, often challenges can lie in the makeup of the group: ‘sometime there’s division, she laments, ‘the challenge is to put gender above your dress, your religion, your culture, even your nationality, but it’s hard. They look at you as a refugee, or the brown one, or the Muslim one. This, in the UK, is something I challenge.’

Looking outwards

If a significant contrast exists between the UK government’s discourse on human rights abroad and at home, I wonder how the activists relate to the efforts of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to unite women activists around a common agenda to strengthen women’s participation and access to their human rights.

Sarah agrees that this is important: women, regardless of their backgrounds, need to be at the forefront of the rights conversation at all levels: local, national, and international.  ‘There are so few positive women led spaces in the world that have any kind of impact politically’, she continues, ‘so if this is the beginning of that then it’s amazingly positive. The next question is, what’s the action?’

Danielle sympathises. In recent years she’s felt the power of international solidarity. ‘What I do is in solidarity with the rest of people in the world who will feel the effects of climate change’, she explains, ‘but I feel a responsibility stemming from the birthplace of the industrial revolution to do the bulk of the action here’. She recounts how on Global Divestment Day they worked alongside Bangladeshi and Colombian communities directly influenced by fossil fuel extraction funded by British companies and investors. ‘It was brilliant’, she reminisces. ‘We also had a solidarity letter coming from Uganda saying keep up the fight and that was so much more powerful than we realised. We just suddenly received this email from a group of activists saying “Divest London we stand with you” and I just cried.’

 Peter Marshall

Divest London. Photo: Peter Marshall

In conversation with Danielle, Latefa and Sarah I became aware of the big risk which the UK government runs of exoticising WHRD, as seeing their work as a stage of international development rather than a core function of society and democracy. Without committing to human rights – and recognising rather than stalling the work of those who seek to protect them at home – the UK risks spreading a dichotomous and hypocritical narrative of international development and domestic denial.

The challenges faced by women activists in the UK are clearly different from many WHRDs around the world, but there are also important overlaps. And as human rights become increasingly stigmatised in Britain – with headlines from popular tabloids such as ‘End of Human Rights Farce’ and ‘We’ll Put the Rights Act in the Dustbin of History’ – we must be careful that, in our pragmatism, we don’t become isolated and stop communicating with our international allies. Transnational solidarity is fundamental because patriarchy affects us all and can only be reformed with a global movement. This is not a new message, but one that comes to us from one of Britain’s most celebrated female activists, Sylvia Pankhurst. Although remembered for her role in the domestic women’s suffrage movement, Pankhurst was also a friend of Ethiopia and spoke out loudly and often in solidarity with its national independence movement. Though now a national heroine, in her writings, she once noted, ‘I would like to be remembered as a citizen of the world’.

Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing this year's Nobel Women's Initiative conference theme: 'Defending the Defenders'.   Jennifer Allsopp will be reporting live from the conference for 50.50. Read previous years' coverage.

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