Women human rights defenders: reigniting the embers

The profile of today’s front line activist is different to that of the freedom fighter of old. We need to see her in her wholeness. Jennifer Allsopp reports from the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in the Netherlands.

Jennifer Allsopp
25 April 2015

When you think of the word freedom fighter, the image that comes to mind for many is that of a confident, charismatic, lone man. This is the image I grew up with. At university, my wardrobe proudly boasted both Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi T shirts, and my diary had their words scrawled in quotation marks. At 18 I headed to Cuba as the history that I’d read told me that I’d find my heroes in the military museums there – I didn’t. Back then I hadn’t realised that I could find heroes in the present. At school you’re taught that everything important was done by men, in the past, and that it was often bloody and violent. We didn’t even learn the word Suffragette, and the Northern Ireland peace process was totally off the curriculum. We heard a bit about a woman called Margaret Thatcher, but I decided not to pursue that relationship as, let it be said, I found scant inspiration there. In short, I grew up in a world without women human rights defenders.

Heroic men like King and Gandhi, along with others, have become such an engrained part of global rights culture that they now stand alone as cultural icons, devoid of context. As a group of modern day human rights defenders convened in the Netherlands today for the opening of the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s fifth conference, Defending the Defenders: Building global support for WHRD, it was clear that if we want activists to thrive and continue to inspire, this context is all too important. We need to look beyond the Disney image of a hero, said Ambassador Kees van Barre, as he welcomed the international delegation. Well, obviously. Look around, we all agreed.

A quick glance at the 100 international activists around the room revealed the following:

Today’s woman human rights defender is mobile. She needs freedom to travel, to find safety in exile, and to keep her identity.

Today’s women human rights defender believes in a right to know the facts of what is happening and a right to access media.

Today’s woman human rights defender knows that the philosophy of human rights is peace, not war.

Today’s woman human rights defender takes time to remember the women who have lost their lives fighting for our human rights.

Today’s woman human rights defender sees human rights as constantly evolving and believes that no government can take these rights away from human beings.

Today’s woman human rights defender knows, to cite Mairead Maguire, Nobel Laureate from Northern Ireland, that ‘we’re at a point in history that is going to be really revolutionary’. She continues, ‘there’s so much war, death, destruction, abuse, military, abuse of rights, and it’s spreading, that somehow we have to make a quantum leap into a new way of thinking.’

And today’s woman human rights defender knows that women will play a leading role in this new way of thinking.

The contemporary female freedom fighter is, to sum it up in the words of Julienne Lusenge, activist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, multifaceted. She exists not as a portrait in history books but in a vibrant, constantly shifting, precarious context. She comes with or without kids, with or without access to broadband, and in a range of countries. She may be operating in her home country, on a global stage, in exile, in hiding or in prison. In their unity of passion these women could not be more different. ‘People in this room’, announced Liz Bernstein, Executive Director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, ‘are front line defenders taking extraordinary risks every day on behalf of communities’. Their mode of action varies. Some challenge fundamentalisms, some fight big business, some protect the planet and its people: but together they work every day to protect women's rights and human rights. ‘We’re peace people, environmental people, human rights defenders: but don’t limit me with a label for I am many things’, says Mairead.

Existing alongside this creative difference are a set of fundamental challenges that are common to many of today’s women activists, who operate in a climate of risk and intimidation. Recent years have seen a raft of measures at the International level to recognise and support their work. But it became clear in today’s plenary that these measures, designed in the halls of Brussels and New York, are all too often failing to be effective on the ground.

The measures are noble in their intention, says Julienne: they seek to offer protection to women at risk. But they’re failing for one main reason and that is their inability to see activists as working in a context, and to see the women themselves as three dimensional. These women are not stand-alone figures to be championed in isolation: they are part of families and local and international networks, the preservation of which are fundamental to their cause.

The main concern for Julienne is her family. It’s not good offering to protect me and leaving my family at risk, she explains. Her warning is all too familiar to some in the room. At today’s plenary, Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi who was awarded the prize for her tireless fight for justice and democracy as the first female judge in Iran, recounted how her husband and son had been imprisoned directly after she was forced to flee: ‘they couldn’t get to me so they got to them instead’.

A second way in which the protection framework for women human rights defenders is failing, participants shared, stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of their mission. Even when things get difficult, ‘as a woman human rights defender I don’t have the right to lose hope’, says Shirin. ‘I need to continue’. ‘What I need’, adds Julienne, ‘isn’t just a safe room but somewhere where I can continue my work. I need the resources and tools to keep going, then I can protect myself’.

The core problem for other women is lack of access to even basic protection resources. With finite places available, be it in temporary safe houses funded by the European Union or the Netherlands’ new ‘shelter cities’, a tricky question arises: who is it that defines whose human rights deserve protecting over others? Who makes the decision about whose life is most valuable to the cause of protecting human rights?

One participant from Manipur, India has been consistently denied support. The conflict in her region is still not recognised by the national government or by the international community. ‘Everything is on paper for human rights defenders, especially women’, she says, ‘but it really doesn’t exist’. For women in Palestine too, the media blackout means that support isn’t being delivered, says Mairead. She’d like to see more resources to protect women human rights defenders there, and to ‘hear President Obama say that 70 years of suffering for the Palestinian people is enough’.

For other women the problem relates to the accessibility of the frameworks. Julienne reflects that the guidance for documenting sexual violence which came out of the much-anticipated international #TimetoAct summit in London in 2014 remains completely useless for many women. ‘For a start, many activists need to learn to read it to be able to use it’, she smiles up wearily. ‘If they really want to help victims then we need the means to disseminate it in our communities’.

As I head to bed after the first day of the conference I’m struck by Julienne’s warning about the disappointment that can come with international meetings, ‘the initiators who set up the #TimetoAct project left the day after the conference’, she explains, ‘we don’t feel the continuity. There will always be yet another forum, yet another summit on sexual violence and it doesn’t change the lives of victims. It’s a ballet of summits at the international level, but to the women, what do I tell them? What does it serve?’

The conference here, she explains, is different. It’s a unique opportunity for women working on the frontline to come together for the purpose of mutual learning. ‘We’re always talking about “taking things to the higher level, the higher level” but we need to look to the lower levels too to make it work.’ ‘For yes’, she reflects, ‘the fire of the London summit has burnt to embers. Then, it’s gone.’

Jennifer Allsopp is reporting for 50.50 from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference: 'Defending the Defenders' , April 24-26. Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing the discussions. Read previous years' coverage.

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