International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders: Agents of change under pressure

December 1, 2016

On 29 November 2006, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) from around the globe gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka and declared this day as theirs. November 29th therefore became the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, and is now celebrated all over the world in recognition of the courageous work that they do to defend their own and other women’s rights.

There are too many activities that could be reported in the context of this anniversary [see earlier posts on WHRDs] but here a few (seven) links that could have escaped your attention:

Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD-IC) Statement:

Today we celebrate International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are women who defend human rights, and all persons who defend the rights of women and girls and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. 

They are leaders in the protection of human rights, including in the areas of health, education, justice, employment, corporate accountability and environmental protection, and ensure state and non-state actors are held accountable for human rights violations and abuses.

However, instead of being applauded, encouraged and recognised as key agents of change, WHRDs more often than not are attacked, threatened, intimidated, imprisoned, harassed and even killed. Particularly, when WHRDs challenge gender stereotypes, structures of power and profit, and patriarchal cultural and religious norms and values. For example, when they work on issues such as sexual and reproductive rights, violence against women, transitional justice, environmental rights or indigenous people’s rights…

It is urgent that governments around the world publicly recognise WHRDs as legitimate and vital actors in advancing the implementation of all human rights.

They must also acknowledge and send a clear signal that challenging deep-seated, discriminatory and unjust patriarchal structures and gender stereotypes is crucial for the realisation of a peaceful and just world without discrimination, oppression or exploitation.

In order for WHRDs to carry out their important work free from harassment, intimidation and violence, and to meaningfully participate in the development and monitoring of relevant policies and programmes for the advancement of gender rights and the rights of women and girls, as well as social and environmental justice, all governments must:

  • urgently put in place fully-resourced plans of action, including effective protection measures and impartial investigations to bring to justice those responsible for violence or threats; and
  • establish and/or strengthen national and regional laws in line with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, as well as international standards relating to non-discrimination particularly based on sex, gender, sexual orientation.

On this day of mobilisation, we also ask all state and non-state actors, from politicians to business leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, to bring international attention to the following urgent cases (which are representative of the challenges being faced by WHRDs worldwide) using their personal and professional platforms and channels:

1. Cristina Auerbach (Mexico):
2. Ghada Jamsheer (Bahrain):…
3. Mozn Hassan, Azza Soliman and Drm Aida Seif ElDawla (Egypt):…
4. Eren Keskin (Turkey):
5. Sirikan “June” Charoensiri (Thailand):…

Agents of change by Renu Adhikarichairperson of Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC Nepal) in My Republica

....While Nepali women fought successfully at public level, they are still fighting at a personal level. Patriarchal structures permeate all levels of society and infect all aspects of men’s, women’s and children’s lives. Patriarchy is a social construct that gives privilege to male power, and separates the public and private worlds. It constructs ‘gender’ (a socially constructed term, assigned to different sexes) as a binary of male and female and assigns particular roles and privileges accordingly. Women are forced into roles—over time these roles have become synonymous with ‘female’ and tightly defined what a woman may or may not do—within the private sphere. This creates and perpetrates inequality….Increasingly, we see strong women who challenge patriarchy being blamed with destroying family values and publicly shamed as nasty. This makes women who speak out against discrimination and patriarchy vulnerable to abuse and violence.
A plethora of evidences exists that illustrate how women who are active in communities and demanding rights for themselves, for other women and marginalized persons, are being silenced. Women are verbally abused, beaten and threatened simply for advocating for the rights of women. Ruby Khan of Nepalgunj, Sharada Chanda of Kanchanpur, Dev Kumari Mahara of Siraha, Radhika Sapkota and her team from Dhading are recent examples of those who have been attacked for daring to speak out against atrocious acts of violence committed upon women…

Violence against Women occurs mostly in the private sphere. Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC Nepal) data shows over 80 percent of Violence against Women are committed by persons known to the woman survivor, in her home or in her neighborhood….

In countries like Nepal, the state cannot fulfill all its obligations across the five areas without support from women human rights defenders active at community levels. It is important to understand that the women defenders themselves face a multitude of abuses within their own families and societies because of who they are and what they do. They face violence and injustices alone, without any state support. The state also does recognize the life-saving work of women defenders. In the struggle to eliminate Violence against Women, the central role of the WHRDs in this struggle needs to be recognized and respected by those in power. This can be done only by challenging discriminatory, unequal structures of power that are engrained from personal to all the way to political levels…

Understanding the sacrifices that are made daily by women rights defenders, let us commit ourselves to respecting them: by recognizing their important work, by creating a supportive environment for them to continue upholding rights, and by allowing them to create an inclusive definition of justice that encompasses all perspectives and allows justice to be felt by all women, at all levels. (see also

What has Azza done?”: asks MOZN HASSA in Open Democracy of 1 December 2016.  It describes the escalation of judicial harassment against Azza Soliman

Azza Soliman. Picture by Rene Celement. 

On the 19 November 2016, Azza Soliman, a feminist lawyer, WHRD, and the head of the board of trustees of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), was informed that she was banned from traveling based on a judicial order issued on 17 November while on her way to participate in “Musawah” movement’s training on women’s rights in Islam in Jordan. A day later, Soliman found out that her assets and those of her law firm have been frozen. 

For nearly two decades, Azza Soliman and CEWLA have been relentlessly working for women’s rights, especially women’s access to justice. It is assumed that these measures are directly related to the case nb. 173 for the year 2011 at the Cairo High Appeal Investigations, commonly known as “NGOs foreign funding case”, even though neither Soliman nor any of CEWLA’s members have been officially charged or summoned for investigation. The escalation of judicial harassment against Azza Soliman triggered many angry, but also surprised, reactions: “what has Azza done?” This indeed is a question I would like to answer….

… This feminist activism was in itself enough reason for state targeting. The appalled reactions asking “what has Azza done?” for her to be perceived as a threat, insist on seeing feminism as a soft, apolitical and low-profile form of activism, ignoring everything that history has taught us about the ways in which feminism challenges power structures. ..Azza Soliman is being targeted in a context where the feminist movement as a whole is facing a severe clampdown. The targeting of Al-Nadeem Center for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, which has provided medical and psychological help to women survivors of violence through its women’s program for years, as well as Nazra’s official summoning and continuous targeting, are examples of that. Despite all attempts not to take feminist activism seriously, it seems like the state takes it ‘too’ seriously as an existential threat, to the extent to which it needs to ban feminists from traveling and freeze their assets. 

It seems that as feminists we will always be trapped in the paradox of being targeted because what we do seems “too dangerous” on the one hand, and being dealt with more lightly and less considerately because we are women, on the other. It is also apparent that we will always be sandwiched between societal hostility towards feminist discourses and state targeting, which only emphasizes social stigmatization of feminists instead of generating a real societal debate around the issues they raise. In fact, state targeting only accentuates the more comfortable idea that many societal actors like to believe: we are bad women. 

Despite the very precarious time we live in as feminist organizations, and the current risks we face as WHRDs, if there is one woman who taught us to fight, and resist, it will be Azza Soliman. For Azza, and with her, we will continue the struggle for women’s human rights as long as we can.


My Republica – Agents of change

One Response to “International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders: Agents of change under pressure”

  1. […] Sirikan Charoensiri, also known as “June”, is a young lawyer who has bravely stood up for human rights during a dark period of military rule in Thailand. In June 2015, she was on hand at a peaceful protest by pro-democracy student activists in Bangkok to monitor the situation and provide legal representation, if necessary.  She now finds herself facing sedition charges and a potential trial in a military court alongside her clients. She also faces charges in two additional cases relating to her defence of the student activists and could be imprisoned for up to 15 years. As the Thai authorities have escalated their crackdown in the name of security, people who stand up for human rights in the country are increasingly falling foul of a government intent on silencing dissent. As June herself put it: “There is now an environment where risk is visible and imminent.” […] […]

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