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Jody Williams for The Nobel Women’s Initiative – WNN SOAPBOX

Iranian woman rights defender Parvin Ardalan

Iranian rights defender Parvin Ardalan’s work has been pivotal to the creation of the Million Signatures Campaign in Iran, who’s goal is to get one million signatures to insure human rights for women in the region. The campaign itself has not gone forward without numerous members threatened, imprisoned and/or sanctioned, but this has not stopped them. Today Ardalan continues to work actively from her base outside Iran as she paves the way for other women rights defenders to step up to the plate. Her site for rights can be found via: Change for Equality Image: Shahrazad

(WNN/NWI) Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA, AMERICAS: This Friday, to mark the eighth anniversary of the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, we will celebrate women around the world standing on the frontlines. These women are defending their land and the environment and providing a voice to the voiceless. They are working to protect their families, friends and communities from rape and violence, impunity and discrimination. We will applaud their courage, resilience and strength.

But on this anniversary we must also ask: who is protecting the defenders?

In January 2012 I traveled to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala and heard testimony from over 200 hundred women who face repeated and serious attacks as a result of their grassroots work to defend human rights.

Berta, an indigenous land rights activist from Honduras, recounted the day soldiers kidnapped and raped her colleagues in an attempt to find weapons that the soldiers allege they hid in their vaginas. Berta is now facing criminal charges brought by the Honduran government against her for her work to stop the building of a hydroelectricity dam that threatens to displace indigenous communities. Diodora told me about how Guatemalan mining officials attempted to have her assassinated for being outspoken about rejecting a mining development in her mountainous community. Valentina, despite going to endless lengths to seek justice after members of the Mexican military raped her, fears for her safety as the perpetrators of her rape continue to walk the streets freely. Other defenders told me stories of colleagues arbitrarily detained, disappeared and murdered.

These women are not alone. Women human rights defenders — women working in defense of human rights, including the rights of women and gender-related rights — are under attack around the world.

A report by Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, creates a damning picture of just how dangerous it is to be a woman human rights defender: documented cases of death threats, rape, smear campaigns and the criminalization of their work by state authorities. The report notes that male human rights defenders do not experience the same high rates of violence — but why?

The answer is clear: women who stand up for human rights are a threat to the status quo. These women are a threat in societies that view women has second-class citizens. State and non-state actors have therefore retaliated against women defenders and the work they do to promote gender equality and women’s participation in public life.

In Honduras, when the democratically elected government of Manual Zelaya was overthrown in 2009 and women took to the streets to protest, registered femicides (the targeted killing of women) went up by 62 percent. And such violence has not slowed down. In 2012, the Mesoamerican Initiative registered 119 attacks on women activists throughout the country.

Yet sadly, in Honduras — as in most countries in the world — there are no special measures in place to ensure that women defenders can do their work without fear of retribution and violence. The rights of women to participate in public life, including through the promotion and protection of human rights, is well established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many international treaties. But that is not enough. We need to concretely demonstrate how much we value the work women human rights defenders do in challenging stereotypes and promoting women’s empowerment. Governments need to commit to their safety and protection.

Now, U.N. countries have a chance to do just that.

Earlier this month, the United Nations tabled a draft resolution for the Protection of Women Human Rights Defenders. The resolution is a call to member states to recognize the extraordinary threats faced by women human rights defenders and employ measures to protect them. This long-overdue resolution is an unprecedented show of international support for women defenders and the groundbreaking work they do to promote all human rights.

So far, only 65 member States of the UN have declared their support for the resolution and some of the states have attempted to change the text of the resolution in an effort to weaken the integrity and scope of the resolution. As an international community, we can do better than that. Ask officials in your country to support the resolution, in its entirety.

Women are transforming communities everywhere, but they cannot complete their work if they are targets of violence. Let us stand in solidarity with women human rights defenders worldwide and then marvel in the power they will unleash in the name of equality, peace and justice.


Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams is one of the founding members of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, that works to use the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize and courageous women Peace Laureates to increase the power and visibility of women’s groups working globally for peace, justice and equality. Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban landmines through the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which shared the Peace Prize with her that year. At that time, she became the 10th woman – and third American woman – in its almost 100-year history to receive the Prize.  Since her protests of the Vietnam War, she has been a life-long advocate of freedom, self-determination and human and civil rights.


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