Why we all need to stand with WHRDs: their human rights victories are our victories

By Guadalupe Marengo, Head of Amnesty International’s Global Human Rights Defenders

Today, 29 November, we celebrate Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) international day and therefore we are honouring their courageous acts of resistance by launching our campaign “Challenging power, fighting discrimination. A call to action to recognise and protect Women Human Rights Defenders”.

Our global report documents how WHRDs continue to be assaulted, threatened, criminalized and even killed despite repeated commitments by the international community to enhance their protection.

WHRDs are women who engage in the defense of any human right and people of all genders who defend the rights of women, and rights connected to gender equality and sexuality. Because of who they are and because of what they fight for they are systematically attacked in a world dominated by social and economic inequality and crucially patriarchy.

The influence of WHRDs and that of the feminist human rights movement worldwide is stronger than ever. However, a renewed emphasis on “traditional values” and anti-feminist narratives are attempting to redefine and weaken hard-won progress everywhere.

Imagine what it is like for WHRD Nairovi Castillo -- a transgender woman, a sex worker, and leader and co-founder of COTRAVEDT, (Comunidad de Trans, Travesti Trabajadoras Sexuales de República Dominicana). Nairovi is from the Dominican Republic, where, as in most of our planet, oppressive, patriarchal attitudes about gender and sexuality are deeply-rooted

“Our lives are deeply affected”, Nairovi told us, “the stigma and discrimination exclude us from health services, education and employment. This also generates hate crimes, including within the context of sex work. We are in danger even in our private lives, we are seen as freaks …. If we claim our rights, people get angry, they beat us up, take our clothes and rob us.”

WHRDs are at the forefront of the fight for justice, equality and sustainable development for all.  Our struggle includes fighting to end harmful practices such as child marriage. We fight to protect the environment and the people who depend on the land for their survival, people who are often first to be affected by the climate crisis.

WHRDs actions, by their very nature, challenge patriarchal power structures, harmful social norms and stereotyped gender roles. As our new report reveals, the risks are even higher for those who face intersecting forms of discrimination. If you are a woman and belong to a racial or ethnic minority, you are poor, or lesbian or trans, or a sex worker, or a combination of these, you have to fight so much harder to have your voice heard.

Sarah Zungu is a San Indigenous leader and environmental WHRD from Namibia, who campaigns to protect the community’s land, culture and way of life.  Sarah told us how she feels intimidated by the authorities, “these are big people”, she stressed, “they don’t see me as human as I am a ‘Bushman woman’.

In conflict zone areas, it is mainly men who suffer grave human rights violations such as enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention or extrajudicial executions. Noura Ghazi Safadi, co-founded Families for Freedom in Syria, where it is mainly women who have organized to find those who have been disappeared and demand justice.

As Noura explained, women in these contexts become the main breadwinners but face serious obstacles in an environment of entrenched discrimination notable in matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and child custody.

“I feel women are best placed to deal with this issue, not just because they are the ones most affected by such violations, but because of the leading role they play in building Syria’s future. Women have demonstrated that they are capable of handling every obstacle before them, whether it is to do with security, the community or life generally”.

Join me, Amnesty and the wider feminist human rights movement in celebrating WHRDs today and every day. Call out those with power who shamelessly use and legitimize hateful rhetoric and state policies based on people’s identity, fuelling misogyny, racism and homophobia.

Urge your government to recognize WHRDs as key agents of positive change whose bravery has paved the way for ground-breaking reforms in many communities, so that they are allowed to operate freely and safely without fear of attacks and discrimination.

We all need to stand with WHRDs because their human rights victories are our victories.