Women on the frontline for human rights

Women often bear the brunt of poverty and human rights abuses; but as activists they use these roles to trigger positive social change. To mark World Human Rights Day, Amnesty International spoke to three women who put their lives on the line in defence of human rights. Women are affected by poverty, violence and human rights violations more than men because of the discrimination they face the world over. Over 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women. Women earn only 10 per cent of the world’s income but do two thirds of the world’s work. Three quarters of the world’s illiterate are women. Women produce up to 80 per cent of the food in developing countries but own only one per cent of the land. In spite of these overwhelming odds, women are often the most active agents of positive social change in their communities, working tirelessly to improve their lives and the situation of their families. Women are responsible for some of the most effective grassroots-based human rights work all over the globe. Gertrude Hambira, General Secretary of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) “I have been threatened and told to leave this job on several occasions… my children tell me, ‘mummy, your work is very dangerous.’ “When the [farm] invasions are taking place the workers call us and we go to observe. You need courage to see those people when they are singing, when they are dancing, when they are holding those machetes, axes and all that. But in order to say that they’re violently evicting the farmers themselves, you need to be part and parcel of it. “Women play a big role in defending human and workers rights in their constituencies by using the non-violent approach. We [(GAPWUZ]) have done a lot of campaigns, we have done a lot of education and raising awareness so that women can speak for themselves on issues that affect them on a day to day basis. “If they’re employed we encourage them [(women]) to take a leadership role like being a shop steward or being elected to trade union committees where they can also voice the issues that are affecting them on the ground. “Men sometimes easily give up! …They say ‘mother, we need to revenge’ and I tell them to cool down. They want to retaliate easily rather than approach issues with a different angle. I’ve been brought up and trained on non-violent approaches and that has worked very well in my organization. We are in a set up whereby if we had retaliated I think a lot of blood would have been shed. “I do worry about the safety of my family and my own safety too. I’m a mother of five. They say, ‘mum, why don’t you leave the Zimbabwe?’ and I say, no, not all of us can leave because who will continue the struggle?” Zebo Sharifova, head of the League of Women’s Lawyers, Tajikistan “Those women who don’t know their rights turn to centres including League of Women’s Lawyers and ask them to defend their rights in courts. “Before women did not know where to go if they wanted to find out about their rights. Today…they are more aware of their rights. “A lot of women who cannot find a way out of the situation [domestic violence] commit suicide. In our centre we have a psychologist who these women can talk to. “According to the statistics there are about 20 registered crisis centres [for women] in Tajikistan. But these crisis centres only work when foreign organisations provide funding for them.  As soon as funding stops, their work also stops. The state does not have the funds to finance shelters [for women] and our organization has to accept these women. But eventually they are forced to return to their families where they are subjected to domestic violence. “[We have] initiated and developed a draft law on Protection from Domestic Violence. We have lobbied throughout the whole of the Republic, gathered a lot of signatures in support of this draft law. “If we helped at least one woman who comes and tells [us], ‘Thank you! You have helped me. I live at my home now and I get the alimonies’, then we have won the process. “We see how her eyes sparkle and it is worth working for such a moment.” Aminatou Haidar, Western Saharan human rights defender who has been on hunger strike since 15 November to protest her expulsion from Laayoune in Western Sahara by the Moroccan authorities. She is currently stranded in Lanzarote airport in Spain’s Canary Islands. “When I was 20 years old, I went through kidnapping and enforced disappearance. I spent about four years, having my eyes covered and without any trial…I went through different physical and psychological torture. After that, I was released and then I was subjected to continuous surveillance. “In June 2005, I was tortured on the street; it caused me serious injury requiring (14 stitches and I had three broken ribs… I was again arrested based on a fake police report. I was tried and sentenced to seven months imprisonment that I spent in a prison called ‘Lakhal,’ prison in Laayoune. “As women and mothers in Western Sahara, we are aware that we have a very difficult and important role; it is [to] educate our children to stick to the Sahrawi identity, Sahrawi culture and Sahrawi traditions. It is not an easy task and it is not a new issue. The Occupation is always trying to absorb the Sahrawi culture. “It is very difficult for a Sahrawi woman, as a mentor to instil these values and at the same time be an activist outside of her home… It is hectic for a woman activist who works in the human rights field… The children are always very scared to loose their mother. “This generation and the children [in Western Sahara] witness with their own eyes the police oppression… Just imagine many children instead of drawing toys; they draw a policeman with a gun and a stick beating people and people behind bars. I am scared that they will become violent and incite violence… because practicing violence, one day will incite violence. “It is our role as human rights defenders to call for peace… but our means are very limited, we are not authorized even to organise workshops, trainings… Now it’s becoming more difficult….”

Morocco must allow human rights activist Aminatou Haidar to return home

Make the United Nations more effective in realizing women’s rights