Defending Women Human Rights Defenders From Gender-Based Violence
Authored by Amina Hersi, Bashiratu Kamal, Fish Ip Pui-yu, Vivian Ouya and Khawla Bouaziz.
Content warning: This content contains graphic references to gender-based and sexual violence.
Today is International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. The conversation about gender-based violence is not complete without calling attention to violence and reprisals that women and LGBTQI+ people at the forefront of human rights activism face.
Women human rights defenders (WHRDs), play a critical role in promoting human rights, preventing and resolving conflict, and protecting the planet and indigenous territories. Despite this broad acknowledgement, threats and reprisals to WHRDs continue unabated around the world against a background of global push back against gender equality and human rights.
We invited four brilliant WHRDs to share their experiences. We asked them to tell us about the gender-specific threats and risks that they see in their work, and what change is needed to safeguard women at the forefront of human rights activism.
Please introduce yourself and tell us, what keeps you going?
I am Bashiratu Kamal, a feminist organizer, journalist and gender and labour specialist based in Ghana. I’m currently working as the Gender Equality Officer at the General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) TUC Ghana. I am inspired by my childhood experiences in a compound house where I witnessed gender discrimination and violence against women and girls on several occasions.
My name is Fish Ip Pui-yu, I currently serve as the Asia Pacific Regional Coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). I’m the co-founder of the CIC Detainees Rights Concern Group and a board member of the Asian Migrant Centre. What motivates me is supporting domestic workers, who face a high risk of gender-based violence, to be empowered through organizing. When domestic workers have a voice and representation, a support network such as education, and legal rights, they can strengthen domestic workers’ movements.
Hello! I’m Khawla Bouaziz, a feminist queer rights advocate from Tunisia, and Secretary General of Mawjoudin We Exist. I’ve dedicated myself to community building and creation of a safer space for LGBTQIA+ youth in Tunisia for the past 4 years. What keeps me going, is pushing the visibility, recognition and acknowledgement of young, queer brown activists that are often side-lined and overburdened in our movements.
My name is Vivian Ouya, a human rights lawyer, feminist activist, Co-Founder and organizer with Feminists in Kenya. Organizing as a collective keeps me going because I get to be in a community with amazing African feminists, who contribute in so many different ways in keeping feminist activism alive and impactful in Africa. Feminist movement building invites us to question the exercise of power in society and to identify how it affects different people. It allows us to work towards just futures for disenfranchised people.
What threats do you experience in your activism that are specific to your gender?
I use traditional media and social media for my work and activism, as a result of such public platforms, I keep receiving threats from political party “foot soldiers” and others related to religious matters. It includes threats to get me dismissed from work over the #fixthecountry campaign, assault, verbal abuse and attempts to cyber-bully me. Others include attack threats over comments that some text interpretations and translations of the Qur’an are problematic with reference to domestic violence.
During #fixthecountry, I was attacked online with words like “smelly vagina, witch, stupid, prostitute” including texts and phone calls threatening to beat me up. At Ghana’s high court, another feminist and I were attacked by some of the police service, who threatened to “deal with” us for standing up to them. One retorted “so much for frustrated women, who will marry such?”
As a movement that organizes predominantly on digital platforms, the threat of online violence is never too far away. Most of us have experienced targeted defamatory campaigns posted on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter; with the intention of slut shaming and body shaming us into silence.
The misogyny that we experience offline, always transfers online as well, and worsens with hypervisibility. Somehow when you are young, Black, a woman, or any other identity that exists on the margin, you’re not supposed to be loud or disruptive. Conformity to the status quo is an automatic expectation that hangs over your head. Non-conformity, therefore, has come with unimaginable violence, including threats of rape, surveillance, intimidation, belittlement, and ostracization.
I come from a country where my identities are either criminalized or looked down on, working in a field where daily confrontations with traumas and violence are the norm. Being an expert on advocacy, mainly on the international level, sometimes makes me question if I am connected enough to the realities of my people on the ground. It is challenging to be inside the bubble of data and numbers, detached from the human side of the queer struggle.
Being part of the queer movement, working with and for the community on a daily basis often leads to a number of things: more obviously, emotional and physical exhaustion and burnout; and more implicitly, the constant realization that more must be done, with no clear way of knowing what or how.
As domestic workers we are mostly women and girls, sometimes boys and men, from disadvantaged backgrounds. Women navigate additional oppression & limits to participating in public life (compared to their cis-men counterparts). When their employment is also in private homes, their concerns continue to be side-lined as a ‘private matter’. This work is feminised, invisible, isolated and outside the public eye. Because of this, it is often not recognized as work by the governments and the public. The sexual and reproductive health and rights of domestic workers are often closely monitored, especially in contexts of migration, and can be used against them; when these women are more visible as activists, they have more at stake.
In this conflated living and working space, women activists who are themselves domestic workers are subjected to retaliation from their employers. This retaliation can include forms of gendered violence like rape and murder. Some workers IDWF has supported in seeking justice are as young as 12 and 16, and are subject to cruel sexual and gender-based violence and torture resulting in lasting harm and trauma — and for some, suicide. The perpetrators often walk free.
And finally, what is the single most important change that needs to happen to safeguard women at the forefront of human rights activism?
We need stringent legislation against cyber bullying and online sexual and gender-based violence.We also need institutions that respond swiftly to hold perpetrators accountable.
Feminist organizers and human rights activists are the most unprotected, yet the most heroized. It is an affront to celebrate feminist activists when their material conditions remain substandard. In the words of Angela Davis, “are we celebrating their freedom to starve?” We should stop celebrating activists’ resilience and start providing tangible support and investments towards their work.
I celebrate that different feminist funders have recognized the mental anguish and burn-out that comes with activism and in solidarity, have started funding feminist well-being. This is tangible. It helps to know that your arrest, and your exposure to multiple forms of violence publicly and privately, are not reduced to bravery and strength; and that, as an activist, you can fall back on substantial support like access to therapy services, legal support, and financial support from communities that look out for you and support your work.
When I’m asked about the changes that need to be done for the sake of women all around and women human rights defenders, the direct answer is to cut us some slack, give us as many opportunities to fail and learn from our mistakes as you’d give old white men in suits. Yet, even that is not enough, because we need much more: we need opportunities, a seat at the table, our voices recognized, our actions funded, and safety measures taken seriously to protect us in our work.
Only then will we be able to do our work with the utmost efficiency. Only then will the movements we’re part of thrive.
When I meet with domestic workers’ leaders, we talk about cases of abuse and exploitation, clear-cut violations of rights. Yet we cannot find a law or a way to file a complaint and seek justice. The court, the police stations, and other institutions are there — but not for domestic workers. Even where there are laws against domestic violence, gender bias (among law enforcement agencies, the judiciary as well as in the community) prevents their effective implementation.
To prevent harassment and violence and to seek justice for the victims, domestic workers’ organizations stress the need for: information and communication, networking and organizing, support from public institutions and civil society, dedicated and persistent domestic workers’ organizations and their allies, and adequate financing. We call for effective laws and enforcement mechanisms to prevent and stop this intolerable abuse.
Amina Hersi is the Head of Gender Rights and Justice for Oxfam International. Amina is a gender justice and human rights practitioner who specializes in changing narratives and redefining security. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.