International Women’s Day 2015: Celebrating female human rights defenders

Friday, March 06, 2015
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Friday, March 6, 2015
By Alexandra Theodorakidis International Women’s Day is celebrated each year on March 8. It is meant to acknowledge the achievements and progress of women and also to recognize how much work there is still to be done to establish gender equality. This year, CJFE celebrates female human rights defenders (HRDs) who have made a difference in their own countries and around the world, often risking their lives to speak out on behalf of those who have been oppressed. The United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights Defenders recognizes the dangers faced by all HRDs, particularly women. Female HRDs are subjected to gender-specific threats, violence and discrimination. In some regions, a woman’s family or community will consider it inappropriate for her to speak out and challenge traditional norms and conceptions of gender roles. The Declaration of Human Rights Defenders stipulates that each specific state is responsible for the safety of its female HDRs, and needs to protect them when they are threatened or attacked. However, it is also the joint responsibility of the international community to support these women as they fight for equal rights. In December 2013, the UN adopted a resolution on women HRDs, recognizing the challenges they face and calling upon all states to support them by implementing policies aimed at their protection. However, neither the UN declaration nor the resolution is legally binding; this means states have no true obligation to fulfill the aspirations described within. For this reason, human rights defenders around the world, and in particular female HRDS, still face threats around for legitimate and peaceful work. Below, read about four female human rights defenders who continue to push for reform in their home countries despite severe persecution. Leyla Yunus, Azerbaijan One of Azerbaijan’s most prominent human rights defenders, Yunus is currently being held in pre-trial detention in the country. She has been charged with treason; Yunus was recently a joint-recipient of the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award, along with other political prisoners in Azerbaijan. She was also nominated for the 2014 European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Yunus is the director of Azerbaijan’s Institute for Peace and Democracy, “a human rights group formed in 1995 that has focused on combating politically motivated prosecutions, corruption, violence against women, and unlawful house evictions.” She perhaps is most well-known for her work campaigning against forced evictions in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. In 2011, her own offices were bulldozed to make room for a park and new apartment buildings. Yunus had been a fiercely-outspoken critic of the Azerbaijani government’s policy of evicting people from their homes, staging a series of small protests. At one point Yunus even had words emblazoned on her office building stating, “this is private property and the destruction of the house violates the Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights.” After the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliev claimed, in January 2014, that Azerbaijan had no political prisoners, Yunus and fellow activist Rasul Jafarov created a list of known political prisoners in the country, including Aliev’s chief political opponent. Additionally, in early 2014, Yunus launched a citizen diplomacy initiative aimed at creating a dialogue between Azerbaijanis and Armenians about how to end the 25-year long conflict between the two countries concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. The region lies within Azerbaijan but its population consists mostly of ethnic Armenians. This initiative, as well as Yunus’ outspoken criticism of President Aliev, has formed the basis of the treason and fraud charges leveled against her. After she was first arrested and released in April 2014, Yunus stated that being imprisoned was “like torture, like the Middle Ages." Yunus was rearrested in August 2014 and is reportedly in very poor health as she remains in pre-trial detention without access to adequate medical care. Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja, Bahrain Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja, daughters of Bahraini human rights activist and founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, have become prominent human rights defenders in their own right. As one of Bahrain’s most prolific bloggers and social media activists, Zainab has been arrested multiple times for the prominent role she has played in Bahrain’s pro-democracy protests that began in early 2011. Zainab was released from prison in February 2014 after serving nearly a year for participating in an illegal gathering and insulting police, during which time she protested her imprisonment by participating in a hunger strike along with her father, who is currently serving a life sentence for his human rights work. In December 2014, Zainab was sentenced to three years in prison for ripping up a picture of the King of Bahrain whilst appearing at an October court date to fight against more charges connected to her previous rights campaigning. She received an additional 16-month sentence for insulting a public official and has since refused to appeal to higher courts because of the politicization of the country’s judiciary. Directly before her December sentencing Zainab gave birth to her second child. Zainab’s younger sister Maryam is the co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, and currently lives in Denmark where she holds dual Bahraini and Danish citizenship. A strong advocate for the plight of women in Bahrain and other Arab states, she has often described Bahrain’s democratic revolution as an “inconvenient revolution” because of the powerful countries, such as the United States, that support the existing government of Bahrain. Maryam has campaigned internationally on behalf of the thousands of political prisoners that are currently sitting in Bahrain’s jails for their involvement in pro-democracy protests. Maryam herself has also been imprisoned, most recently when she tried to return to Bahrain in August 2014 to visit her father in prison. She was held incommunicado and interrogated for 13 hours. Bahraini officials charged her with assault, stating that Maryam had attacked and injured on-duty police officers who asked her to hand over her mobile phone, an accusation that she vehemently denies. Maryam was released in September 2014 and later sentenced to one year in prison in absentia. Like her sister, Maryam does not believe in the independence of the judiciary of Bahrain and therefore chose to boycott her trial. Yara Sallam, Egypt Currently serving a two-year prison sentence in Egypt, Sallam was arrested for her alleged participation in a peaceful demonstration against Egypt’s draconian anti-protest law. Sallam is one of Egypt’s most prominent human-rights activists, holding law degrees from Cairo University, the Pantheon-Sorbonne in Paris, and Notre Dame University in the United States. She was convicted on trumped-up charges of displaying force, vandalism and participating in an unauthorized protest. Sallam was arrested along with 22 other well-known activists. Despite the lack of credible evidence in the case, the group was sentenced to three years in prison, later reduced to two years. Amnesty International has called it a “show-trial… intended to be a clear warning to anyone who defies the Egyptian protest law.” At the age of 15, Sallam was already working hard to promote the rights of women in Egypt. Her career achievements include putting forth legislative changes within the Egyptian judiciary in regards to women’s rights and work as a professional legal assistant at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in The Gambia. Sallam has also worked as a program manager at Nazra for Feminist Studies, an organization that fights for the equal rights of women in Egypt, and prior to her arrest worked for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights as a researcher. In 2013 she was awarded the North Africa Human Rights Defender Shield. CJFE urges the Azerbaijani, Bahraini and Egyptian governments, respectively, to cease in their persecution of human rights defenders in their countries and to free all prisoners of conscience imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression.
Alexandra Theodorakidis is a former CJFE intern and current freelance journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @AlexandraTheo.

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