International Women’s Day celebrates women’s achievements in the political and social spheres, while also serving as a reminder that the fight for true gender equality is still far from over. Every day, PBI witnesses the actions and impacts of courageous women who take a stance against injustice and the violation of their rights.
However, the reality is also that women who defend human rights, just like their male counterparts across the globe, risk imprisonment, harassment and even death as they conduct their legitimate work. On top of this, women face additional obstacles and threats on account of their gender like stigma, social rejection and sexual violence. By breaking social norms, entrenched discrimination and cultural taboos, these activists are leading both powerful and dangerous campaigns that deserve protection and support.
In the spirit of this year’s theme for the International Women’s Day #BoldForChange, we want to highlight the women who defy all odds and continue to challenge powerful interests and push for justice, accountability and meaningful change.
Women in Colombia: victims turn to activism
Something remarkable has been happening in Colombia, where many women have transformed from victims of the decade-long civil conflict to leaders fighting for the rights of their communities, thereby fundamentally contributing to the ongoing peace process. Threats, forced displacements and sexual violence have led many women to take on leadership roles, both within their homes and in their communities. A member of the sub-commission on gender at the Havana peace negotiation stated: “We discovered incredible experiences of women who made neighbourhoods, who transcended their pain and created social fabric, because their condition as mother, daughter, carer but also activist, leader and human rights defender was brought to the fore.”
Some of the achievements of Colombia’s women’s rights organisations include the ratification of a law defining the specific nature of femicide, higher sentences for acid attacks, the application of a gender focus within the Colombian National Protection Unit for women defenders, and a new law to guarantee access to justice for victims of sexual violence. In December 2016, more than 5,000 women took to the streets of Bogota to support the Colombian peace process.
- Iris, victim of forced displacement and human rights defender in Colombia
One of the women whose experience of violent conflict has led her to fight for justice and human rights is Iris. As a victim of forced displacement from the area of La Esperanza in Cantagallo municipality, she began to organise humanitarian assistance for the 70 families who were displaced alongside her in the town of Barrancabermeja back in 2000. From then on, her commitment to the victims of Colombia’s conflict developed further and she now works with the Regional Corporation for Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS), which protects human rights, democracy, and international humanitarian law in Colombia. The nature of her work has resulted in serious threats and defamation campaigns against her and her family. Despite this, she fights on. As Iris says: “you have to turn and face the wind because nothing comes for free!” You can access PBI Colombia's publication on women leaders here.
Women leaders in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya
Women activists living in Nairobi’s informal settlements face a unique set of security challenges on top of those already encountered by other grassroots human rights defenders. They are confronted with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, and face discrimination in local communities where women are expected to conform to traditional gender roles. Threats to women human rights defenders are not always seen as related to their human rights work and at times they are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.
To support these women to understand and thus better protect their human rights, PBI launched a toolkit. The online tool, which was developed in close consultation with women defenders in the informal settlements of Mathare, Mukuru and Kibera in Nairobi, contains resources for safety monitoring, information on how to document and demand accountability for abuses and also provides a platform for community exchange. The toolkit is envisioned as a living and locally-owned document, with a network of women from the urban settlements acting as community ambassadors in the dissemination of the materials, training and supporting other women in their human rights efforts.
Police brutality remains a daily occurrence in Kenya and impunity for repression and criminalisation of defenders poses considerable challenges to activists. A woman activist at the Mathare Social Justice Centre in Nairobi acknowledges the uphill battle but states: “Risks cannot be eliminated from human rights work. The way forward is to provide protection and support to (Women) Human Rights Defenders to enable them to continue their important work.”
Women volunteer to protect human rights defenders
Celebrating International Women's Day also includes highlighting the women volunteers of PBI who have made essential contributions to the advancement of human rights for over 35 years. In 2015 alone, 229 women worked in our field projects, country groups and international office, making up 65% of volunteers in total. Their dedication and understanding to the people we accompany and their commitment to depart to places far away from home is an inspiration for us all. Simply put, PBI would not be able to do what it does without their support and devotion.
Hannah Matthews is one of many women that have given up their time to volunteer for PBI. In 2015, she spent one year in Colombia to accompany a range of human rights defenders around the city of Barrancabermeja, including a collective of female lawyers, local human rights NGOs and campesino activists. She says it was a privilege to accompany the voices who serve as important reminders of the bravery needed to confront injustice and to fight for improvements. Although many challenges lie ahead for this country, she concludes that "the positivity and dedication of the Colombians we work with is infectious and inspires me to keep fighting, with the promise of a better future." You can read her full account about a turbulent but rewarding year here.
By: Felix Manig