Stand in solidarity with courageous women’s human rights defenders

By the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

Date: 01 December 2014

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Photo: OHCHR

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and has extensive experience in international diplomacy and the protection of human rights. He was the first President of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the former President of the UN Security Council. In this op-ed , he discusses achievements and gaps in  guaranteeing equal rights for all and stresses the importance and courage of women human rights defenders, and the challenges they face. OHCHR will begin a new campaign on Human Rights Day, 10 December, to galvanize recognition for human rights advocates.

Almost two decades ago, in Beijing, 189 countries made a commitment to achieve equality for women, in practice and in law, so that all women could at last fully enjoy their rights and freedoms as equal human beings.

They adopted a comprehensive and ambitious plan to guarantee women the same rights as men to be educated and develop their potential. The same rights as men to choose their profession. The same rights to lead communities and nations, and make choices about their own lives without fear of violence or reprisal. No longer would hundreds of thousands of women die every year in childbirth because of health care policies and systems that neglected their care. No longer would women earn considerably less than men. No longer would discriminatory laws govern marriage, land, property and inheritance.

In the years that followed, the world has witnessed tremendous progress: the number of women in the work force has increased; there is almost gender parity in schooling at the primary level; the maternal mortality ratio declined by almost 50%; and more women are in leadership positions. Importantly, governments talk about women’s rights as human rights and women's rights and gender equality are acknowledged as legitimate and indispensable goals.

However, the world is still far from the vision articulated in Beijing. Approximately 1 in 3 women throughout the world will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Less than a quarter of parliamentarians in the world are women. In over 50 countries there is no legal protection for women against domestic violence. Almost 300,000 women and girls died in 2013 from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Approximately 1 in 3 married women aged 20 to 24 were child brides. In many parts of the world, women and girls cannot make decisions on their most private matters – sexuality, marriage, children. Girls and women who pursue their own life choices are still murdered by their own families in the dishonourable practice of so-called honour killings.  All of our societies remain affected by  stereotypes based on the inferiority of women which often denigrate, humiliate and sexualize them.  

Today we have the responsibility to protect the progress made in the past 20 years and address the remaining challenges. In doing so, we must recognize the vital role of women who defend human rights, often at great risk to themselves and their families precisely because they are viewed as stepping outside socially prescriptive gender stereotypes. We must recognize the role of all people, women and men, who publicly call for gender equality and often, as a result, find themselves the victim of archaic and patriarchal, but powerful, threats to their reputations, their work and even their lives. These extraordinary individuals –women’s human rights defenders – operate in hostile environments, where arguments of cultural relativism are common and often against the background of the rise of extremist, misogynistic groups, which threaten to dismantle the gains of the past.

Attacks against women who stand up to demand their human rights and individuals who advocate for gender equality are often designed to keep women in their “place.” In some areas of the world, women who participate in public demonstrations are told to go home to take care of their children. Consider the recent example of a newspaper publishing naked photos of a woman, claiming she was a well-known activist – an attack designed to shame this defender into silence. In other places, when women claim their right to affordable modern methods of contraception, they are labelled as prostitutes in smear campaigns seeking to undermine their credibility. Online attacks against those who speak for women’s human rights and gender equality by so-called “trolls” - who threaten heinous crimes - are increasingly reported.

These attacks have a common thread – they rely on gender stereotypes and deeply entrenched discriminatory social norms in an attempt to silence those who challenge the age old system of gender inequality. However, these defenders will not be silenced, and we must stand in solidarity with them against these cowardly attacks.

This is why my Office has decided to launch a campaign to pay tribute to women and men who defy stereotypes and fight for women’s human rights. The campaign runs from Human Rights Day, 10 December this year, to International Women’s Day, 8 March 2015. We encourage everyone to join the ranks of these strong and inspiring advocates, on social media (#reflect2protect) and on the ground.

As we approach the twenty year anniversary of Beijing, discrimination and violence against women, and the stereotypes that confine them into narrowly fixed roles must end. Women have the right to make their own decisions about their lives and their bodies. Guaranteeing and implementing these rights are non-negotiable obligations of all States. Women human rights defenders were instrumental in securing the ambitious programme laid out in Beijing. Their work, their activism and their courage deserve our recognition, our support and our respect.  

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