These are stories of brave Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) that are speaking truth to power despite the intersectional and multiple forms of discrimination they all face.
WHRDs play an important role in addressing all human rights violations, including promoting access to justice and combating impunity, resisting state repression and responding to gender-based violence, fighting poverty and discrimination, and opening spaces for the full participation of those most marginalised in society.
They do this in a context of entrenched violence and discrimination, where patriarchal and heteronormative social models predominate. It is precisely because of this context that WHRDs have been the main, and often the only, advocates for gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and respect of women’s rights.
The WHRDs Amnesty International interviewed in the course of this research for the report, Challenging Power, fighting discrimination a call to action to recognise and protect women Human rights defenders, illustrate how they are breaking new ground and creating and implementing positive human rights change in their communities and beyond. These stories of change also show the WHRDs’ inner strength, courage, determination and resilience in fighting against injustice, inequality, discrimination, violence, patriarchy and oppression. They insist the fight for equality is a collective struggle.
ZOFIA MARCINEK AND IZABELA MOŻDRZEŃ – POLAND
Zofia Marcinek and Izabela Możdrzeń are two human rights defenders who won’t stand changes made by the Polish government that have undermined the rule of law and human rights, including restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as attempts to restrict women’s rights. They told Amnesty International that, in November 2017, they were amongst 14 women who were beaten after they unfurled a banner saying “Stop Fascism” during the Independence Day March in Warsaw, where hundreds of demonstrators had gathered to call, amongst other things, for a “white Poland”. Authorities initially decided to close the investigation into the attack against them. However, adding insult to injury, soon after the attack these women human rights defenders were themselves charged and found guilty for obstructing a lawful assembly, and given a fine. This conviction has since been quashed. These measures pose a real threat people’s right to peaceful assembly and have a chilling effect on anyone who wishes to freely express their views or criticise the government. The women appealed the decision, and in February 2019 a judge ordered re-opening the investigation into the attacks against them.
Back in 2016, Zofia Marcinek and Izabela Możdrzeń were also part of the “Black Monday” protest against the proposal to totally ban abortion in the country. They told Amnesty about the success of the “Black Monday” protest, which was instrumental in the dropping of the parliamentary bill and in the large-scale mobilisation across the country and Europe, including solidarity acts around the world, which “started a new flame in the women’s rights’ movement in Poland.” The Polish feminist movement, Zofia explained, has been revitalised. Established long-standing groups have new-found energy and new groups and initiatives have been created, the largest being Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet). who fight for women’s rights and also support LGBTI people, refugees and persons with disabilities. She thinks, at least for parts of Polish society, Feminism and activism have been demystified – no longer considered “radical” but “reasonable”.
Izabela sees the subsequent increase in public support for the decriminalisation of abortion and for same-sex partnerships and marriages over the past three years as a “real breakthrough.”. Crucially, Izabela insists an “uncompromising approach to building a civil society” by implementing the demands of full reproductive rights, a secular state, an end to violence against women/LGBTI people, economic equality, and social justice, as well as persistent advocacy and education outside of the activist “bubble”, are instrumental in achieving human rights change.
PATRÍCIA DE OLIVEIRA DA SILVA – BRAZIL
Holding security forces to account Brazil has one of the highest homicide levels in the world, and just a fraction of these killings are ever brought to justice.
Unlawful killings by police feed the wave of violence, and the vast majority of victims are young, black men.
It was in this context, that mainly women relatives of survivors and victims began to organise to support each other and fight for justice.
Patricia de Oliveira da Silva is the co-founder of Rede de Comunidades e Movimentos contra a Violência (Network of communities and movements against violence) in the city of Rio de Janeiro following a mass killing of
homeless children in Rio de Janeiro in 1993.
The network that Patricia founded in 2004 includes relatives of victims of the Candelaria massacre and other massacres which have occurred in Brazil throughout the decades. The Network campaigns for the rights of residents of favelas (poor suburbs) in a context where policing of poor communities is violent, repressive, racialised and corrupt, and where unlawful killings by the security forces have gone unpunished for years. Patricia told us that the Network has clearly shown that the killing of young people, many of them extrajudicial executions, and the enforced disappearances practiced by the police are not isolated cases.
Patricia and the Network have been key players in the campaign to hold security forces accountable for human rights violations and have denounced the endemic racism which has fuelled the killings of black youths. Their ultimate goal is to prevent the police from continuing to operate in the same way that took the lives of their loved ones. It is thanks to groups like these and their constant campaigning that three policemen who took part in the Candelaria massacre were later convicted of the killings.
Patricia works to fight impunity and prevent future killings not only against the backdrop of entrenched racism and police violence and impunity, but also in a context in which WHRDs face intimidation, harassment and are even killed. The feminist and human rights movements were deeply shocked when Marielle Franco was murdered in March 2018. Over a year later, the Brazilian authorities are failing to conclude an investigation into who killed her.
Reflecting on the role of women in the Network against Violence, which is made up largely of women, Patrícia noted that “women have always been the main transforming agents in the fight against state violations” and told Amnesty that she is driven by the knowledge that her human rights work contributes towards “building a better Brazil and world.”
HORTENSE LOUGUÉ – BURKINA FASO
Hortense Lougué is Executive Director of the Association of Support and Awakening Pugsada (ADEP) which was established in 1995 to support women and girls and campaign for their rights. It focuses on improving their legal status and socio-economic living conditions. It imparts human rights education, including on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and fights against all forms of gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation (FGM)
The organisation she now heads played a key role in making FGM illegal back in 1996. More recently, she and other WHRDs persuaded the Ministry of Social Action and National Solidarity to adopt in 2015 a national ten-year strategy to prevent and end child marriage.
Although FGM has been outlawed since the mid-90s, the practice remains widespread. ADEP organises activities to help parents understand and respect the rights of their daughters and the impact of FGM on their physical and psychological health. Its campaigning strategies include educational talks, discussion groups, radio and TV broadcasts, and the use of film screenings and theatre forums in the community. In addition, they provide counselling services for girls experiencing difficulties in their families.
Hortense has dedicated her life to ending gender-based violence in her country. “I have been an activist, general secretary, program coordinator and today I am an executive director of ADEP. I lead 10 projects and through determination and perseverance, we are committed to improving the lives of girls and women in Burkina Faso.”
HAN HUI HUI – SINGAPORE
Han Hui Hui is a young WHRD and human rights blogger from Singapore. She uses her blog and social media to highlight shortcomings in social services, especially in health and housing, as well as to raise public awareness of human rights violations in Singapore. She has participated in the organisation of awareness programmes and events on children’s rights, the right to freedom of expression and democracy, and facilitated training camps on democracy for youth activists. Her outspokenness has made her the target of judicial harassment by the Singapore government over the years.
She has pushed back repeatedly against being told by those in government and wider society that females are not allowed to raise questions, to organise protests, or to travel abroad to speak: “When I was told that females shouldn’t be travelling to raise awareness of what’s happening in Singapore in the first place, it made me realise the problem is not just with the government but society’s mentality…I don’t think this is a healthy social norm and I want it to change for the better.”
Han Hui Hui started blogging at the age of 16 about the education system, specifically questioning the value of university degrees but said she was told that as a female, she is not supposed to ask such questions and such questions went against the “OB markers” (“out of bounds markers” are used by Singaporean authorities to denote what topics are and are not permissible for public discussion or debate). This didn’t stop her. In 2013, at 21 years old, the government threatened to sue her for defamation when she raised questions about foreign talents and degree mills. Again, she received comments telling her to simply get married and settle down because “as a female, [she] shouldn’t try to raise questions regarding the system…[she] should wait for guys to change the system instead.”
In 2014, Han Hui Hui began organising protest events in Singapore but soon after was banned from doing so. She said she was told that “no female had ever been an organiser for a public assembly, least to say a protest.” On 27 June 2016, Han Hui Hui was found guilty of illegal assembly and causing a public nuisance and fined for leading a peaceful protest that took place on 27 September 2014 in Hong Lim Park, the only space where people are able to assemble and demonstrate without a police permit. She was charged in October 2014 under section 143 of the Penal Code and section 290 of the Public Nuisance Act for her participation in a peaceful protest that called on the Singaporean government to return Central Provident Fund savings to members. Amnesty International believed the charges against her may have been politically motivated as under Singaporean law, she is now barred from running in the general elections in 2020 as her fine was over SGD $2000. In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders referred her case to the Singaporean government, noting his concern that the trial of Han Hui Hui and her fellow protestors appeared to be solely based on their efforts to promote and protect human rights and on their legitimate exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion and expression.
In May 2019, the “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill” was passed. Without providing definitions for what could be considered “true,” “false,” or “misleading,” it gives Singaporean authorities unchecked powers to decide what appears and what doesn’t appear in people’s news feeds. Punishments include up to 10 years’ imprisonment and extremely high fines. This law is part of a long-running campaign by the Singaporean government to clamp down on peaceful government critics through repeated restrictions on the media and criminal indictments against activists, among other measures.188 In the lead-up to this draft law, a parliamentary Select Committee held hearings last year on “online falsehoods”. The sessions were marred by baseless criticism of civil society activists, and the forced removal of Han Hui Hui during a hearing on 29 March 2018. She was forcibly evicted from the public gallery for holding up the cover of a book titled Authoritarian Rule of Law, Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore.
According to Han Hui Hui, persistence over the years coupled with encouragement and information has resulted in more and more women and girls in Singapore recognising their abilities and speaking up. She feels, following her efforts, “there are now more young girls questioning the system, there are girls organising public events to discuss on issues instead of keeping quiet and accepting things as they are.” This year, she was able to refer two women to represent Singapore to speak at a regional conference: “That was something very heart-warming to see that I’m no longer alone.”