November 29 is globally recognised as International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. As the name suggests, the day is used to celebrate women who invest themselves in defending the human rights and rights of women and LGBTQI across the world. The day also recognises the efforts of the States that to defend women’s rights.
The date of the inception of the day is contested. Some websites mention that it started in 2004 while others say the day is being celebrated since 2006 starting from Bangkok. This day is a salutation to women activists across the world. It is because of the efforts of these women activists, fondly known as Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs), that we exercise or human rights freely and without any hesitation. If you are free to vote, speak up, contest elections, march in protests and seek education and employment, we should be thankful to the activists who never gave up on protecting women’s rights.
Let’s take a moment to recognise some of the widely known activists. But before starting, let me tell you that the list isn’t exhaustive. Every woman who speaks up for her or others’ rights at home or in public places is an activist. Being an activist requires the perspective to look beyond the given and seek that which is deliberately made invisible.
An independent researcher on gender, poverty, development and policy, Cynthia Stephen has worked as an activist and writer for over 30 years. Stephen is a champion of equality and has supported the cause and rights of Dalit women often. In an article published on SheThePeople, Stephen said, “The life of a human being varies with their position in the caste hierarchy. Women are only objects who fulfil domestic, ritual and reproductive roles in a patriarchal family. The untouchables don’t even figure in the law book as they are outside the pale of the four castes. Women and Dalits are non-citizens, non-people as far as it (the Indian state) is concerned”
2. Kiruba Munusamy
Munusamy (second from left in the picture below) is an advocate at Supreme Court and a prominent anti-caste and equality activist. She is also a writer, research and a founder of many organisations that promote equality. Speaking to SheThePeople, she said, “All of us need to stand against women’s oppression, Islamophobia, violation of the LGBTQIA community. This has to become an anti-status quo revolutionary movement. It has to have leadership from the oppressed community.”
After the Nirbhaya gangrape case shook the world, Shruti Kapoor took the initiative of empowering girls and not letting the incident happen again. Kapoor founded the organisation named Sayfty to educate and empower girls. The organisation also aims at providing knowledge about legal rights and laws to women. It trains girls in self-defence to make them self-sufficient in fighting against crime in India. Kapoor is widely known for her phenomenal work and has been awarded a couple of times. Apolitical named her one of the most influential people in global policy in 2019. In the same year, the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development recognised Kapoor as one of the 30 #WebWonderWomenwho have been using social media to drive a positive change.
3. Preeti Singh
Preeti Singh is a prominent disability activist. She often speaks about the stigma that further disables disabled people and advocates the importance of building disability-friendly infrastructure. She was born with Cerebral Palsy, which is a congenital disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture. Being a young child, she received a lot of negative comments like she’s burden, she should die and many other hurtful things.
4. Sister Lucie Kurien
Sister Lucie Kurien was initially working at HOPE, an organisation founded by Holy Cross Convent that works for abused women. At that time, she was approached for help by a pregnant woman who was constantly abused by her alcoholic husband. But Kurien was unauthorised to invite the woman to spend the night in the organisation. So she told the woman to come next day so that she can arrange alternate accommodation for her. But that night, the pregnant woman was attacked by her husband who set her and her unborn child ablaze. Kurien was devastated and that’s when she thought about opening a shelter home for abused and deserted women. Hence Maher was founded. Maher is an organisation that provides shelter to women and underprivileged children. It has branches in Maharashtra, Kerala and Jharkhand. It not only helps the survivors of domestic violence but also educates the poor and underprivileged. Many villagers were provided with knowledge about rights, duties and responsibilities in society.
6. Naseema Khatoon
At the age of 28, Naseema Khatoon , daughter of a sex worker, hailing from Muzaffarpur, Bihar founded the organisation named Parcham. The organisation rehabilitates sex workers and their children and protected them from police atrocities. It also educates and employs them by starting a small scale manufacturing business of bindis, candles and incense sticks.
7. Shweta Katti
Born and raised n Kamathipura, Asia’s most infamous red-light area, Shweta Katti is known for her work towards empowering marginalised girls. At the age of 16, she joined Kranti, an NGO that empowers girls from the red-light area and makes them agents of social change., Katti was included in the Newsweeks-25-Under-15 Women to Wach list in 2013. She also received UN Youth Courage Award. Katti received a scholarship from Bard College hence becoming the first woman from the red-light area to study abroad.
8. Riya Singh
A doctoral researcher at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, Riya Singh plays a vital role in empowering Dalit voices. She works at the Research and Advocacy Officer at Dalit Women Fight which is India’s largest Dalit women-led organisation to tackle caste based violence and discrimination. She has actively worked with survivors of caste atrocities. Speaking with SheThePeople about the caste-based violence like Hathras gangrape case, she said, “I’ve never understood the need of explaining why caste is important in a caste-based crime. Caste is right in front of our eyes… The first thing people ask is what is your name? If you give your first name, they’ll ask you – aage kya hai? (for surname). But Indian society is hesitant about claiming caste pride when it is about bad things.”
Safety of rights defenders
It is important to note that women to defend our rights are at great risk of being deprived of their own rights. In 2015, a report by The Guardian revealed that human rights activists are constantly being targeted around the world.
“Women are in a really very bad position in the whole world but in countries like Honduras where we actually no rights all, we may have the worst part. And the women who speak up in a worse [position.]” said Daysi Flores, JASS Honduras country director, in Guardian’s Global Development Podcast.
We have often come across cases of murder, sexual crime and abuse against women activists. A prominent example from India is the reported molestation against female students in Jamia Milia Islamia during the CAA-NRC protest which became a reason for bringing together many women activists. Gladys Lanza Ochoa, a feminist and human rights activist from Honduras was illegally imprisoned for defending the rights of women in the country and fighting against the imprisonment she died due to health problems.
Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition for her comment on the CAA-NRC protest. Aishe Ghosh was brutally hurt during a breakthrough in the college. Many marches for women’s safety and crime against them is shadowed by the danger of being harassed by men involved in the protest or those dressed up as police. Cases of sexual misconduct were reported by women protestors from the Singhu Border too. A woman was reported to have been stalked by a man who took pictures of her at the protest site. Another woman reported that a prominent male protestor from Singhu Border would propose to her each time she bumped into her and touch her face a few times.
Lack of representation of women in powerful roles
A s far as India is concerned the major reason for the unaddressed issues of women is their lack of representation in law and government. The representation of women in the Indian judiciary dwindles at 12% which is lower than in Afghanistan (27.6 %). India ranks at 146th in women’s representation in the national Parliament. In Lok Sabha, only 14 per cent of seats belong to women.
If the judiciary and parliament involve fewer women, how can we be assured of the safety of women activists on the ground? How can we be assured that the safety of women activists is a concern of the government?
So on this international woman human rights defenders day, let us pledge the safety and security of women who fight for our rights.
Views expressed are author’s own