Women Human Rights Defenders

Fifth in a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence

I am always deeply inspired by each of the heroic women and men who have served as United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights. The High Commissioner’s “To Do” list is horrific, dealing personally and skillfully with one brutal situation after another. (Many people confuse the High Commissioner with the Human Rights Council. They are quite distinct.)

Our newest High Commissioner is Michelle Bachelet – former President of Chile and the first director of UN Women. I first met Ms. Bachelet when she hosted “The World Women Want” at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012 (my photo above). I found her to be immensely personable with everyone she encountered. She will need every ounce of that to make progress in our world!

Today, November 29, is International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. To mark this occasion, UN top experts issued this statement,  including in part: “The current global context of unchecked authoritarianism as well as the rise of populism, of corporate power and of fundamentalist groups are contributing towards closing the space for civil society. This is being done through the enactment of laws and practices that effectively impede human rights work…”

“In addition to the risks of threats, attacks and violence faced by all human rights defenders, women human rights defenders are exposed to specific risks such as sexual violence, defamation, intimidation, including against their family members, in order to deter them from continuing their valuable work. In 2017, Front Line Defenders recorded the killings of 44 women human rights defenders, an increase from 40 in 2016 and 30 in 2015.”

The group Front Line Defenders has been named winner of the 2018 United Nations Human Rights Prize. From regional offices around the world, it offers both long-term and emergency support for Human Rights Defenders.

In truth, though, each of us has the responsibility to defend human rights, and defend the defenders.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – which celebrates its 70th Anniversary on December 10th – puts this squarely in each of our courts. “Every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

In his introduction to the 2015 printing of the UDHR, then-Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon wrote, “Let us ensure that those people who most need their rights protected (emphasis mine) are made aware that this Declaration exists — and that it exists for them. Let us each do our part to make these universal rights a living reality for every man, woman and child, everywhere.”

The victims of gender-based violence are clearly among those “who most need their rights protected” – in every community on earth. Indeed, it is at the community level where people must organize to demand and protect their rights. Our Movement for Community-led Development exists to develop the capacity of every community to succeed in this mission.

When Women Lead

Fourth in a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence

On this day in 1919, American-born Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor (Lady Astor) became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. Women gained the vote in the UK in 1918, and not until 1920 in the US.

During this same period, India was fighting for its independence. At the time it was won in 1947, feminists debated – should there be a quota for women’s seats in India’s government, or would independence bring them to power “naturally?” The answer became clear. To this day, India is in 103rd place out of 140 countries, with just 12% female representation in Parliament.

In April 1993, however, the 73rd Amendment to India’s constitution strengthened the system of local government, and reserved one third of all seats to women – bringing 1.3 million women to positions of power in what has been described as the “greatest social revolution of our lifetime.”

At first, given the patriarchal structure of most of rural India, even feminists expressed the concern that these women would simply be “rubber stamps” of their powerful husbands or fathers. In November of 1998, however, Geeta Mukherjee MP declared – “I have met these women. Some of them may start out that way, but after four or five meetings, they are nobody’s rubber stamps.”

My organization’s India chapter has devoted its entire strategy to developing the capacity of these women leaders – working with more than 120,000 of them to date – including organizing them into federations where they can engage powerfully and constructively with the government administration. The women leaders prioritize issues that matter most to women, such as health, nutrition, clean water and keeping girls in school.

In terms of gender-based violence, there have certainly been instances of violent backlash. Long-established local community-based organizations (CBOs) support each woman in her journey of leadership. The elected women have the mobile phone numbers of the CBO staff, and can reach out to them 24/7. This is critical in that gender-based violence thrives on women’s isolation. The elected women, in turn, become the “hotline” for all the women in her constituency.

Perhaps most importantly, these elected women represent role models of what it looks like when women lead – both for community members, and for girls growing up.

Most recently, campaigns have been launched for elected women to serve as mentors for adolescent girls – teaching them their rights and encouraging them to stay in school and avoid child marriage which, while illegal, is still widely practiced. Nationwide, child marriage rates are 27%, but as high as 69% and 65% in the states of Bihar and Rajasthan, a focus of this campaign.

The results are inspiring. Please take the time to watch short videos of this miraculous process of unleashing the power of these adolescent girls at this link.

Overturning patriarchy will be a long struggle, but it is happening. We are fortunate to live in an era in which one half of our human family is seizing their full citizenship, and laying the foundations for a healthier, safer and more humane future for everyone.

Denying Health Care is Violence

Third in a series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. Photo: The Hunger Project – women’s march at the Bissiga epicenter.

There is a heartbreaking scene in Christy Turlington’s documentary No Woman, No Cry (2010) as a rural woman walks 12 miles to a birthing center, and is then turned away because she had not eaten and the clinic had no food for her.

Turlington served on the US Delegation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2012 and is the founder of Every Mother Counts. She has produced numerous documentaries on the lack of health care that currently leads to the needless death of hundreds of thousands of women each year.

If this isn’t gender-based violence, what is?

Fortunately, more and more countries are passing legislation ensuring universal, free access to safe childbirth and even some of the world’s poorest nations such as Niger and Ethiopia have trained tens of thousands of “front line” community health workers to reduce this egregious violation of women’s rights.

A key ingredient of Universal Health Coverage is for women in communities to know their rights and how to enforce them. An excellent example is at the Bissiga epicenter (a cluster of rural villages) in Burkina Faso. In 2016, the national government adopted a policy of free health care for pregnant women and children under five. The epicenter committee, trained by The Hunger Project, mobilized community members to further ensure awareness of this new policy, and women quickly began accessing these services.

However, in 2017, health center employees informed them that their funds had run out, and that if they wanted care they would have to pay for it. Community leaders contacted local health extension agents to assert the rights of women and children in their villages, and threatened to pursue the issue at the national level.

Thanks to empowered citizens willing to hold government accountable, they succeeded in halting what was essentially a demand for bribes by health agents. Women and children today exercise their rights to free basic health services.

Health is a human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care…” Ensuring Universal Health Coverage, including universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, are targets of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Why tell this story today? Today marks two anniversaries that remind us that the quest for Universal Health Coverage is intimately tied to the quest to overcome patriarchy.

First: today Google’s home page “doodle” celebrates the birthday of Fe del Mundo, the first woman admitted to Harvard Medical School and founder of the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines.

Second: it was three years ago today that a mass shooting took place at a Planned Parenthood Health Center in Colorado Springs, killing three people and injuring nine. Planned Parenthood’s 700 health centers provide health care to 2.8 million Americans, mostly poor. Some 28 million Americans still lack health insurance in the wealthiest country on earth.

On this, the third of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, we all need the courage and determination of Fe del Mundo and the women of Burkina Faso to ensure that the right to health is guaranteed.

Community Leadership to Halt Gender-based Violence

November 26 – Second in a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence.

How do women living in impoverished, deeply conservative rural communities fight gender-based violence, including child marriage? You can ask them!

My organization, The Hunger Project, like many others, builds the capacity of women to be the key change agents for ending hunger and poverty in their communities. Halting child marriage and domestic violence are usually these women’s highest priorities.

A few years back, members of our board sat down with community members and elected leaders in Betaga union in Bangladesh. Where a decade before, no women would attend such a public meeting, now they were clearly in the majority in the gathering. At their urging, the elected chairman had declared zero tolerance for domestic violence and child marriage. Some board members – lifelong Indian feminists – were skeptical. How do you handle this, they asked?

One woman stepped forward and explained: “Well, when a husband beats his wife, we go and speak to him and let him know this is a crime, and he could go to jail. If that doesn’t work, we have the chairman go and threaten him with jail, and make him publicly promise to never beat his wife again.” Then another stepped up and said, “Except one time, even that didn’t work, so we just bribed the police to beat him up!”

It is a sad comment on our stand for human rights that many people fail to consider child marriage a form of gender-based violence. It is, after all, rape. Early child-bearing carries a high risk of death for child and mother, and often leads to stunted physical and mental development. It almost always means an end to a girl’s education. Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world: 59% before age 18, 22% before age 15. How do these women stop it?

The women explained: “Many people know it is a crime, so they plan to do it in secret. But we listen to the gossip. If we hear about a marriage, we go and explain to the family why it is dangerous to their daughter and to their future grandchildren, and that it is against the law and we could have them sent to jail. If that doesn’t work, we have the chairman visit, and that usually works. But when we don’t hear about it, we know that it will happen on an auspicious day. We know about these days, so we watch carefully on those days, and if we see a wedding, we mobilize everyone and go and stop it.”

Many educated urbanites consider rural communities hopelessly backward, but this is not the case. Rural communities are “micro cultures” and – with leadership – traditions and norms can change surprisingly fast. Studies (link here) have shown how males come to respect women’s leadership once they are exposed to it. Another study (link here) has shown how trained rural grassroots women leaders can adopt very progressive gender attitudes and pass those on to others.

The message to all of us is – we need to invest in building the capacity of grassroots women leaders. Supporting another million women leaders could make all the difference in bringing gender-based violence to an end.

Change happens in communities, as people interact with community leaders that they trust. When women are those trusted leaders, change can be both rapid and lasting.  It’s in such revolutionary communities that one can experience the truth in author Arundhati Roy’s 2003 quote: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.