The most dangerous job in the world

Deeyah Khan September 2014

Growing up I was exposed to courageous feminists from Pakistan, the Middle East and India when my father would gather artists and intellectuals from different parts of the world in our home for discussions about world politics, human rights and social justice. As a young girl I was inspired and moved by these women, mesmerized by their courage, kindness and fearlessness — women who were larger than life speaking truth to power, regardless of the personal costs. I was in awe of what they stood for but at that time I had very little sense of the danger they were in.

However over the years I have come to realise that being a lawyer, journalist, artist or trade unionist can be a job with more risk of physical injury than working in a mine or construction site – if those legal, literary or organisational skills are directed at securing human rights. It is those who work to secure the human rights of women, sexual and ethnic minorities and the poor who are the least secure themselves – vulnerable to state and corporate harassment from hired thugs, the forces of the law, and armed groups, vulnerable to smear campaigns presenting them as terrorists, security threats or immoral persons, invasions of their privacy, harassment of friends and relatives, intimidation, imprisonment, the seizure of their assets, endless methods are applied to attempt dissuading women human rights defenders from raising their voice against injustice, discrimination and oppression. These women were not just fighting for their own rights to freedom and equality in dignity and rights but they are also fighting for me and all women and girls around the world.

If these women human rights defenders put their own safety on the line for all of us then what are we doing for them? What can we do for them? I believe that solidarity is key. When I participated in a panel conversation at the UN in Geneva in December for Human Rights Day 2013, I met one of my heroines, Pakistani activist Hina Jilani who mentioned that the life of a human rights defender can be a very lonely and isolated one. Her comment shows the importance of solidarity. That's the least we can do for our sisters on the frontlines of the struggle for women's emancipation from discrimination, violence and injustice.

In 2013, the organisation Frontline Defenders noted the killing of 26 Human Rights Defenders from countries as various as Cameroon, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, and Venezuela; of course, many people have disappeared of the face of the earth, and their ultimate fate will never be known. The range of abuses these brave individuals confront are diverse: from protecting the environment from profiteering corporations, to attempting to unionise sweated labour. One of the more precarious areas of activism, however, is campaigning for women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and against violence against women, because these confront deep-seated patriarchal ideologies around ‘family values’ and ‘morality’. According to the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, women activists ‘face the same types of risks faced by all human rights defenders but because of their gender they are also the target of, gender-based violence and gender-specific risks.’

In Iran, for example, women’s human rights defenders have faced imprisonment, which may include torture, for crimes as trivial as attending peaceful demonstrations. Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer, who was the winner of the European Parliament's 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, for her defence of children facing the death penalty, dissidents and protesters was given a sentence for six years by the Islamic state. The charges against her included not wearing a headscarf in a video, ‘acting against national security’ and propaganda against the regime. Although she was released early, there remain an unknown number of political prisoners in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, in which the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners has been suspected.

Violence against human rights defenders does not only come from the state, but can also come from the family: Laxmi Bohara, a Nepalese activist was allegedly murdered by her husband and his mother in 2008 – her husband and his family saw her activism as tantamount to adultery, and unsuitable for a ‘good’ Hindu woman. Those of her friends and colleagues who campaigned for justice in her case were themselves targeted for threats and violence.

There is a dizzying amount of evidence for the persecution of female human rights defenders: Wabiwa Kabisuba ran a centre for victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo: she was dragged from her home by eight uniformed men and shot, and she is only one of many women threatened and attacked in the DRC. Lorena Cabnal was one of many women opposing the exploitation of mineral resources upon land claimed by the indigenous Xinka people of Guatemala, and supporting women’s rights. She has received death threats for her work from 2004.

Hina Jilani, who served as Special Representative of the UN’s secretary General on the situation of human rights defenders from 2000-2008 is unequivocal about the value of protecting human rights defenders, which she identifies as ‘central to the promotion of human rights, the development and strengthening of democracy and the respect for the rule of law.’

Jilani’s successor Margaret Sekaggya observed that attacks upon human rights defenders have only increased since 2008, and reported to the UN Council on the 11th of this month. It is a telling fact that some female human rights defenders were unable to attend the council’s meeting on the 11th, due to fears of persecution to their own countries upon their return.

We owe it to those heroines on the frontlines to consider the work to defend human rights defenders most seriously, because a free and fearless civil society is essential to democracy, peace and justice: the actions of human rights defenders like Nasrin Sotoudeh, Laxmi Bohara, Wabiwa Kabisuba and Lorena Cabnal serve on the frontline of the fight for human rights for us all. The most dangerous job in the world is the most vital for humanity. It is in all our interests to take every possible step to reduce the hazards of standing up for the victims of human rights abuses. I feel deeply encouraged by Norway's act of solidarity with women human rights defenders and the concrete measure of getting the resolution to protect women human rights defenders passed in 2013. I am deeply inspired by these courageous and compassionate women who are making the world a better place for our coming generations. I acknowledge their sacrifices and contributions for human dignity and equality, my heart is filled with gratitude and respect for them. I stand in support and solidarity with the very best expression of humanity and courage, these remarkable human rights defenders, I stand with you in respect and solidarity.

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