When attendees of the 36th Human Rights Council made their way to room XI on Wednesday, 13 September 2017 at the UN Headquarters in Geneva to learn about the trials and triumphs of women human rights defenders, they were met with an impressive panel. Speaking at the event entitled ‘Women Human Rights Defenders: At the Forefront of Struggle for Human Rights’ was Amal Basha from Sisters Arab Forum SAF/International Federation for Human Rights FIDH/ World Organization Against Torture OMCT, Asma Darwish from SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, Sima Watling from Amnesty International, and Tara O’Grady from HRD Sentinel. Pooja Patel from International Service for Human Rights ISHR moderated and drove the conversation, which focused on the different ways women enter into and navigate the world of activism, and the great contributions they have made in this field.
An event organized by SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, many other organizations joined in to support the event as co-sponsors including Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme RADDHO, Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, CIVICUS, HRD Sentinel and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint program of the World Organization Against Torture and the International Federation for Human Rights).
Amal Basha, a prominent Yemeni women’s rights activists, spoke about different initiatives she is involved with that support women. They include programs that help those who are survivors of violence, including women and children who are held under house arrest. She has acted as a voice for the voiceless, highlighting issues during forums and international dialogues, and purposefully works at different levels of political, civil and social discourse. In politics, she has helped with organizations that support women who want to run in elections and created national coalitions.
Asma Darwish followed with an inspiring and traumatic personal telling of the experiences her and her family has endured, as a human rights defender from Bahrain. She noted that she was encouraged by the many women who would also like the opportunity to give testimony through international platforms, but due to travel bans and other repressive restrictions are unable to. As part of her own story, Asma Darwish stated that, “the government’s violent response to largely peaceful demonstrations turned many Bahrainis, including me, into activists overnight.” In February 2011, after her brother was arrested and tortured for taking part in the Pearl Square gathering, she went on a hunger strike for 12 days. She outlined how the government continued to quash the efforts of human rights defenders, and how she and her family have now been forced to live in exile.
Sima Watling from Amnesty International joined the panel to speak about the experience of women human rights defenders in particular. She spoke about how some women “fall into the world of human rights, as an act of defending their loved ones.” She stated how some feel compelled to speak out, not just to gain their individual rights, but in defense of their country. She also described the complex nature of conflicting pressures that many women face, forcing some to take the backseat and be less vocal as they are told not to bring shame to their families. Sima Watling further told of how she had met the currently imprisoned Bahraini activist Ebtisam Al Saegh, whom she described as “genuine, truthful and courageous” and called for her release.
Tara O’Grady proudly spoke of her initial foray into the world of human rights activism, which started with protests outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Ireland against the ban on women driving. She then described what has become a career of defending women’s rights, focusing on the Gulf region. She had worked in defense of doctors and medics, and focused on other countries in the Gulf before a woman wrote to her asking her to look into the conditions in Bahrain. She spoke about the noxious amounts of teargas used in Bahrain, and how she snuck out canisters and had them tested; the samples provided proof that Bahrain was using teargas that is 10 times stronger then standard measurements. She also spoke about the experiences of speaking out from the Gulf region, and working with male colleagues, and brought up the power of social media in getting out messages.Questions from the audience began inspired responses from the panelists and were well fielded by Pooja Patel. Many praised the efforts of the panelists. Asma Darwish delivered a request towards the end of the session, “If I have learned anything in my time of life, it is the power of hope, the power of one person, one person can change the world, by giving people hope. So if you want to change the world, speak out loud against the storm, take up the risks, step up when the times are the toughest and never ever give up, stand up and give hope. For if you do these things, the next generation and the generation that follows will live in a world far better than the one we have today.”