The following are remarks I delivered on 28 November 2022 by video message to a conference celebrating International Women Human Rights Defenders Day in Lusaka.
I am delighted to send this video and join you in paying tribute to women human rights defenders today.
Since taking up this mandate in May 2020, I have spoken directly to hundreds of WHRDs and have heard about the huge range of human rights issues that they work on, from rescuing migrants from downing in the Mediterranean, to peacebuilding in Cameroon, to seeking accountability for the disappeared in Argentina to demanding gender equality in Saudi Arabia to fighting environmental degradation by corporate actors in Thailand.
I have heard how WHRDs often must juggle their work with caring responsibilities, or do it covertly, or be the ones who must sacrifice it when crisis hits, as we have frequently seen during the pandemic.
Yet no matter what world region in which they are based, WHRDs tell me of the similar risks that they face, risks which we are all very familiar with by now; the online smearing, the sexualised threats, the gendered insults as well as the arrests, the imprisonment, the physical and sexual violence and the killing. Others do extraordinary work in conflict zones, where the risk of targeted attack is coupled with the risk of un-targetted attack.
I personally know of one WHRD in Ukraine, who, when she finishes her shift as a nurse, drives around on her own time delivering medicine to the sick and elderly in their homes, stopping only to take shelter when air raid sirens sound.
Despite all of this, WHRDs continue to drive forward efforts to achieve civil and just societies, as we have seen with the Green Wave in Latin America, the political transition in Sudan and as we are seeing today in Iran and Afghanistan.
Despite the threats and violence, WHRDs are achieving remarkable successes. My next report to the Human Rights Council will be on victories achieved by human rights defenders to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on HRDs. In researching and writing the report, I was struck by how many of the systemic changes that the world has seen over the past 25 years have come from women and LGBTI defenders, whether it be greater sexual health and reproductive rights, equal treatment or abolition of discriminatory laws.
While it is true we are seeing a rollback of women’s rights in some parts of the world, and the continued exclusion of women in decision-making processes in other parts, I believe women human rights defenders can play an essential role in arresting this slide. However, they cannot do this alone. They need continued political, financial, moral and practical support from States, from international organisations and from individuals, and initiatives like today’s event do indeed help.
I’ll leave you with a short poem by Nikita Gill, which often comes to mind these days when I see the continued protests by women in Iran:
We are the descendants
Of the wild women you forgot
We are the stories you thought
Would never be taught
They should have checked the ashes
Of the women they burned alive.
Because it takes a single wild ember
To bring a whole wildfire to life.