Let’s step up our support for women human rights defenders

27 November 2015, 15:43 UTC | New Zealand, Afghanistan
Demonstration in Kabul by civil society organisations against the sexual harressment of girls and women in Afghanistan. © Marcus Perkins for Amnesty International
By Carsten Bockemuehl - Advocacy and Research Coordinator, Amnesty International NZ

Have you ever met someone risking his or her life for a cause? I still remember the day I was fortunate enough to meet Badaa, a young woman from Iraq who puts her life on the line to support survivors of sexual violence in her home country. Or the day I talked to Muna, a Rohingya woman from Myanmar who told me about the death threats she had received for championing women’s participation in politics. These two individuals changed the way I look at the world.

On Sunday, we have the opportunity to celebrate them and many other unsung heroes around the world: It’s International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. Women human rights defenders are women (and men) who work peacefully to protect and promote women’s human rights. Why not join Amnesty International in sparing a thought for those courageous individuals who – often against all odds – speak out against injustice, claim a place at the political table, and help the victims of sexual assault?

In Afghanistan, for example, Amnesty International has documented the threats and violence these women face in their daily struggle for human rights. Despite years of progress, women human rights defenders have again recently come under serious attack and faced death for the work they do. Just two months ago, when the Taliban recaptured Kunduz province, they carried out house-to-house searches looking for women on their “hit list”. And it’s not only the Taliban targeting defenders but also other conservative elements of society, including members of government and public service. Shockingly, attacks and death threats are usually met with no response by the Afghan authorities.

Despite women’s repeated pleas for protection, the government is failing to prevent violence against defenders and to enable them to carry out their crucial work.

This is where other countries must step in to help. New Zealand actually has a history of working with - and for - women in Afghanistan; Kiwi troops were deployed to Bamyan province until 2013 and New Zealand's aid programme assisted several local human rights, education, and health projects, with a particular focus on women's rights. Crucially, New Zealand has just adopted a new four-year action plan to strengthen the role of women in fragile and conflict-affected countries. It's great to see women's contributions to more peaceful societies formally recognised, but what matters now is of course that words will be translated into concrete action. This national action plan must not end up gathering dust on a shelf but should instead be an impetus for us all to redouble our efforts towards supporting women human rights defenders, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

This national action plan must not end up gathering dust on a shelf but should instead be an impetus for us all to redouble our efforts towards supporting women human rights defenders, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Together we can push our government to bring positive change to women's lives in conflict. There is lots New Zealand can do in practical terms, for example, use its overseas aid programme to support women's rights organisations on the ground, and consistently bring women's issues into its work on the UN Security Council. Where Afghanistan is concerned, New Zealand can use its diplomatic channels and urge the Afghan authorities to take steps to ensure the protection of women human rights defenders. This must include the launch of investigations into threats and attacks, bringing the perpetrators to justice, resourcing relevant government bodies to support defenders, and promoting public awareness of the vital work they do.

Women human rights defenders, in Afghanistan and many other countries, need our engagement and support more than ever before. They are peace-builders who should be able to carry out their work without fear of threats, attacks and intimidation. As a member of the UN Security Council, New Zealand can make a small but important contribution to building a more supportive environment for them.

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