Meaningful Solidarity with Women Human Rights Defenders in Asia

News | Posted on Wednesday 28 April 2021

MA student Amy Darch discusses Human Rights Now’s ‘Women Human Rights Defenders in Asia: Fighting for Freedom and Democracy’ event in March 2021.

I was in awe of the courage of the panellists at Human Rights Now’s ‘Women Human Rights Defenders in Asia: Fighting for Freedom and Democracy’ event on 17 March 2021, who have risked their lives defending human rights and gender equality (a recording of this session is available). The session left me wondering: how can we do more to support women human rights defenders (WHRDs)? I hope that through this article, I can draw attention to the issues they discussed and to the actions that we can all take to show solidarity with WHRDs in Asia.

The panel, facilitated by CAHR’s Alice Nah, focused on a range of issues facing human rights defenders (HRDs) in Asia, which I want to highlight here. Dr Tomoko Ako, a Professor at the University of Tokyo and a WHRD, spoke knowledgeably of human rights issues in China, specifically the wrongful imprisonment of HRDs and activists who supported pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Ms. Kazuko Ito, Secretary General of Human Rights Now and member of the UN Women’s Asia and Pacific Civil Society Advisory Group, similarly drew attention to the situation in Hong Kong during her talk. Ms. Kazuko discussed sexual violence and the impact of victim blaming in Japan. These two speakers drew attention to the issues faced by HRDs and the importance of solidarity.

Ms. Gulalai Ismail and Ms. Saba Ismail, co-founders of Aware Girls, discussed the situation faced by HRDs in Pakistan, as well as their own experience as WHRDs. Ms. Gulalai told attendees how she had been put on a State Kill list due to her human rights work and how she was forced to escape a dragnet by fleeing Pakistan. Gulalai’s story is shocking, but I was struck by the normalcy of attacks and criminal accusations against HRDs in Pakistan. Ms. Gulalai argued that her story is not exceptional in the experience of HRDs and Ms. Saba spoke of the unique experience of WHRDs. Strikingly, they both told the story of their father, Mr. Muhammad Ismail, who has been arrested for “terror financing” under the Anti-Terrorism Act and Electronic Crimes Act because of their work. This tactic of punishing HRDs by persecuting their families is cruel, bringing further and significant cost to human rights work by jeopardising the safety of the families of WHRDs. They painted a stark picture of the struggles faced by WHRDs in Pakistan.

Ms. Wai Wai Nu, founder of the Women’s Peace Network, spoke of the violent repression of pro-democracy protests and the horrific genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Wai Wai Nu highlighted the military’s patriarchal use of women’s bodies as tools to terrorise the community. Her message that this gendered violence needs to be a concern for all women was a powerful one.  

The discussions at this panel around the injustice in the gendered experience of safety and security of WHRDs in Asia resonates with the current conversation in the UK around women’s rights and safety. Whilst HRDs across the world face threats and attacks, WHRDs face a uniquely gendered experience. The panellists discussed how patriarchal violence from state and non-state actors, sexual violence, cultural oppression, increased financial constraints and gendered online threats form the context in which WHRDs must operate. We need to acknowledge the unique struggles of WHRDs and take suitable measures to address these. The panellists recommended international condemnation and the forming of a regional protection mechanism for WHRDs in Asia.

All the panellists emphasised the importance of solidarity and networking. I was struck by Ms. Gulalai’s statement: ‘networks saved my life’. Learning about the issues faced by the panellists should be enough to compel anyone to want to act and express their solidarity, yet it is easy to feel helpless from the UK. However, the defenders emphasised the importance of international solidarity and pressure. Ms. Gulalai and Ms. Saba recommended military sanctions, condemnation and flexible funding by the international community. For the situation of Myanmar, Ms. Wai Wai recommended an international investigation into the crimes against humanity, the need for coordinated and comprehensive military sanctions, a global arms embargo and diplomatic mediation. We can make an impact by listening to the calls of HRDs and pressuring our own governments to speak up.

There are also actions we can take directly. Ms. Saba and Ms. Gulalai shared the importance of international solidarity and visibility to their father’s case, urging attendees to take part in the Amnesty Appeal for their father. We should show our solidarity by taking part in this appeal, listening to amplifying the voices of WHRDs, spreading awareness of the campaigns they champion, and supporting the work of their organisations.

By Amy Darch
Student, MA in Applied Human Rights, 2020/21
Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York