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The UK must protect women around the world fighting for their rights

4 min read

Women human rights defenders are coming under attack at an alarming rate. The UK should be at the forefront of responding to this global backlash, writes Catherine West 

Next week marks one year of detention for three inspiring women who successfully led the campaign to secure women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were arrested on 15 May 2018, and since then many others have also been unjustly imprisoned for fighting for their rights. These women should now be behind the wheel, but instead many are locked up behind bars. 

These brave women have paid a high price for their peaceful actions to improve their rights and the rights of their mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. Amnesty International has reported that they’ve faced sexual abuse and torture at the hands of the authorities during their detention, which they endured for many months without charge or access to lawyers. 

Every day, women around the world speak out for their rights – standing up to sexism, racism, homophobia, corruption and more. They harness their voices to empower communities, protect the vulnerable and create a fairer, more equal world. 

"Every day, women around the world speak out for their rights - standing up to sexism, racism, homophobia, corruption and more" 

But repression and abuse of women is a global problem. In response to speaking out, women human rights defenders are coming under attack at an alarming rate – facing surveillance, intimidation, threats, imprisonment and even risks to their lives – often targeted not only because of their work, but simply because they are women.

In the UK we should be at the forefront of responding to the global backlash. That’s why I secured a debate in Parliament on Tuesday 7 May to ask the Foreign Secretary if he will agree to make human rights defenders a priority for his department, in recognition of this unprecedented surge in attacks against them.

Such a commitment would not only elevate the UK as a champion of human rights on the global stage but would also recognise the burgeoning power of women’s voices.

Women’s movements are proven to be the most significant driver of legislation on violence against women. Without pioneering women human rights defenders in this country we would not have secured equal voting rights, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and a host of other things we now take for granted.

And women are fronting the battle for human rights around the world. Last year saw women-led movements like Latin America’s ‘Ni Una Menos’ galvanise mass support for women’s rights issues on a scale never seen before. In India and South Africa, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest endemic sexual violence. In Iran, women activists risked arrest to resist forced hijab wearing. In Argentina, Ireland and Poland, demonstrators rallied in vast numbers to demand an end to oppressive abortion laws. In Iceland and Sweden, new laws were passed recognising sex without consent as rape. And across the USA, Europe and Japan, millions joined the second #MeToo-led women’s march to demand an end to misogyny and sexual harassment.

Women human rights defenders are ordinary women doing extraordinary work. They could be doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, activists, journalists – people who work in their communities, pushing for progress, defending people and standing up to tyranny. 

They must be supported to feel safe. They need the international community to do more – call for their release when they are imprisoned, provide protection when they are threatened, call out impunity when they are ignored, support them to work and provide for their families through backing women led small businesses, and above all to listen when others want to silence them. Human rights organisations like Amnesty are doing lots to support these women, but they need governments to commit to their safety too. 

Protecting women human rights defenders is the right and sensible thing to do. In our globalised world we must recognise that we are all connected. Crackdowns and abuse of those who speak out somewhere else today could happen somewhere closer by tomorrow. 

Here in the UK we cannot ignore what is happening around the world. We must challenge what happens in Egypt, in Ukraine, in Brazil or Saudi Arabia, knowing that we are not only supporting the voices of change there, we are protecting the voices of change everywhere.

Catherine West is Labour MP for Hornsey & Wood Green

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