10 ways we’ve defended women’s rights in the past year

March 8th is International Women’s Day and we’re taking a moment to reflect on how your support has changed women’s lives around the world in the past year.

From policy breakthroughs to freedom for courageous women human rights defenders, here are just a few of the ways you’ve defended women’s human rights and helped break down barriers for women and girls:

1. The Canadian government announced an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

For well over a decade, Amnesty International has stood alongside Indigenous women, families who have lost loved ones to violence, and so many others to call for an end to the disturbingly and unacceptably high rates of violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls. We have published reports, written letters, gathered petition signatures, joined vigils, and spoken out in the media, in Parliament and at the United Nations. And throughout it all we have stood with Indigenous women and families and let them know they are not alone in the struggle to end the violence.

Together, with your help, we are making strides. The tireless work of Amnesty supporters has helped generate a groundswell of public support for concrete action to end the violence.

In December, we welcomed the federal government’s announcement of a public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The announcement was a major breakthrough after years of government inaction.

So much lies ahead. We need your help to make sure that government commitments truly lead to an end to the violence. And your solidarity is crucial to making sure Indigenous women and families know they are not alone in their struggle to end the violence.

TAKE ACTION: Sign the pledge to stand with Indigenous women and families to end the violence

Learn more: No More Stolen Sisters

2. Burkina Faso has made commitments to end early and forced marriage

In December 2015, Burkina Faso adopted a national strategy and a three-year action plan to prevent and eliminate child marriage in the country. The strategy and plan came after the government committed to address the obstacles that women and girls face when trying to access sexual and reproductive health services and information. And in February, Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Justice, Human Rights and Civic Promotion committed to raise the legal age of marriage for girls to 18 years and to ensure that forced marriage is clearly defined in Burkina Faso’s criminal code. The government also committed to introducing free healthcare for pregnant women in an effort to reduce the number of maternal deaths.

Prior to these announcements, on December 10th, Amnesty International supporters Canada and around the world sent thousands of letters, emails and tweets to the government of Burkina Faso as part of our global Write for Rights letter-writing marathon. The government acknowledged in their February announcement that they have been receiving messages from around the world urging them to take immediate action to end this practice.

While these promises are a step in the right direction, we need your help to ensure these plans turn into real action.

TAKE ACTION: Sign our action calling on Burkina Faso to turn their plans to end early and forced marriage into real action

Learn more: Ending early and forced marriage in Burkina Faso

3. Miscarriage is not a crime: Justice for Guadalupe in El Salvador

In 2007, at just 18 years old, Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering a miscarriage. She was wrongly accused of having an abortion, which is outlawed in all circumstances in El Salvador. She was one of 17 women in jail with lengthy sentences for being accused of having an abortion.

In January 2015, thanks to years of hard work by dedicated activists in El Salvador, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly took a vote on whether to pardon Guadalupe. Amnesty International condemned the outcome of the vote and international pressure led to a re-vote being scheduled. In the days leading up to the re-vote, Amnesty supporters took to the internet to send a wave of messages to Assembly members urging them to release Guadalupe and the other jailed women. Guadalupe was finally pardoned and walked free from prison in February 2015.

Her exoneration is a victory in the long fight for women’s rights, but her story is tragically not unique. El Salvador continues to condemn thousands of women to death or decades behind bars by criminalizing pregnancy-related complications and prohibiting abortion even when a woman’s life depends on it. As part of our My Body My Rights campaign, Amnesty International has been campaigning to end El Salvador’s total ban on abortion.

TAKE ACTION: Sign our action calling for Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, another woman jailed in El Salvador for pregnancy-related complications, to be released now.

Learn more: Read our report on violations of sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America and the Caribbean

4. Five women’s rights defenders released on bail in China

Five Chinese activists decided to mark International Women’s Day in 2015 by launching a campaign against sexual harassment. They had made stickers to distribute, printed with slogans like “Go police, go arrest those who committed sexual harassment!”

Just before March 8th, authorities arrested them on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Amnesty International swung into action, mobilizing our letter-writing Urgent Action Network to join the voices of activists from around the world.

The outcry secured the release of the five on April 13, 2015. However, the charges have yet to be removed and they still face a possible five year sentence. In fact, the Chinese government continues to harass and silence women’s rights defenders by threatening and arresting activists, even shutting down women’s rights organizations.

Women’s rights defenders can pay a high price for their dedication to advancing women’s human rights and empowerment. One such defender is Bahareh Hedayat, an Iranian student activist in prison for 10 years on charges including “insulting the president.” Bahareh is with a group known as the One Million Signatures campaign (also known as the Campaign for Equality), a grass-roots initiative to end legal discrimination against women in Iran.

TAKE ACTION: Sign our action calling on Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Bahareh Hedayat

5. You stood with sisters threatened with sexual punishment in India

In May 2015, 23-year-old Meenakshi Kumari and her 15-year-old sister fled their village in Baghpat, Utter Pradesh, to Delhi, fearing a backlash after their brother, Ravi, eloped with a married woman from a higher caste.

Sadly, their fears were confirmed when just days later their house was ransacked. Two months on, the village’s male-only unelected council (khap panchayat) ruled that Meenakshi and her teenage sister should be raped and paraded naked with their faces blackened as punishment for their brother’s actions.

Meenakshi, a Dalit woman, courageously reported the human rights violations. When Amnesty International India learned about their case, they rallied more than 500,000 Amnesty supporters worldwide to call for their protection.

The authorities took the concerns seriously. On September 16, India’s Supreme Court ordered Delhi police to provide protection for the two sisters and their family. Amnesty International continues to call for justice and reparation for Meenakski and her family. If they are unable to return to their village, they must also receive support to rebuild their lives in another community.

Learn more: Read their story and learn more about Amnesty International India’s work to end gender discrimination in India

6. A Sudanese court overturned the conviction of a teenager sentenced for “indecent dress”

On August 16, 2015 Ferdous Al Toum was found guilty of “indecent or immoral dress” and sentenced to 20 lashes and a fine of 500 Sudanese pounds.

She was arrested as part of a group of 11 young women on June 25th who were leaving a church ceremony at the Evangelical Baptist Church in Khartoum North. The women were all wearing skirts or trousers, yet were accused of “indecent or immoral dress.” Incredibly, Ferdous was charged again for the clothes she wore in the courtroom at her trial. She was sentenced to a large fine for her appearance in court (paid on her behalf by activists and supporters), as well as the lashes.

In light of this news, more than 16,000 Canadians joined Amnesty International supporters from around the world to condemn the sentence. Following an appeal by Ferdous’ lawyers, her conviction was finally quashed by the Court of Appeal on October 14, 2015. She was the second last woman to be released, and eventually all 11 women were freed.

Sudan’s “indecent dress” law applies to women and men on paper, but it is used exclusively against women. Women and girls around the world face discrimination in law and practice simply because of their gender. Women and girls can face harsher punishments for the same “offences,” such as the case of Atena Farghadani. In 2015, Atena, a young painter and activist, drew a cartoon critical of proposed laws that would make it difficult for women to obtain contraception or seek a divorce in Iran. She was arrested for her peaceful activism and sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison.

TAKE ACTION: Call on Iranian authorities to release Atena Farghadania now!

7. Justice for a Courageous Torture Survivor

In 2012, marines broke into the home of Claudia Medina Tamariz. They took her away to a local naval base. There, Claudia suffered terrible torture, including electric shocks and sexual assault.

The torture was aimed at forcing Claudia to incriminate herself in drug-related crimes. To make the torture stop, Claudia signed a piece of paper put before her. She later discovered it was a “confession” to crimes she had not committed.

More than 300,000 people, including thousands of Canadians, sent letters to the Mexican Attorney General. Claudia is now free. In reviewing her case, a judge confirmed that after her arrest Claudia was tortured and sexually assaulted by marines in order to force her to incriminate herself and others in drug-related crimes. On February 6, 2015, that judge informed her that the last remaining charge was dropped.

Despite everything she’s gone through, Claudia is filled with determination to help others: “After this long process I had to go through I felt the need to become a human rights activist, to show that I’m not a criminal, as authorities portrayed me. I will not allow even one more woman to be tortured in Mexico.”

Torture, including sexual assault, is the preferred crime investigation technique for some Mexican police and military officers. They torture people into signing false statements and use them as evidence to prosecute. Claudia and Amnesty International continue to speak out for other torture survivors in Mexico, like Yecenia Armenta. Police hung Yecenia upside down, asphyxiated and brutally raped her until she signed a “confession,” while still blindfolded, to her husband’s murder. She’s been in prison ever since.

TAKE ACTION: Call on the Mexican authorities to drop the charges against Yecenia, release her immediately and bring her torturers to justice.

Learn more: Amnesty’s Stop Torture campaign

8. Amnesty activists rallied for a domestic violence victim sentenced to death 

Li Yan in China made repeated calls to the police about her abusive husband, Tan Yong, who frequently beat her. He stubbed out cigarettes on her face. He locked her, near-naked, on the balcony of their apartment for hours at a time during the freezing Sichuan winter. On one occasion, he cut off her finger.

After repeated ignored requests for help, in late 2010, isolated, afraid and denied protection by the authorities, Li Yan resorted to violence and beat her husband to death with a gun.

She was sentenced to death. But thanks to international support, her sentence has since been commuted to the death sentence with a two-year reprieve. Under Chinese law, death sentences with a two-year reprieve should be commuted to life imprisonment upon the expiration of the two-year period, as long as the prisoner does not commit another crime during the period of suspension.

This tragic outcome could have been avoided. “The reprieve for Li Yan could prove a landmark verdict for future cases where domestic violence is a mitigating factor. With her case, the highest court in China has sent a clear message that judges must not ignore domestic violence,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International.

This may not feel like a landslide victory for Li Yan, but it remains an important moment of shedding light upon the issue of domestic violence in China.

Activists still face serious risks for speaking out about violence against women and other women’s rights issues in China. One such women’s rights activist is Su Changlan, a former teacher in prison since October 2014 for her peaceful activism. She is being held in deplorable conditions and faces life imprisonment simply for calling on the government to respect human rights.

TAKE ACTION: Write a letter to Chinese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Su Changlan

9. You helped put women’s rights on the Canadian federal election agenda

Amnesty International Canada was a proud member of the Up for Debate campaign to promote women’s rights and gender equality in the lead up to Canada’s federal election in 2015. Our goal was to make sure that all federal political party leaders explained how they would build a more equal Canada for us all, and make meaningful commitments to change the lives of women and girls for the better at home and around the world. And we succeeded!

Learn more: The Up for Debate campaign helped bring meaningful change

10. You helped break the silence around sex, relationships and reproduction in many countries

In 2013, Amnesty International launched its My Body My Rights campaign, founded on the principle that people of all genders have the right to make decisions about our health, body, sexuality and reproductive lives without fear or force.

Thanks to educational materials and training materials produced through the campaign, 100,000 young people have challenged discriminatory attitudes and gender-based violence through workshops, video, theatre, debates, poetry, song and dance. In rural Zimbabwe, activists opened empowerment centres in schools as a safe space for young girls to talk about sex, relationships and pregnancy.

Learn more: Visit our My Body My Rights campaign webpage

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