Every single day, women human rights defenders in Canada and around the world advocate tirelessly for justice and equality. International Women’s Day is the ‘feminist new year’s celebration,’ a time to pause, take stock of achievements over the past year, reflect, and renew commitments to ensure the rights of women, transgender, and non-binary individuals are respected, protected, and fulfilled.
The last year has been about voices. The voices of women, transgender, and non-binary individuals, such as Ebtisam al-Saegh in Bahrain, were stifled for speaking out about human rights. But despite threats, criminalization and attacks, women human rights defenders have not been silenced. Survivors of sexual violence in South Sudan courageously spoke out about the staggeringly high levels of rights, calling for justice and reparations, in a context where women speaking publicly about sexual violence is considered taboo. Women in Iran publicly removed their veils to protest a law on compulsory veiling. From #MeToo and #TimesUp to other grassroots movements, women human rights defenders around the world are creating a seismic shift in public discourse about workplace harassment, gender-based violence, and the power structures and systems at the root of gender inequality.
Tenacious, long-term activism in support of sexual and reproductive rights, including through Amnesty International’s My Body, My Rights campaign, resulted in steps toward legalizing abortion in some circumstances in Argentina and Chile, positive movements in the same direction in Ireland, and the release of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who was jailed for more than a decade in El Salvador under that country’s total ban on abortion.
The achievements of grassroots activists advocating for gender equality are not isolated candles flickering in a dark world. They are strong, bright, shining lights guiding the way to a more equitable world.
March 2017: Argentina recognized miscarriage isn’t a crime
Twenty-seven-year-old Belén was sentenced to eight years in prison under draconian anti-abortion laws after she suffered a miscarriage in a public hospital in Argentina. She had already served two years in pre-trial detention. After an appeal process through the Supreme Court and intense campaigning from Amnesty International and its partners, Belén was acquitted!
April 2017: Ireland moved closer to abortion reform
A committee set up to examine Ireland’s strict abortion regime voted for the constitutional rules to be changed allowing women and girls wider access to abortion. Two-thirds of the Citizen’s Assembly voted for access to abortion on request. Its recommendations will go to Parliament this year. The vote echoes Amnesty International Ireland’s poll, which found 80% of people in Ireland want women’s health to be at the heart of reforms to the country’s abortion laws. Amnesty International has documented the harrowing experiences endured by women and girls seeking abortion in Ireland and concludes that the law restricting access to abortion causes multiple violations of their rights.
May 2017: Indigenous women’s rights activists honoured with prestigious Amnesty award
Amnesty International honoured the Indigenous rights movement in Canada and musician/activist Alicia Keys with the prestigious Ambassadors of Conscience Award at a ceremony in Montreal, in recognizing of their outstanding contributions to promoting human rights. Five of the six recipients from the Indigenous rights movement in Canada are Indigenous women, who advocate on a range of issues from ending violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people, to ensuring that First Nations children on reserve have the same access to health and education as other children in Canada. One of the most moving moments was the connection between awardees Delilah Saunders and Alicia Keys, captured in this Teen Vogue interview.
June 2017: Canada announces major gender equality initiatives
In June, the government of Canada announced several initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality both in Canada and around the world. The Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) re-orients the allocation of Canada’s development assistance budget to initiatives that overtly promote women’s rights and gender equality, and the Federal Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence aims to coordinate federal initiatives to address stubbornly stable levels of gender-based violence in Canada. Both initiatives are welcome and a step in the right direction, and must be augmented and translated into concrete action to lead to truly transformative change.
July 2017: Amnesty amplifies the voices of sexual violence survivors in South Sudan
Amnesty International released a ground-breaking report on sexual violence in the context of the ongoing armed conflict in South Sudan. The pattern of violence is shockingly widespread and particularly brutal, and the report is centred on the voices of violence survivors, who are calling for perpetrators to be held accountable, for reparations, and for measures to address the social fractures that cause and result from sexual violence. One survivor told Amnesty, “I encourage victims of sexual violence: Please, if something happened to you, do not remain silent. Tell your stories and don’t hide anything.” These courageous survivors are contributing to peace-building and stepping outside of cultural norms by speaking out about a taboo subject. Amnesty International is honoured to help amplify their voices and advocate alongside them for justice.
August 2017: Huge win for women’s rights in Chile
The decision to support the decriminalization of abortion under certain circumstances was a win for human rights, and for the protection of women and girls across Chile. The ruling confirms that Chile’s constitution provides for access to safe abortion when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk, and in cases of fatal foetal impairment. “This victory is testament to the work of millions of women across the Americas,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director.
September 2017: Saudi women finally have the right to drive
Women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia spent years advocating for an end to the law that prohibits women in the kingdom from driving vehicles. Some of these activists were jailed for protesting the ban by getting into a car and driving. Saudi Arabia announced that women will be allowed to drive starting in June 2018, but it remains unclear whether all women will be able to drive unrestricted. Philip Luther of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa team said, “If by June next year  women in Saudi Arabia are driving the streets without fear of arrest, then this will be a cause for celebration. But it is just one step. We also need to see a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices swept away in Saudi Arabia including the guardianship system where every woman has a male guardian, be it their father, brother, husband or son, having authority to make decisions on her behalf.”
October 2017: #MeToo movement shifts the conversation about gender-based violence
The #MeToo campaign, where women, transgender, and non-binary people post their personal stories of gender-based harassment and violence on social media, began to shake the world. It is profoundly deepening and shifting the global conversation about workplace harassment and violence, broader patterns of gender-based violence and discrimination, power, privilege, and how some people are not able to freely and openly able to disclose their personal experiences on social media. Months later, #MeToo is so much more than a hashtag; it is a rallying cry for transformative action to make sure that every woman, transgender, and non-binary person can live free from discrimination, harassment, and violence, with their rights protected, respected, and upheld.
November 2017: Small victory for women human rights defender in Bahrain
Ebtisam al-Saegh, a women human rights defender who works with the NGO Salam for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, was released from prison, where she had been held since July. In May, she told Amnesty International she was arrested, interrogated, and physically and sexually assaulted by authorities and told to cease her human rights activities or face further targeting. She did not cease her human rights work, and was detained in July just hours after posting a Tweet about the National Security Agency’s ill-treatment of women and the abuse of female detainees. While she was released, the charges against her have not been dropped and she remains at risk of detention.
December 2017: Millions of actions taken in support of women human rights defenders
Amnesty International’s annual letter-writing marathon focused entirely on human rights defenders, people who peacefully advocate for human rights and in many parts of the world, are marginalized, criminalized, harassed, and attacked simply for speaking out for justice and peace. Over 5 million actions were taken, including many in support of women human rights defenders like Chinese housing activist Ni Yulan; Egyptian Hanan Badr el-Din, who is imprisoned for advocating against enforced disappearances; and Indigenous women defending land and territorial rights with the organization MILPAH in Honduras, who often face gender-based discrimination and violence because their advocacy has them stepping outside of traditional gender norms.
January 2018: Women in Iran peacefully protest compulsory veiling
Women in Iran peacefully protested the country’s law on compulsory veiling (hijab) by silently standing unveiled in public places waving white flags. Under this law, police and paramilitary forces are allowed to harass and detain women for showing strands of hair under their headscarves or for wearing heavy make-up or tight clothing. State-sanctioned smear campaigns are conducted against women who campaign against the compulsory hijab. The movement has spread and women continue to protest by removing their veils in public. Many have been forcibly disappeared and detained. Amnesty International calls on the Iranian authorities to end the persecution of women who speak out against compulsory veiling, and abolish this discriminatory and humiliating practice, which violates women’s rights, including their rights to non-discrimination, freedom of belief and religion, freedom of expression, and protection from arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
February 2018: Teodora released from prison in El Salvador
After being jailed for more than a decade, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was released from prison in El Salvador. Teodora suffered a stillbirth in 2007, was arrested, accused of having an abortion, and sentenced to 30 years for ‘aggravated homicide’ in a trial full of irregularities under El Salvador’s total ban on abortion. Amnesty International and other partners have successfully advocated for the release of Teodora and several other women jailed under the total abortion ban. Despite these individual successes, El Salvador has not yet committed to overturning this legislation, which violates the rights of women and girls in El Salvador.