By Ruby Johnson, FRIDA Co-Coordinator
This piece was originally published on OpenDemocracy on 20 October 2014.
The increased violence against young women human rights defenders needs to be matched by funders prepared to respond more directly to the priorities identified by young people. Ruby Johnson says shifting the framework of how funders work with young people is essential.
On September 26th, a group of 43 student protesters from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, were travelling on a bus when it was stopped without warning and fired upon by police. Three students were killed, with the remaining arrested, taken away by police and men in plain clothes with rifles, and are still missing today. When the body of one student appeared the following day with his face sliced off, it seemed a chilling but all too familiar message was being sent. Day by day mass graves continue to be uncovered, but still, none appear to be these students. International pressure has mounted with solidarity actions around the globe from the UK, Germany, Brazil, USA, Bolivia and Argentina – demanding answers, and the return of the students – alive.
The targeting of young people who are standing up for their rights, mobilizing for change, is not unique to Mexico, historically or today. As the world watches the Umbrella Revolution unfold in Hong Kong, young people stand strong, protesting peacefully, drawing on art, music, and solidarity to demand democracy. All over the world, young people have had a role in the waves of change and uprisings, seen recently in Cambodia, Egypt, Tunisia and more. Young women have been at the forefront of these movements.
Parallel to repressions of student protest, over the last decade there has been increased violence against women human rights defenders (WHRD), with attempts to silence their voices. However, there have been significant strides in protections for WHRD’s by the international community. Including the recognition of the unique risks that women face and the passage of the first UN International Resolution on WHRDs. This work is being led by courageous collaborations, organizations and defenders, with the Meso American WHRD Initiative and WHRD International Coalition as key examples.
Despite their front line activism, young women and women often do not self-identify as WHRDs and are unaware of protections and networks that exist. As a member from Colectiva Juana Julia Guzman in Colombia explains, “in a country with a backdrop of armed conflict and militarization, the risks facing WHRDs are very high, with machismo and patriarchy forming a structural component of the war. While young women face the same risks as all women, the tools, networks and alliances we have are often less accessible. We are not as recognized or know the pathways of protection.”
The contribution of young women in social change movements and as WHRDs needs to be better recognized and their courage supported. In my role at FRIDA | Young Feminist Fund, working alongside organizations led by young women and trans• gender youth, I have seen how they experience threats, violence and intimidation for their work, with examples in every continent across the globe.
Salud Mujeres Ecuador, a young feminist collective started a public hotline in 2008, providing information about women’s rights to safe, free and legal abortion. In 2010 the hotline was shut down without explanation by the government. They secured a new line, but regularly receive threats and insults from government officials and anonymous sources. As Anais from the group says, “that’s part of knowing that we are doing the right thing, sharing information that saves women lives and let them make decision about their bodies.”
Established in the last few years, many of these groups are unregistered legally, some by choice. Their diverse membership includes indigenous women, students, lesbians, transgender, queer, sex workers, and religious minorities among others. Often these identities lead to open discrimination and violence: getting attacked on the street, office invasion, emails hacked or death threats. Security and safety of young feminist activists is of ongoing concern.
In March this year during their public action to mark Women’s History Month,Bishkek Feminist Collective was attacked by a group of 20-30 men yelling, “Why do you need rights?” and physically attacking the activists and destroying their stands.
A representative from a young women-led group in Zimbabwe talks of digital security, “The majority of WHRD in our network are not even aware of the risks of online activism, or how mobile phones can be used as tracking devices. People have been arrested for ‘politically incorrect’ Facebook posts. An increasing trend of online misogyny and bullying threatens the participation of women on platforms such as Twitter. Instead of WHRDs using the Internet as a space for active and free discussions on issues affecting them it becomes permeated with fear and silence.”
The more young women come together, the more they pose a threat to the status quo – and the more their actions ignite violent responses. Their bravery and creativity in mobilizing publicly around their rights, on sensitive issues, and self-identifying as feminists is resulting in backlash. Securing safe space is vital.
Ruidad Weekly Publication from Afghanistan, creators of the first young feminist magazine in Afghanistan have been followed, intimidated and insulted for their work. As Heleena from Ruidad Weekly explains, “after we published the first issue of the Magazine, the most shocking phone call we received, He said “Feminism in Afghanistan? Girl still you are a kid, shut this or we will shut you.” Right now, for many reason, including funds, safety and the political climate, we choose not to have an office because of situation in Afghanistan.” Despite such attacks, the group is determined to continue publishing their words and claiming their identity.
Young women are responding to these realities, drawing on close connections with their communities and their contexts to hold the line and change attitudes. From speaking out in off and online spaces, to launching solidarity actions, to building capacity in security and self-care, often the negative response to their work symbolizes its impact. The Radical Queer Collective from Hungary has delivered workshops on self-defense and its feminist principles, addressing gender attacks and queer self-empowerment.
A young women-led organization in Nigeria has faced increased risk following the passing of the same sex marriage prohibition act of January 2014. With a staff member explaining, “I have been called out, punched on the shoulder and pushed around because my physical appearance does not conform to the societal definition of a woman. The fear, stress and panic that comes with this level of insecurity affect the mental health of women in our community.” In response they have completed integrated security training for lesbian, bisexual and other sexual minority women. A member of their organization explains, “The security training is a way for us to educate and empower our sisters to take necessary steps to stay safe and secure both off and online.”
Creative and brave organizing by these groups requires creative and brave financial support. Funders need to ensure young people have resources so their offices can pay for proper security, pay for phone credit to call someone when they are in trouble, grab a safer mode of transport home, earn a salary/compensation for their work as an activist and come home to a safe apartment that gives them peace within a very threatening context. Continued solidarity and support from other organizations, and activists from the same and different movements is also required. Some organizations are doing fantastic work in this area, such as Urgent Action Fund and many more.
Shifting the frame of how we work with young people is also essential. Funders must continue to respond more directly to the priorities identified by young people, not focus solely on protecting them. Young people need to be given space to have their own voices heard and influence how funding is spent. The pulse of youth engagement and empowerment is in their ability to take action that changes the world around them, and this area continues to be underfunded.
When we ask ourselves how change is made throughout history, we know it is made collectively, often through diverse movements coming together. Young people, and in particular, young women and girls are a crucial part of strengthening and revitalizing movements and building progressive change. Today there are more than 1.8 billion young people (aged under 24) around the world, making up one quarter of the world’s population. It is clear their mass is the future.