During the AWID Forum, in Brazil this September, Urgent Action Fund collaborated with a team of UC Berkeley Law Students and faculty from the International Human Rights Law Clinic to speak with our grantee partners and advisors about their experiences of the closing space and increasing restrictions on women human rights defenders. For these students, this was their first time attending a women’s rights conference such as AWID, and as intelligent and passionate future human rights lawyers, the experience had a profound impact on them. The following blog is the personal reflections shared by two of the law students who attended the Forum. In reading them, they remind me that AWID is not only critical for people in the movement now, but can be transformative for those who will hopefully be part of shaping and supporting the movement in the future. And when we think about Feminist Futures, that’s what we want….transformation.
– Shalini Eddens, Director of Programs, Urgent Action Fund
No one could leave AWID without an appreciation for the diversity of experiences elicited by the simple question: What does it mean to be a woman? From Ghanaian women dressed in Kente to Egyptian women with earrings reading ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam (“the people want the fall of the regime”), diversity could be seen and heard everywhere at AWID.
Such a space is powerful and inspiring. As law students, we entered AWID with our own identities, value systems, and areas of ignorance. Some experiences and conversations felt foreign and pushed us outside of our comfort zones. But it was important and not entirely surprising that we, the authors, had these moments, given our own diversity. Angela Donkor, a second year law student at UC Berkeley School of Law, was born in Ghana but grew up primarily in Italy, later moving to the United States at the age of sixteen. She has travelled to and worked in a variety of countries, assisting NGOs with their important work and educating herself about different cultures and social issues. She hopes to use her legal education to promote inclusion and acceptance of all people. JA is a third year law student of Palestinian and Irish descent at UC Berkeley School—roots that she recognizes as the epitome of modern-day colonialism. Her passion for Palestinian rights developed while she finished primary school in the Middle East, and grew during her undergraduate program when study of Irish history helped her to realize that her identity struggles were inherently intertwined. She hopes to use her legal education to advocate for the Palestinian right to self-determination, and one day, the establishment of an independent state that is no longer plagued by the ills of a 68-year military occupation.
Angela: Gender Identity and Gender-Inclusive Bathrooms
This year, the debate over gender neutral bathrooms has generated strong feelings on both sides of the discussion. Proponents have argued that people ought to be free to use any bathrooms they want, that forcing people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth fails to recognize their humanity. Opponents have argued safety concerns, chiefly that would be sexual predators might use gender neutral bathrooms as an opportunity to harm women and girls. In the United States, conservative towns have begun to pass laws forcing people to use the bathroom associated with their gender at birth.
To be honest, I was not sure which side of this debate I stood on. I am not even sure that, prior to the AWID conference, I had given much thought to the issue of gender neutral bathrooms. Perhaps I thought that my opinion did not matter, or that whatever I had to say about the issue would not make a real difference, considering how divisive the conversation had been. Then, I found myself in Bahia, Brazil at the AWID conference this year. In the lead-up to the conference, the organizers hosted a webinar in which they mentioned that there would be gender neutral bathrooms. As someone who has grown up using the same bathroom as people of my gender, I had gotten comfortable with the idea of knowing who was using the bathroom next to me. At first, it was hard to use the gender neutral bathrooms. I was scared about what my reaction would be and afraid that, if I reacted badly, I would make another person feel truly uncomfortable. However, on day two of the conference, I decided to give the bathrooms a try. I went in and did my usual routine. I did not feel uncomfortable, but that was because as soon as I walked in, it was clear that everyone in the bathroom was a woman. I told myself I had done it; I had used a gender neutral bathroom, but I had not. I felt like I had cheated myself of the experience because I had not confronted the “other,” I had not come face-to-face with someone with whom I typically would not expect to share the same bathroom.
On day three, I decided to use the gender neutral bathrooms again. This time, when I walked in, there was a man and a transgender woman washing their hands. I proceeded to use the restroom, but if I am honest, I was scared. I was scared that they had read the fear in my eyes as I walked in; I was scared that I had made them uncomfortable. So I took longer than usual in the bathroom, waiting to see if they would leave. Then, I opened the door and came out, washing my hands right next to them. I walked out and nothing had happened.
In retrospect, it was as normal a bathroom experience as the countless ones I had had before that day. What made it different was that I have grown-up in a world in which we are afraid of the other. I have grown-up in a culture that says men and women use different bathrooms. What was remarkable about what I learned that day is that we live in a world in which we have made the rules ourselves. And what is empowering about that is our ability to change the rules at any time and to be more inclusive—just what the gender neutral bathrooms aim to achieve. They force us to change the self-imposed rules in recognition of the humanity of others.
JA: MENA Coalition and the Intersectional Dialogue Surrounding Palestine
For the first time in my life, at AWID, I was in a space where people understood and respected my Palestinian identity and struggles. Throughout my life, women’s rights in Palestine have always been framed by both the patriarchal nature of Arab society and the role of Islamic fundamentalism. The activists that I have met in the global north continuously failed to recognize that Palestinian women cannot be “free” as long as they live under occupation, constant human rights abuses, and apartheid. Conversely, AWID created a space for dialogue on the intersection of issues that both Palestinian women and men face under military occupation. It also created a space for the intersection of struggles between women from conflict areas. I felt like I could wear my Palestinian identity as a badge of honor at AWID, rather than having to hide it as I have been trained to do by Western society. The sense of relief and clarity that I got from this experience left me thinking about issues that, quite honestly, I gave up on long ago.
Every time I discussed Palestinian rights with friends or family (usually fellow Arabs), someone always mentioned how the other countries in the Middle East never stand up for Palestinian rights. If we Arabs cannot stand together, then why should others stand with us in our fight against ISIS, the pursuit of democracy, etc.? I had asked myself this question on many occasions with no real answer. It was not until I attended the AWID conference that I realized that reliance on states with varying political and financial interests would never yield solidarity for our shared struggles. Instead, reliance on transnational movements and civil society organizations could become a great source of cross-border cooperation and solidarity.
This revitalized train of thought stemmed from a workshop that I attended at AWID on the establishment of a women’s human rights defenders coalition in the Middle East and North Africa. The workshop helped me to appreciate the viability of a cross-movement response to combating the similar injustices faced by all Middle Eastern people. A regional coalition is a great tool for activists throughout the Middle East to reconceptualize their strategies in light of each other’s experiences. Such coalitions can strengthen local movements and lead to concrete change. These coalitions recognize that feminism in the Middle East includes not only the right to drive or own land in Saudi Arabia, but also the right to live free from dire poverty or bombing campaigns in Yemen. Coalitions foster the essential idea that none of us are free until we are all free. With this in mind, it was also inspiring to see Palestinian self-determination framed not only as a Palestinian struggle, but also as a regional, and most importantly, a feminist struggle; one that was shared and understood by the many amazing women that I was fortunate enough to cross paths with during my time in Bahia.
When I sat on the terrace of one of the hotels on my first night at AWID, I spoke with a group of women from Algeria. The second they found out that I was Palestinian, they began to tell me stories of their own activism in support of Palestine, and how Algeria could never be free and at peace until the Palestinians were too. We spoke for hours about our shared hardships. I also met a woman from the northeast of India who lived under conditions of constant, heavily armed conflict. She talked about the Israeli role in fueling the conflict in her region and sympathized with my internal battle to remain active in an era replete with power-politics and western ideologies that continue to minimize my peoples’ suffering. Through her own activism and her words, she encouraged me never to give up fighting for the freedom and equality of my people, despite my exhaustion.
After these encounters, I returned to Berkeley more committed than ever to my peoples’ struggle for self-determination and the global struggle for women’s liberation. As part of the Palestinian diaspora, I can never stop fighting for my freedom, my identity. With this reinvigorated commitment to learning more and actually taking steps toward change, I decided to finally visit Falasteen. This December, I will make the journey; a trip that I will surely never forget, just like my father before me can never forget being expelled and forbidden from returning to his home on June 7, 1967. The first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, may have been right in one respect: the old will die, but he was mistaken in believing the young will forget. I most certainly will never forget.
In a world in which we are afraid of diverse viewpoints and in which we seek refuge among those who speak and act the same way as we do, our stories show that we can be different and still value that difference. Our stories are examples of two future lawyers navigating a world in which we are seen as profoundly different and told that there is no way we can coexist together. A world in which we are told that we cannot all speak at the same time and have a voice, because one of our voices might take over that of the other. We reject these views because we believe that there is enough space in the feminist world for all of our voices to be heard and for all our experiences to be valued.
Berta Cáceres’s assassination is a painful reminder of the way in which a trinity of corporate, government and military interests creates a tapestry of capitalist power structures, making for an often deadly struggle.
On the 3rd of March, Berta Cáceres, a prominent Honduran-Lenca feminist and Indigenous rights defender was assassinated in her home by unidentified assailants. A Lenca Indigenous woman, Berta worked indefatigably to advocate for the rights of the Lenca people. Her compassion and commitment led her to cofound the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations (COPINH) in Honduras in 1993. For twenty-three years she led environmental and land rights campaigns against megaprojects, most recently against the controversial Agua Zarca hydroelectric project for which she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. Berta was also a mother of four.
In May 2013, Urgent Action Fund-Latin America supported COPINH twice with a security and protection grant (a collective form of protection, secure communication and mobilization), and more recently with an advocacy grant to demand the end of Berta’s criminalization. With the support of UAF-LA and international pressure and solidarity, Berta was released from persecution.
“We women are an incredible force that breathes life into the world.” – Berta Cáceres
In August 2015, UAF-LA held the Regional Convening on Defenders of Life against Extractivism as a strategic space for organising, exchanging tactics, building capacity and solidarity. Berta was in attendance and stated that women human rights defenders (WHRD) challenging extractivism are in essence challenging the dictatorship of big capital, coupled with a patriarchal culture that positions the female body as a contested site of struggle. Women human rights defenders become the main victims of persecution, threats, harassment and sexual harassment, as an expression of a misogynist… Read More >>
On Saturday, 5 March 2016, homeless women who are members of Picture the Homeless helped lead a march through Harlem for International Working Women’s Day. Why?
Women and families represent the fastest growing groups of the homeless population nationally. Approximately half of the homeless population are families with children. Among homeless families, 90 percent are female-headed. Families, single-parent family mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless in rural areas.
“As women, it took us a long time to get where we are today,” said PTH member Darlene Bryant, who will be marching on Saturday. “To get the right to vote, to get the right to real freedom of speech. But the fight isn’t over. Women have rights, but we have to stand up for those rights. As mothers, as sisters in the struggle, whether we’re on the streets or in a shelter, we need to stick together. Homelessness impacts women differently than men. We have to deal with the fear of attack, sexual assault, all sorts of things. That’s why we’re marching on Saturday…” Read More >>
It’s time to come clean about something.
In philanthropy, we really love to talk about progress and social innovation. About forward movement and impact achievement, about tipping points and levers that catapult change. With logic models like Rube Goldberg machines for the production of equality and prosperity. In this version of our story, risk is hardly mentioned, people never burn out, and projects never falter.
It is not simply that we avoid discussing the vulnerabilities in our logic models as if they were a really embarrassing date we had when we were twenty-two. It is that the specific nature of challenging, disruptive events can be un-anticipatable. When something goes wrong, too often we think – “we must have funded the wrong group, the wrong strategy” – and too rarely do we think – “these failures and disruptions are an inevitable part of the process, how do we better prepare for them, learn from them, and mitigate their negative impacts?”
Important new research from the Open Road Alliance suggests that philanthropy needs more, and more honest, conversations about risk. Their findings, based on surveys of 200 nonprofits and 200 funders, reveal that risks are real and vulnerabilities are common. Yet, too often they are not discussed, and too rarely is critical contingency funding available to help grantees get projects back on track. Open Road’s findings suggest that funders should anticipate that 1 in 5 of their grantees will face an unforeseen, disruptive event that requires contingency funding during any given grant year.
This resonates at Urgent Action Fund, where we provide rapidly available contingency grants to grassroots women’s and LGBTQI equality organizations when they face unanticipated threats or opportunities. What also resonates with us are Open Road’s findings that reveal a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture around these issues within philanthropy… Read More >>
At the United Nations Headquarters in New York, 2015 was marked by pervasive opposition to human rights, as UN Member States repeatedly attempted to roll back their earlier commitments. As we embark on this New Year, contentious discussions around the resolution on human rights defenders last November and December are a renewed reminder of the indispensable role civil society plays in countering this backlash.
In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by consensus, recognizing the important role of human rights defenders and demonstrating a robust and unanimous commitment to protect defenders working on all human rights.
Every year since and always by consensus, UN Member States reaffirmed this commitment at both the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council in subsequent resolutions on human rights defenders.
Last November, however, the annual draft resolution was met with fierce opposition at the General Assembly’s Third Committee, with the Africa Group proposing amendments to undermine the text and with China and Russia calling for a vote on the resolution for the first time in its history… Read More >>
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its groundbreaking ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States. This landmark decision comes on the heels of the tireless work of countless activists who have for decades fought for equal rights under the law, and is a milestone in the ongoing struggle for justice, love, and equality.
Today also happens to be the Trans Day of Action, an opportunity for Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People to come together to break isolation, build new solutions, and address issues facing their community. It also comes on the heels of the horrific murder of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a Trans woman from Alabama, earlier this month; as well as the now infamous “Obama Heckler” incident earlier this week, where a Trans woman interrupted President Obama to raise awareness about the high levels of physical and sexual abuse Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People experience in U.S. detention centers.
While we are celebrating today’s decision to allow people to marry who they love, we also recognize that there is still much work to be done to ensure that Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People, in the U.S. and internationally, are able to live free from violence, racism, and hate… Read More >>
Yesterday, on a balmy spring evening in Manhattan’s Union Square, with the sound of Hari Krishna’s chanting in the background, and tourists peering out of the large windows of Forever 21, a vigil was held to honor the lives – and raise the visibility of – Black women and girls who have died at the hands of the police.
The names of 8 women were spoken – Alberta Spruil, Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseax and Tanisha Anderson. Their family members called out their names, describing them as always smiling, the life of the party, warm and generous in spirit, and in the prime of her life. Their photos were held and passed to the stage by community members, as one woman spoke, “Who will hold our sisters?”
I began my first day with Urgent Action Fund in its Oakland office, on November 21, 2014 the day of the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict. Three months prior – the same week that Michael Brown was murdered – a police officer in Phoenix killed 50-year-old Michelle Cusseaux, a Black woman who suffered from mental health issues, while trying to serve a mental health order. Read More >>
As I continue to receive updates from our partners on the ground about the heartbreaking aftermath of two devastating earthquakes in Nepal, I am reminded of the difficulties that women and girls with disabilities, in particular, face in relief and recovery efforts.
With the death toll rising past 8,500 in Nepal, people with disabilities, and especially women and girls, have been one of the last to receive support, and face continued discrimination and isolation in the horrific days and weeks after the earthquake.
As one of our advisors, Tika Dahal, recently wrote, “In this serious condition, we need shelter, clothing, disabled friendly (mobile) toilets, sanitary materials, food, and medicine.” According to Dahal, who is the founder of the Nepal Disabled Women Association (NDWA), and the General Secretary of the National Federation of the Disabled Nepal (NFDN), 10 people with disabilities, including 2 children, have been found dead in her community since the first earthquake struck on April 25. More than 200 people with disabilities have been reported injured, and more than 500 families have been displaced since then… Read More >>
UAF’s Program team was thrilled to participate in our biennial South Asia regional advisor convening, held at the lovely TEWA center in Kathmandu, Nepal last month.
Our network of advisors consist of more than 120 leading women’s and LGBTQ activists throughout Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North America. UAF advisors are the backbone of our grantmaking, acting as our eyes and ears on the ground to ensure that our rapid grants continue to meet the needs of grassroots women’s rights activists worldwide.
Building solidarity and compassion, particularly at a grassroots level, is an essential component of movement building and advancing the rights of women and trans* people.
In all, 29 women leaders from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka joined us for three days of discussions, breakout groups, and strategic planning sessions. The women hailed from all walks of life — women’s human rights defenders, lawyers, judges, grassroots activists, NGO directors, researchers and writers, media and technology experts, and artists – and brought their diverse experiences, cultures, and perspectives to the discussion… Read More >>
As the war in Gaza continues, Urgent Action Fund is horrified by and condemns the indiscriminate killing of civilians and stands in solidarity with those impacted by the violence.
In response to this conflict, we have provided rapid grants to women-led organizations calling on the Israeli government to immediately instate a ceasefire and for a cessation of violence on all sides.
The Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP) is a Tel Aviv-based organization that encourages the active participation of Palestinian and Israeli women in peace building efforts. With a rapid grant, CWP organized a peaceful demonstration to protest the ongoing violence and advocate for a non-violent resolution to the conflict.
Awareness For You (AFY) is a women’s group in Kfar Qara, Israel that promotes gender equality and seeks to change attitudes about prevailing gender stereotypes. AFY brought together Palestinian and Jewish Israelis to call for an immediate end to the violence. The protest included a human chain with the message ‘Neighbors in Peace.” AFY is also working to engage religious leaders in peace… Read More >>
Urgent Action Fund partners, Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ, were attacked during an International Women’s Day event in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on March 6 2014. Below is their account of the attack.
On March 5th from 15 to 19 PM an activist team of Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ was carrying out a planned informational event, dedicated to the 8th of March (IWD) at an intersection of Kievskaya and Beishenalieva streets. The event included trivia with questions on the history of 8th march, statistics on women in Kyrgyzstan and the women’s movement, a stand with number “8”, feminist symbols (based on the Venus symbol) and captions “International women’s day of equal rights and opportunities”, “Time to act, Kyrgyzstan!” Activists were informing passersby about women’s rights, prevention of violence and the history of March 8th. The event was carried out with the permission of Lenin district administration.
At approximately 18 PM, when the event was coming to an end, a group of of about 20-30 people gathered around the stand. They began aggressively asking questions about feminist signs and accusing activists of… Read More >>
In Cambodia, garment workers – 90% of who are young women from rural poor families – are striking to demand higher wages and humane work conditions.
The garment industry is Cambodia’s biggest export industry, generating over $5 billion in international sales for the country and employing approximately 500,000 people. Many workers were paid just $80 a month until this February when minimum wages were raised to $100.
Over the New Year, tens of thousands of workers went on strike, organizing public demonstrations calling on the government to raise the minimum monthly wage from $100 to $160.
On January 3 2014, four Cambodians were killed and 21 injured when police opened fire on striking garment workers calling for increased wages and improved working conditions… Read More >>
Our world today is struggling to pass an exam. It is an exam with only one question on it. Will we end violence against women and LGBTI people?
When we talk about gender-based violence, we talk about the continuum from the home to the battlefield, from public executions to the violence committed in the name of religion, morality or “public order.” From the perspective of LGBTI movements, this continuum includes as well the criminalization of homosexuality and cross-dressing, rape, hate crimes and speeches, usage of homosexuality in media to oppress opposing political and public figures, forced anal and vaginal examinations and arbitrary detentions, all of which are unfortunately ordinary stories in so many lives. Too rarely are voices raised in objection to this violence and to all gender-based violence. There are always plenty of excuses and justifications for being sexist, homophobic and transphobic… Read More >>
“No one should take a bullet for their ideas. You should live for them, not die for them.”
These were the opening remarks from the Seventh Annual Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders, organized by our long-time partner Frontline Human Rights Defenders. The three-day Platform brought together more than 140 human rights defenders from 94 countries to share their experiences, learn from each other, and come up with new and more effective strategies for their security and protection.
While I expected the Platform to be informative, I did not expect to be so profoundly moved by the courageous, formidable, and at times heartbreaking, stories that many of the activists shared over the course of three days. Stories like that of Ruth, a young women’s human rights defender in Kenya whose home was burned down by local militia after standing up for the rights of an adolescent woman to access reproductive health services; or Wazhma, whose spouse was kidnapped by the Taliban, never to be seen again, because of her efforts to increase women’s political voice in Pakistan; or Raisa, a lesbian activist from Kyrgyzstan who, along with her colleagues, was arrested, beaten and sexually assaulted by police for standing up for the rights of others to choose who they love… Read More >>
Nasrin Sotoudeh, the Iranian lawyer sentenced to 6 years in prison and a 20-year ban on practicing law, was released in Iran on 18 September, 3 years into her sentence.
It was not just the fact that she was a mother of a 2 year-old and 11 year-old at the outset of her imprisonment that led to strong and persistent advocacy efforts for her release. It was also that Nasrin Sotoudeh had depicted the highest professional ethics in the conduct of her legal work as a founding member of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders. She had defended women’s rights advocates, political opposition, children facing execution and a range of cases that carried considerable risk for her and her young family, and she knew this. Nevertheless, she persisted and ultimately paid a very… Read More >>
In my line of work, I often get the question: “Why does equality for women and girls matter?”
To me, a world without equality for women and girls is like flying a plane with only one wing. To solve any of the issues of our day – from poverty alleviation to defending everyone’s human rights – we need to include allpotential agents for change.
Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF), the organization I lead, is the only fund of its kind to provide time-urgent funding specifically for women’s human rights activists.UAF protects, strengthens and sustain women’s human rights activists at critical moments. We respond to all requests within 72 hours, 365 days per year. Our support helps women’s rights activists—including members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trangender (LGBT) community—remain resilient in the face of unexpected threats or take advantage of unforeseen opportunities… Read More >>
On 16 December 2012, a 23-year-old woman was beaten and gang-raped on a bus in Delhi, India. She died from her injuries thirteen days later.
In the weeks that followed, waves of protests took place across India. Young people and college students came out in big numbers, demanding justice and affirming women’s human rights.
The issue of violence against women (VAW) was placed squarely on the national agenda, in ways unprecedented in the recent past. There was immense mobilization and interest from young people on the issue of sexual assault and gender justice. Protestors demanded azaadi (freedom) for women. They asserted the need to protect women’s rights, not their bodies. Misogynist comments by certain religious and political leaders were vehemently denounced on primetime television. And yet, perhaps expectedly, some of the slogans were unsettling from a human rights perspective. Calls for death penalty and chemical castration for the accused were made, and countered, but continued to persist in pockets. Many questioned the rampant objectification of women in the media; some of these statements morphed into outright anxiety about the expression of women’s sexuality… Read More>>
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