On and beyond the ‘frontline’: Interviews with Women Human Rights Defenders

By Chey, MA Applied Human Rights

The term ‘Human Rights Defender’ sounds awfully grand. Perhaps we have an image of glowing superhuman warriors on the front lines, poised, capes rippling backwards, eyes narrowed with determined bravery (sorry, Amnesty).

The United Nations says that a defender is anyone who tries to promote, protect or enact human rights. Of course being a defender can include your front-line hero figures. But it is also about  information-sharing, supporting victims (survivors), holding people to account, having input into policy, campaigning, talking to MPs, signing petitions and more. Clearly, women’s rights are human rights, and they do need defending. It wasn’t until 1981 that the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women entered force as a treaty. Women’s rights are still often side-lined: in 2014 only 4% of UN appeals targeted women.

Women human rights defenders particularly have additional needs (rights). They are even at risk of attacks from their home communities. It wasn’t until 2010 that a landmark report from the UN Special Rapporteur characterised the specific risks faced by women, including sexual violence, harassment, and threats to their families.  ‘Security’ for women means knowing their homes and families are safe, self-care, childcare, sexual health care, and strengthening community networks, online safety, rather than traditional ‘protection’ from gun-wielding men. Women need to live without fear of violence, not just without violence. Gendered power dynamics must be taken into account: protection must include psychosocial factors, and crucially we should be critical of separating ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces given that women face much violence from home.

Given this context, I jumped at the chance to interview women human rights defenders as part of the York MA in Applied Human Rights. Myself and two other students worked with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), a network spanning over 30 countries and 400 organisations which supports the rights of refugees in the Asia Pacific region. The network wanted to discover how to better support women leaders, including refugee leaders. We led online interviews with women from New Zealand, Japan, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Australia and more. I learned a lot about women’s rights and those defending them.

What struck me about these interviews was the personal strength of the women we interviewed. Refugees who had been displaced through war, ‘lost everything’ (her words), and yet were beacons in their communities, bringing people together, supporting everyone they could with barely any resources, and asking only for training in return. We spoke to women who were more than ready to die for their cause – and this was a very real possibility. Some were simply women who had worked in the field of human rights, but all of whom had sacrificed a lot to get there in order to help others.

These women leaders wanted women to be safe, respected, and to be included in daily community life. They wanted women to be free. To able to drive a car. To be able to run for leadership positions without being bullied out of it. To ‘know the right people’ and get ahead. To access higher education and training. To have childcare support and flexible hours. To get healthcare from people who understand and support women’s needs. To be free from sexual harassment at work.

A few things resonated with me personally (definitely not to be confused with the formal analysis of our data). The first was how women who grew up with supportive family environments, particularly supportive fathers, seemed more confident and assured. Another was the importance of female role models: someone to look up to – women’s visibility.

I also noticed how young many of these women were when they started to realise something wasn’t ‘right’ with gender relations (I myself can trace back harassment to an incident when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old). I was also struck by the role of ‘culture’ in its expectations of women. This spanned family culture, local communities, countries and even continents. Everyone’s experiences were different, but the themes were the same. The exhausting, constant, ongoing work women are expected to do alongside their human rights work, such as caring for multiple generations with little support. Then, there was guilt related to fulfilling these gendered expectations. Am I doing enough? I learned a lot from these women about ‘human rights culture’ and the need for self-care within contexts that are incredibly demanding and stressful.

In countries like mine, we often see international ‘support’ as being physical supplies, but the women we spoke with wanted connections with other women – other whom to think with, to have solidarity with, to gain comfort and knowledge from. The women wanted to learn from each other. They wanted to know that they’re not alone. Relationships and connections were paramount.  Even in their leadership, every single woman without exception framed leadership as a relationship with others (bringing the best out of others, supporting, learning together).

When we asked women leaders whether they thought their gendered challenges were unique to their location, or representative of something bigger, all of them said that women globally face similar problems. These challenges are just more or less severe depending on your local situation. To say that these issues exist on a spectrum is not to dismiss the very visceral threats that some women face compared to others. Nor is it to ignore the concept of privilege. After all, being a ‘woman’ is not a stand-alone category. Elements such as class, income, education, race, sexuality, gender transitions, (dis)ability, age and culture also interact with how women experience ‘womanhood’. However, rather than this creating an ‘us and them’, what I learned from speaking to women from APRRN is that we are all connected. Fighting for women’s rights somewhere is contributing to women’s rights everywhere.

Still, those of us who are safer and more secure (physically, financially, emotionally) have a role in offering what we can to those who could use a boost. A lot of that is about connections, knowledge-sharing, relationships and opportunities.

Examples of how to show international solidarity include: sharing women’s stories (e.g. sharing women’s blogs, tweets, books, videos and media), lobbying MPs (e.g. about the atrocious conditions at Yarl’s Wood), and signing petitions (e.g. Amnesty International’s petition for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe). Raise money for, or join, groups such as Media Diversified, The Orchid Project, Equality Now or AWID (a quick Google on international women’s rights organisations will definitely give you something that matches your interests). Join in with International Women’s Day, Pride, and Black History Month. For all that is precious in this world, join the fight against climate change – which in any case disproportionately affects women.

Especially in these trying and uncertain times of COVID-19, human rights, women’s rights and defenders are at their most vulnerable in the face of crises. Domestic abuse calls have increased by 25% since the lockdown started and refugees are at greater risk of the virus. It is therefore more important than ever to follow and promote the work of organisations such as UN Women, Refuge and the online platform Global Citizen. The sister project of APRRN called APNOR (Asia Pacific Network of Refugees),  run by refugees themselves, are also running an emergency appeal for refugee doctors on the front lines working 18hr days without proper access to soap and water.

On a more local scale, educate your friends, family and colleagues about racism, homophobia, sexism and ableism where you see it. Be kind to other women, lift them up. Buy women’s stuff. Read women’s stuff. Buy ethnically sourced clothes, as the garment industry can be very exploitative towards women. Volunteer, for example as a befriender to an older person (who is more likely to be a woman), or for Girl Guides or The Girls’ Network. Campaign for a better and more equal benefits system in the UK. There are so many things you can do.

To say this Masters project was ‘humbling’ would be a cliché. So would the word ‘inspiring’. That doesn’t quite capture the sense of emotionality, the opening of some kind of worldwide connection, the sense of being thankful that other women care enough about us to fight for our rights. I’ve certainly become a lot more aware of my rights, even more passionate about speaking up for women everywhere.

One key thing that I – and you – can do to ‘defend’ women’s rights is to listen, learn, and make space for a range of women’s voices. Nobody is a ‘voice for the voiceless’. These women have their own voices, thank you very much. Very articulate ones. So please, care about this story, share this story, and join in with celebrating and supporting women human rights defenders across the world.

NGO and Campaign Links:

  2. APNOR: #Refugeesrise Emergency Appeal gofundme.com/…/refugeesrise-emergency-appeal-to-coronavirus
  3. Media Diversified
  4. The Orchid Project
  5. Equality Now
  6. AWID
  7. Global Citizen



  1. Amnesty International UK. (2019). The Human Rights Defenders. [Video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPZzZ5zZivY 
  2. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (1999) RESOLUTION ADOPTED BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY. General Assembly. [Online]. Available at: ohchr.org/…rs/Declaration/declaration.pdf
  3. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2004). Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights: Fact Sheet 29. Human Rights Council. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet29en.pdf
  4. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women New York, 18 December 1979. Human Rights Council. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CEDAW.aspx
  5. UN Women. Changing the Gender Gap in Humanitarian Action. UN Women. Available at: https://interactive.unwomen.org/multimedia/infographic/humanitarianaction/en/index.html
  6. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. Human Rights Council. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/women/srwomen/pages/srwomenindex.aspx
  7. AWID. (2012). Ten Insights to strengthen Responses for Women human Rights Defenders at Risk. AWID. [Online]. Available at: https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/ten_insights_to_strengthen_responses_for_women_human_rights_defenders_at_risk.pdf
  8. Karen Bennett, Danna Ingleton, Alice M. Nah & James Savage (2015) Critical perspectives on the security and protection of human rights defenders. The International Journal of Human Rights, 19.  Available at: 10.1080/13642987.2015.1075301
  9. IM–Defensoras. (2013) A Feminist Alternative for the Protection, Self-Care, and Safety of Women Human Rights Defenders in Mesoamerica, Journal of Human Rights Practice, 5. [Online] Available at:  https://doi.org/10.1093/jhuman/hut017
  10. APPRN: https://aprrn.info
  11. Cho, S., Crenshaw, K., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs, 38. 
  12. Nabihah Parkar. (2019). Life as a Yarl’s Wood immigration detainee ‘like hell’. BBC NEWS. Available at:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-47802425
  13. June Kelly and Tomos Morgan. (2020).Coronavirus: Domestic abuse calls up 25% since lockdown, charity says. BBC NEWS. Available at:
  14. Ellie Mae MacDonald. (2018). The gendered impact of austerity: Cuts are widening the poverty gap between women and men. 10 January 2018. LSE: British Politics and Policy. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/gendered-impacts-of-austerity-cuts/ 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s