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A Day to Defend Women Human Rights Activists

29 November 2015

International Women Human Rights Defenders’ day falls on 29 November each year. Founded in 2004, this day of commemoration looks to celebrate women’s activism in defending human rights around the world. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are counted as female activists who publically look to protect their own rights and those of other women.

Aims of this day include to recognise the growing role that women play in defending human rights and to raise awareness of such important women’s work. Finally, International Women Human Rights Defenders’ day also aspires to help incite the protection of WHRDs.


One may not immediately think that WHRDs need protection in particular as their work often entails protecting others, however, sadly at times these women do need protection too.

Nela Porobic, a WILPF employee since 2013 based in Bosnia, highlights the problems she and other human rights defenders can come across.

Such women have to be very courageous as at times as “you might get physically harmed” she details, adding that “it’s about having courage to put forth issues that are not mainstream.”

“I have been subjected to prejudice and misogyny,” Nela also points out.

Azza Hilal Suleiman’s, an Egyptian human rights defender who was brutally attacked by police when trying to aid a fellow woman during the 2011 Tahir Square peaceful protests, case also shows the abuse and difficulties women can face.

In addition, some question as to whether women should even play any role in defending human rights at all. Nela goes on to confirm this, saying, “as a woman there are particular societal expectations on you, where activism is often put in direct collision to societal expectations of what a woman should do and how she should act.”

Women are not always taken seriously as agents of change, and can in some communities be seen as perpetual victims, unable to take the lead in generating their own empowerment.

Majd Chourbaji, the representative for Women Now for Development in Lebanon and winner of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award, also underlines difficulties she has faced in her role as a WHRD.

A Syrian activist, Majd comes from Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. She was driven to become a WHRD after witnessing massive injustice in her country. It’s a similar story to Nela’s regarding the troubles she has faced.

She specifies, in the beginning of the Syrian revolution when she and her fellow activists “worked on organising demonstrations in order to demand our freedom and dignity, the community opposed us by claiming that our role is to remain inside our houses since this type of work is not for women.”

It is, however, integral that women are involved too in defending human rights. Many human rights violations are perpetrated against women, so they must be active in generating their own security and that for their fellow sisters.

Nela states that “having women human rights defenders is an imperative. As human rights defenders we act when the violation is already there, the important part here is forestalling the violations and this is then where the participation of women becomes so important, because the experiences are gendered.”

Furthermore, as Radhika Coormarasway asserts, in her 2015 report ‘Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, and Securing the Peace: A Global Study on Implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325’, peace negotiations including female influence are more likely to result in an enduring agreement. There is even a 35 per cent increase in the chances of such an agreement lasting 15 years or more. Women make positive contributions to every pillar of defending human rights and negotiating peace at every level.

This year it has been 15 years since United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) was passed. Over the years several amendments have also been added.

UNSCR 1325 has gone some way in debunking such myths, as detailed above in this article, and opening up the way for today’s WHRDs. A land mark resolution, it addressed the changing nature of warfare and of women’s role in violent conflicts. It looked to reaffirm the important part women play in preventing and resolving conflict and defending human rights.

The recognition that International Women Human Rights Defenders’ day generates can really help to develop and grow what UNSCR 1325 started.

Tributes like todays are so important as they highlight to us all the courage of women working in this domain, giving us all the opportunity to offer these brave women our support and applause.

/by Isabel May Bull [ba-divider style=”solid” color=”#000000″]

Photo of Isabel May Bull
Isabel May Bull

About the author

Isabel May Bull is a student, studying Politics and French at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, with a particular interest in gender politics and International Relations. She is currently on an Erasmus year abroad at The University of Geneva studying Translation (French and English).

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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