With a near total crackdown on civil society organizing, women human rights defenders in MENA face trauma, burnout, imprisonment, and exile. Yet they defiantly persist, finding creative ways to continue their struggle for justice. How? Across the region, women are working in solidarity through joint networks and campaigns – within, and across borders. And they are demanding international visibility for their causes and accountability for their abusers.
Women’s activism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has increased substantially in the last three decades, with the number of women’s rights groups tripling between 1980 and 2015. Building on experience during the first wave of pro-democracy rebellions, feminist demands have become more central to a “second wave” of protests that seek greater equality and inclusion, for women and other excluded groups.
Working collectively has been an essential response to the closing of civic space in the region. One face of this solidarity is the Women Human Rights Defenders MENA Coalition, which protects women defenders in a range of practical ways—from providing safe houses to shedding light on violations committed against them. It amplifies voices from the region and works through international mechanisms to identify rights abuses and seek protection and justice.
Internationally, women’s human rights defenders are winning increasing visibility for their work, creating alliances that help them keep up the pressure on reluctant states, and draw new resources into the region to support reforms. Some are using international courts to pursue accountability for war crimes, pressing charges under universal jurisdiction.
“It is only when we organized, worked with other networks and mobilized, that it became difficult for them to ignore us … We have to protect each other by working together … At the end of the day, if one of us is attacked, we are there to protect her.”
Co-founder of the Women Solidarity Network in Yemen and Chairperson of the Food4Humanity