Celebrating Women Human Rights Defenders Day
November 29th is the international Women Human Rights Defender Day. In 2013, The United Nations recognized the crucial role that women around the world play in protecting and promoting human rights and equality for all people. That resolution recognized that when women stand up for human rights they face higher risks of violence, abuse, harassment, and increased social and economic barriers. As we mark this year’s day of commemoration we need to recognize the leadership and work of women in our own communities and around the world.
Over the past few years young women have become better recognized for their leadership and work promoting human rights. Malala Yousafzai – who only recently turned 22 – received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her work against the suppression of girls’ and children’s education. Greta Thunberg has become a leader in global climate movement, advocating for action to preserve the futures of all peoples. Greta is 16 years old. Both women have been threatened with violence for raising their voices. Greta has already been hung in effigy. Malala famously survived an assassination attempt when she was only 15 years old.
Despite the violence directed toward them, these women are standing up for their beliefs and working to protect human rights. At home in Canada, 15 year old Autum Peltier from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island has already been campaigning for water rights and making appearances at the United Nations for years. In British Columbia, Molly Wickham is the Spokesperson of Gidimt’en Clan of Wet’suwet’en Nation as they work to protect their rights to access traditional lands and ways of life. Across Canada, women are leading efforts for equitable access to everything from reproductive health care to safe working conditions for people doing sex work. None of this work is easy, it all places the women doing the work at risk, and yet social organization and advocacy has historically been the only path for positive social change.
In Grey and Bruce counties we have long histories of women in leadership positions working to protect and support human rights. Last year I wrote about Catherine Sutton (Nahneebahwequa) and Nellie McLung, two historical women from our area who defended and promoted human rights. There are countless other examples. This year’s YMCA Peace Medal was awarded to Sheatre – a non-profit arts organization that has worked to connect community and raise social issues through theatre, music, dance, and arts workshops since the mid 1980s under the guidance of Georgian Bluffs resident Joan Chandler. Joan is a woman human rights defender. The list of previous Peace Medal recipients includes many others.
Shirley John received the medal in 2016 for her work fostering healing, forgiveness and inclusion in our communities. Colleen Purdon received the medal in 2015 for her decades of work advocating for safety and supports for the marginalized including women experiencing violence or living in poverty. Colleen led the Women’s Centre and subsequently Violence Prevention Grey Bruce, conducting research, advocating for meaningful change, and opening spaces for community dialogue. Joan Beecroft received the medal in 2014 for her work advocating for the safety and rights of the LGBTQ+ community in Grey Bruce. All of these women remain active in our community.
There are women all around us working to make our communities and planet a safer, more just, and more equitable place. Their work is not always obvious. Sometimes it takes place in private when individual women support each other in fleeing violence, advocating for equitable workplace cultures, and breaking the cycle of poverty. Sometimes the work is visible to smaller communities like the 16 Days of Activism campaign being run at Owen Sound District Secondary School by their leadership class with young women spearheading the planning. At other times the work takes place clearly and publically like the advocacy and organization being done by the Grey Bruce Poverty Task Force under the coordination of Jill Umbach.
As we mark Women Human Rights Defenders Day we need to acknowledge, celebrate, and support the women in Grey and Bruce who are doing this work. They are our neighbours, friends, family, and allies. They also need our support.
If we want to live in a world where human rights are supported and recognized, then we need to learn more about the work being done right here at home. We need to support that work and the people doing it by offering whatever we can: time, talent, funding. We need to defend the women doing the work. We need to shut down threats, derogatory comments, and physical violence against them whenever we see it. This is not to say we all have to agree but we do need to work so that everyone has a voice to advocate for their beliefs. Around the world and here in Grey Bruce, women are standing on the front lines to protect human rights. If they’re doing the hardest work, the least the rest of us can do is stand behind them and let them know that we have their backs.
Jon Farmer is the Coordinator of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce