Since it was created in 1911, International Women’s Day has been an opportunity to recognize the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements and contributions of women globally. In our work at Physicians for Human Rights at the intersection of science, medicine, and human rights, we see daily how women from around the world continue to lead, innovate, and create energy and resources behind the global movement for justice and accountability.
Here are five women who are in the forefront of the struggle for human rights. They’re speaking out. And they’re making a difference.
Want to recognize another trailblazing woman? Tweet @P4HR with #IWD2020.
Syrian Filmmaker (Syria)
“The hardest way to be killed is in silence, so I keep telling our stories.”
In 2011, Syrian journalist Waad Al-Kateab began documenting the airstrikes being rained down on Aleppo by the Syrian government at the start of the protracted conflict in her country. What began as a tribute to her newborn daughter, Sama, became a feature-length film, for which Waad and co-director Edward Watts earned sweeping international accolades, including an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. As a fearless advocate for her fellow Syrians, Waad has used her autobiographical film to raise awareness about the systematic and deliberate attacks on civilians and health care infrastructure during the nine-year conflict, and is actively bringing her story and the stories of countless Syrian civilians to bodies like the United Nations and global governments. PHR is proud to join forces with Waad to draw attention to the years-long attacks on hospitals in Syria; this year, PHR will honor her and her husband, Dr. Hamza Al-Kateab, at our upcoming 2020 gala.
Immigration Policies Whistleblower (United States)
“Wherever you have influence to make change, use that power. Change the world around you. You can make a difference.”
In the United States, the Trump administration has responded to the influx of asylum seekers at the border by implementing isolationist, nativist, and inhumane policies that endanger the health and wellbeing of children and families – among them, family separation and migrant child detention. Dr. Pamela McPherson, working as a medical and psychiatric expert for the Department of Homeland Security, inspected facilities where immigrant families were detained. The conditions she and Dr. Scott Allen discovered were shocking: Bleeding inside a baby’s skull. Children’s fingers crushed by cell doors. Severe weight loss.
In a July 17, 2018 letter to the U.S. Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, Drs. McPherson and Allen exposed these disgraceful conditions. While others employed by the government might have remained silent, Dr. McPherson took great professional risks to speak up about the deplorable and unacceptable conditions in migrant detention centers.
PHR honored Dr. McPherson with the 2019 Physicians for Human Rights Award.
Sexual Violence Survivor and Advocate (Kenya)
“…The pathway to justice requires many voices, including survivors, lawyers, police, justice, and community doctors…”
In Kenya, in the wake of contested elections in 2007, at least 900 women, girls, men, and boys were sexually assaulted. Very few cases were ever prosecuted, fueling a culture of impunity for perpetrators and continued suffering for survivors.
Jaqueline Mutere, a post-election sexual violence survivor, bore a child following her rape. The decision she made to keep a baby fathered by her rapist was one of the most difficult in her life. But Mutere knew she wasn’t alone.
Together with other women enduring the lasting effects of election-related sexual violence, Mutere co-founded the Survivors of Sexual Violence in Kenya Network, a movement building survivors’ capacity for self-agency and offering them a way to amplify their message across Kenya. Mutere is also founder and director of Grace Agenda, aimed at breaking the stigma around children born of rape and at healing their mothers and empowering them to better access justice in Kenya. In 2019, PHR honored Mutere and the Network with the Physicians for Human Rights award.
Sudanese Activist (Sudan)
“After decades of struggle and all that we risked to peacefully end Bashir’s dictatorship – gender inequality is not and will never be acceptable to the women and girls of Sudan.”
You may not know her name, but if you followed the Sudanese uprising which led to the ouster of 30-year authoritarian president Omar al-Bashir, you’ve definitely seen her: Alaa Salah is the woman in a traditional white dress pictured in the iconic photo, standing atop a car amid male and female protesters in front of Khartoum’s military headquarters, just a day before al-Bashir’s April 11, 2019 ouster. The 22-year-old Sudanese activist was on the front lines of the pro-democracy peaceful protests.
Women often outnumbered men in the 2018-9 protests – and suffered brutal violence at the hands of security forces for their participation. In fact, according to our new report, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces deliberately isolated female detainees and subjected them to sexual violence. Yet despite their heavy involvement in the protests, women were marginalized in the formal political processes in subsequent months. Under al-Bashir, only 31 percent of seats in Sudan’s parliament were reserved for women. Salah and other activists are pushing to achieve 50 percent female representation in their new government. In 2019, Salah addressed a United Nations Security Council meeting on women, peace, and security. Read her full statement here.
Rohingya Survivor and Student (Canada)
“There is hope. And it is up to us to change the story of the Rohingya to become a more heartening and vibrant one.”
Following a wave of widespread killings and brutal violence by the Myanmar government against its Rohingya minority population in 2017, more than 700,000 survivors fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Nearly three years later, many remain in refugee camps. This violent crackdown was not the first time Myanmar’s Rohingya communities had been targeted.
In 1995, activist Yasmin Ullah and her family fled years of persecution in Myanmar for Thailand, where she remained a stateless refugee – without legal protection and without fundamental rights – until 2011. Today, as a student of political science in Vancouver, Ullah leads the Canada-based non-profit Rohingya Human Rights Network. In late 2018, Ullah gave testimony and statements on her own behalf and on behalf of the Network before the human rights committees of the Canadian legislature and she has also been a representative of the Rohingya community at the International Court of Justice, where judges last month ordered Myanmar to enact provisional protective measures for remaining Rohingya communities as part of the genocide case brought by The Gambia against Myanmar. Finally, Ullah is involved in creating more accessible mosques and places of spirituality for those with special needs.