Take action for women in Afghanistan: the importance of solidarity

A guest post by Rhiannon Redpath, Policy and Campaigns Manager at GAPS UK.

Note from Laura 14/12/12 – I have changed “female human rights defenders” back to Rhiannon’s original “women human rights defenders”. I hadn’t realised the latter was a set UN term when I edited the post, having made my change for grammatical reasons.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, activists are raising awareness about gender-based violence as part of the 16 days of activism. They are doing so through community discussions, demonstrations, campaigns, hosting women’s football tournaments, and exhibiting art. This is an important time to link together our activism, not only taking action in the UK but also working in solidarity with women around the world.

I work for Gender Action for Peace and Security and over the past 18 months, our No women, No peace campaign has been working with women’s rights activists in Afghanistan to mobilise UK-based activists to hold the UK government to their promises to the women of Afghanistan. For the 16 days of activism, we are asking activists to write to the British Ambassador to Afghanistan to ask him to support women human rights defenders.

Women in Afghanistan run women’s shelters, educate women about their rights, and push for policies and laws that defend and support women’s rights. They are central to ensuring an equal and peaceful future for the country. However, because they stand up for their rights, women are under constant threat and attack to intimidate them into stopping their work.

We are asking feminists in the UK to take action for feminists in Afghanistan by writing to Sir Richard Stagg, British Ambassador to Afghanistan, and asking him to support these women. We need to demonstrate our solidarity and call for the very minimum that women activists deserve – to be able to do their vital work without fear of death, rape, attack or abuse.

So many campaigns make requests of activists. What difference will it actually make? Recently, I’ve been reflecting on what ‘solidarity’ means, how it works and why it matters.

What does it matter that a UK activist writes to the British Ambassador? As activists, feminists and campaigners, it is vital that we keep asking ourselves the question – ‘why is what I am doing important?’. If we don’t, we risk falling into the trap of useless rhetoric and blind self-belief that what we are doing is making a difference, somewhere, probably… when actually it might not be, or our energy could be better-focused elsewhere.

One important way to be sure of making a positive difference is by expressing solidarity. It can feel really daunting when I stand up to speak my mind but it is really empowering when others agree with me. I remember that there are women, men, peacemakers, activists, officials, and people all over the world who stand up for human rights on a daily basis. ‘Solidarity’ means agreement, unity and common strength. It works in many ways – showing support by writing a letter, signing a petition and physically standing beside someone to defend their rights in the face of political power. Last month, we organised a conference in London on women human rights defenders. One sister, Naomi Barasa from Kenya, said:

Remember solidarity. At the end of the day, we are all human beings, and we need each other so that the journey is not too tough.

Solidarity is a project. It’s something to work on. Solidarity is building a network of people who are all saying the same thing. By speaking collectively, we challenge the ability of the powers that be to act without listening to us. Crucially, solidarity is a practice that crosses boundaries and obstacles. It is not something that should be attacked or broken. It embodies our politics. It speaks truth to power. We know that all truth passes through (at least) three stages:

First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788 – 1860)

Currently, the UK has nothing in place to support the women human rights defenders of Afghanistan, even though there are international guidelines for embassies on how to protect human rights defenders from harm.

The women human rights defenders of Afghanistan are under constant attack because they are women, because they speak truth, and because they possess power. By intimidating one, many are intimidated, and these attacks weaken the movement. By standing with them in solidarity, we remind them that they are not alone, and that we will continue to support them in their vital work.

By taking action during the 16 Days of Activism, we demonstrate the solidarity of women around the world working to end violence against women, and pressure our government to take action.

Photo of a women’s self help group in Afghanistan by Canada in Afghanistan, shared under a Creative Commons licence. It shows women of varying ages sitting in a circle on the floor, talking and reading pamphlets.