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Protect human rights defenders

13 December 2011
Commonwealth Secretary-General speaks on the critical role of women human rights defenders in creating a stronger Commonwealth

Commonwealth members must collectively strive to ensure that the rights and liberties of human rights defenders are properly protected – Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said on 8 December.

Speaking at a Commonwealth Secretariat event in London marking Human Rights Day and the role of women human rights defenders, Mr Sharma spoke about the challenges and threat of abuse these women face, particularly from those who would see their social, political and economic dominance threatened by the human rights defenders' cause.

“We approach with renewed resolve the task of acknowledging the contribution women and girls make in accelerating social, economic and political progress - and of increasing opportunities for them to do so. Protecting women human rights defenders is an important part of that resolution, and this event reminds us of their critical role in creating a stronger and more resilient Commonwealth,” he said.

During the event attended by a number of high commissioners, human rights defenders, academics and other Commonwealth agencies, guests were entertained by dance, music and art performances and installations and heard testimonies from women human rights defenders on their experiences campaigning for positive change within their communities.

The emphasis on the role of women reflects the 2011 Commonwealth Day theme ‘Women as Agents of Change’, which celebrates women whose work has made a positive difference to the lives of others, and reinforces the Commonwealth message that investing in women and girls accelerates social, economic and political progress.

Speaking at the event Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Ransford Smith said women human rights defenders continue to have a critical role to play in helping to eliminate harmful practices such as early and forced marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM).

He added that the contributions of these defenders must be supported and recognised at all levels for this vital work to continue.

“Here we have a room full of women whose work is central in addressing the security of women and affirming their right to have choices. They have given us all much to reflect and act on.”

Addressing the gathering, Jasvinder Sanghera - founder of Karma Nirvana, an initiative to raise public awareness and offer advice and support about ‘honour’-based abuse and forced marriage - gave a personal testimony of her experience as a human rights defender and survivor of forced marriage.

The Executive Director of the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (FORWARD), Naana Otoo-Oyortey, spoke on FGM and her personal mission to build the capacity of young women and girls to advance the development and well-being of African women and girls in the United Kingdom and in Africa.

The event formed part of a week of activities organised by the Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit to highlight the role of women human rights defenders in the Commonwealth.

These included a testimony on the life of Ugandan human rights defender Marjorie Nshmere Ojule, who fled her homeland and sought asylum in the UK as a result of her activism work; an exhibition depicting how art can be used to empower and encourage women to stand up for their rights; a screening of ‘The Witches of Gambaga’, a documentary about a community of women who were condemned as witches in Northern Ghana; and a roundtable meeting on forced marriage, which explored the complexities of the issue and how these can be addressed.

Karen McKenzie of the Human Rights Unit said: “In 1948 Eleanor Roosevelt led the way in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and since then women have played a critical role in pushing for human rights to become truly universal.”

She added that considerations which led to the drafting of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which provides for the support and protection of human rights defenders in the context of their work, were firstly that the promotion of human rights is valuable and is the prerogative of everyone and secondly that engaging in activities which promote the protection of human rights, makes the actor vulnerable to reprisal.

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