The women who paid the ultimate price

Wednesday marked International Women’s Day, an opportunity to reflect upon the role of women in society. In the midst of a war in Europe and global economic crisis it is easy to focus on the immediate, on the current existential crisis, but there is an onus on us to remember what is happening further afield.

On Wednesday for International Women’s Day I addressed students on behalf of the Anne Frank Trust. I highlighted the importance of not only telling women’s stories but also the power of amplifying their lived experiences, wherever they may be. Collectively we all made a promise that this week – and I hope in future weeks – we would seek to tell the stories of the women who have made a mark and ensure that the world knows their names.

I seek to deliver on that promise.

I am proud to be the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, a charity which endeavours to provide a voice to the persecuted, which campaigns for freedom of expression around the world. I work daily with dissidents who risk everything to change their societies and their communities for the better. Men and women. But today I would like to highlight the names of some of those women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the last year for the supposed “crime” of doing something we take for granted every day – using the human right of freedom of expression.

  • Deborah Samuel – a student brutally murdered in Nigeria after being accused of blasphemy on an academic social media platform.

  • Nokuthula Mabaso – a leading woman human rights defender in South Africa and leader of the eKhenana Commune. She was assassinated outside of her home, in front of her children.

  • Shireen Abu Akleh – a veteran Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera who was killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in the West Bank.

  • Jhannah Villegas – a local journalist in the Philippines was killed at her home. The police believe this was linked to her work.

  • Francisca Sandoval – a local Chilean journalist was murdered, and several others hurt when gunmen opened fire on a Workers’ Day demonstration.

  • Mahsa Amini  – a name all too familiar to us, as her murder inspired a peaceful revolution which continues to this day. Murdered by the Iranian morality police for “inappropriate attire”.

  • Oksana Baulina – a Russian journalist killed during shelling by Russian forces in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

  • Oksana Haidar – a 54-year-old Ukrainian journalist and blogger better known under the pseudonym “Ruda Pani”, killed by Russian artillery, northeast of Kyiv.

  • Oleksandra Kuvshynova – a Ukrainian producer who was killed outside of Kyiv, while working with Fox News.

  • Petronella Baloyi – a South African land and women human rights defender gunned down while in her home.

  • Yessenia Mollinedo Falconi, a Mexican journalist who was the founder and editor of El Veraz. A crime and security correspondent, she received a death threat a fortnight before she was shot. She was killed alongside her colleague Sheila Johana García Olivera

  • Vira Hyrych – a journalist for Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian service, killed by Russian shelling.

  • Yeimi Chocué Camayo – an Indigenous women’s rights activist, killed in Columbia when returning to her house.

  • Cielo Rujeles – wife of social leader Sócrates Sevillano, shot and killed alongside her husband in Colombia.

  • Luz Angelina Quijano Poveda – a delegate of the Community Action Board in Punta Betín, Colombia, murdered at her home.

  • Sandra Patricia Montenegro – a PE teacher and social leader was shot and killed in front of her students in Colombia.

  • Melissa Núñez – a transgender activist shot dead by armed men in Honduras.

  • María del Carmen Vázquez – a Mexican activist and member of the Missing Persons of Pénjamo, murdered by two men at her home in. She was looking for her son who disappeared last summer.

  • Blanca Esmeralda Gallardo – activist and member of the Collective Voice of the Missing in Puebla, who was assassinated on the side of the highway in Mexico as she waited for a bus to take her to work. She was searching for her 22-year-old daughter who vanished in 2021.

  • Yermy Chocue Camayo – treasurer of the Chimborazo indigenous reservation in Colombia, and human rights defender, killed as she headed home.

  • Dilia Contreras – an experienced presenter for RCN Radio in Columbia, shot dead in a car alongside her colleague Leiner Montero after covering a festival in a local village.

  • Edilsan Andrade – a Colombian social leader and local politician, shot and killed in the presence of one of her children.

  • Jesusita Moreno, aka Doña Tuta – a human rights activist who defended Afro-Colombian community rights. Facing threats against her life, she was assassinated whilst at her son’s birthday party.

  • Maria Piedad Aguirre – a Colombian social leader who was a defender of black communities, violently murdered with a machete; she was found at home by one of her grandchildren.

  • Elizabeth Mendoza – social leader, was shot and killed in her home in Colombia.  Her husband, son and nephew were also murdered.

  • María José Arciniegas Salinas – a Colombian indigenous human rights defender, assassinated by armed men who said they belonged to the Comandos de la Frontera group.

  • Shaina Vanessa Pretel Gómez – who was known among the LGBTIQ+ community for her activism, including work to establish safe spaces for homeless people and a passion for the arts, was shot dead early in the morning by a suspect on a motorbike.

  • Rosa Elena Celix Guañarita – a Colombian human rights defender was shot while socialising with friends.

  • Mariela Reyes Montenegro – a leader of the Union of Workers and Employees of Public Services was murdered in Colombia.

  • Alba Bermeo Puin – an indigenous leader and environmental defender in Ecuador was murdered when five months pregnant.

  • Mursal Nabizada – a former female member of Afghanistan’s parliament and women’s rights campaigner murdered at her home.

This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination. Compiling the names and profiles of women who have been killed as a result of their right to exercise freedom of expression is almost impossible, not least because of the nature of the repressive regimes which too many people live under. But every name represents thousands of others who day in, day out put their lives at risk to speak truth to power. They were mothers, grandmothers, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, sisters, aunts, friends, partners, wives.

To their families, they were the centre of the world. To us, today, their stories bring fear and inspiration in equal measure. They are heroes whose bravery we should all seek to emulate.

Open up your doors as you promised

This article was published to mark International Women’s Day 2023

Journalists in Afghanistan are facing a very bad situation. The media has been censored. There are many restrictions on women journalists. I have received information that the few female journalists still working in the media are paid so little and they cannot meet their family expenses. Journalists cannot carry out their jobs properly due to fear of the Taliban. They write and publish what the Taliban want.

The number of female journalists in the media is decreasing day by day and they are forced to leave the country. Life is hard in neighbouring countries, but they cannot stay at home.

Hundreds of journalists are staying with their families in Pakistan. I am in contact with many that face a dangerous, unknown fate. Most Afghan journalists’ visas have expired and they are threatened with deportation and imprisonment. They also face economic problems. They have spent the money they brought with them and now cannot afford to eat. The increase in prices in Pakistan and the lack of work permits for Afghan journalists has made life difficult for them and their families. They are very willing to sell their kidneys to cut their daily expenses. If Afghan journalists stay here for a long time, more problems will arise and their freedom will be threatened. They can’t even get treatment in the hospitals because they need visas which most journalists don’t have.

All the doors are closed in front of us. I am asking the British government to open them up. The UK promised to help us and they still can. We once again request that the British government fulfil the promises it has made to Afghan journalists and other people at risk.

“My heart is with the people of Ukraine”

Protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

I had planned to write this week on International Women’s Day. I wanted to feature the female war journalists who are on the frontline as the artillery falls in Ukraine. The brave protesters in Russia who have made their views on the war clear, in spite of the fear of detention. The Russian female scientists who added their names to a joint letter in the academic periodical Trinity Option – causing the publication to be blocked by the Russian state censor. I wanted to write of the amazing women in Myanmar and Hong Kong and Afghanistan and Belarus who keep the dream of democracy alive.

Thankfully these brave women are still fighting the good fight. Inspiring us every day.

And as important as their stories are – and we will keep covering them at Index both in the magazine and on our website, it’s the faces on our media which are dominating my thoughts.

I feel shell-shocked, unable to turn off the news, unable to look away from the devastation being wrought by the Russian military on innocent civilians. Of course, we only know what is happening in Ukraine because we are lucky enough to have independent journalism and media plurality. And as much as I keep holding onto that – it’s the images of the shelled hospital in Mariupol, the pregnant women stumbling from the wreckage, the children sobbing as they looked for help, that I cannot move on from.

War is ugly and the innocent are always caught up in the horror. This has been true since the beginning of time. But there are some images we never thought we would see again on the streets of Europe. Children dying of starvation, residential areas targeted, Holocaust survivors once again exposed to war and fleeing their homes. War crimes happening less than 1,750 miles from where I type.

For those of us who have followed closely the war in Syria, none of this should come as a surprise. And it doesn’t but that does not make the realities on our screens any easier. Russian misinformation, propaganda and lies is adding insult to injury – I won’t share their appalling statements on the events in Mariupol, as their lies need no audience but never have I been more grateful for a free press and to live in a democratic society.

So, as we mark International Women’s Day this week my heart is with the people of Ukraine. I am inspired by their collective bravery in the face of Putin’s tyranny and violence.  I grieve with them as they face the reality of war and I stand with them against the lies and deceit of the Russian Federation.

Will China’s detention of feminist activists shut the movement up or make it louder?

International Women’s Day 2015 should have been a positive occasion in China. The day is a big deal in the country; women are awarded time off work and given gifts by their employers. This year also marks 20 years since 189 countries adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a roadmap for women’s rights and empowerment. And in the lead-up to the day, a Chinese official hinted at the country’s first domestic violence law becoming a reality in August.

But events quickly took an ugly turn: on Friday 6 March the Chinese government detained a number of high-profile feminist activists. Demonstrations were cancelled. Debate was effectively silenced. Several weeks later five of the women are still in custody. Two have been denied treatment for serious medical conditions.

Superficially at least, these incidents represent a major blow to China’s feminist movement, which desperately relies on a small, but increasingly vocal cohort.

Chinese women suffer from a catalogue of discrimination in the workforce, in the home, and in most other aspects of their lives. Clear indication of the need for change came in 2013, when China only managed to reach position 91 out of the 187 countries listed in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index (Iran came ahead at 75).

The injustices Chinese women face largely go unchallenged. The upper echelons of the Communist Party, where policy is made, is a man’s affair. Only two women belong to the current 25-member politburo, and none made it through to the seven member politburo standing committee.

The government plays an active role in skewing gender relations, as is demonstrated through the emergence of the idea of “leftover women”. The term first entered common parlance around 2007, when newspapers became filled with cautionary tales of unmarried women over the age of 27. Its roots can be traced back to the Chinese government, as Leta Hong Fincher explained in her groundbreaking book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. It has had a very negative impact on women’s property and employment rights.

It is the Communist Party’s ability to control conversations that makes the feminist struggle particularly pronounced in China. Civil society is tightly controlled. Certain groups do exist to campaign for female rights, but they are limited in size and reach.

In spite of these barriers, Chinese women have in recent years shown amazing strength to stand up to injustice. Activists have paraded around in blood coated wedding dresses, occupied men’s toilets, shaved their heads to raise awareness — to name just a few examples.

Some of these measures have proven highly effective. Cao Ju, a 21-year old university graduate, raised the profile of workforce quotas when she successfully sued a company that did not employ her on the grounds of her sex. Meanwhile, Kim Lee, who was abused for years by her famous husband Li Yang, shed a spotlight on how prolific domestic abuse is in China when she uploaded photos of her bloody face to microblogging platform Weibo.

For these reasons, the detentions are incredibly significant. Chinese women can’t rely on the government to come to their aid. But when it does the exact opposite, and actually arrests them, the situation gets a whole lot worse. China’s current leader Xi Jinping has intensified a crackdown on dissent. While they have not had an easy ride, feminist activists had until this month largely been spared. These arrests send out a warning to anyone who might follow suit and are a blatant attempt to squash the country’s nascent feminist movement.

On the other hand, some prominent commentators have argued that the detentions will instead cement the feminist movement in China. In a conversation published by ChinaFile, Leta Hong Fincher argues it could be “the spark” needed, while writer Eric Fish says the government “risks planting seeds that could sprout into even greater opposition later”. Sixteen activists have already gone to a Beijing detention centre where one of the women, Wu Rongrong, is being held to demand she be given medical treatment. A petition is also calling for the release of the activists.

China watchers wait with bated breathe to see how the story will unfold, pinning their hopes on a positive outcome. After all, China desperately needs figures such as these. Without them, no one is fighting in the corner of Chinese feminism.

This article was posted at Index on Censorship on 26 March 2015 | An modified version of this article appears at Huffington Post