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Opinion - When will women’s rights be equal to human rights?

Displaced Iraqi women from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk at the Khanki camp, on the outskirts of Dohuk province. Picture: Ari Jalal (Reuters)

Displaced Iraqi women from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk at the Khanki camp, on the outskirts of Dohuk province. Picture: Ari Jalal (Reuters)

Published Mar 20, 2020


Opinion - On March 21, our country will be commemorating Human Rights Day. While the usual events will be scaled down considerably, given the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) state of disaster proclamation by President Cyril Ramaphosa, how we deal with the virus will be a reflection of our state of human rights.

The fact that we need a Human Rights Day separate to Women’s Day, as well as the now 365 Days of Activism for non-violence against women and children, has massive implications for us as a nation.

But we are not alone in this. Having commemorated International Women’s Day on March 8 around the world, women are organising both on the ground and online - for equality, safety and representation, and against poverty, discrimination and abuse. Let us turn our lens to a few countries.


One of the most horrific stories featured in mainstream media is the abduction and rape of Yazidi women, by proxy war militants, ISIS or Daesh. When they forced control of oil-rich northern Iraq in 2014, they targeted Shia and Yazidis. Earlier in March this year, an Iraqi court found Mohammed Rashid Sahab guilty of the rape and abduction of 20-year-old Ashwaq Haji Hamid Talo. He was sentenced to the death penalty. Talo said “I want my story to reach the whole world, so my message is heard by my friends, and gives them courage to do the same thing I did, so they can get revenge.”


India’s record with women’s rights is atrocious. It is a country where acid attacks and child sex slavery continue. In 2012, the gang rape and murder of Nirbhaya hit headlines globally. Enraged protests erupted, with worldwide solidarity events. In a lengthy court case, the four criminals - Mukesh Singh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma, and Akshay Kumar Singh - tried to appeal thrice. They failed. They were sentenced to death by the Delhi High Court, and will be executed on March 20. The 700 one-stop points, for victims of gender-based violence, is not doing enough. Eight-year-old Asifa was raped and murdered in 2018.


Patriarchy-influenced domestic violence and honour killings resulted in Pakistan being rated, by Amnesty International, as one of the worst countries for women. Economic discrimination is a form of violence because women suffer by being 70% of the world’s poor. Like Afghanistan, forced marriages to alleviate debt is economic violence blamed on the struggling economy. The recent Aurat March (Women’s March) saw mass solidarity, with men joining courageous women in support of their human rights -

but it also met harsh criticism by

angry conservatives afraid of losing control.

Saudi Arabia

Misogynistic scripture interpretation is also prevalent in Saudi Arabia. While laws regarding women driving and working are met with excitement, normal steps are hardly celebration worthy, especially as Yemen continues to be bombed into starvation. In reality, social customs mean many women still need a guardian’s permission to study, work, seek health care, or travel. Meanwhile, a Saudi women’s rights conference was dominated by men, and activists for women’s rights are on trial or in prison. Ironically, Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), was a bold advocate for women’s rights - more than 1440 years ago.


In ongoing conflicts, rooted in the greed for natural resources, it is women and children who suffer the most. In the DRC, like in Somalia, armed militias are notorious for sustained attacks of sexual violence and female genital mutilation. Brutal gang rapes, sexual exploitation and human trafficking are a daily nightmare to exert power over the population. Females who survive, suffer from fistula - a tearing of the wall between the vagina and rectal canals. One survey reported 1100 rapes per day for conflict associated and domestic violence rapes. Like in other countries, spousal rape is not treated as a crime.


Palestinian women and girls are on the frontlines of resistance against the illegal military occupation of their country by apartheid Israel. To subdue their commitment to freedom, many are assaulted, sexually abused, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. This is in addition to not being able to access education, health care, and justice. Some of the names of women and girls that reached global media are Khalida Jarrar, Shireen Issawi, Ahed Tamimi, and Dima Al-Wawi. However, Palestinian women are also not safe from domestic violence. In 2019, Israa Ghrayeb died after being beaten by her family.

South Africa

Our residents live in a permanent state of direct or subliminal post-traumatic stress disorder, from the pandemic of gender-based violence that assaults us every day. There are countless names and cases of victims, survivors, and their families and friends.

These are only the ones reported to the justice system and highlighted by the media or social media. As I watched the president declare a national disaster after 61 people contracted Covid-19, one of my first thoughts was that more women are traumatised, disabled, raped, and killed at the hands of an intimate partner or a stranger every day.

Clearly, we lack the political and societal will to treat gender-based violence as a priority.

The brutal murder of Uyinene last year catapulted an emergency response action plan. But, until we declare a state of emergency for women and children, Human Rights Day will remind us that women’s rights are not human rights. South Africa must lead the world on this emergency declaration. Or, that powerful rally Wathinta Bafazi, Wathinta Mbokodo, chanted by 20 000 women, who marched on the Union Buildings against apartheid laws, will become hollow and superficial 26 years into democracy.

Common, to the historical struggles of women around the world, are entrenched attitudes of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny. Common also, are women who are apologists for discrimination, inequality and abuse. How can a country and world truly progress, when equally talented women and girls

are ignored, not respected as leaders, or live in a state of fear? Now, more than ever, women and men must stand together for intersectional solidarity on human rights, and for the rights of women.

Palesa Mohamed is an activist, writer, radio producer-presenter, and mediation attorney.


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