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365 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence 

November 25, 2022

16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence is upon us. From November 25 to December 10 every year, activists call for the end of violence against women around the world. But violence against women is not a time bound issue to which we should be paying special attention for just 16 days out of the year, a dedicated month in the fall (domestic violence) or spring (sexual assault), or a single day in March (International Women's Day). The fight for women's rights is not something to be scheduled on our calendars.

We need 365 days of activism for women's human rights.

Looking back at the last 30 years of the Women's Human Rights Program's work at The Advocates for Human Rights, I see what it means to truly activate change. Women in our home community and around the globe suffer myriad forms of violence, spanning discrimination to domestic and sexual violence to trafficking and more. But we have made great inroads in advancing protections and recognition of women's rights as fundamental human rights. We need multi-faceted approaches, sustained activism, and bold action that will protect the rights of women today and tomorrow.

First, it takes immediate action to meet the most urgent needs of women, like providing emergency shelter to survivors of violence. The past few years have illustrated more than ever the agility of women's rights activists to pivot and adapt to the most unanticipated crises. When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the world took a collective gasp, and everyone began asking what they could do. Our women's rights partner in Ukraine, Center "Women's Perspectives," has served victims of domestic and sexual violence for years, providing life-saving assistance and safe refuge. They quickly expanded their services to begin serving and housing internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing the conflict from Russian-occupied areas. The center now operates seven shelters for victims of gender-based violence and IDPs.

Meanwhile, we at The Advocates swiftly assessed needs and how we could best meet them from here in Minnesota. When the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced in March he was opening an investigation into the situation of Ukraine, we sprang into action. We mobilized volunteer lawyers to interview young feminists in Ukraine, recruiting volunteer Russian and Ukrainian interpreters to provide crucial language interpretation, and coordinating volunteer notetakers to carefully document every word the Ukrainians spoke. Since then, we have interviewed multitudes of people and sent reports to the ICC and the UN to share firsthand information about war crimes and crimes against humanity. We will continue our work to document Ukrainians' experiences and give voice to their stories as long as there is need. 

Protecting the rights of women also takes foundational change, like strengthening the laws that form the bedrock of protection and accountability. I'll never forget how the importance of the law was brought home to me while interviewing police in Tajikistan. I asked the Tajik police what they did when they responded to the scene of domestic violence. They looked at me, shrugged, and said, "We can't do anything. The law doesn't allow us to do anything for domestic violence." I knew then the importance of The Advocates' work to analyze and comment on laws to make them the strongest, most effective protection for women victims of violence, so that stakeholders like those police in Tajikistan have the tools they need to respond effectively. This work is vital in our home community too. In 2008, after we documented Minnesota's response to sex trafficking, we learned that prosecutors did not have effective provisions to work with in the criminal code. We advocated before our state legislature to give prosecutors stronger tools.

We must also train the next generation of activists - be they grassroots activists, lawyers, or everyday people. We have partnered with the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation to train generations of lawyers across Europe and Central Asia through the Women's Human Rights Training Institute (WHRTI). The result is a cadre of trained lawyers connected across CEE/FSU with the litigation and advocacy skills to protect women. Leveraging the highest levels of accountability possible, these lawyers are successfully bringing cases of violence against women before the UN and European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Their work is groundbreaking. One Russian WHRTI alum, for example, brought a case before the ECtHR where, for the first time in its history, the Court applied a pilot procedure in cases against Russia and ordered the state to adopt adequate general measures to tackle domestic violence. WHRTI provides lawyers with a safe space to explore critical thinking and cutting-edge legal arguments. This unprecedented community of women's human rights defenders is more important than ever given the shrinking space for civil society and threats against lawyers in many of their countries. WHRTI Fellows not only connect with one another to provide support, they also have unified with alumni to strengthen their advocacy together. WHRTI links women's advocates from across the region, creating, as one fellow called it, "a global sisterhood."

Defending women's rights requires sustained and committed advocacy, at the local and international levels. That's why we go to the UN, over and over, to bring attention to the abuses that our immigrant clients, human rights defender partners, and others have experienced or address. This year, we worked with local Minnesota groups, Research in Action and the chair of Minnesota's Missing and Murdered African American Women Task Force, to inform the UN about discrimination and violence against Black women and girls in the U.S. We tell the UN, and the UN turns around to tell the U.S. government to do better. We informed the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination how women, children and minorities are disproportionately impacted by poor and insecure housing and living conditions and asked the UN to recommend effective implementation of the Fair Housing Act and support monitoring of its implementation to ensure its application without discrimination or with discriminatory impact. The UN accepted our information and urged the U.S. government to "strengthen the implementation of legislation to combat discrimination in housing, such as the Fair Housing Act," and implement the rules under the Fair Housing Act related to "affirmatively furthering fair housing and protection against discriminatory effects." Sound familiar?

Protecting women's human rights requires us to be vigilant. We must protect not only the rights and freedoms we've gained but also the democracy and free society that allows us to keep them. Right now, we are facing a strategic, well-resourced, and internationally networked far-right movement that is attacking human rights. This far-right movement is attacking the rights of women, children, LGBTQI+ persons, immigrants, and sexual and reproductive rights through sophisticated strategies and a well-funded war chest. Several years ago, The Advocates began hearing from its partners about challenges they were facing - rollbacks to women's human rights laws, crackdowns on civil society and freedom of association, and threats to human rights defenders. We realized these were not isolated incidents but part of a networked pattern. We immediately embarked on an investigation to peel back the layers of these attacks, documenting the far-right movement's tactics in our report, A Rollback for Human Rights: The Istanbul Convention under Attack.

We also have convened 55 human rights defender partners from 25 countries to form an international coalition, the Global Women's Watch. Convening regularly to share resources, warn each other of the red flags to watch for, and share effective human rights tactics, Global Women's Watch is helping our partners replicate what's working in other countries. Our next steps include drawing on our incredible pro bono resources and talent here in this community to roll out capacity-building trainings for our coalition and continue doing advocacy with our partners. 

Finally, protecting women's human rights calls for courage. The courage to stand up against the threats made against us and for the deep inroads we have carved out for ourselves as women and the rights that we deserve and demand. It calls for perseverance. The perseverance to continue this work even when we are tired, threatened, or disheartened by attacks and rollbacks to long-fought gains. And lastly, it calls for solidarity. The solidarity to overcome our differences and unite as one humanity to fight for women's human rights.

Every day.

365 days of the year.

Women's Human Rights Director Rosalyn Park leads The Advocates' work to promote the human rights of women around the world.