General: Celebrating WHRDs on International Human Rights Day


Today, on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) venerates the sacrifices of every human rights defender (HRD) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Through our Twitter campaign during the #16DaysofActivism against gender-based violence (GBV), we celebrated the courage and audacity of women human rights defenders (WHRD) who demand equality and the eradication of discrimination and inequality. We respect the reality of the struggle beyond written or articulated words of any international document, while recognising the challenges WHRDs face in the region, and the systematic targeting to which they are subjected every day. We honour them during this campaign which runs every year from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December. 

“To be a human rights defender in MENA could cost you a heavy price - your life, family, freedom, security, safety and mental or physical wellbeing,” said Khalid Ibrahim, GCHR Executive Director. “Therefore, we work tirelessly to use every occasion possible to spotlight HRDs’ work, achievements, struggles and need for continuous support and protection; while striving for justice and accountability to end impunity worldwide.”

The year 2020 wasn’t a smooth year for anyone in light of the COVID-19 pandemic but was worse for HRDs, in particular in Iraq, as violence against peaceful protests persists to an alarming level. 

Generally, this year we witnessed a regression in women’s rights worldwide, not just in the MENA region; as research showed that COVID-19 has intensified GBV. At the same time WHRDs continue to face a multi-layered system of GBV, discrimination and compounded forms of targeting.  

“Through this campaign, we honour WHRDs in the MENA region who are living in a pandemic within an epidemic. Their lives, freedom and liberty have always been challenged by serious threats and restrictions imposed on them to restrain their activism and end their demands for equality! Gender-based violence perpetuated by a complex system of patriarchy is our main epidemic and must be uprooted and eradicated forever,” said Weaam Youssef, GCHR’s WHRDs Programme Manager.

Among GCHR’s network of WHRDs, this year we recorded the following:

-       Two WHRDs were killed in Iraq, among other women active in civil society, while many are harmed and harassed every day.

-       Two WHRDs are facing life-threatening intimidation in Yemen, while dozens are still risking their life on a daily basis.

-       Five WHRDs are facing prolonged prison sentences in Iran, while feminists are still precariously challenging the state of forced obedience to laws which degrade women. 

-       Four WHRDs are subjected to detention and unfair trials in Saudi Arabia, while the rest are under constant fear of detention and torture or forced to exile.

-       Two WHRDs have been seriously persecuted in Lebanon, while the demands for reforms, justice and non-sectarian leadership persist and are led by women.

-       Three WHRDs in Syria were abducted and are still missing/disappeared, while many are living in constant fear of killing, bombing, kidnapping and various forms of harassment from state and non-state actors, in addition to hundreds who are displaced and/or are forced into exile.

-       At least one Qatari activist is in exile and navigating the civic space while facing intimidation across borders.

-       One Omani WHRD remains in forced exile for working on women’s rights issues.

-       Five Bahraini WHRDs are working within a very risky and challenging context of legal and judicial harassment, while many are exiled.

-       UAE WHRDs ceased to exist inside the country and are exiled. 

We pay tribute to the strong women we know, and those we don’t know, those who are working within legalised and formal networks, or endeavour to support women’s rights through their grassroots work within very challenging, less protected, less resourced, less funded and very volatile contexts.

Today we conclude our campaign of #16DaysofActivism against GBV, in which we gathered challenges faced by women activists and WHRDs, and their recommendations to change the status quo. Thank you to all the WHRDs who participated. You can see the campaign on GCHR’s twitter at or click on the days below.

Challenges identified in the campaign

-       Day 1: WHRDs in Saudi Arabia are imprisoned, harassed, tortured and punished for defending women’s human rights.

-       Day 2: In Iran freedom of expression and assembly in pursuit of gender equality are often regarded as acts against “national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “encouraging and providing for moral corruption and prostitution” and “insulting the sacred.” 

-       Day 3: WHRDs in Oman are subjected to intimidation, electronic bullying, defamation, discrimination, and societal pressure to limit the continuation of their human rights activities.

-       Day 4: WHRDs, journalists and civil society activists are being systematically threatened, targeted, and assassinated in Iraq.

-       Day 5: Women in Kuwait pay a high price for being female, especially stateless (Bidoon) women. They have always been treated as second-class in everything, whether they are citizens or not.

-       Day 6: WHRDs in Bahrain have been arrested, tortured, defamed and put under travel bans.

-       Day 7: WHRDs in Jordan need protection in public spaces, physically and digitally!

-       Day 8: WHRDs/women in Lebanon who suffer from GBV are dismissed while no policy or law exists that can protect them.

-       Day 9: UAE women are denied their fundamental rights to decide who to marry or to pass their nationality on to their children.

-       Day 10: WHRDs in Syria are abducted, arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured, killed, harassed physically and virtually, displaced, and exiled, while being denied fundamental rights by de facto state and non-state actors. Most importantly, they remain under-documented.

-       Day 11: Women face discrimination in law and practice in Qatar. They remain inadequately protected against violence, including within their own family. Within very closed civic space, Qatari WHRDs will cease to exist or face exile. Yet, they remain at risk of harassment and constant intimidation by the authorities, even across borders.

-       Day 12: WHRDs in Yemen face intimidation, defamation, cyber-attacks and physical threats on their lives.

-       Day 13: Focused on sexual violence as an incurable disease in MENA. 

-       Day 14: Challenges of being a woman journalist or activist in the MENA region and their struggle fighting on so many fronts all at once. 

-       Day 15: Dedicated to the anniversary of 9 December, the day Samira Khalil and Razan Zaitouneh were kidnapped. 

-       Day 16: Concluding the campaign by overall challenges MENA WHRDs live with such as serious threats and restrictions imposed on them to restrain their activism and end their demands for equality.

It is so much more difficult and riskier for women to speak up. “It is not only standing strong in the face of a monarchy or dictatorship, but also to watch your back from one's own community and how they could view your actions,” said Zaynab Al-Khawaja, GCHR’s Journalists Protection Officer. “If she stands up to face all the attacks aimed at silencing her, we better ensure there is a microphone she can speak into.”

Recommendation of the campaign:

-       Stop judicial harassment against WHRDs in Saudi Arabia.

-       Free women activists and end inane and lengthy sentences of WHRDs in Iran.

-       Protect WHRDs instead of punishing them. Create a safe environment for them to work on women’s rights and end GBV in Oman.

-       Stop the femicide of WHRDs and secure the space for women's rights activism in Iraq.

-       End segregation, and discrimination against all women in Kuwait.

-       Stop impunity for torture and arrest WHRDs. Change the system that criminalises their work. Hold the perpetrators accountable in Bahrain.

-       Create and enable safe spaces for WHRDs, and legally criminalise cyber bullying and harassment against them in Jordan.

-       Understand that women and their bodies are not the sources of a man's honour. Laws need to protect women from violence, not reinforce it in Lebanon.

-       Stop the double standards for women in UAE, who are considered fully competent when it comes to penalties, not rights.

-       Justice and freedom for Syrian WHRDs, who are less protected, yet remain at the forefront of peaceful protests, advocacy, academia and the struggle to change the status quo and demand rights for everyone!

-       Change the laws affecting women and perpetuating violence. Invest in women's rights and diversify public and civic space in Qatar.

-       Yemen must provide WHRDs with solidarity and support and create safe spaces for them to work.

-       Stop silencing the voices of truth, of WHRDs and journalists reporting from volatile regions, conflicts and war zones.

-       Make sure that any time a woman does speak in the name of freedom and human rights that her voice is amplified.

“The work of WHRDs needs to be properly and equitably resourced. We call on donors and supporters to directly fund the women's rights work of organisations and grassroots WHRDs based in the MENA Region and invest in their protection,” said Kristina Stockwood, GCHR’s Fundraising & Development Manager.

On 10 December at 11am Beirut time, GCHR is holding an event with partners “Recover Better - Stand Up for Human Rights”. Join us for the live streaming: