“We’re not just here to learn – we can lead too”: young women human rights defenders speak out

Young activists from four continents talk about their local struggles and what motivates them.

Madeline Wells (right).
Madeline Wells (right) at a march supporting Aboriginal and Islander rights in Burnie, Tasmania, 2015. Photo: Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation. All rights reserved.

Millennials often get a bad rap, accused of being politically apathetic and selfie-obsessed. But around the world, young people who are sick of government inaction are stepping up to speak passionately on behalf of their communities.

These four young women live in different continents and have had diverse experiences. Each is involved in Amnesty International campaigns, fighting for human rights from Australia to Peru. Here they talk about their local struggles, and what motivates them.

Madeline Wells, indigenous rights activist in Tasmania.


Madeline Wells.
Madeline Wells. Photo: Lara Van Raay. All rights reserved.

Wells represented Australia at last year’s UN Forum on Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law. “As a First Nations person, I have always felt I have a duty to fight for the rights of my people, a feeling of being part of something much bigger than me,” she said.

“Activism can come in many different forms. It doesn’t have to be rallies or marches.”

Climate change disproportionately impacts indigenous communities, and indigenous youth “face many other injustices: deaths in custody, high rates of youth detention, racism and discrimination, high suicide rates, and poor healthcare,” she added. “Activism can come in many different forms. It doesn’t have to be rallies or marches – art, music and dance are equally powerful ways of speaking out, and social media has had a huge impact.”

Nancy Herz, student and author from Norway.


Nancy Herz.
Nancy Herz. Photo: Vincent Hansen. All rights reserved.In 2016

Herz wrote an article entitled “We Are the Shameless Arab Women and Our Time Starts Now” – and a movement of women reclaiming the word “shameless” subsequently started in Norway. “We don’t want to have our identities defined by others,” she said.

“We don’t want to have our identities defined by others.”

“I feel so proud when I receive messages from young girls who say I have encouraged them to speak out – that because I dare to be myself, they do too,” said Herz. “This is what fighting against injustice is about. By using our voices, we can make the space for freedom of expression bigger…it’s an ongoing struggle, but I believe that we have to keep pushing towards a world in which everyone can enjoy their basic right of living freely.”

Sandra Mwarania, youth activist from Kenya.


Sandra Mwarania.
Sandra Mwarania. Photo: Kenneth Kigunda / Amnesty International Kenya. All rights reserved.

Mwarania co-founded the Student Consortium for Human Rights Advocacy. “Young people are brilliant creatives, strategic thinkers, problem solvers, innovative communicators and active doers,” she said. “It is unfortunate that we are yet to be taken seriously by decision-makers who still perceive us as inexperienced and rowdy.”

“We’re not just here to learn – we can lead too.”

“As well as being well-informed on human rights issues, students and young people need the skills to address the pressing socio-political issues around them,” Mwarania added. “When young people are engaged at every level of the decision making process, the results can be amazing. We’re not just here to learn – we can lead too.”

Fabiola Arce, women’s rights defender from Peru.


Fabiola Arce (holding megaphone).
Fabiola Arce (holding megaphone) in #NiUnaMenos protest in Lima, Peru, 2016. Photo: Andrick Astonitas / Amnesty International Peru.

Arce has campaigned to pressure her government to investigate cases of forced sterilisation of women in the 1990s. “This serious human rights violation mostly targeted indigenous women, and caused a huge amount of pain and suffering,” she said.

“Peru has a huge historical debt to women, and that’s part of what motivates me.”

“We are determined not to let the injustices of the past go unaccounted for. Peru has a huge historical debt to women, and that’s part of what motivates me to work towards shaping a different future.”

Amnesty International’s BRAVE campaign works with young women human rights defenders like these and fights for their recognition and protection. Find out more.

Sara Vida Coumans is Global Youth Manager in the Campaigns Programme at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. As a feminist activist Sara has been a member of youth-led organisations including the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. Sara has a Master’s degree in Social Policy for Development and a specialisation in Children and Youth Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Courtesy: Open Democracy



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