Sunday 10th December marks the end of the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, an annual global movement emphasising all forms of violence against women and girls as a human rights issue.

Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) don’t just come together once a year - but all year, to be a voice and to struggle for the rights of other people. It’s their role in opposing the patriarchy and making change that means they need to be supported in ending gender-based violence.

Three Women's Rights Defenders wearing ActionAid skirts, smiling at camera, standing outside their village in rural Malawi
Tiwonge Gondwe (centre) from Malawi is a human rights defender

The 16 Days of Activism is a campaign that calls for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and highlights the massive inequality between men and women. Violence impacts on every aspect of women's and girls' lives; from their personal health and safety, to the safety of their families, to their ability to earn a living.

While domestic violence is a global problem, women in developing countries face particular challenges. Intimate partner violence against women has serious consequences for maternal mortality and child survival, in addition to having detrimental effects on a nation’s social and economic growth.

ActionAid believes that putting women at the centre of our work and focusing on female empowerment is important to ending gender-based violence (GBV).

Even with the great strides Women Human Rights Defenders are making, there is still a strong backlash for women defending the lives of others.

For example, Honduran human rights activist Berta Cáceres, who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her opposition to one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects, was shot and killed at her home in 2016. It was a great loss for womens rights activists worldwide.

Who are Women Human Rights Defenders?

WHRDs are activists who work in the defence of women’s rights or on gender issues. They are also exposed to gender-based violence and gender-specific risks because they challenge existing gender norms within their communities. Their collective actions, which are critical to challenging violence, are increasingly constrained by political repression, inequality and religious fundamentalisms.

WHRDs are subject to systematic violence and discrimination due to their identities and unyielding struggles for rights, equality and justice. By defending the rights they rightly deserve, WHRDs are at risk of intimidation and harassment, online bullying, judicial harassment and criminalization, physical assault and even death.

Tiwonge and Wangu are two Women Human Rights Defenders working with ActionAid - here are their stories.

Tiwonge is a 40 year- old divorcee who has raised her four children (all girls) single handed

Tiwonge is a 40 year- old divorcee from Malawi who has raised her four children (all girls) single handed. Tiwonge can best be described as a grassroots woman who enjoys what she does; she is a farmer and women's and girls’ rights activist.

As a woman who is living with HIV/AIDS, Tiwonge knows what it takes to support fellow women and girls in her predicament; she is an activist supporting those living with the pandemic.

Wangu decided to stand up and use her experience to help other women. So, in 2005 she founded The Wangu Kanja Foundation

Wangu is the founder of the Wangu Kanja Foundation, ActionAid’s partner in the Access to Justice project. Wangu was carjacked and sexually assaulted in 2002. Not only was she raped and robbed, but the police would not take her seriously when she went to report the assault.

Wangu decided to stand up and use her experience to help other women. The Wangu Kanja Foundation and ActionAid have set up a free SMS service in the Mukuru slum in Kenya, Nairobi, where people can report cases of violence against them, including domestic and sexual violence.

Womens voices: why aren’t they heard?

We know that speaking out can have deadly consequences for women. The exploitation of women has existed for centuries and in patriarchal societies, where women and girls are forced to conform to gender roles, it is extremely difficult for them to have a voice and be heard.

Evidence confirms that gender inequality increases the risk of gender-based violence against women. Building women’s and girls’ resources, assets and agency is critical to transforming unequal power relations and preventing violence against them. A women’s complete and equal participation in decision making is essential.

Increasingly, women are coming together to support each other and share their stories - as shown by the recent #MeToo campaign.

Together we can end violence against women and girls

The impact these grassroots-led movements have had shows just how powerful solidarity can be. Together we can end gender-based violence against women and girls and stand alongside the brave WHRDs who risk their lives to defend our rights.

The #16Days of activism ends on 10 December and coincides with World Human Rights Day, providing a unique opportunity for us all to celebrate Women Human Rights Defenders across the world.

We cannot end VAWG without them. Please share this blog to stand with women that fight the causes of gender-based violence.