In the fight for human rights, women are increasingly at the forefront-even though they’re being threatened, arrested and attacked. Their governments call them dangerous. We call them heroes.Next: Justine Masika Bihamba
Founder of Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence), an umbrella organization of 35 women’s groups in the Democratic Republic of the CongoHer Truth & Its Consequences
One day in 2007, Masika Bihamba returned home to discover that six soldiers had invaded her house and attacked her two daughters. One girl had been sexually assaulted, and another had been kicked in the face with such force that a tooth was knocked out. When her driver and daughter identified four of the men, an army guard told Masika Bihamba, "Do you think it would be a problem to kill you? We have already killed two today." >
Masika Bihamba believes her family was singled out because she has been fighting the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war since 2002, when she encountered an 80-year-old woman who’d been brutally raped. She tried to help the victim get medical treatment, but the woman was so poor that no doctor would touch her, and in the end she died. "That was a turning point," says Masika Bihamba, 44. Since then, she has poured years into documenting rape as a war crime and providing victims with emotional, medical and legal support; more than 1,800 women have been helped by her organization. Synergie also drafted a 2004 bill presented to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s parliament, pointing out the flaws in the country’s judicial system when it came to the proper punishment of rapists and violent offenders, but it went nowhere. >
Today Masika Bihamba lives under constant death threats. And even though she filed a police complaint against the men who attacked her family three years ago, they have yet to be brought to justice. But she is undeterred. "I need to do something about sexual violence," she says, "or our women are going to perish." Her Dangerous Thoughts "Women in the Congo are second-class citizens, not just because of the patriarchal order but also because women themselves are ignorant about their rights. This is not the way things should be. I can work with women, educate them, so they will be able to liberate themselves. I can put myself in these women’s shoes." READ MORE ABOUT BIHAMBA AND HER FIGHT AGAINST RAPE, AT SEE BIHAMBA RECEIVE THE NEXT: REBIYA KADEER
Advocate for the nine million Uighurs (pronounced "WEE-gurz"), moderate Muslims in northwestern China who for the past six decades have lived under-and been oppressed by-the Chinese communist governmentHer Truth & Its Consequences The mother of 11 children, Kadeer turned a laundry business into a multi-million-dollar trading empire that supported more than 2,000 merchants. She was known as the Millionairess in her , called Xinjiang (the "new frontier") by the Chinese and East Turkistan by the Uighurs. Her appointment to China’s national legislative body in the early 1990s was hailed by the government as proof of equal opportunity and multi-ethnic harmony in China. But instead of playing into the propaganda, Kadeer used her position to fight for Uighur autonomy and resist human rights violations such as forced birth control, limits on her people’s freedom of religion, the deployment of Chinese soldiers in East Turkistan and the use of Uighur land for open-air nuclear tests. >
"In our country, men suffered most under Chinese rule," says Kadeer, now 63. "They were detained, tortured, imprisoned and executed." But it’s Uighur women she sees as "a strong force for change." In 1997 she founded the Thousand Mothers Movement, which aimed to empower Uighur females to start their own businesses. After only three months, the government banned the organization.
In 1999, Kadeer was arrested and imprisoned for allegedly stealing state secrets, because she intended to give news clippings about political prisoners in East Turkistan to a visiting U.S. delegation. "We will crush you like a snake," the chief of police reportedly told her. "And I will emerge from prison like an eagle," Kadeer replied.
In 2005, after six years behind bars, Kadeer was released to the U.S., where she now lives in exile in suburban Washington, D.C., and runs the . She lobbies international leaders and works with human rights groups to pressure China to change its policies toward the Uighurs. "The persecution by the Chinese has reached the point of no return," Kadeer says. >
Since 2006, tens of thousands of young Uighur women have been transferred to eastern China to provide cheap labor in sweatshops, and in July 2009 an uprising left nearly 200 dead and more than 1,700 wounded. "Before, those who lived in fear were able to at least protest," she says. "Now we hear that Chinese authorities are going door-to-door rounding up men and detaining women, leaving small children at home with no one to care for them." But she is strengthened by the support of her fellow Uighurs: "I always have this urgency in my heart that I have to deliver something to the people who put so much hope in me." -Beatrice HoganHer Dangerous Thoughts "The Chinese government does not like the fact that its heinous crimes are being exposed. Economic success has made China extremely confident, and it has used this opportunity to intensify its persecution of the Uighur people." SEE THE TRAILER FOR KADEER’S DOCUMENTARY THE READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF KADEER’S MEMOIR, NEXT: VERONICA CRUZ SANCHEZ
Founder and executive director of Mexico’s (the Free Women’s Center), the only organization in the state of Guanajuato to help rape victims get access to safe, legal abortionHer Truth & Its Consequences
For most of her life, Cruz has been fighting the powers that be. Growing up middle class in Guanajuato, she felt it was deeply unjust that others lived far less comfortably than she did. So as a teenager, she would ride her bike around town, knocking on doors, offering to teach women how to read. "I always felt the need to fight for the rights of others and ensure that all women are empowered," she says.
As an adult, Cruz took up the cause of reproductive rights. In 2000, when the state legislature banned abortion across the board, even in cases of rape or incest, Cruz organized hundreds of women to protest in the streets. A month later, the governor vetoed the ban. But most women remain unaware of their rights. In conservative Guanajuato, the laws on the books now permit abortion for women who’ve been raped (though not in cases of incest). Yet there’s often a big disconnect between the law and reality. >
A woman who’s been impregnated by a rapist and cannot afford a private abortion must petition the state for a publicly funded one-and it has denied every request since 2001. One woman was told by an attorney that although she was within her rights to obtain an abortion, no one would perform it; often hospitals send rape victims away. And some women who’ve given birth to stillborn babies have been imprisoned because officials charge them with a failed abortion.
Today Cruz, 39, and her Centro Las Libres are educating a network of women’s health advocates about topics such as family planning, violence and sexual and reproductive rights; they’re also being trained to monitor the quality of the state’s reproductive and sexual health services and to promote quality care. The organization provides financial and legal support to women who have been unfairly sentenced to prison, and its representatives regularly travel to tiny villages, or "ranchos," to hold workshops for women on these topics. >
Local officials have repeatedly threatened to confiscate her computer equipment to obtain information on alleged illegal abortions, and Cruz has been followed more than once. The intimidation tactics, however, only help her stay focused. "I’m educated, and I know my rights," she says. "But the women I work for are often poor and uneducated. They are particularly at risk because society has denied them the means to defend themselves." Her Dangerous Thoughts "It’s the government that’s the problem. In Mexico, all women are at risk. Here-and around the world-women are treated like animals, not like human beings. It is a fight every day to ensure that women are treated according to their rights. We want to end violence and all violations against women. We have a lot of work to do." READ HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH’S STUDY ON THE MISTREATMENT OF RAPE VICTIMS IN MEXICO READ NEWS FROM GIRE (INFORMATION GROUP ON REPRODUCTIVE CHOICE) ABOUT NEXT: NAWAL EL SAADAWI
Egyptian psychiatrist and prolific novelist, who publicizes the struggles of North African women against practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM)Her Truth & Its Consequences
She’s been at it for more than 50 years, agitating and raging against the machine from a very young age. "I was born female and poor," says El Saadawi, 78. "My brother had more rights than I just because he was a boy. In school, I was at the top of the class. But because I was poor, the teachers gave higher grades to the rich girls in the class, whose families were powerful." This injustice, combined with her fearlessness, created a drive inside her that has never died. "The girls of my generation were silent," she says. "They had the same feeling of oppression that I did, but they were afraid to talk. I wasn’t. I had the courage to speak up. My mother and my grandmother were very strong personalities. My genes were very selective and very rebellious." >
El Saadawi earned her medical degree from Cairo University in 1955 and she eventually became Egypt’s director of health education-but was fired for campaigning against FGM. (She herself was forcibly circumcised as a child and says one of her greatest disappointments is that as a result she hasn’t been able to enjoy a healthy sex life.) In 1981 she went to prison for speaking out against President Anwar Sadat. She feared retaliation but persevered: El Saadawi wrote her book Memoirs from the Women’s Prison on a roll of toilet paper while in captivity, using a contraband eyebrow pencil smuggled to her by a woman in the prostitutes’ ward. "Some people are broken in prison," she says. "I came out more strong."
Over the years, she’s been harassed with a number of lawsuits charging her with various forms of disloyalty to Islam. In 2001, a fundamentalist lawyer went so far as to say that her 37-year marriage should be annulled because she questioned the practice of giving men twice the inheritance of women. (A judge dismissed the case.) She’s lived in exile off and on for the past 15 years, moving to the U.S. and teaching at Duke University and Spelman College. >
Five of her 45 works in Arabic have been banned, and her name appears on fundamentalist death lists. "I’ve paid a very high price for my rebellion," she says. But she returned home last year "to write and to fight." Her Dangerous Thoughts "Young people are fed up with fundamentalism. I am organizing young men and women to separate religion from state. The government is very, very alert to any group that can really mobilize people. But Egypt is my country. That is why I am fighting here." SEE EL SAADAWI GIVE THE 2009 IN NEW YORK CITY SEE EL SAADAWI DISCUSS HER MOST CELEBRATED NOVEL, +WOMAN AT POINT ZERO+ BUY SOME IN HONOR OF EL SAADAWI NEXT: AMINATOU HAIDAR
President of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA) in Western Sahara, a largely Moroccan-controlled territory in North AfricaHer Truth & Its Consequences
Haidar is called the "Sahrawi Gandhi" for her nonviolent resistance to government violence, but she has been repeatedly tortured and imprisoned by Moroccan authorities. At age 20, in 1987, she was "disappeared," held in captivity for four years-blindfolded-after she helped plan a peaceful protest denouncing the human rights abuses committed by Moroccan forces. (Morocco invaded Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975.) She and other protesters were subjected to electric shocks, chemicals and threats of rape. In 2005, after police beat and arrested her for protesting, she was sentenced to seven months in prison. >
While she was returning from a trip in November 2009, Moroccan officials seized her passport and deported her for listing Western Sahara instead of Morocco as her home. After being flown to a Canary Islands airport, she staged a 32-day hunger strike (her second for the cause). The U.S. State Department and the European Parliament intervened with the Moroccan government, which allowed her to go home and retrieve her passport-but her neighborhood was put under police lockdown. In January of this year, she left to seek medical treatment (for stomach problems related to her hunger strikes) in Spain and to begin another international lobbying tour. "Women are oppressed, jailed, raped," she says. "I feel a responsibility to work for our freedom. I always dream the women and children of my country will one day live in peace." -With Beatrice Hogan>
Her Dangerous Thoughts "Morocco considers anyone who does not support its party line to be an enemy and a traitor. But we human rights activists have raised awareness of the crimes committed against the Saharan population. We have broken the wall of silence." READ MORE ABOUT HAIDAR AT THE HAIDAR EXPLAINS WHY SHE WENT ON A READ URGING MOROCCO TO STOP HARASSING SAHRAWI HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS