Today, on International Women’s Day, I’d like you to meet the bravest women in the world.
They are the Malalas you’ve never heard of, women who literally risk their lives every day through their determination to fight for other people's rights.
They don’t have to do it. They could choose to keep their heads down, lead a quiet existence, and look out for their own and their families’ safety.
But they are so moved by injustice and the need to help others that they continue their work, knowingly becoming the targets of governments,
corporations and armed groups who have an interest in keeping them silent.
These eight women are just a handful of the many thousands of women and
girls around the world who are the unsung heroines of human rights.
Yasmin Gull © Khwendo Kor
In her daily work, Pakistani woman Yasmin Gull defies the Taliban, who have banned women in her region from working on social issues.
Women and girls are prevented from leaving their homes, so Ms Gull risks her safety by going to visit them, taking with her a message of education and empowerment.
Her organisation is Khwendo Kor – literally, ‘Sisters’ Home’ – which teaches girls and women they have rights to an education, to vote and to health care.
She told me, “My strong determination, solid commitment and above all unshakable faith in Heaven could not make me bow in front of all these threats and challenges.”
Monica Paulus in PNG © AIA
More than two out of three women in Papua New Guinea experience gender violence – from domestic violence to horrific attacks by villagers accusing them of ‘sorcery’.
There are almost no shelters in PNG, so Monica Paulus volunteers her time – and puts herself in great danger – by finding out about women being held hostage in violent situations, convincing PNG police to rescue them, and providing food and safe shelter.
She told Amnesty International: “You see a lot of women going through torture, going through trauma. Sitting back and watching will not help. One way or another we just have to do what we have to do to help women of our kind.”
Dr Isatou Touray
Isatou Touray © GAMCOTRAP
Gambian woman Dr Isatou Touray has spent her career campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM), which is endured by four out of five women in The Gambia.
Dr Touray is the founder and Executive Director of The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices.
Because of her work, she has been constantly threatened by the authorities, falsely charged and imprisoned.
Despite this, her organisation’s outreach has resulted in 125 practitioners of FGM agreeing to ‘drop the knife’ and over 900 communities in The Gambia ending FGM in their area.
Nasrin Sotoudeh © AIA/Payvand.com
“Spreading propaganda against the system” was the absurd charge made by Iranian authorities against human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
For this, she served several years in prison, with restricted visits by her husband and two children.
The real purpose of her sentence was punishment by the Iranian government for her peaceful work as a human rights lawyer, for which she won a European Union prize.
After she was released early from her prison sentence, she thanked Amnesty International for standing with her.
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena © Colombo Telegraph
Lawyer and media columnist Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena is one of Sri Lanka’s most outspoken critics of human rights abuses.
In Sri Lanka anyone who dares speak out against the regime can be intimidated, arrested or killed. She has said, “In this country, public opinion commentators may write if they wish, but at their own peril.”
But Ms Pinto-Jayawardena continues to risk her safety by highlighting torture, ‘disappearances’, repression of minority groups, unlawful detention and press freedom in the country.
She was acknowledged for her work with the US 2007 International Women of Courage Award.
Mao Hengfeng's torture marks © Private
She has survived the unimaginable: solitary confinement in one of China’s notorious Re-Education Through Labour camps.
It is one of many times over the last decade that Chinese woman Mao Hengfeng has been tortured and detained by the Chinese regime.
And yet, these brutalities have not deterred her from fighting on behalf of people who have been evicted from their homes, and for the right of women not to be forced to have abortions.
Wajeha al-Huwaider © Saudi Women To Drive
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most gender-divided countries, where women are not even allowed to drive.
Authorities harass, intimidate and arrest women who get behind the wheel, even sentencing one woman driver to 10 lashes, which was later overturned.
Saudi woman’s activist Wajeha al-Huwaider was the first Saudi woman to post on YouTube a video of herself driving a car in Saudi Arabia.
Since that time, the campaign to allow Saudi woman drivers has grown from strength to strength.
Najia Nasim © Women for Afghan Women
Najia Nasim is the country director of ‘Women for Afghan Women', which runs shelters for girls and women escaping forced marriages and violence.
One of the girls they helped was Sahar Gul, who received worldwide attention when she was rescued from a basement where she was tortured and imprisoned by her in-laws.
On a daily basis, Najia and her colleagues receive threats from families, conservatives and the Taliban alike, which they have to navigate whilst continuing their vital work to protect women.
Add your voice to our petition calling on the incoming Afghan President to strengthen the rights of women and girls.
This article was first published on Daily Life.