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International Women's Day honours the struggles of women journalists and rights defenders

IFEX members highlighted International Women's Day on 8 March by honouring women journalists, writers and activists for their courage and tenacity in combating corrupt regimes, abuses of power and human rights violations. Many have faced arrest, beatings, imprisonment, and some have been murdered, for speaking out.

The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC) marked the day by honouring 14 women who are part of a recent campaign, "Because Writers Speak Their Minds – 50 Years of Defending Freedom of Expression," showcasing 50 writers worldwide. They include Nawal El-Saadawi, known for her feminist writings and criticism of the Egyptian government; she has been imprisoned, received death threats, and her books have been banned. WiPC commemorated Alaíde de Foppa de Solórzano, a leading Guatamalan writer and activist who ran a weekly feminist radio programme in the late 1970s and was among the thousands of disappeared. Martha Kumsa, an Ethiopian journalist and rights activist, is now in Canada after spending nine years in prison. In Russia, nine women journalists have been killed since 1992, including Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova. Among 900 writers and journalists who suffered attacks recorded by the WiPC during 2009, 52 are women.

In a statement on 8 March, ARTICLE 19 emphasised the "importance of gender equality as a key component of the right to freedom of expression," commemorating women who have fought for freedom of expression. In Nepal, Uma Singh was the first female journalist to be murdered, stabbed to death by about 15 men in January 2009. And in Brazil, Thais Corral, an expert in social communications and veteran activist for economic and social justice, created a women's radio network linking 400 women's radio programmes and their communities throughout Brazil. The network aims to empower women community leaders to develop their own radio programmes.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) produced a profile with portraits of six women, six stories emblematic of the fight for press freedom. The profiles include Bulgarian journalist Anna Zarkova, Burmese video reporter Hla Hla Win, Mexican crime reporter María Esther Aguilar Cansimbe, journalist Tawakol Karman – head of the Yemeni NGO Women Journalists Without Chains, Tunisian rights activist and academic Zakia Dhifaoui and radio journalist Isha Jallow from Sierra Leone. The work of Uzbek photographer Oumida Akhmedova, who has faced harassment because the authorities do not approve of the image of the country presented in her photos, is featured on the publication's cover.

IFEX members belonging to the Tunisia Monitoring Group and the IFEX Gender Working Group sent a letter to the United Nations bringing attention to slander and abuse faced by women journalists and activists in Tunisia, which the groups say "has a long history of promoting women's rights." Smear campaigns against journalists and activists target prominent critical journalists and activists. Women are portrayed in government-backed newspapers and websites as "sexual perverts," "prostitutes," and "traitors on the payroll of foreign governments or groups."

Vocal women are constantly persecuted to stop them from doing their work. Journalists Sihem Bensedrine and Naziha Réjiba (also known as Um Ziad) of IFEX member the Observatoire de la Liberté de la Presse, de L'Edition et de la Création (OLPEC) are under strict surveillance; their homes and phone lines are monitored. Journalist Faten Hamdi of Radio Kalima was hit in the face by police officers in February 2010. Blogger Fatma Riahi was arrested in November 2009, her blog censored. Family members of jailed prisoners of opinion have also been targeted by the police, including Samia Abbou, whose husband is former prisoner Mohamed Abbou, and Azza Zarrad, wife of jailed journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who is critically ill. Many other women journalists, human rights defenders, academics and lawyers have been subjected to travel restrictions, police monitoring, assault and smear campaigns.

Freedom House also launched a new report, "Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amidst Resistance." In Iran, restrictions on free speech have led to the closure of leading women's rights publications, and women activists and journalists are routinely imprisoned, says the report. Throughout the region, women are subjected to restrictions on freedom of association and press freedom.

In Bahrain, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) brought together women journalists from 15 journalists unions from across the Arab region and the Middle East from 6-8 March. Discussions were held on gender equality and leadership in the media. IFJ reports that only 27 percent of the workforce in media outlets is women, with women making up just 21percent of the union membership. IFJ also launched its regional study, "Gender Fact Sheets on Women Journalists in the Middle East and the Arab World."

And on the global airwaves, the Women's International Network of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC-WIN) celebrated on 8 March by launching a webcast that runs until 31 March, dedicated to women and gender issues. The theme is "Empowering and Celebrating Women as Agents of Recovery" with multilingual documentaries, interviews, debates, poetry and music produced by community broadcasters from Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Africa, Europe, North America and Latin America, and the Caribbean.

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