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International Women's Day: Reflections on challenges faced by female human rights advocates

A Tunisian woman walks past graffiti which reads,
A Tunisian woman walks past graffiti which reads, "Freedom is a daily practice" in Tunis in 2011.

REUTERS/Anis Mili

For activists, writers, journalists and concerned individuals around the globe committed to defending free expression, advocacy can be risky business: peaceful demonstrations can evolve into violent clashes with police; sensitive publications can be the source of government intimidation, imprisonment or worse.

In many countries where such violations of free expression go unpunished, the problem of impunity can be even greater for female rights advocates. In honour of International Women's Day (March 8), we asked two women profiled in IFEX's 2013 impunity campaign – Doaa Eladl of Egypt and Yorm Bopha of Cambodia – to tell us what motivates them, and to share some advice.

Doaa Eladl, Egypt
Cartoonist
Doaa Eladl is an Egyptian cartoonist who has fielded death threats and blasphemy charges for her provocative drawing depicting sexual harassment and religious fundamentalism. Read more about Doaa's story here.

  • What motivates you to defend and promote free expression?

Because I am convinced that it is every human being's right to express themselves freely, and because we haven't yet attained that freedom completely in our society.

  • Based on your experience in Egypt, what advice do you have for women who also wish to advocate for free expression in the current context?

To be honest, I find that I should present myself with my own advice first, before offering it to other women. Change for the better and getting to a point where other people's opinions are respected is going to take a lot of effort, and maybe time as well. In so many instances, we find ourselves falling into despair and losing hope. So I tell myself that before I advise another woman I must do everything in my power without expecting or waiting for quick results, and without falling into that hole of despair. That is what I remind myself of every day as I draw about the issues that women face not just in Egypt and the region but in the world as a whole.

Yorm Bopha, Cambodia
Land rights activist
Yorm Bopha is a land rights activist from Cambodia who has suffered multiple beatings and direct threats for her continued advocacy for those being forcefully evicted from the Beoung Kak Lake, the site of a vicious land conflict that has persisted for seven years. Along with ten fellow land rights advocates, Yorm was arrested and temporarily imprisoned in January 2014. Read more about Yorm's story here.

  • What motivates you to defend and promote free expression?

I was one among the victims that suffered from the development project of a private company, Sukaku Inc, and this suffering pushed me to stand up and start speaking out. Also, there are only a few Cambodian women who dare to participate in politics or other advocacy activities, because according to tradition women are supposed to stay home, to take care of the house, the children and the family. This is the reason that I am fighting to promote free expression-- because I want to push Cambodian women to speak the truth. Because if we don't speak, no one will know about our problems and no one can help us. Being a vocal person I face a lot of risks, such as being murdered, or jailed, and other risks too -- but these do not discourage me.

  • Based on your experience in Cambodia, what advice do you have for women who also wish to advocate for free expression in the current context?

To all the women in Cambodia, please do not think that your role is only being a housewife. Participate in society and express yourself. We cannot stay quiet. This time the community of Beoung Kak is facing challenges, but in the future other communities will be facing these kinds of challenges as well. If we see that what the government is doing is wrong, we need to speak out to correct it, because we all have the right to freedom of expression.

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