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Women demonstrate outside the Justice Ministry headquarters in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on March 8, 2020.

ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

In 2000, the UN Security Council unanimously recognized that the key to peace and security lies in the equal participation of women in civil society. UN Resolution 1325 reaffirmed the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction. Canada is one of 79 member states with a national action plan to achieve these goals. Last June, the government went one step further by appointing Jacqueline O’Neill as its first ambassador for women, peace and security.

And yet, the full participation of women in civil society is fraught with danger in countries where women’s rights are lacking – especially when demanding basic human rights and speaking truth to power. For their efforts, many have been beaten, sexually abused, imprisoned or killed in an attempt to silence their call for human dignity. Now, the pandemic has multiplied the challenges faced by these courageous activists.

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In late April, the Nobel Women’s Initiative launched an ambitious online campaign to highlight the work of seven extraordinary women striving for human rights in the Middle East. This took place in lieu of a one-day conference originally planned for April in Ottawa, during which Nobel peace laureates Tawakkol Karman, Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi were to address delegates.

A number of common themes emerge from this campaign.

Foremost is the worry that with countries focused on domestic initiatives regarding the pandemic, less attention will be paid to human-rights abuses elsewhere. Omaima Al Najjar, an exiled Saudi human-rights activist, believes the Saudi government will further violate rights “because the world is busy with COVID-19.”

Many of these activists are pleading with us to remember the vulnerable – especially in conflict zones where many of the NGOs that had been working on peacebuilding are now also helping with the COVID-19 response with very limited resources. Muna Luqman, a Yemeni peacebuilder, points out that despite the recent ceasefire, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are now “more isolated to face the threats of warring parties on their own,” given the decreased oversight of ceasefire violations. She also reminds us that the basic act of hand-washing is a challenge for many Yemenis lacking access to clean water. She fears the spread of COVID-19 through her war-ravaged country.

There is also deep concern that prisons in the Middle East will become COVID-19 hot spots – perhaps by design.

Fahima Hashim of Sudan has devoted her life to women’s equality and rights. Years ago, she led a successful campaign to reform rape laws. She warns that female prisoners in Sudan “are at great risk for the spread of COVID-19” due to poor living conditions, overcrowding and lack of access to health care.

Mozn Hassan, a prominent Egyptian feminist human-rights defender, has been under a travel ban and asset freeze because of her work. She reminds the world that “when priorities shift, we need not to forget WHRDs who have been jailed because of their legitimate activism. We need to call for their release.”

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While a number of countries have released prisoners to ease overcrowding, COVID-19 is being used to endanger the lives of political prisoners who remain incarcerated. Reem Al-Ksiri, a Syrian women’s human-rights lawyer and expert on torture, leads research at the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research. She has raised the alarm: “Women in prison, especially those imprisoned with children and those imprisoned for political reasons, are at present in a catastrophically dangerous situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” She is calling for the release of all political and pre-trial detention prisoners.

Similarly, Maryam Shafipour is an Iranian human-rights activist who spent time in Evin Prison for her political views. She advocates for the release of female Iranian political prisoners, observing that “COVID-19 has become a tool in the hands of the Iranian authorities to do more harm to political prisoners” and accusing authorities of using COVID-19 to “kill political prisoners.”

Finally, the spectre of increased domestic violence is on the mind of Yanar Mohammed, a prominent Iraqi feminist who heads an organization that runs underground shelters for women fleeing honour killings, sex trafficking and domestic violence. COVID-19 is a ”double jeopardy,” she believes, since authorities are ”threatening us and trying to shut us down” while ”at the same time COVID-19 has locked us in our homes.” Please spare a thought for these brave women who, at great personal risk, are demanding basic rights that we often take for granted.

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