women's rights

[OPINION] Navigating the storms of repression: The resilience of young women rights defenders in Asia

Almyra Luna Kamilla, Rosalind Ratana 

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[OPINION] Navigating the storms of repression: The resilience of young women rights defenders in Asia

Marian Hukom

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us demand for an enabling world where women human rights defenders can continue their noble pursuits without fear of reprisals

In recent years, Asia has been witnessing rising authoritarianism and shrinking civic space. Among those in the frontlines of resistance are young women human rights defenders.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us demand for an enabling world where women human rights defenders can continue their noble pursuits without fear of reprisals.

In Thailand, the royal defamation law is being excessively used to silence criticisms against the monarchy. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, economic and political mismanagement has sparked peaceful protests that are met with violence and intimidation. The fate of Asia’s political climate hangs by a thread as elections are held across many countries, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, South Korea, and Pakistan. Now more than ever, governments across the region are finding ways to solidify their power, putting an even tighter grip on civil society to the detriment of democracy and people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

Despite such challenges, many are courageously speaking out and taking collective action to reclaim power for the people. This includes young women human rights defenders – or Youth WHRDs – who are claiming space to call out human rights violations and to demand accountability from oppressive governments.

Between 2022 and 2023, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) documented over 400 cases of violations against WHRDs, with judicial harassment topping the list. In fact, WHRDs are the second most at risk group, following pro-democracy defenders.

On International Women’s Day, let us commemorate the strength and resilience of Youth WHRDs across Asia. 

Indonesia’s crackdown on critical voices

Fatia Maulidiyanti is a Youth WHRD from Indonesia known for speaking truth to power.
In 2022, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan – the Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Investment Affairs – launched a defamation lawsuit against Fatia for publicly discussing research findings of nine human rights organizations that alleged Luhut’s involvement in irresponsible mining operations in Papua. 

While judges affirmed the allegations and subsequently acquitted Fatia, she was still subjected to 32 hearings from April 2023 to January 2024. As a result, Fatia was robbed of her final chance to care for her ill father before his passing. She was also subjected to online bullying and doxing.

Indonesia’s defamation laws have been widely criticized for lack of safeguards against those expressing legitimate concerns pertaining to public interest. Such laws are overused by government officials to silence critics. From January to October 2023 alone, there were at least 89 cases. 

Despite Fatia’s acquittal, the threats against dissenting voices are ever-present by virtue of such substandard laws. It is high time for Indonesia to review and amend such laws targeting critics.  

Hong Kong’s witch hunt against dissidents 

Agnes Chow, Hong Kong’s young democracy icon, is forced to live in exile. The Hong Kong police placed her on a wanted list for simply exercising her right to protest. 

After being arrested under unlawful assembly charges for her involvement in the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, Agnes was sentenced to 10 months in prison. She was released on bail after seven months in prison on the condition that she regularly checks in with the police and surrender her passport. Prior to her first sentencing, Agnes was rearrested in August 2020 under the National Security Law for suspicion of colluding with foreigners despite a lack of evidence. 

Post-release, Agnes described how living under constant surveillance by the National Security Department has led to anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She was also forced to write a letter of repentance for her past activism, take a trip to mainland China, and pose for “patriotic” pictures to retrieve her passport. In September 2023, Agnes pursued her graduate studies in Canada and later decided not to return for her bail check-in in December for fear of being arbitrarily rearrested and forced to act against her views. 

Expressing political views should not result in a fugitive status. Hong Kong must cease its persecution of political dissidents. 

India’s discomfort with artivism

In India, many Youth WHRDs utilize artivism – a powerful combination of art and activism – to convey their criticisms and advocacies. Unfortunately, such creative efforts are often met with harassment.

Folk singer Neha Singh Rathore has faced repeated police scrutiny for her songs touching on local socio-political issues.

In February 2023, Neha received a police notice for “inciting hate” after releasing a song criticizing the government’s handling of a tragic incident in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where a mother and daughter died in a fire during an eviction drive. 

Neha went viral in January 2022 for a song which criticizes government inaction, including issues on COVID-19 deaths and the gang rape-murder of a young Dalit woman. Despite ongoing threats, Neha remains steadfast in her artivism, stating, “I stand by the song and will continue singing. I am not afraid and will not be intimidated.”

Artists and defenders alike should be free to express their opinions, India must start embracing artivism and end its intimidation against critics.  

Kazakhstan’s iron grip over civic space

In November 2023, Kazakh pro-democracy defender Nazym Tabyldieva was charged with disseminating false information and defamation after posting online criticisms against President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and three prosecutors.

Facing potential imprisonment, Nazym was placed on a 1.5-year probation and banned from socio-political activities for five years. Nazym’s case illustrates how authorities resort to “creative” and extreme measures to repress Youth WHRDs.

Kazakhstan must stop using punitive measures to silence dissent. Instead, it should foster an environment that encourages people’s democratic participation.

The future of young women rights defenders in Asia

As Asian societies predominantly adopt patriarchal values, young women are inherently subject to gender-based discrimination. Boxing women and girls into traditional social roles preclude the idea that young women can defy norms and stand up against oppression.

In their pursuit of justice, Youth WHRDs face harassment, threats, politically motivated charges, and attacks. To silence them, governments tend to weaponize laws on national security, defamation, and incitement. In many parts of Asia, activism often comes at a personal cost. Nevertheless, Youth WHRDs are not backing down.

Amidst Asia’s massive storms of repression, Youth WHRDs are persistently and peacefully fighting for meaningful change. Such repression, however, should have not happened in the first place. Harassment against human rights defenders should never be normalized. 

We cannot stay silent as governments brand activism as a crime.

We must urge governments in Asia and beyond to cease their oppression against Youth WHRDs. Likewise, they should establish strong legal protections and ensure accountability for violations made against defenders. 

Let us call on civil societies to give their support and solidarity with Youth WHRDs. Together, we are stronger. Together, we are inspiring more and more women to show up, speak up, and make their marks in the world. – Rappler.com

Almyra Luna Kamilla and Rosalind Ratana are staff members at FORUM-ASIA.

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