March 8th is International Women’s Day. This is a day to celebrate the achievements women have made regarding equal rights and freedom from gender-based discrimination, as well as a day to draw attention to places and situations where women are still being denied these basic rights and freedoms.
Canada’s focus for International Women’s Day 2013 is Working Together: Engaging Men to End Violence against Women, which coincides with the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) theme of ‘elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.’ Canada’s theme stems from a report by the white ribbon campaign, which suggests that working with boys and men to end violence against women is both effective and can have positive results on the development of men and women.
Societies that have poor records of human rights seldom work hard to uphold women’s rights, a problem that can put female journalists and activists at a greater risk of violence and/or sexual violence employed as means to intimidate or silence them
Violence, or the threat of violence, is very often used as a tool to stifle freedom of expression. The threat of violence is particularly menacing to female writers who report on human rights abuses within their own countries. Societies that have poor records of human rights seldom work hard to uphold women’s rights, a problem that can put female journalists and activists at a greater risk of violence and/or sexual violence employed as means to intimidate or silence them. Ongoing research conducted by PEN International suggests that “too often women writers are subject to violence from both state and non-state actors in an attempt to punish and deter them from carrying out this critical work.” To draw attention to this pressing worldwide issue, the PEN International Women Writers Committee has submitted a statement to be read at this year’s session of the UN CSW.
PEN Canada has advocated on behalf of many female writers and journalists who have been imprisoned and/or persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Past and current female honorary members in this category include: Burmese writer and political leader Aung San Suu Kyi; Cuban writer and economist Marta Beatriz Roque; Chinese journalist Gu Linna; Ethiopian newspaper editor Lubaba Said; Russian journalist and activist Anna Politkovskaya; Nicaraguan journalist Silvia Gonzalez; Russian musicians Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich (members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot); and Syrian student blogger Tal al Mallouhi.
In honour of this year’s International Women’s Day, PEN Canada is casting the spotlight on two female writers who have risked their lives exposing and combating the abuse of women in their countries. Mexican human rights activist and writer Lydia Cacho, and Iranian human rights lawyer and journalist Nasrin Sotoudeh have both faced severe persecution for their courageous work, with the one currently living in exile and the other in prison. The commitment to activism and freedom of expression both women have embodied in their careers made them ideal candidates for PEN Canada’s One Humanity Award, which they received in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Their stories, summarized below, are both inspirational and sobering as we reflect on the status of women around the world in 2013.
Lydia Cacho is a Mexican journalist, human rights activist, and the author of seven books, most recently Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking (2012). Cacho’s investigative journalism has exposed the vastness of an underground economy made possible by large-scale sex trafficking and child pornography operations; her brave determination to pursue justice in these cases led to the high-profile conviction of Cancun hotel magnate and child pornography ringleader Succar Kuri in 2011. Since the 2005 publication of her book Demons of Eden on child pornography and sexual exploitation in Mexico, Cacho’s life has been more or less under constant threat. Several months after the book was published she was arrested, driven around Mexico for 20 hours while being assaulted and threatened with rape and murder, and then thrown in jail for a day and a half without charge. Months after this episode, audio tapes emerged that revealed her arrest had been due to the bribery of a Mexican governor by a prominent businessman whom Cacho had implicated in the child pornography ring. Such corruption, as this report has shown, is sadly not uncommon.
We are witnessing the comeback of misogyny. It is not even a matter of eroticism, but a business of money and power
In addition to her investigative journalism, Lydia Cacho is the founder and director of the Comprehensive Care Centre for Women in Cancun, which offers support to victims of domestic and sexual violence. She is also an international ambassador for the Blue Heart Campaign against sex trafficking. Prostitution is ethically wrong, Cacho argues, because the large majority of the sex trade involves women and children whose basic rights have been robbed by the organizations that buy and sell them like commodities. “We are witnessing the comeback of misogyny,” she writes in this article, “and the organized crime gangs have found the formula to make big bucks out of buying and selling women, girls and boys as disposable objects to be sexually abused. It is not even a matter of eroticism, but a business of money and power.”
Lydia Cacho is currently living in exile from Mexico after recent threats made on her life suggested a serious compromise to her safety. Her most recent book on international sex trafficking, which exposes a multi-billion dollar industry that forces women and girls as young as four into sex slavery, has no doubt angered powerful people who profit from this trade. Her unwillingness to fold under constant pressure is just one of the reasons Cacho has earned the respect and acclaim of many human rights organizations such as Swedish PEN, the Spanish Journalists’ Union in Valencia, UNESCO, Oxfam, Amnesty International, and PEN International.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is an Iranian lawyer whose practice focuses predominantly on abused children and mothers, as well as other cases involving human rights and the legal rights of women in Iran. She is a member of the Centre for the Defense of Human Rights, a board member of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Children, and an early signatory to the Campaign for One Million Signatures, which seeks the eradication of Iranian laws discriminating against women. Sotoudeh has also acted on behalf of many female members of the Campaign who have been persecuted by the state for promoting women’s rights.
Your judge confirmed that Iranian women cannot be ignored under any pretext
In September 2010 Sotoudeh was arrested and sent to Tehran’s Evin prison, where she was sentenced to remain for 11 years (a sentence which has since been reduced to six years.) The charges made against her included disseminating “propaganda against the state” and making a public appearance (in a filmed speech) without a Hijab. In a letter she addressed to the head of Iran’s judiciary after receiving her sentence, Sotoudeh reaffirmed her fight to reclaim women’s rights in Iran: “Your judge confirmed that Iranian women cannot be ignored under any pretext. I am not willing to exchange the ruling you rendered against me for anything in this world, for it was this verdict that allowed me to experience the endless grace and love of my compatriots and so many freedom seeking citizens from across the globe.”
Nasrin Sotoudeh’s imprisonment has been condemned by many world leaders and human rights groups from around the world, including PEN Canada. In addition to PEN Canada’s One Humanity Award, during her imprisonment she has been the recipient of PEN America’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (2011) and the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (2012).
Lydia Cacho: lydiacacho.net
Nasrin Sotoudeh: www.pen.org