International Women’s Day – Women HRDs from Syria and Turkey

The All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG), with Amnesty International UK, held a Parliamentary Roundtable, to mark International Women’s Day, on 5 March 2019, to discuss the challenges facing and support needed for Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) worldwide.

The speakers were:

· Zaina Erhaim (ZE) – a multi award-winning Syrian journalist, and Human Rights Defender;
· Nurcan Baysal (NB) – Kurdish writer from Turkey, columnist and award-winning Human Rights Defender.

The main points raised were:

  •  ZE lived in Syria until 2010, when she received a scholarship and worked in the UK with BBC Arabic Television. She returned to Syria in 2013 believing more important work could be done there reporting and training journalists with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). She empowered many women to be independent citizen reporters on the civil war. (ZE)
  • These women citizen reporters are vulnerable to stigmatisation and being left with no job or support. If they write an independent piece, they are punished and forced to be embedded with extremists or the authorities – pushing them to become part of those corrupted systems. They should be enabled to work independently – with the necessary support and protection. (ZE)
  • Zaina fled Syria to maintain her independence. She was displaced in Turkey with no refugee status in 2015, and worked for IWPR.
  •  Even though she is an award-winning journalist, she felt undermined by the UK Government when border officials confiscated her passport at the request of the Syrian government, which had declared it stolen, after she had reported on a Syrian massacre. She is now a refugee in the UK. (ZE)
  • WHRDs are facing many challenges globally. In addition to the usual dangers, they have to deal with and face a patriarchal and misogynistic culture, including dress code restrictions and harassment. It is essential the UK advocates on their behalf, provides a safe space for them and has a strategy to support their physical and mental needs, so they can continue playing a role in the public sphere. (ZE)
  • Nurcan had not planned to be a journalist but had focussed on development issues and worked for the rights of forced Kurdish migrants. She began writing 6 years ago and has written independent accounts of conflict in Turkey as a witness to war crimes and human rights violations, including in the city of Cizre, where Kurdish people were burned alive in basements. (NB)
  • Turkey censored her articles and opened up a court case against her. She received a 10-month prison sentence, suspended for 5 years. After tweeting about Afrin, she was detained again for 3 days until she was released after international protests. Court proceedings continue. (NB)
  • Women HRDs in the Kurdish minority communities are totally alone. People try to discredit their work, and humiliate and stigmatise them. (NB)
  • There is no longer any independent media in Turkey. The South-East is cut off and militarised. Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in the world, was completely destroyed by Turkish forces. All Kurdish place names have been removed. (NB)
  • Pressure on WHRDs comes from all sides; they are in need of a place of respite where English is spoken e.g. in London. (NB)

The PHRG will continue to support WHRDs across the world, including by raising their concerns and protection needs with relevant interlocuters.