The world is a dangerous place for human rights activists. In 2019, 300 were killed according to FrontLine Defenders. Colombia experienced the highest toll with 301 murders. The Philippines, Brazil, Honduras, and Mexico are next in line. All over the world, human rights activists are facing increased suppression and violence due to political and economic shifts. Who are these activists and what are they fighting for? Here are ten:
In 2014, ISIS abducted Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi, and took her to Mosul. There, she was forced to convert to Islam and held in sexual slavery for three years. After escaping, she began her life as an activist, speaking to the UN Security Council in 2015. She spread awareness about human trafficking and refugees, despite the dangers of speaking out. In 2017, she published her memoir and in 2018, she shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Denis Mukwege, another activist who fights against sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Badawi is a writer and activist from Saudi Arabia. He created the website Free Saudi Liberals where he wrote about free speech. In 2012, he was arrested on a charge of insulting Islam and brought to court for charges involving apostasy. In his writings, he criticized religion in Saudi Arabia. He was originally given a death sentence but then sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison in 2014. In 2015, he endured 50 lashes in public. While in prison, he has undertaken hunger strikes to protest the conditions. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, lives in Canada and has accepted awards on his behalf.
A trans woman in Brazil, one of the most dangerous places in the world for the LGBTQ+ community, Alexya Salvador is also a pastor. In 2015, the Metropolitan Community Church appointed her as an assistant pastor, so she became the first trans reverend in Latin America. In 2018, she ran for a state representative position. She’s currently the vice president of the Brazilian Association of Homotransaffective Families. She speaks on issues like adoption, different family formations, and education.
A Vietnamese journalist and activist, Nhat works with the Vietnam Redemptorist News promoting economic, social, and cultural rights in Vietnam. He was arrested in 2011 for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.” He was sentenced to four years in prison with three years of probation. During his prison time, he dealt with constant harassment. After his release, the threats against him and his family continued. In 2017, a warrant for his arrest was issued, claiming he had breached the terms of his probation. In his case history on Front Line Defenders, Nhat’s status is listed as “threatened.”
Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet now serves as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has a long history of activism. In 1975, she was detained and tortured for weeks after speaking out against Chile’s military dictatorship. She went on to serve as Chile’s president from 2006-2010 and 2014-2018. A physician by training, she spent her presidencies strengthening the rights of the country’s most vulnerable, including women and the LGBTQ+ community. Her appointment as the UN’s High Commissioner was well-received by the international community.
Since 2011, Norwegian/Lebanese activist Nancy Herz has been working with Amnesty International. In 2016, Herz published the article “We are the shameless Arab women and our time starts now.” With other activists in Norway, she started the #shameless movement, reclaiming a word used to degrade Arab women. For her work promoting freedom, feminism, and anti-racism, Herz was awarded the Freedom of Expression Tribute award. In 2017, she co-wrote the book “Shameless” with Sofia Nesrine Srour and Amina Bile. Herz has also worked as an organizational advisor with the Association of NGOs in Norway. Only in her early 20’s, Herz is an activist to watch.
An Ethiopian writer and activist, Hailu co-founded Zone 9. This blogging platform allows people to speak against human rights violations in Ethiopia. Hailu was charged with terrorism because of his work promoting human rights. He has been imprisoned at four different times but has never received a conviction. He has received numerous awards, including the International Press Freedom Award in 2015 and the 2019 International writer of Courage at the PEN Pinter Prize Ceremony. Despite the risks, Hailu continues to write and promote human rights.
Arguably the most famous human rights activist right now, Greta Thunberg travels the world to draw attention to the climate crisis. Only 17 years old, she began her activism in 2018 by skipping school to stand outside the Swedish Parliament calling for action. Other students joined and the movement went global. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and won Amnesty International’s top human rights award. In focusing on climate change, Thunberg draws attention to the fact that the climate crisis is a human rights crisis.
Born in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai comes from a family of human rights activists. At only 11, she began writing a blog. Over the next few years, she became well-known for her promotion of education as a right. In 2012, the Taliban attempted to assassinate her. The attack made her world-famous. She went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at age 17, making her the youngest laureate. Malala is the co-founder of the Malala Fund and continues her human rights activism as she earns her degree from Oxford.
The U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, John Lewis has a long history of activism. He was one of the major leaders of the 1963 March on Washington and organized activities such as sit-ins, nonviolent protests, and bus boycotts. He was also one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. In his later years, Lewis continues his work in civil and human rights as a politician. He’s won many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. In December 2019, he announced that he was receiving treatment for Stage IV pancreatic cancer.