There is a social contract between the governments of the world and their people; it’s achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global promise to improve lives, eliminate inequalities and end poverty by 2030.
Governments will fail to achieve the SDGs if issues of gender and the warnings of feminist activists are ignored. Lawmakers and leaders must listen to and include grassroots feminist advocates in their work and include the rights of women and girls in their frameworks. These advocates work on the ground and directly with people who are most often left behind in social progress; they experience and feel women and girls’ concerns and needs. Without their input, government policies and programs to eliminate inequalities will fall short and leave millions of women and girls behind.
Unfortunately, many grassroots women and girls’ rights and gender equality advocates around the world are instead being persecuted by their governments every day. Many have been subjected to arrest, intimidation and imprisonment—reducing them to silence and inaction.
Sophia, a Women Thrive Alliance member from Sauti Ya Wanawake Ukerewe (The Voice of Women) in Tanzania, was recently temporarily arrested for handing out information on sexual and reproductive health and rights to adolescents. There is no law against providing information about sexual and reproductive health in Tanzania. In fact, Tanzania ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (The Maputo Protocol) in 2007 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2006—both of which assert the rights of women and girls to access information and resources on their sexual and reproductive health.
“I [was] arrested by police with [an] order from Nyamagana District Commision on 5 March with reasons of educat[ing] the adolescent girls aged from 15 to 19 years on sexual and reproductive health and uses of contraceptive methods,” Sophia explained. “They said that they arrested me because Sauti Ya Wanawake emphasize the girls to involve in sex [encourages girls to engage in sex], and some girls are taking contraceptives methods.”
As a committed advocate on women and girl’s rights in her country, Sophia works to hold her government accountable to the implementation of the SDGs, and to ensure that women and girls’ needs, concerns and priorities are taken into account in decision-making processes. She is especially focused on making sure that Tanzania achieves Sustainable Development Goal 5, which states that governments promise to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
However, she shared she felt frustrated when she realized that her freedom to help young women access their rights were being restricted by the government that had promised to secure those same rights under SDG5. Her arrest left her confused about her ability to contribute towards achieving the SDGs in her country. “I was in a dilemma!” she told Ms. “That is the implementation of SDG5 in our country.”
Sophia’s experience is not uncommon. In many countries around the world, women and girls’ rights advocates are arrested and intimidated because of their work. In Burundi, Agence France Presse reported that three human rights activists accused of “undermining the internal security of the state” were sentenced to 10 years each in prison by the Muramvya court. Paul, a Women Thrive Alliance member in Burundi who asked not to share his full name or his organization’s name, was one of them.
“I was arrested by police who detained me from February 12 to 26 in an inaccessible place,” he said. “The offense: an attack on the internal security of the state. But I am free now, and I was innocent.”
Paul and his organization work with grassroots women and girls to fight against gender inequality and to give a voice to those women and girls who are the most marginalized. As a human rights advocate, he also documents and denounces human rights violation in Burundi. Unfortunately, in Paul’s case, two weeks in prison was enough for him to stop his advocacy work and his goal towards achieving the SDGs in his country.
“The situation in Burundi continues to be postponed from the point of view of human rights violations, which greatly disturbs the authorities currently hunting advocates by accusing them of providing information on the country,” Paul explained. “So, I am put in this context and suspected.”
This persecution has led Paul to fear for his family and his personal security. “This situation overwhelms me, it traumatizes me, and if the police were unable to demonstrate my guilt, I worry that the editing will come back and this time stronger until I commit the irreparable on my person and my family if I do not get protection or special preventive measures.”
According to Together2030, only a few governments include civil society and other non-state actors in national processes regarding the implementation of the SDGs. Leaving gender equality advocates behind in the process is excluding the most marginalized—women and girls—from important national decision-making processes and increasing gender inequality gap.
To make progress and achieve the SDGs by 2030, governments must take everyone into account. Putting the advocates working hard to foster gender equality behind bars and in political and legal danger won’t get any nation closer to equity.