Pinar Ilkkaracan

(WOMENSENEWS)–The fall season of human rights awards in New York, Washington and Geneva gave people who work under dangerous conditions in often threadbare circumstances a chance to take star turns in plush ballrooms and convention centers.

As always, some have been toasted and regaled by celebrations set aside only for women.

The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation delivered its gold medal and $500,000 cash award to Turkish activist Pinar Ilkkaracan and two women’s rights groups she co-founded to promote reproductive rights in the Muslim world. The prestigious Gruber prize is one of the largest awarded in women’s activism.

Of the three Latin American legal activists to share the Gruber Foundation’s International Justice Prize, two–Carmen Argibay of Argentina and Monica Feria of Peru–are women. The justice prize recognizes the human rights achievements of people who work through legal systems and also carries a $500,000 award.

Argibay, the first woman nominated to Argentina’s Supreme Court, has worked on war crimes prosecutions stemming from the sexual enslavement of women during World War II and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Feria took on the first international human rights case from the Americas that addressed violence against women as a crime against humanity.

The first recognized U.S. leader in the field of human rights, arguably, was a woman.

Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that drafted the seminal document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948. At that time she told reporters it was not just a treaty, noting in her speech, "This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere."

Playing Catch-Up

But Roosevelt aside, Neil Hicks, director of Human Rights First’s Defender Program, says recognition for women is still playing catch-up.

"Women have been involved in human rights promotion for a long time and have been subjected to particular forms of persecution, distinct from and often in addition to the persecution suffered by their male counterparts," says Hicks. "This type of gender-specific persecution has been under-reported and even disregarded. As a result, strategies to protect women defenders and to respond to the particular threats that women activists face are not well developed."

In late October, Human Rights First, founded in 1978 by a group of lawyers in New York concerned with protecting global citizens at risk such as refugees and victims of crime or discrimination, honored Iranian activist Fariba Davoodi Mohajer with its Human Rights Defender Award.

Mohajer is one of the founders of the One Million Signatures petition campaign, which demands changes to discriminatory laws against women in Iran. The campaign is a follow-up effort to a peaceful women’s rights protest held June 12, 2006, in Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran.

"We were recognizing that women’s rights were increasingly challenged, and in fact, violated in a number of places around the world," says Human Rights First Executive Director Maureen Byrnes, referring to political hotspots like Iran, Syria and Bhutan. "Human Rights First started to explore what role we could play in supporting the women on the ground who were focusing on these violations and trying to end them."

Hoping for Protection

Byrnes hopes the award and recognition will help protect Mohajer. "Many of our previous awardees have testified to the fact that they feel safer going back to their home countries. They know that attention will be brought to their plight should anything happen."

New York-based Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, gave both of its two Activist Awards this year to women.

Sri Lankan Sunila Abeysekera was honored for documenting arbitrary detentions, torture and political killings during her nation’s civil war and for her role as executive director of Inform, a leading Sri Lankan human rights nongovernmental organization. Abeysekera’s award will be presented at a series of annual dinners across North America in November.

Mandira Sharma, a Nepali lawyer and human rights activist who cofounded Advocacy Forum, one of Asia’s most respected and effective human rights organizations, won one of the group’s two Global Rights Defenders Awards. Sharma’s award will be presented at dinners in London, Munich, Hamburg and Geneva in November.

Dena Merriam, founder of the New York-based Global Peace Initiative of Women, is very familiar with the work women are doing in the human rights field and the ways in which it does, or does not, get rewarded.

Merriam regrets that many awards are based on a networking process. "When you know how these things work, you can’t help but be a little skeptical," she says. "I think while it is important that women get awards, some of the best work continues to go unrecognized."

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, chosen by a committee of five elected by the Norwegian parliament and given in Oslo every year, went to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their work on global warming.

Women on Nobel Short List

Zainab Salbi

But plenty of women were on the peace prize short list, including Chechnya’s Lida Yusupova, who documents human rights violations in the Russian province. Others were Canadian Inuit environmental activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier and China’s Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman and philanthropist imprisoned for sending local newspaper reports about the activities of Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighurs to her U.S.-based husband.

The Nobel Peace Prize–which this year awarded 10 million Swedish kronor, about $1.5 million–has been given to a woman 12 times since its founding in 1901.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative was started by six female peace laureates in 2006 to prevent violence by promoting women’s rights.

The group is making a special appeal to the United Nations to work for the release of 1991 Nobel peace laureate and Myanmar political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

"Our sister laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and so many other women and men have risked their safety to return to the streets day after day, year after year, to demand the most basic rights and freedoms," reads a statement on the initiative’s Web site. "For 17 years now Suu Kyi has paid the price, imprisoned in her home, while the regime pads its pockets and brutalizes its people."

This year’s Right Livelihood Awards–also known as the "Alternative Nobels"–were bestowed on four recipients who share a prize of 2 million Swedish kronor, about $314,000. Among them is Kenya’s Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a female activist who works to resolve conflicts among ethnic and religious groups.

The Right Livelihood Award was also given to Percy and Louise Schmeiser, a Canadian farm couple who have battled U.S. agriculture giant Monsanto over the genetic engineering of crops.

Zainab Salbi, founder and president of Washington-based Women for Women International, which assists women in war-torn regions and conflict zones, says female workers on the ground still aren’t being recognized in the way they should, nor are they being included at the policy-making table.

"It isn’t time to celebrate yet," Salbi says. "There are two worlds out there: the world of women’s groups, where we are very good at acknowledging one another, and then the world of mainstream human rights work, where we have yet to be fully incorporated."

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," her first book, was published on Simon and Schuster’s Free Press in spring of 2007. You can read more about Courtney’s work at

For more information:

Human Rights Watch Defenders:

Human Rights Watch Activist Awards:

Right Livelihood Awards:

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