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Commemorating Women Human Rights Defenders on World Humanitarian Day

We mark August 19 to honor the women’s leadership that built and sustains our work.

By Josh Leach on August 16, 2019

Each August 19, we mark World Humanitarian Day: A time to honor people who have sacrificed or risked their lives providing aid to others. This year, the United Nations calls on us to commemorate women humanitarian leaders—particularly those “unsung heroes who have long been working on the front lines in their own communities.”

UUSC was created and sustained by women’s leadership, both sung and unsung. We rightly celebrate heroic women leaders like Martha Sharp, who co-founded our organization. Alongside Waitstill Sharp, Charles Joy, Varian Fry, and others, Martha Sharp worked to help refugees escape Nazi persecution in Europe before and during World War II, often at significant personal peril. 

Even greater but lesser known risks of UUSC’s early work were borne by UUSC staff who were themselves part of Jewish refugee communities in Europe. As the historian Elisabeth Subak notes, UUSC’s office staff in Prague, some of whom were Jewish women, “delayed their own emigration efforts to help other refugees.” Ultimately, “[N]one…  were able to emigrate or avoid deportation” to concentration camps. These heroes made the ultimate sacrifice—giving their lives in order to defend human rights.  

Today, UUSC’s grassroots partners continue to center women’s leadership and to face extreme risks in the cause of human rights. Half of our partners are led by women, and most are directed by the people they serve and represent. They are members of communities who are confronting—and resisting—some of the most severe injustices on the planet: Indigenous people facing the destruction of their homelands through ecological crises they had no part in creating; refugees and asylum-seekers in exile from their homes; religious and ethnic minorities facing genocide at the hands of powerful militaries. 

UUSC’s partners are also humanitarian workers in the highest sense, often facing persecution in pursuit of bringing aid to people who need it. At a workshop in Spokane, Washington in June, UUSC supporters heard from two female humanitarian leaders with whom we partner: Parker Deighan of No More Deaths and Milena Zajovic of the Croatian NGO Are You Syrious?. Volunteers in both organizations have faced arrest or government crack-downs in retaliation for their work to provide life-saving humanitarian aid to migrants and refugees. 

The world is in the midst of multiple humanitarian crises, and it is a dangerous time to be a defender of human rights. The number of people being killed each year for defending their rights, homes, and territories is increasing, with women and Indigenous human rights defenders often confronting the worst of this violence. Around the world, authoritarian governments and populist demagogues are emboldened to trample on the fundamental norms of the global community, putting profit and power ahead of the inherent worth and dignity of human beings. 

In these times, we draw strength from the inestimable courage of women leaders who refuse to be daunted by violence and intimidation. As Honduran human rights defender and UUSC partner Carolina Sierra once told us: “What we do is we love each other and we take care of each other. We grow together. We hold in our minds those who have been murdered and disappeared because they give us the example of their struggle and their sacrifice, their martyrdom inspires us to continue so they will not be forgotten.”

We invite you to learn more about women leaders who are defending human rights amid great barriers and grave dangers today. Please join us for our upcoming Guest at Your Table program, focused on the theme “Women Leaders, Strong Communities.” 

 

Photo credit: A.E. Graffuis. Photograph of Martha Sharp. Unitarian Universalist Association. Minister files, 1825-2010, bMS 1446, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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