“I will only stop when my eyes close” – Why we must keep WHRDs' stories alive
| By Laila Malik
Women Human Rights Defenders have always been the engine of global liberation movements. Those movements can only take hold as realities if we keep their stories alive.
“Titigil lang ako pag pikit na ang mata ko! Ano pa ba ang magagawa ko e patay na ako. Hindi ito para sa akin, kundi para sa mga apo ko, masakit ang loob ko kapag nakikita ko silang nagkakasakit”.
[I will only stop when my eyes close! What else could I do when I am dead? This is not for my sake, but for my grandchildren, my heart breaks whenever I see them sick!]
Gloria Capitan, anti-coal activist, Batan, Philippines
No matter how much Gloria Capitan cleaned the countertops of her roadside convenience store, the coal dust kept coming back. A few months after the Filipina grandmother opened it in 2014, the local sanitation department came and ordered it closed. The nearby coal stockpile – the source of the dust – remained open.
But Capitan refused to be defeated. She got 1000 people to sign a petition calling for the stockpile’s closure. She formed an advocacy group comprised of neighbours grappling with the same fate. As her grandchildren suffered asthma attacks, chest colds and skin rashes and her mango and coconut trees withered in a blanket of coal dust, she converted her shop into a karaoke bar, requiring less strict health certification, while she became involved in climate change advocacy in Manila. In response to her activism, the company was ordered to cover its coal stockpile to reduce atmospheric dust.
Still, the company continued to burn coal and chemicals. A nearby coal-fired power plant destroyed surrounding vegetable farms. Tuberculosis began to spike in her region. And Capitan continued her advocacy, becoming a leader of the Coal-free Batan Movement and the president of United Citizens of Lucanin Association.
Then, in 2016, she began to receive threatening visits from unidentified men, warning her to stop her anti-coal organizing or suffer the consequences. She refused. In July of that year, Gloria Capitan, mother of five, grandmother of 18, owner of a roadside karaoke bar, was lethally shot by unidentified assailants in front of her grandchildren at her place of work.
Why does Capitan’s story matter?
Under capitalism, life on planet earth perches precariously between the devastation of accelerating climate change and the rise of fascisms, fundamentalisms and authoritarianism. As Capitan’s story illustrates, women, trans and intersex people and communities sit directly in the intersecting crosshairs.
Arundhati Roy famously said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” In the internet age and in the context of these mounting crises, fear, compound trauma, exhaustion, information overload and compassion fatigue can blur Women Human Rights Defenders’ (WHRD’s) stories of resistance. But the cost of allowing stories like Capitan’s to be forgotten is a colossal betrayal of the hope to which they gave their lives. And without this enactment of hope there can be no reality or future other than catastrophe.
Take Ottile Abrahams, African teacher, rebel, feminist, and radical activist who mobilized women, organized students and teachers, and fought systemic elitism and corruption over six decades. Abrahams co-founded organizations such as Namibia’s SouthWest African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), Yu Chi Chan Club (an armed revolutionary group), South West African National Liberation Front (SWANLIF) and Namibian Women’s Association and Girl Child Project, consciously dismantling patriarchy, and fostering participatory democratic feminist practice along the way. Could the story of her beginnings as a 14 year old participating in underground reading groups give inspiration to a demoralized teenager sitting in another country facing similar occupation in 2019?
Or what about Lorraine Gradwell, who changed the disability rights landscape in the UK, from the introduction of Manchester’s first accessible black cabs and direct payments to disabled people to support independent living, to the creation of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People and Breakthrough UK, an organization which supports disabled people to live and work independently. Might the story of her relentless mobilizing for the social model of disability – which sees disability as a consequence of the way society is organized rather than a result of impairment or difference – radically shift the way justice-seeking communities in other contexts organize themselves?
Women Human Rights Defenders are at once the leaders and the many pulsing hearts of movements that have the power to turn our planet from crisis to healing. In the words of Lohana Berkins, the Argentinian trans rights activist and advocate who laid the groundwork for a groundbreaking Gender Identity Law, founded one of the first advocacy organizations as well as one of the first textile cooperatives for trans persons in Argentina:
“Many are our accomplishments over the years. This is the time to resist, to continue fighting. The revolution’s time is right now, because we will not be going back to prison. I am convinced that the drive for change is love. The love that was denied to us is what moves us to change the world.
All the beatings that I took and all the neglect that I suffered, they do not compare to the endless love that surrounds me in these moments.”
By sharing their stories we reignite and spread that love and hope, rebirth the creative resilience into the feminist realities that will save our planet. It is both our paramount responsibility and our greatest gift.
According to the #VisibleWikiWomen campaign, less than ¼ of Wikipedia biographies represent women. Many biographies of notable women don’t exist or are incomplete, and one of the main challenges is the lack of images that represent them. The campaign estimates that less than 20% of Wikipedia articles of important women have pictures.
Women’s knowledge and contributions to the world are invisible in so many ways. When women’s faces are missing from Wikipedia, that invisibility spreads. Half a billion people read Wikipedia every month, and it is the 5th most visited website in the world, so gaps in Wikipedia have a big impact on the broader internet. Together, we can address this and make women more visible on Wikipedia and the broader internet.
Let’s center the faces and achievements of women on the internet! Join Whose Knowledge? #VisibleWikiWomen campaign starting every May 8th!