Girl human rights defenders push for change despite attempts to silence them

© DCI / Protecting and Safeguarding Girl Human Rights Defenders at the UN, Palais des Nations

It takes courage for a girl to make her voice heard in a community where women and girls are vulnerable to violence. Emah, 16 years old, comes from Mauritania, a country where 66% girls undergo female genital mutilation, while the harmful practice is banned by the government. In the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), she represents an unpopular position. “I wanted to denounce this through art”. Her painting on FGM won the first prize in the DCI’s Children’s Rights Award giving her the opportunity to join the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) at the UN in Geneva. On November 19, she took the floor in a side event organised by Defence for Children International, in partnership with Plan International and Terre des Hommes International as part of the Girls Advocacy Alliance[1]: Safeguarding and promoting girl human rights defenders: Encouraging action and tackling growing threats.

Co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the City and Canton of Geneva, the event gathered high-level panellists including Annette Lyth, from the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children (SRSG-VAC), Meskerem Geset Techane, Chairperson of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls (UNWGDAW), Monique van Daalen, the Dutch Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN in Geneva, and Abdul Manaff Kemokai, President of the DCI Movement and Executive Director of DCI-Sierra Leone. They looked at the unique potential of girls advocating for human rights in society and explored solutions to tackle reprisals and intimidation against girl advocates. This panel was moderated by Carrie van der Kroon, Programme Coordinator of Children’s Rights and Sexual Exploitation of Defence for Children – ECPAT Netherlands.

© DCI / Abdul Manaff Kemokai, President of DCI, Monique van Daalen, Ambassador of NL in Geneva, Carrie van der Kroon, Defence for Children-ECPAT Netherlands, Annette Lyth, from the Office of the SRSG-VAC, and Meskerem Geset, UN WG Disc. Against Women&Girls

Girls who speak out against violations of rights

Children have the right to participate in discussions on all matters affecting them. However, this is far from being a reality. Standing up for children’s rights as a minor is not necessarily easy. In some countries women’s and girls’ views and participation in these debates and decision-making processes are considered less important or even excluded. It is especially the case for contexts in which girls and young women must organise and express themselves despite a double discrimination based on age and gender. We have several testimonies of girl human rights defenders from the Day of General Discussion 2018 (DGD) on Children as Human Rights Defenders (CHRD’s) who faced intimidation or threats, although it is important to highlight that there are no official data available in this area. Abdul Manaff Kemokai acknowledged Emah’s courage by pointing out that “nothing is as powerful as a girl who says “no” in her community to gender-based violence. Girls have demonstrated that by working in group to defend their human rights, they are better protected. The others know: “we cannot do anything to that group”.

“Some people try to stop me from doing so, because in my country they say that drawing and painting are not very important. For me, it’s just a way of expressing myself”, Emah said. Her father has been one of her main supporters for the cause and encourages her to continue with her hobby engagement and talent. With this dedication, she organised an art workshop to help other children. “I hope that people will put an end to this practice (FMG) in Mauritania”.

Girls as agents of change

Although challenging social roles is complicated in society, girls have proven to be an indispensable force in advocating for their rights. Monique van Daalen stressed that “girls who defend human rights are a very important driver in generating a positive change and to achieve gender equality“. “My head is covered, not my brain!”, exclaimed one of the girls in the video shown during her intervention. She assured that the Dutch government will continue to support girl human rights defenders.

Annette Lyth: “We have to give room to girls to organise themselves and to come together in a safe way. However, this also means that we need to change our way of thinking. We must also support those girls who, for example in times of war and conflict, do not behave in accordance with our standards and ideas. In this way, we can unintentionally, as adults, contribute to the problem rather than to the solution”.

Children’s rights defenders are increasingly recognised at UN level. In 2018, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) dedicated its Day of General Discussion to Children as Human Rights Defenders. In March 2019, the UN Human Rights Council first recognised children as human rights defenders and stated that states must guarantee minors a safe environment when standing up for their rights to the climate. This was followed in July 2019 by a resolution in which the UN Human Rights Council for the first-time mentioned girls as human rights defenders.

© DCI / Emah, advocate for girls' rights in Mauritania and winner of the DCI Children's Rights Award
© DCI / Girls Advocacy Alliance video displayed during the side event on Girl Human Rights Defenders


The speakers made various recommendations during the panel. In summary, child rights organisations, governments and international organisations have the following homework to do:

  • Professionals and organisations: are we really supportive and do we promote the participation of girls and boys as human rights defenders? Or are we part of the problem (e.g. being paternalistic, tokenistic, selective or setting conditions for participation)?
  • Professionals and organisations need to better report on the problems faced by children defending human rights;
  • Collect the views of girls and boys on the type of support they want and need from adults;
  • Ensure that girl human rights defenders do not operate alone, but in groups and that they are well linked and protected by other groups and institutions;
  • Integrate the promotion and safeguarding of girl and boy human rights defenders into our programmes and narrative from the beginning of programme development;
  • Existing tools for the protection and support of human rights defenders need to be adapted specifically for children, especially taking into account girls;
  • We have to make better use of existing mechanisms to protect girl and boy human rights defenders if needed, including human rights mechanisms and embassies;
  • The protection of girls and boys as human rights defenders need to be at the same level as of adult human rights defenders, as soon as possible;
  • We cannot wait. We need a response right now for acute cases such as those currently occurring in Chile and Bolivia.

[1] The GAA is a 5-year joint initiative between Plan Netherlands, Terre des Hommes Netherlands and Defence for Children – ECPAT Netherlands. The programme is implemented in strategic partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.