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International Women’s Day 2016 – Women Writers on the Frontline of Freedom of Expression

Friday 4 March 2016 - 10:38am

int wo da 101International Women’s Day, observed each year on 8 March, is an opportunity to reflect on the progress made for women’s rights, to call for change, and to honour those women who are agents of change at great personal risk and cost.

In our times journalists, our storytellers, are so often the story. The story is censorship, jail, death and disappearance. For women journalists, this story includes sexual harassment -- often viewed as an “occupational hazard”. The sexual violence faced by female correspondents all over the world is a serious human rights issue.’- PEN International president, Jennifer Clement.

Over the years PEN International has used this day to highlight and campaign on cases of persecution, violence and intimidation against women writers around the world.  Although overall reporting on this issue remains limited and fragmented, the difficult conditions in which women writers, and in particular women journalists, carry out their work have been highlighted by a number of organisations in recent years:

  • Following an expert meeting of journalists, media actors, government and civil society representatives from participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in September 2015, the OSCE published a report which found that women journalists, bloggers and other media actors are disproportionately experiencing gender related threats, harassment and intimidation on the Internet which has a direct impact on their safety and future online activities.
  • A global survey carried out in 2013 by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) among nearly 1,000 women journalists found  that nearly two-thirds of respondents had experienced some form of intimidation, threats, or abuse in relation to their work, ranging in severity from name-calling to death threats, while 46.12% had experienced sexual harassment.
  • Country specific research is harder to come by, however, a report on Violence against women journalists in Mexico published by Communication and Information on Women (CIMAC) in 2012 showed a sharp increase in violence against women journalists over the last two decades. The research also expressed concern about underreporting of violence against women journalists and impunity: ‘The alarming number of murders and death threats against male journalists obscures the violence suffered by their female colleagues because the latter cases represent the minority.’ In fact the report found that between 2002 and 2013, attacks against women journalists in Mexico increased by more than 2,200%, while attacks against male journalists increased by 276%.

This is a trend which is reflected in the data on persecuted writers collected by PEN International. Of 104 cases of writers at risk seeking refuge received by the organisation in 2015, only nine concerned women writers. Similarly, under 17% of all cases of persecution against writers recorded PEN International in its 2014 Case List were of women writers. The regional percentages of women recorded in the Case List are also instructive, ranging from around 10% of cases in Africa and Asia to just under 20% in MENA and Europe to 25% in the Americas. These low numbers are difficult to explain, but the gender gap in education which still exists in many countries is undoubtedly a contributing factor.  According to UNICEF an estimated 31 million girls of primary school age and 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school in 2013.

Furthermore, the vulnerable position of women and girls in many societies, and their reduced access to education, means that when women are persecuted for their writings, they are often more at risk than their male counterparts, their situation more desperate: they are more likely to have a large number of dependants; their access to justice is likely to be worse, their economic position to be weaker.

To highlight these unique challenges faced by women writers, each year on International Women’s Day PEN International and its Centres around the world, use this day to campaign on behalf of women who are denied their right to freedom of expression through harassment, intimidation, violence or imprisonment.

‘International Women´s Day is an opportunity for us to stand with and honour brave women writers who face unimaginable challenges in the course of their work every day. The PEN International Women Writers Committee have long promoted the unique and integral role women writers play  in raising awareness about key issues facing girls and women around the world and in bringing about positive change. We will continue to work to create a global environment of equality, security and fairness for all women.’ Elisabeth Nordgren, Chair, PEN International Women Writers Committee

This year PEN is campaigning on behalf of:

MahvashMahvash Sabet (Iran) is a teacher and poet, currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in Evin prison, Tehran. She is one of a group of seven Baha’i leaders known as the ‘Yaran-i-Iran’ (‘Friends of Iran’) who have been detained since 2008 for their faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í community in Iran. Take action for Sabet here.

nargesNarges Mohammadi (Iran) is an independent journalist and former vice-president of the Defenders of Human Rights Center who was arrested in May 2015 and is facing trial on charges including ‘spreading propaganda against the system’. Her trial which was due to commence in May 2015 has been subject to repeated postponements. Mohammadi has a neurological disorder and there are grave concerns for her health and welfare. Take action for Mohammadi here.

fatima2Fatima Naoot (Egypt) is a poet and former political parliamentary candidate who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in January 2016 for ‘contempt of religion’, ‘spreading sectarian strife’, and ‘disturbing public peace’ for a post she made on her Facebook page in October 2014, which criticised the tradition of slaughtering animals for Eid-al-Adha. Take action for Naoot here.

For more information please contact Communications Officer Holly Strauss: