Women’s Rights Defenders Are Tired of Being Told to ‘Push Back’ Against the Opposition

4 min readJul 8, 2019

by Hayley Willingale. This article originally appeared on PassBlue.

As a human-rights defender and women’s rights campaigner, I continue to be struck not by the many challenges now facing women’s rights organizations but by the constant calls for women to “push back against the pushback.”

A demonstration outside the Organization of American States in Washington, April 5, 2016, protesting the murder of the Honduran rights defender Berta Cáceres, who was killed a month earlier. Her daughter, Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, is part of the protests. The author of the essay suggests that instead of women’s rights activists being called on to “push back” against oppression, it’s time for others to “join us”?

This call for women to push back against the many forces oppressing women’s rights organizations was repeated in a quote by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in a recent article in PassBlue, “ Calling All Women’s Groups: Help Shape the Beijing+25 Agenda.”

I have no doubt Guterres’s remark was well intended, but it left me feeling frustrated. Women human-rights defenders have always been pushing back — it’s time for others to get in formation and join us.

For decades, women’s movements have led the way in seeking radical change to the most damaging aspects of our societies, while global politics and policy often lagged. My own vantage point may be somewhat different to the secretary-general’s, but it illustrates my point.

In 2010, I volunteered with Reach Out, a community-based organization in Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s southwest region. Cameroon was then considered by many people and governments in the region and beyond to be a stable African country and a pivotal ally among its more turbulent neighbors. The women I worked with lived in a highly patriarchal society, taught not to question their fathers or husbands, let alone the president, Paul Biya (who is still president). They defied social norms and fought daily to support the most marginalized people in their community — including young single mothers, Mbororo women, disabled people and people living with HIV. Mbororo are indigenous people of predominately Muslim faith.

Thirty-seven years into President Biya’s presidency and after nearly three years of violence in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, the women working with Reach Out must now also defy the government. The organization’s formidable executive director, Esther Omam Njomo, has “pushed back” all the way to the UN Security Council to spotlight the abuses happening in her community. That same Security Council visited the West African…


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