13 MARCH 2018

 It’s been one hundred years since some women in the UK first won the right to vote and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later. This was an important milestone in the fight for equality, but this ground-breaking victory wasn’t just granted from above. Rather, it was achieved thanks to the tireless work of activists, the suffragettes, ordinary women who organised and campaigned through direct action, lobbying and education.

The suffragettes promoted women’s rights at great personal risk facing intimidation, threat and ridicule. They were arrested and tortured through force feeding. They were considered a ‘scourge for the empire’. Nevertheless, they persisted and, in the end, won the struggle to secure women the vote making the UK a more just and equal society.

We have come a long way on the road to women’s rights but much more remains to be done. Globally 35% of women will experience physical or sexual violence at the hand of an intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence. Women still earn less than men for the same work and represent on average just above 23% of parliamentarians. In the UK in 2017 106 women were killed by a man between January and September, in 9 out of 10 cases the killer was someone they knew such as a partner or ex-partner. At the same time refuges, starved of resources, are turning away 60% of referred cases due to lack of space.

Still marching

One hundred years on and women are still at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights and human rights for all. Amnesty’s Suffragette Spirit project seeks to celebrate these women and raise awareness of the role they play in upholding and furthering human rights in our society by creating a map of women human rights defenders across the UK. We hope this map will inspire the next generation of suffragettes to continue their legacy over the next 100 years. Last century’s suffragette are this century’s women human rights defenders.

While much progress has been made, women’s human rights cannot be taken for granted. Rising authoritarianism and conservative forces across the globe continue to pose a threat. At the same time, women human rights defenders continue to operate on shoestring budgets, harassed and presecuted, often unsupported by broader social movements as their work is not always recognised in the same way as other human rights work.

Amnesty International’s research shows how women human rights defenders face specific challenges and threats due to their activism and their gender. Their standing up to governments and powerful non-state actors, such as corporations, places them outside the boundaries of what is often considerate appropriate behaviour for women in society. As a result, they face violence and threats which are often sexualised. Women who are working class, black, indigenous, LBT or living with disabilities face the compounded impact of sexism, racism, class prejudice and ableism as they break deeply ingrained social norms through their activism.

The words of Aura Lolita Chávez, an Indigenous WHRD from Guatemala threatened with death and sexual assault by armed men in June 2017, exemplify the experience of women human rights defenders around the world:

“When they threaten me, they say that they will kill me, but before they kill me they will rape me. They don’t say that to my male colleagues. These threats are very specific to Indigenous women. There is also a very strong racism against us. They refer to us as those rebel Indian women that have nothing to do, and they consider us less human”.

As we rightly celebrate the successes of the suffragettes and rejoice in how far we have come we also know that we need to continue fighting and standing in solidarity with those who are targeted because of their commitment to making the world a better place.

Amnesty International through its BRAVE campaign is supporting women human rights defenders and asking governments and corporations to refrain from intimidation, threats and violence against them. We ask you to stand with us and support women like Azza Soliman who fights tirelessly for the basic human rights of Egyptian women, but as a result has been persecuted by the Egyptian government for almost 30 years. As we celebrate those who set us on this path 100 years ago let us continue to support the incredible women who are still fighting for our rights today.


Chiara Caparo is the Women’s Human Rights Programme Manager at Amnesty International UK. Amnesty International UK work to protect women, men and children wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied. As a global movement of over 7 million people, Amnesty International is the world's largest grassroots human rights organisation. They investigate and expose abuses, educate and mobilise the public, and help transform societies to create a safer, more just world.