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Incredible Human Rights Defenders Who Lost Their Lives in the Fight

Unable to accept injustice, women human rights defenders in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones risk everything to create change. Their courageous efforts to serve people in need will create ripple-effects of generations to come – but heroic women around the world have also lost their lives in the in the process. World Humanitarian Day commemorates the bravery of frontline defenders for human rights, inviting us to both honor their sacrifice and continue their work against corruption, violence, and discrimination. 

Whether they are medical staff, organizers, or journalists, this day stands so they are never lost in history. Here are just a few of the incredible human rights defenders who lost their lives in the fight for justice.

Freshta Kohistani, Women’s Rights Organizer – Afghanistan  

Freshta Kohistani
Photo Courtesy of IB Times India

Growing up in Afghanistan, Freshta Kohistani knew the injustices women faced simply because their gender. Unable to accept harmful cultural norms she took to social media, sharing out messages of power for other women across her nation. She outlined the problems such as harassment, lack of economic opportunity, and the male guardianship system, gaining her a large following on Twitter. She also publicly condemned the assassination of journalists in Afghanistan and called out the Afghan government’s lack of protection for civilians. Fearless in her beliefs, she frequently organized and spoke at events in the capitol city of Kabul, rallying women to stand up for their rights. While walking outside near her home in the Kapisa province of Afghanistan in December of 2020, Freshta was shot by a gunmen on a motorbike along with her brother. Her relentless fight for women in her country will be remembered for generations, and she will go down in history as a,”’brave and fearless’ activist at the forefront of civil and social life in Afghanistan.”  

Hauwa Mohammed Liman, Nurse – Nigeria  

Hauwa Mohammed Liman
Photo Courtesy of Daily Post Nigeria

Working on the frontlines in Nigeria’s northeast state of Borno, Hauwa Mohammed faced unimaginable threats while defending human rights. During her career in the medical field, she helped aid and save countless lives. Hauwa became a midwife at an early age with a goal to supporting vulnerable women in her family’s home region, later working her way to a position with the International Committee of the Red Cross. She served in Rann, Nigeria, home to at least 40,000 internally displaced persons. Hauwa was kidnapped by Boko Haram along with other aid workers—Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Khorsa and Alice Loksha—and killed by her captives in October 2018. Hauwa’s drive to serve those in need will create a legacy for decades to come. She is remembered by her colleagues as “a sociable, dynamic, and enthusiastic woman who was much loved.” 

María Hernandez, Emergency Aid Coordinator – Tigray 

María Hernandez
Photo Courtesy of Doctors Without Borders

Spanish national Maria Hernandez devoted her life to a career of humanitarianism in the world’s most war-torn areas. In 2015, she began her career with Doctors Without Borders as a financial coordinator for the Central African Republic followed by subsequent coordinating work in South Sudan and Yemen. Maria’s experience spans across the world, including projects all over Africa and as well as Latin America. As a humanitarian, she inspired others to work with the world’s most vulnerable people. Maria, along with two other aid workers in the Ethiopian region of Tigray, were discovered in June of 2021 with no leads to what caused their deaths. The communities she worked with felt the magnitude of her passing tremendously. Her co-workers in Tigray recall her remarkable dedication to the lives of others and note, “...She had a personality that forced you to remember her—for her dedication, her passion to do more.”  

Shifa Gardi, Journalist – Iraq 

Shifa Gardi
Photo Courtesy of Shifa's Personal Facebook

Born in Iran as a refugee, Shifa Gardi dedicated much of her life to reporting in the conflict affected Iraq. Starting her media career in 2006, Shifa joined Rudaw Media Network as a Kurdish news anchor and Iraqi-Kurdish reporter. Her accomplished career in mass communication, broadcast media, and fact-finding defied stereotypes for women in war journalism, and she is often credited for “breaking the glass ceiling” in the male dominated industry. As a segment presenter with Rudaw, she covered the Iraqi campaign to drive ISIS out of the country. To give viewers a direct look at the war, Gardi often reported bravely from the frontlines – an immensely dangerous technique of reporting. While filming a segment in February of 2017, Gardi was killed by a roadside bomb during an offensive by Iraqi forces in Mosul. She will be remembered for her groundbreaking journalism, breaking stereotypes for the industry, and committing to public transparency in media.  

Halla and Orouba Barakat, Human Right Activists – Syria 

Halla and Orouba Barakat
Photo Courtesy of Al Jazeera

Orouba Barakat fought for the rights of Syrian people as a journalist, documentary producer, and human rights activist throughout her remarkable life. After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Orouba and her family, including daughter Halla Barakat, moved out of the country. Seeing the journalism work done by her mother detailing torture in Syrian prisons, Halla followed her as a human rights advocate and editor for a pro-opposition website issuing reports on secret detention centers in her home country. Both mother and daughter were outspoken in their opposition of both ISIS and the Syrian government, even in broadcasted interviews on Arab television. Their bold actions documenting abuses in Syria sparked outrage across the world and in September 2017, both Orouba and Halla were killed inside of their home in Istanbul, Turkey. Although a distant relative confessed to the crime, he has since withdrawn his confession and Orouba and Halla's work against powerful members of the Syrian government is still considered as potential motive for their unjust deaths. Their fearless defense of human rights will carry on for decades to come, and their power remains with us beyond their passing.  

Do you want to continue the legacy of human rights defenders but don’t know where to start? We have some suggestions for you to become an everyday humanitarian

5 Steps to Becoming an Everyday Humanitarian for Women  

steps to take on whd
  • Educate yourself on the fight, including those who gave their lives for it (you just completed this one!) 

  • Speak up on issues facing women that mean the most to you (perhaps share a message on social media)

  • Support women-focused organizations (consider making a donation to our emergency Afghanistan response camapign)

  • Mobilize your allies to fight for women’s rights (start by telling five friends about Women for Women International) 

  • Connect with marginalized women all over the world (we have an incredible sponsor-a-sister program!)

Woman walking in black burqas
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