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Lead Commissioner Sara Khan on human rights and women's leadership

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Sara Khan talks to a councillor
Sara Khan and Cllr Lower

Women from across the world play a vital role challenging extremists and we must support them, our Lead Commissioner Sara Khan told the Forum for Promoting Peace in the UAE last week.

Founded by Sheikh Bin Bayyah, the Forum brought together religious leaders, activists and others from across the world with the aim of building a global alliance that works towards establishing peace. 

Sara, delivering her speech at the Opening Ceremony, highlighted that despite women’s vital work countering extremism, too often their contributions are ignored, undermined and dismissed.

Sara paid tribute to the courage, resilience and determination shown by women campaigners in the face of extremism and secondly stressed that upholding human rights and challenging extremism are two sides of the same coin.  She also highlighted how governments have a responsibility to support civil society groups and to uphold equality and human rights.

These themes formed the basis of Sara’s key note speech at the forum, and then an opinion piece she subsequently wrote for Civil Society on the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

In the opinion piece she sums up the close relationship between defending human rights and challenging extremism.

She says: 'As a long standing human rights advocate who has been working to counter extremism for more than a decade, I have always been struck by how extremists of all persuasions and ideologies, have a fundamental opposition to human rights and equality. Their activism is based on ‘othering;’ they seek to deny the human rights of others who they consider to be part of the ‘out-group’ and engage in hatred towards them.'

A few days earlier Sara took to the stage in Abu Dhabi to call on the Forum for Promoting Peace to work with and support women who are on the frontline countering extremism.

She said it was women in South Africa who emerged as the primary catalysts against apartheid, women in Papua New Guinea who, after decades of tribal violence, were at the frontline working for peace and women in Northern Ireland who overcame their religious and political differences to bring about peace. 

Sara, who received a prize in recognition of her long standing activism and current work in challenging extremism and to build peace, said that the work of these inspiring women was all the more impressive given that extremists of all forms are more likely to target women than men.

We will continue to explore these two vital issues – women’s leadership in building peace and combating hatred and the relationship between defending human right and challenging extremism –  as we moves through our evidence gathering stage and develop our landmark study into extremism. 

If you are concerned about intolerance, hatred or extremism, please contribute to our study by responding to our call for evidence.

Extract from Sara’s speech

'Today I want to pay tribute and highlight the need to work with one group of people who are vital in the struggle against extremism.   Who as research has shown, time and again, are key to helping build sustainable peace but whose role is often undermined, ignored and even dismissed. And that group of people is women.

'It is simply not possible to achieve global peace or to defeat extremism without the contribution of half of the world’s population.   How can a society fully prosper, or achieve its aims,  if we only use half of humanity’s leadership skills, talents, expertise and pragmatism?

'Study after study have shown how women are pivotal in helping to bring peace and to help resolve conflicts.  Development studies have repeatedly proven that women play a critical role in economic progress, good governance and healthy civil society: all of which are vital in helping build resilience to extremism.

'The evidence is stark: societies that invest in and empower women become more stable, better governed, and less prone to extremism.  Countries that limit women’s educational, employment and political opportunities, get stuck in a downward spiral.  They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption and are more prone to extremism.  When women are educated and empowered, societies benefit.

'The vital contributions women make do not end there: they are an active agent for peace.  Women have been proven to be vital to conflict resolution and sustainable peace building.

'Which is why the UN Security Council 18 years ago enshrined this principle in Resolution 1325, highlighting the importance women make in preventing conflict and building peace.

'Just as one example, the Institute of Development Studies’ research overwhelmingly concluded that women and girls actively work to resolve conflicts, are building peace and creating change through building trust and dialogue in their families and communities. They do this despite the fact they are frequently dismissed as irrelevant or are not sufficiently valued by national governments, the international community or by other women.

'Despite the international community's assumed commitments to the inclusion of women in negotiations and peace building, women however account for only 4% of participants in peace talks.   Too often we fail to recognise the powerful role women do and can make.

'Throughout my life, I have seen how it is women, including Muslim women, who have demonstrated the greatest courage, bravery, resilience and determination – in the face of extremism.  When extremists have threatened them and have pronounced takfir on them; when attempts have been made to stifle and silence their activism, they have refused to give in.  Women act as a bulwark against extremism and we need to recognise the power they bring.

'Building an Alliance of Virtues, of Peace and for Peace means listening to women, giving them a seat at the leadership table, working with them and supporting them. And support them we must, because too often extremists be they Islamist, Far Right, religious extremists, or other repeatedly target women. In particular women who are prominent online, on the street or in public life, because of their activism, their opinions or their religious dress.  We must do more to defend, support and work with women.'

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