On March 11, 2015, more than 70 IWHC supporters and partners gathered for a Friends of IWHC event, “Passionate Leadership: Women Fighting the Odds for Women’s and Youth Rights in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Egypt, and Beyond,” at the stunning Gerald Bland Gallery in New York City.

Friends of IWHC, mostly New York-based professionals, mingled with young activists from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, who were participating in IWHC’s advocacy training and attending the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

IWHC President Françoise Girard welcomed the guests and described the global context of IWHC’s work, the organization’s impact, and these activists’ objectives for convening at the UN to promote and defend the human rights of women and girls.

The featured speakers—Aisha Ijaz, program manager at Aahung in Pakistan, Patience Mandishona, program director at PaKasipiti in Zimbabwe, and Nada Nashat, international advocacy coordinator at the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance—described the intense political challenges of advocating for women’s and youth rights in their countries.

In Zimbabwe, those who don’t fit sexual and gender norms because of their identity or self-expression are not treated as full citizens. Repressive, anti-democratic laws directly prevent lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from organizing together as a group, and treat them instead as criminals. Patience said her group is actively fighting against this injustice, stating, “What motivates me is the realization that I am constantly being discriminated against, firstly as a woman, a black woman and a lesbian woman, a feminist and an activist…I have to stand up and do something about it.”

In Egypt, civil society organizations are similarly repressed. The political situation in Egypt makes it difficult for human rights activists to do their work given the government’s restrictive stance. Recently, the government targeted Azza Soliman, one of the world’s most ardent human rights defenders and a founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, because she stepped forward to denounce police brutality. Despite the state’s attempts to silence human rights defenders, Nada, Azza, and their colleagues at the Center continue bravely to do all they can to protect the rights of women and marginalized groups.

In Pakistan, amidst rising violence and extreme fundamentalism, Aahung engages with progressive religious leaders and lobbies the government to get comprehensive sexuality education integrated into the national curriculum. The work is critical—more than half of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 24, and many young people lack accurate information about their bodies and sexuality. Aisha told the Friends, “There are a lot of young people in Pakistan. We need them to bring about change, by teaching them tolerance and inclusion, and to respect each other.”

Françoise closed the evening by thanking the speakers, noting that with so much at stake, we are fortunate to have such dedicated advocates at the center of this fight for peace, equality, and justice. We hope they are buoyed by knowing that Friends of IWHC are committed to supporting their efforts.

Friends of IWHC is a network of like-minded and diverse women and men who want to learn, advise, and advocate in support of IWHC’s mission to advance the health and rights of women and girls globally. Learn more about Friends of IWHC..