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2018 has been a tough year for human rights. From the looming famine in Yemen, to the ongoing genocide in Myanmar, to family separation in the United States, this year’s news cycle has lurched from one depressing report to the next. As the year draws to close, international human rights organizations such as Freedom House are reporting that democracy is on the decline and political rights and civil liberties are under attack. But women and girls around the world are fighting back.

Women human rights defenders face unique challenges due to persistent gender discrimination and corrosive stereotypes. Women activists have always shouldered more than their fair share of the burden. They are often subjected to relentless harassment campaigns online and in-person, and exposed to specific risks, such as gender-based violence and misogynistic attacks.

Yet despite these challenges, women around the globe are working tirelessly to advance peace and promote equality.

Here are eight of the women who fought for a better world and future in 2018.

Nadia Murad

Nadia Murad. (Patrick Seeger/EPA)
Nadia Murad. (Patrick Seeger/EPA)

Murad is a survivor turned advocate. In August 2014, ISIS abducted Murad from her home in Sinjar, northern Iraq. She was taken to Mosul, the de facto “capital” of the self-declared caliphate, forced to convert to Islam, and sold into sexual slavery. It took three months before she was able to escape. Instead of remaining silent about her ordeal, Murad told the world her story and demanded accountability for the crimes ISIS perpetrated against her and an estimated 6,300 other Yazidis. This year she was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in honor of her courageous activism to end sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Marielle Franco

Franco paid for her activism with her life. In March, Franco — a black, gay, Rio city councilwoman — was assassinated after leaving a women’s empowerment meeting. Franco was one of only seven women among the city’s 51 council members. She was a fierce advocate for women, the poor, and Afro-Brazilians. She denounced police violence and corruption in her community, and was known for her social work in the sprawling favelas that are home to nearly a quarter of Rio’s population. Though Franco’s killers attempted to silence her, she lives on as inspiration to women and girls in Brazil and beyond.

Karen Attiah

Attiah has emerged as a stalwart champion for freedom of the press and a defining voice of 2018. Attiah, the global opinions editor of The Washington Post, worked with and edited the work of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In early October, Khashoggi was murdered at the hands of Saudi operatives. Since then Attiah has tirelessly demanded answers about Khashoggi’s fate and accountability for his murder. In a year in which the media has been demonized as the “enemy of the people,” Attiah has served as a powerful reminder of the respect we owe journalists and why a free press matters.

Diane Rwigara

Rwigara’s troubles began when she launched her 2017 election bid against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who has been in office since 2000. Kagame has been criticized by human rights groups for his regime’s attacks on opposition politicians, the press, and activists. Days after Rwigara announced her bid, nude photos — allegedly of her — appeared online. Eventually, she was disqualified from the race after authorities claimed she falsified signatures she needed to qualify. Rwigara denies these charges, but was jailed on charges of incitement and fraud. Though she was released on bail ahead of her trial, Rwigara faces up to 22 years in prison. Still, she asserts that her time in jail has only increased her determination to pursue her political ambitions and encourage Rwandans to hold their government accountable.

Michelle Bachelet

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. (Reuters/iStock/Lily illustration)
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. (Reuters/iStock/Lily illustration)

Bachelet strives to be “the voice for the voiceless.” In September, Bachelet, a prominent women’s rights advocate and Chile’s first female president, was confirmed as the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights. Bachelet’s activism spans decades. In 1975 she was detained and tortured for weeks by Chile’s secret security agency for her activism against the country’s military dictatorship. Throughout her career, Bachelet has worked tirelessly to ensure that the human rights violations of the past are not repeated in the future. Bachelet is stepping into the role of the U.N.’s top human rights official at a difficult moment, when the organization is struggling to contend with sprawling humanitarian crises and threats to funding. Human rights organizations have welcomed her appointment and conveyed confidence in her ability to be an effective and moral leader in this challenging context.

Khadija Saddiqi

Saddiqi is a true fighter. In 2016, on a busy street in Lahore, Pakistan, she was attacked and stabbed 23 times. The assailant was Shah Hussain, a fellow law school classmate and son of a well-connected lawyer. Though Saddiqi was advised not to, she insisted on pressing charges. During the trial the defense questioned her character, and a judge suggested that she must have done something to warrant the attack. Faced with a justice system stacked against her, Saddiqi posted pictures of her wounds on social media. Support poured in from around the globe and the hashtag #FightLikeKhadija lit up Twitter. Hussain was sentenced to seven years in prison, but this past summer Pakistan’s high court reversed the decision. True to form, Saddiqi has continued to fight — not only for herself, but for legal reforms that will protect others as well.

Samar Badawi

Badawi has spent the last decade turning her personal struggles into broad human rights campaigns. In 2009 Badawi, a prominent Saudi activist, spent seven months in jail after her abusive father sued her for “parental disobedience.” Eventually she was released, and in 2010 she sued her father for preventing her from marrying the man of her choice. She won the case and brought international attention to the country’s oppressive guardianship system. The following year, Badawi filed suit for women’s suffrage. Her efforts encouraged a royal decree that permitted women to vote and run for office in municipal elections. She also campaigned to end the ban on women driving. The ban was lifted this summer, but Badawi is not free to enjoy it — in July, she was arrested and jailed in the middle of the night. Four months later, she is still in jail, waiting to hear the charges brought against her.

Luo Xixi

Xixi helped bring #MeToo to China. In 2004, Xixi was a Ph.D. student at Beihang University. Chen Xiaowu, her faculty advisor, had insisted that Xixi accompany him to his sister’s apartment, because he needed help tending houseplants. He did not. Chen lunged at Xixi, and relented only when she begged him to stop. He warned her to tell no one, and for 14 years she kept his secret. That changed in January 2018 when Xixi, who now lives in the United States, was inspired by the #MeToo movement to speak out. She posted her story on Weibo, a popular Chinese social-media platform. Over 3 million people read her essay. Her courage inspired others to come forward, and ignited a national debate about sexual harassment in Chinese universities. Though China’s government has gone to considerable lengths to suppress feminist activism, Xixi’s story has been described as the “first step in the Long March” against sexual harassment.

Rebecca Hughes is a research associate at the women and foreign policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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