SAWERA Win the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defender at Risk

On Friday 7 March 2014, actor and founder of J/P Haitian Relief Organization Sean Penn presented the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk to the Society for Appraisal & Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA), a women-led, grass-roots NGO dedicated to empowering women and girls in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

SAWERA was selected from a total of 135 nominees from 56 countries on the basis of the NGO's exceptional courage in defending the rights of women and girls in a region where groups working on these issues face extreme risks.

Noorzia Afridi and Sami Ullah of SAWERA were in Dublin to accept the award on behalf of the NGO. Noorzia Afridi thanked Front Line Defenders and her colleagues, “whose leadership and support contribute wonderfully to our journey towards human rights protection.”

Ms Afridi added: “My deepest loyalty will always be to my other comrades in SAWERA, and having been nominated for this Award is a recognition of their achievement. I recognise we have all suffered greatly but together we have been able to work for the benefit of humanity with the ongoing and effective support of Front Line Defenders and other associations.”

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Speaking at the Award ceremony in Dublin City Hall, chairman and co-founder of Front Line Defenders Denis O'Brien spoke of the importance of the award. Mr O'Brien said that, “when I look around the room and see the photographs of all the previous winners, I feel privileged to have been part of their story and proud of the role that Front Line Defenders has played in helping to protect them.”
Mary Lawlor, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, praised all of the finalists for the award this year, describing them as “exceptional and courageous human rights defenders.” Ms Lawlor alluded to the difficult decision the jury must have had in choosing an overall winner.
As this year marked the presentation of the 10th Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, the first recipient - Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam from Sudan - was invited to speak at the event and reflect on the impact of the Award on his work at home.
Presenting this year's award, Sean Penn spoke of his awe and deep humility when considering the courage of the nominees for the award, saying that, “when I think of what it means, for these people to be a human rights defender - the isolation, the feeling of being a lone voice crying in the wilderness, the moments of doubt when you begin to question even your own deepest held beliefs - then I begin to understand the true meaning of courage.” Mr Penn said it was an honour to present the award to SAWERA, who work to, lift women out of the shadows and to give them back their voice and their rights.”

Pakistan is one of the most challenging countries in the region for human rights defenders, with those working on women's rights in the tribal areas, where extremist groups continue to operate, facing the highest level of risk.

In 2012, Ms Farida Afridi, one of the co-founders of SAWERA was shot dead while on her way to work and in 2013 the SAWERA offices were bombed, causing extensive damage to the infrastructure of the office building and the organisation's technical equipment. The staff at SAWERA continue to receive threatening telephone calls demanding that they cease their work but, despite the risks, they continue to work on issues pertaining to women's rights in one of the most traditional and culturally sensitive regions in Pakistan.

Despite the challenges and struggles faced by SAWERA on a daily basis, the group have vowed to continue their work. In her closing remarks, Noorzia Afridi said that, “we are still committed and we have still not lost our courage. If they kill one, a thousand will arise, if they kill a thousand a million will arise, this is the rule and this is the way. We have a committed team all under the age of 30. At this age people hope for a bright future but we along with our families have sacrificed the present for the future of those deprived of their basic human rights since the country was established in 1947.”

A full list of the finalists of the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award can be found here.