These Women Are Behind Bars, But They Will Greet World Leaders During UN Gathering

The #FreeThe20 campaign calls for the release of women around the world jailed for advocating human rights.

Women will be front and center during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York this week — even if some of them are locked behind bars overseas.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, launched the #FreeThe20 campaign in early September. It marks the 20th anniversary of the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, and aims to encourage global action around the Beijing Declaration's call for gender equality and the empowerment of women.

But #FreeThe20 is also calling for the release of 20 female political prisoners from 13 countries in a social media campaign. And to really drive the point home, world leaders arriving to the UN General Assembly will be greeted by their portraits.

"Certainly, there will be nobody who comes to New York who walks on First Avenue who won't have the opportunity to see the 20," Power said, according to Voice of America.

Power told NPR that the portraits "will be in the front window" of the U.S. Mission near the United Nations building, "so that when heads of state are walking by … they will be reminded of the loss, fundamentally, of the disempowerment of women, and the silencing of women and the crackdown on civil society that is really impeding development and progress."      

The cases of the 20 women being featured include Wang Yu — a 44-year-old prisoner in China who was refused the right to board a train despite having a ticket and was beaten by several men, but was the one jailed for the encounter. She was imprisoned earlier this year for her work advocating for human rights after the incident.

There are also profiles of award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was incarcerated in a crackdown on civil society activists and reporters in Azerbaijan; Iranian Bahareh Hedayat, who has been locked up multiple times for offenses such as campaigning for women's rights, being interviewed by foreign media, and allegedly insulting Iran's president and supreme leader; Blen Mesfin, Meron Alemayehu and Nigist Wondifraw — all three charged with inciting violence during anti-Islamic State in Libya (ISIL) demonstrations in Ethiopia in April; and many more.

According to VOA, these cases are being profiled throughout the month in order to bring attention to voices that are missing from the discourse on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, where Hillary Clinton delivered a rousing speech and a presented a roadmap for promoting women's rights. A total of 189 nations signed on to the declaration.

"These are real individuals; these are real heroes; these are people who have so much to contribute to their communities, and they should be empowered, not imprisoned," she said.  

"At the same time that there will be a fair amount of back-slapping for some of the advances that were made, women are being silenced who could add a tremendous amount to their countries," she added in the NPR interview.

You can learn more about the women in the #FreeThe20 campaign here and by watching the video playlist below. And please join the campaign to call for the release of these political prisoners.