The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70 on Human Rights Day 2018

10 December 2018


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70 on 10 December 2018—Human Rights Day. The UDHR was a significant document in the development of global understandings about the inalienable and inherent rights that everyone is eligible to as human beings, and has since become the most translated document in the world due to its continual role affirming human rights regardless of race, religion, sex, political or other opinion, national or social origin, language, birth or other status.

This year’s UN Human Rights Day observations will focus on highlighting the proclamations outlined in the UDHR, specifically Article 1 of the Declaration which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

At Freemuse, we will observe Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by spotlighting statistics from our newly released report Creativity Wronged: How women’s right to artistic freedom is denied and marginalised.

Seven statistics will be released in advance of 10 December—one to mark each decade of the UDHR—and on Human Rights Day we will be spotlighting additional artists to highlight that women’s rights are still repeatedly denied and marginalised throughout the globe, despite 70 years of the milestone declaration on human rights.

Our campaign takes inspiration from the women who shaped the UDHR: notably, Eleanor Roosevelt who served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and aided the completion of the UDHR draft; Hansa Mehta, who is credited with changing the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal”; Minerva Bernardino, who included “the equality of men and women” in the Declaration’s preamble; Begum Shaista Ikramullah, who spent 81 meetings during 1948 discussing the UDHR’s draft and Article 16 on child and forced marriages; Bodil Begtrup, who successfully advocated for the Declaration to refer to “everyone” rather than “all men”; Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux, who successfully advocated for the inclusion of non-discrimination based on sex into Article 2; Evdokia Uralova, who argued for women’s equal pay and contributed to the inclusion of Article 23 into the UDHR; and Lakshmi Menon, who advocated for non-discrimination based on sex to be repeatedly included throughout the Declaration.


Over the last five years of research we found 40 per cent of violations against women artists came in the form of censorship. This includes the Kenyan film Rafiki, which was the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival but was banned in Kenya.

Photo: Rafiki

In April 2018, the Kenya Film Classification Board refused to approve the release of the film that features a love story between two young women, “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law”.

The film did not align with Kenya’s legislation, which punishes homosexuality with sanctions of up to 14 years in prison.

“It was made by Kenyans, it was made for Kenyans, and now Kenyans can’t watch it,” director Wanuri Kahiu told the BBC.


On 21 September 2018, the ban was temporarily lifted by the High Court of Kenya. Judge Wilfrida Okwany delivered the ruling in which she argued: “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film”.


The most explicit violations of women’s human rights and cultural rights come in the form of severe violations—including imprisonment, attacks and killings—which make up 60 per cent of our documented violations.

This is exemplified by the February 2018 killing of theatre actor Sumbul Khan in Pakistan by three men who shot and killed her after she refused to perform for them at a private event in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

In another incident, Pakistani singer Samina Samoon (also known as Samina Sindhu), was shot by a male fan for refusing to stand and dance whilst performing at a wedding ceremony in the Sindh province in April 2018. She was pregnant at the time.

Pakistani singer Samina Samoon (also known as Samina Sindhu), was shot by a male fan for refusing to stand and dance whilst performing at a wedding ceremony in the Sindh province in April 2018
Photo: Samina Sindhu performing moments before she was shot.



Despite numerous influential UN treaties and legislation, women’s rights continue to be violated around the world. Through our research we found that 41 per cent of all severe violations of women artists were conducted by government agencies, 37 per cent by unknown or unidentified groups and 16 per cent by the artistic community. 

The case of Iranian artist Atena Farghadani provides one of the most striking examples of the state penalising women artists for their art and their activism. Incensed by the possible introduction of new regulations that would severely curtail women’s reproductive rights and reverse family planning laws in Iran, Farghadani drew a cartoon depicting members of the Iranian Parliament as animals. In response, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested Farghadani in August 2014.

Farghadani drew a cartoon depicting members of the Iranian Parliament as animals
Photo: Atena Farghadani’s drawing of the Iranian Parliament / Atena Farghadani Instagram


Farghadani was released in December 2014 and shorty after posted a video online about her treatment in detention, which led to her rearrest and subsequent sentencing to 12 years and nine months in prison for “gathering and colluding against national security”, “spreading propaganda against the system”, “insulting members of parliament through paintings” and “insulting her interrogators”.

In 2016, under strong international pressure, an appeals court in Tehran reduced her sentence to 18 months for “spreading propaganda against the system” and her nine-month prison sentence for “insulting members of parliament through paintings”, “insulting the president” and “insulting prison officials” was commuted to a fine. She was released from prison on 3 May 2016.


Throughout the past five years it has become apparent that the digital space is a way in which women’s human rights are being violated. Women artists suffer being silenced not only by governments and religious structures, but also by social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. These companies increasingly remove content they deem indecent or by request from authorities.

Threats through social media on women artists are also on the rise, with 22 per cent of all violations against women artists happening in the digital space, 60 per cent of cases in the digital space being threats received online and 30 per cent of cases in the digital space registering as censorship by a social media platform.

This is often seen under the guise of ‘nudity’ when women’s nipples are displayed online. Freemuse experienced this when attempting to post the following image from Icelandic artist Borghildur Indriðadóttir’s DEMONCRAZY – Drosophila artistic performance.

Photo: Borghildur Indriðadóttir’s DEMONCRAZY—Drosophila performance during the Reykjavík Arts Festival in June 2018.

Indriðadóttir had already been censored on Facebook in June 2018 when over 1500 of her Facebook friends disappeared and some of her personal pictures, likes and comments were deleted after sharing a promotional video for DEMONCRAZY.




Around the world, women experience violations of their human rights through the rationales of indecency and religion.

Photo: Rilda Paco’s artwork of the Virgin of Socavón.

In March 2018, Bolivian artist Rilda Paco faced public outcry and received death threats over her painting depicting the Virgin of Socavon in red underwear and black stockings surrounded by people in colorful costumes dancing with alcohol bottles in their hands. According to the artist, her intention was to create a painting as a form of protest against the objectification of women in Bolivia. The artist was reportedly declared persona non grata by authorities in Oruro, and thus officially regarded as a public enemy.

“I have not committed any crime; I am not a murderer; I am not a violator; I have not beaten anyone,” Paco said.




Censorship is a violation of freedom of expression which falls specifically under Article 19 of the UDHR. Throughout the previous five years of research at Freemuse, visual arts—including paintings, sculptures, posters, cartoons, etc—were found to be the most censored art form.

Amongst these censorship cases is that of UK student artist, Megan Angus, who in January 2018 created an art work depicting women holding hands, kissing and some partial nudity. ‘Censored’ stickers were used to cover the images by the Laurence Jackson School in Guisborough, England. The school later apologised for what Angus described as a “homophobic” act, but insisted that “sexually explicit” images are usually censored.

Photo: Megan Angus’s artwork with ‘censored’ stickers


Throughout the globe women’s human rights are being systematically denied despite the UDHR and explicit international human rights standards. This is particularly notable in Egypt, where the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are in place to hold the state and non-state actors accountable for violations of human rights but fail to adequately do so. This can be seen with the proliferating number of prosecutions and persecutions of Egyptian women for their art that is considered to be immoral and insulting to the Egyptian state and society.

Most recently, Egyptian actress Rania Youssef was accused of “inciting debauchery” for wearing a revealing dress at the Cairo International Film Festival on 29 November 2018. Lawsuits against her were only dropped after she posted a public apology.

Egyptian actress Rania Youssef could be jailed for five years if convicted of "inciting debauchery" with her revealing dress on the red carpet.
Photo: Rania Youssef at the Cairo International Film Festival / Ferkesh TV


Since the start of 2018, Egyptian courts have sentenced at least three women singers to prison, with the Egyptian Music Syndicate removing numerous women from the organisation, and radio stations refusing to play the music of numerous women artists due to their immoral and insulting behaviour.

Notably, one of Egypt’s most popular musicians, Sherine (real name Sherine Abdel-Wahab), was sentenced to six months in prison and a 10,000 Egyptian pound fine (473,87 euros) on 27 February 2018 for “spreading false news” and “insulting the country” over a joke she made about the River Nile being polluted whilst performing a concert in the United Arab Emirates. A Cairo appeals court acquitted her in May.

Another musician, Laila Amer, was also handed a two-year prison sentence by Egyptian authorities on 27 February for “inciting debauchery and immorality” in relation to her “suggestive gestures and dancing” in the music video for her song “Bos Omak” (Look at Your Mother). She was acquitted on appeal in March.

Earlier in 2018, pop singer Shyma saw her two-year prison sentence and 10,000 Egyptian Pound fine reduced to one year after appeal on 1 January. Shyma received the initial sentence on 12 December 2017 for “inciting debauchery and immorality” and “publishing an indecent film” in her music video for song Andy Zoroof (I Have Problems), which was considered to be too daring and suggestive.


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