Women human rights defenders: activism's front-line

There is growing recognition by the international community that women human rights defenders are best placed to respond to violence against women and a crucial force for peace;  but the international protection framework needs to be made more accessible to those in need, says Jennifer Allsopp.

 “Women human rights defenders are passion holders, speakers, people with a vision, we hold the front-line.” - Betty Makoni

The first time I heard the term Women Human Rights Defender (WHRD) it was a bit of revelation to me. It was at an international conference held by the Association for Women in Development (AWID) on women transforming economic power. A group of women from across the globe were gathered in a workshop convened by Jenni Williams of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WoZA) to discuss strategies to protect themselves from state violence.

The session was extremely practical. Participants wanted to share concrete answers to challenges they are facing more and more in their day-to-day work: arbitrary detention, police violence and infiltration. I was struck by the commonality of many of the struggles of the women in the room and also by the enormity of their fight: these women are the new freedom fighters; activists holding the front-line in the movement for equality and human rights in the face of multiple forms of gender violence. 

Recent years have seen the increased targeting of WHRD and a corresponding increase in attention given to WHRD as a category by the international community. 1998 saw the establishment of a UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and in 2004, EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders followed. The EU now mandates all 100 EU diplomatic missions to regularly monitor and assist situation on the ground, including through the provision of temporary shelters for WHRD in need.  The third report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, published in December 2010, focused exclusively on the situation of WHRD and all those working on gender issues. WHRD, it stated, are “more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence and other violations, prejudice, exclusion, and repudiation than their male counterparts.”

Partly in response to the visibility of women’s role in defending women’s rights in countries in transition, as witnessed during the Arab Spring, the international community has begun to scale up its work protecting WHRD in the past year, investing in women as a primary force for peace. The protection of WHRD is, for example, fundamental to the commitment made by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to improve responses to violence against women and girls in humanitarian and emergency situations. Yet work is still to be done. Thousands of women remain at risk.

A recent conference held by Peace Brigades International with the support of GAPS-UK, Womankind and Amnesty International UK and the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security, ‘Women Human Rights Defenders: Empowering and Protecting the Change-makers’ invited WHRD from across four continents to share strategies to strengthen the international protection framework and foster an enabling environment on the ground.

In her opening speech, Betty Makoni, Zimbabwean activist and founder of Girl Child Network, was sensitive to the uniqueness of each woman’s struggle. She also acknowledged the commonality of the fight for equality led by WHRD and of the “extraordinary risks” they face on ground, both from state and increasingly non-state actors. Of these, common thematic challenges include stigmatisation, criminalisation and poor access to justice. 

Women spoke first hand of gender specific forms of stigma and abuse in response to their work defending the human rights of men and women, including verbal abuse, rape and sexual abuse. Activists from Iran, Nepal and Kenya reported that accusations of ‘prostitution’ and related forms of sexual torture were especially targeted at women defending reproductive rights. Naomi Barasi, an activist working with Amnesty International to protect women’s rights in the slums of Nairobi, told participants of a friend who is still recovering having even had broken bottles inserted in to her vagina by police.

Shyam Sah, an activist in Eastern Nepal working on cases such as witchcraft accusation, domestic violence, rape, dowry demands and polygamy, cited the lack of trust in the police as the main reason why women have pragmatically positioned themselves to protect women’s human rights. In Nepal, she said, “society has never accepted us”. Most threats to their work come from families, community and illegal armed actors which may be linked to police. When she intervened in a polygamous marriage she was attacked in full view of the police, with one officer commenting, “you deserve what you get, you are doing unnecessary work here.”

In addition to abuses of power at the local level, in recent years, state machinery and legislation has adopted new means of criminalising the work of HRD nationally through the employment of terrorism and national security charges in addition to public morality and blasphemy legislation. In Iran, Shadi Sadr, an Iranian lawyer, HRD and journalist, explained that it has become a criminal offence to simply criticise the regime to an international audience. Two years ago, on their return from the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, the border police took the passports of two Iranian women and took them to prison where they were interrogated for 2 hours. They have now been released on bail and are still awaiting a decision, charged with “taking action against national security and espionage”.

Judith Maldonado Mohica, Director of the Lawyers’ Collective Luis Carlos Perez in Northeast Columbia reported how in Columbia, as in Mexico, HRD are increasingly being linked to drug trafficking and guerrilla groups as a “strategy of persecution”.  There is an irony that whilst new charges are being trumped up against WHRD, the law is slow to recognise crimes against women. In Columbia, for example, forced disappearances were only recognised as a crime in 2001, whilst sexual violence was only recognised in 2004. 

It is well-documented that the criminalisation of WHRD is fuelled by judicial impunity for those who abuse women’s human rights and by a parallel lack of state accountability. Shadi drew attention to the situation of female political prisoners in Iran where, despite the fact that almost all female political prisoners report one or more cases of torture or sexual harassment, not a single case of judicial investigation has taken place to date. In Columbia, Judith Maldonado Mohica stressed that it is indigenous women who are most often ignored, especially when seeking to denounce paramilitaries. This is partly due to a lack of awareness of human rights frameworks, she explained, but also due to a lack of courts dealing with such cases – just 3 to cover 120,000 cities and townships. This inability to access justice poses significant challenges to their human rights work in opposition to land grabs and other forms of environmental degradation.  Such work is crucial, but as explained by Dolores Infante Cañibano, human rights officer at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, it is heavily repressed worldwide: “environmental defenders are one of the groups most at risk … then you add indigenous, rural, woman and what you have is a multifaceted discrimination”.

The international community seems far from proposing an adequate response to the human rights abuses faced by indigenous women in Columbia. Current attempts to reform the law nationally are being thwarted, says Judith Maldonado Mohica, by a conflict of interest. The last three reforms of the Columbian justice system were funded and commissioned by the World Bank and focused on terrorism, drugs, trafficking and illegal mining with an accent on legal security for foreign investors. As such, they were far from a response to the protection needs of indigenous women. Naomi Barasa cited a similar conflict of interest experienced in her work lobbying against the eviction of 20,000 slum dwellers in Nairobi which could be traced back to EU funding for a new road. Faced with such scenarios, the EU must do more to not just prove the force of its Guidelines but to demonstrate the comprehensiveness of its strategy for protecting human rights on the ground. There is a further need for the international community to develop a comprehensive response to new forms of persecution by non-state actors, including private security companies and Latin American land corporations, as recommended by Margaret Sakaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur in her 2010 report.

More must also be done to ensure that the current international protection framework - which has a crucial role in securing justice and saving lives  - is more accessible to those in need, including access to diplomatic protection and emergency funding in addition to international criminal courts and other justice channels. As it stands, participants lamented that the UN Women system is simply too long: “if you follow that procedure you’ll get killed”, said Samira Hamidi, former country director of the Afghan Women’s Network, “I know a woman who appealed to this system for help - she’s now in India in a very bad situation”.

The issue of reprisals faced by those seeking to access international protection frameworks was also raised as a worrying global trend, with more work needed to remedy the high personal costs of accessing justice, including risk of murder. In Kenya, Naomi reported that a number of people who went to talk to the Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings were shot dead.

Faced with these numerous challenges we need to think seriously about what a gendered protection system looks like in practical terms, both at the local and international level.

Women human rights defenders are constantly coming up with their own strategies for protection which the international community must be ready to support: forging internal relocation strategies, as in Afghanistan; building professional alliances with doctors, media and lawyers like Naomi and her colleagues in the slums of Nairobi; or establishing satellite projects in neighbouring countries like members of the Girl Child Network who have set up ‘girls empowerment villages’ in Swaziland, South Africa, Uganda and Sierra Leone based on an initial Zimbabwean model: “there is no need to reinvent the wheel”, says Betty Makoni, “the wheels are already moving, we just need to take all the people on board.”

In this context we must we wary of imposing monolithic definitions of WHRD and take full account of their diverse needs in order to offer comprehensive support to their work. In a plea to representatives from the UN, EU, DFID and British Foreign Commonwealth Office present at the Peace Bridges conference, Shyam Sah stressed that WHRD do not simply fit into the standard development paradigm but have specific needs: women may be financially dependent on family, they may not be able to work because of the threats they receive or they may have to work from exile.

The international community is certainly moving in the right direction of travel in its support of WHRD, and crucially, in its recognition that WHRD are best placed to respond to violence against women and girls and a crucial force for peace. This is something to celebrate on 29 November, the 6th annual International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. However only time will tell if states are prepared to take on a facilitator role and let grass-roots women take the lead on the ground. Most WHRD I have met are far from the casques bleus of UN peackeepers or the freedom fighters of old, yet they are working tirelessly for peace at activism’s front-line. In the final address of the conference, Samira Hamidi said the following of her own activism in the warzone of Afghanistan: “please take the issue of WHRD seriously. I don’t want to link my life to international troops, I want to make sure women have a better life in Afghanistan…” If we are able to truly commit to the work of WHRD we have a lot to gain for peace and for the human rights of all: the elevation of an alternative way of addressing violence against women and of forging peace in opposition to militarism.

Read other articles in the series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence 2012.

About the author

Jennifer Allsopp is a regular contributor to openDemocracy 50.50, writing predominantly on migration, politics and women's rights. She is also Editor of the site's People on the Move migration dialogue. She is an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, working on the Asylum Appeals ProjectShe has previously worked at the Institute of Social Policy and Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford and with a range of refugee and migrant organisations.