50.50: Opinion

COVID-19 poses an existential threat to human rights activists worldwide

Authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to increase repression, revoke rights and attack gender justice. It’s time to fight back

Latanya Mapp Frett
29 April 2020, 8.05am
Feminist protest in Buenos Aires, Argentina in December 2019
Carol Smiljan/NurPhoto/PA Images

The COVID-19 crisis is at different stages across the globe. Europe is beginning to ease its lockdowns, while infections in Asia and Latin America are expected to peak soon. Africa has not yet been hit as hard. But across all regions, we’ve witnessed an increase in authoritarianism, militarisation, xenophobia and racism.

It’s true that this pandemic has spawned new forms of activism internationally, from protests in cars and shopping queues, to digital rallies. However, we’re also seeing a worrying number of states increase control over their populations under the guise of enforcing social distancing and other coronavirus emergency measures.

These developments, on top of the unforgiving reality of the public health crisis itself, represent an existential threat to feminist and other popular movements that are vital vehicles for social change. Before the pandemic they were thriving, despite challenges from authoritarian, conservative and other repressive forces.

In Tbilisi, Georgia, Nattan Guliashvili of the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG) told us that the lockdown in her country feels familiar to people in her community, who have long faced government-backed threats and harassment in retaliation for their activism, or simply for attempting to leave their houses.

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WISG is part of a resilient feminist and LGBTQI movement that is resisting the powerful joint forces of church and state in Georgia – where influential Orthodox religious leaders have also used the pandemic to incite homophobia, calling COVID-19 God’s punishment for same-sex marriage and abortion.

Their story is told in the new docuseries Fundamental: Gender Justice. No Exceptions, from my organisation, Global Fund for Women, and distributed by YouTube Originals.

Watch the full episode here.

Directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, this series follows activists and community organisers who are leading powerful movements for change. It offers a window into the many ways the growing threats to human rights are shaping the public and private lives of gender justice activists around the world.

The stories in this series are representative of broader trends. Activists around the world are working to advance human rights and support gender justice, often at grave personal danger and in opposition to repressive state and opposition actors. Crises like COVID-19 expose – and exacerbate – the risks they face.

Watch the full series here.

In Egypt and elsewhere, women human rights defenders are among the tens of thousands of people imprisoned without charge or trial. They have been targeted for their gender, activism or political beliefs. They should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and now face incarceration during a pandemic.

This puts them at great risk of illness and even death. Global Fund for Women has joined with the local women’s rights group Nazra Egypt to call for the release of gender justice advocates worldwide and #LetThePrisonersOut in the wake of COVID-19.

This crisis also multiplies threats for all activists (imprisoned or not) as governments and institutions around the world use the pandemic as a cover for authoritarian policies that crack down on dissent, mobilisation, activism and rights.

In several US states, politicians have exploited the emergency by classifying most abortions as non-essential procedures. In Uganda, police raided a shelter for homeless LGBT youth, beating and arresting dozens under the pretext of stopping the spread of the virus. In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández declared a coronavirus state of emergency that also revokes the right to free expression.

“Right now, the most urgent need is to help the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the community,” Nattan in Georgia told us. Meanwhile, she added, the long-term work is to make governments responsible for “equal and universal access to healthcare, wages and a safe environment for all”, not just for the privileged.

COVID-19 shows us how these movements are more important – and more imperilled – than ever. And movement funders, such as Global Fund for Women, must step up and support them. We cannot cut funding during this time; on the contrary, we should be increasing flexible, core and multi-year resources.

We are committed to following the lead of activists, and to doubling down on flexible support, so that they can adapt and push forward as they see fit. This way, we can use this pandemic as a “portal”, to quote the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, to create healthier, safer and more just societies – even as regressive forces push back.

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