Women human rights defenders: protecting each other

With the continued failure of the UN to implement the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders twenty years after it was passed, women human rights defenders are still their own best support and protection network.   

Sarah Marland
23 April 2015

In 2012 the Women Human Rights International Coalition released a report on the growing threats faced by women around the world working to defend human rights. The rise of fundamentalisms, militarism and conflict, globalization and neoliberalism, crises of democracy and governance, patriarchy and heternormativity, are the key contexts that overlap and combine to put women human rights defenders at particular risk. In 2015, these risks have increased dramatically across the world, but systems to keep women human rights defenders safe are lagging far behind.

At the 59th Session of the Commission of Status of Women (CSW) in New York last month, a persistent theme raised in panels was that in the absence of protection from the UN, regional bodies and national governments, it is the networks of women human rights defenders themselves that provide protection. These networks have become vital in both raising international awareness and drawing attention to the issue, but also for the women themselves in recognition of their work and for building solidarity with global movements.

Without these networks, change is impossible.

So why, in 2015, almost two decades after the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (DHRD) that puts the obligation on states to create an enabling environment for human rights defenders and ensure their protection, do women still have to rely on each other to stay safe? Our research shows that most countries do not provide holistic protection measures to guarantee the personal security of WHRDs, although some countries- particularly in Latin America, have taken steps in the right direction. Elsewhere women have little or no access to the UN mechanisms that should offer them protection. On 14 September, 2013, Chinese defender Cao Shunli disappeared at Beijing International Airport on her way to Geneva to attend human rights training. Her health declined severely while in detention and she received no medical attention. Cao died in Beijing hospital from organ failure on 14 March, 2014, after six months in detention. 

Cao ShunliWHRDIC research shows the urgent need to address the enhanced risks and challenges faced by women rights activists, who face risks that are specific to their gender and additional to those faced by men. Harassment and attacks against them take gender-specific forms - with violence and threats often sexual in nature. As women's role at frontline of human rights defence becomes more visible to those who perceive them to be active outside feminine roles, the  contexts in which violence against them - and their democratic rights becomes increasingly pervasive.

It seems that nothing has changed for the better in the twenty years since the Declaration on Women Human Rights Defenders. The situation is clearly worse. Panellists at the CSW described how the civil society space in which they can work is shrinking. Maryam Alkhawaja from the Gulf Centre for Human Rights said there is trend of crackdowns on WHRDs in the gulf region that include judicial harassment across the region to oppress WHRDs. She also highlighted the sexual, physical and psychological torture used against women defenders. Shehnilla Mohammed from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said that threat level for women defenders in Africa is very high - especially for those working on LGBTI rights. They find themselves brutalised in the context of rising religious fundamentalisms, and women defenders of sexual rights face grave violence, rape, torture and murder.  Sara Garcia from Citizens' Organization for Decriminalising Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion in El Salvador, which advocates for decriminalisation of abortion, uses the press and TV news to confront fundamentalists and their work. Nimalko Fernando, President of the International Movement Against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) from Sri Lanka, reported being slandered and attacked because of her work defending rights, including discussions on the radio about how to kill her.

The alarming increase in violence against WHRDs and violations of their rights demonstrates the importance of strengthening protection mechanisms and support networks across the globe. What is clear is that women defenders find themselves in the absurd position whereby State parties are first and foremost responsible for both violations against them - such as judicial harassment in Egypt and detention in Azerbaijan, and for their protection. In a panel on the implementation of the 2013 Resolution on Women Human Rights Defenders, Maryam Akrami from the Afghan Women’s Network said that UN resolutions without implementation are useless, and that the UN needed to hold governments to account for systematic targeting of WHRDs.

Where there are mechanisms for protection, they don’t necessarily meet the specific needs of women human rights defenders. An integrated concept of security that goes beyond the physical protection of the individual, but integrates physical and psychological wellbeing of WHRDs, their families and their organisations is urgently needed. Such protection must recognize the  gender-specific nature of the violence WHRDs face and that the kind of support that is required is holistic, and includes things like childcare and health care. Prevention is an essential component of protection, and change to the structural patterns and circumstances that put WHRDs at risk is essential. This holistic support will only happen if it takes into account an analysis of the intersectionality of WHRDs identities.

In this environment, it is networks of Women Human Rights defenders that help WHRDs respond to their situation and put pressure on the perpetrators.  Some of the strategies used by networks include increasing visibility through public campaigns such as the one to release five young Chinese feminists after they were arrested for organizing against sexual harassment; strategic alliances with other national and international organizations; accompaniment to defenders at risk;  and - in the face of extreme danger - lowering the profile of activities to avoid drawing attention.

The importance of this international solidarity was repeated throughout the CSW. Reine Alapini Gansou, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders at the African Commission on Human and People's Rights  said that continuing to work together and network with other WHRDs for better protection is vital. Mozn Hassan from Nazra for Feminist Studies highlighted the need for establishing networks amongst activists. ‘We have recently formed a coalition of women defenders in the Middle East and North Africa, to give a voice to the women in the region,’ adding that ‘Such cooperation amongst defenders is needed to counter the majority narrative on women in public space, which is so frequently restricted.’

Networks can and do provide broad documentation of violations and identify trends nationally, regionally and globally. We can mobilise when a defender is at risk and use the resources of all the agencies ranging from the UN and diplomatic engagement, to social media and trial observation. The WHRDIC has 32 member organisations bringing together mainstream human rights, women's rights and sexual rights organisations and networks from the Global South and North. Since 2005, the WHRDIC has been systematically   monitoring women human rights defenders, and has developed mechanisms and policies protecting the rights of women human rights defenders at the national, regional and international levels.

Regional networks also play a vital role in the protection of WHRDs. IM-Defensoras works with of 300 women defending rights and their organisations, providing activists with the resources and support needed to address security concerns and strengthen and sustain their activism over the long-term. The network is a key source for data and analysis on violence against WHRDs form a gender perspective and can rapidly mobile network members and influential allies for strategic engagement with governments and international human rights organisations.”

Similarly, the newly established Coalition of WHRDs from the MENA region says that they “believe in the tremendous power that comes from feminist coalitions and from the passion that drives women human rights defenders to work for different complex causes in a region rich with a history of their struggles in both private and public spheres.” They identify that there is “a deep need for a regional coalition that expresses the voice, convictions and the presence of women human rights defenders and that stands against any attacks they may face from regimes, societies, or occupying forces.”

The growing women human rights defenders’ movement affirms and validates the essential work of women defenders, while recognising the unique threats faced by women in their human rights work. This movement of  women working at frontlines enables women human rights defenders around the world to discuss tactics and successes, as well as share resources. Crucially, the movement provides a global network of support and solidarity, and the ability to band together and demand action when a particular defender is under threat.

With the continued failure of the UN to implement the DHRD twenty years after it was passed, women human rights defenders still find that they are their own best support network. As Hina Jilani, former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of Human Rights Defenders said " There is no better protection for women human rights defenders than the strength and support of their own movement,”

Read more articles by participants and speakers attending the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the defence of women human rights defenders, 24-26 April. Jennifer Allsopp and Marion Bowman will be reporting live from the conference for 50.50. Read previous years' coverage.













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