North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

No turning back: Women human rights defenders remain steadfast in perilous times

Our work is challenging. We face killings, arrests and attacks every day. But we persist, because we are more needed than ever

Cynthia Rothschild
29 November 2021, 9.48am
The #SheDefends campaign launches during the '16 Days of activism against gender-based violence'
Women Human Rights Defenders Middle East and North Africa (WHRDMENA) coalition

This article is part of a series for the annual and global 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence published in collaboration with the Women Human Rights Defenders Middle East and North Africa (WHRDMENA) coalition as part of its #SheDefends yearly campaign. The articles reflect on the past, present and future of feminist movements and the meaning of global solidarity.

Today – 29 November – is an auspicious day. It’s the annual International Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) Day, which marks tenacious advocacy of WHRDs around the world. That recognition is good news. The bad news is that women human rights defenders have reason to be engaged in the Global South and North absolutely all the time – fighting for all human rights for all people. Our work encompasses a wide range of concerns: we demand rights to freedom of assembly, to be free from violence and discrimination, rights to health, to a clean environment and even the right to make these demands at all. We seek a world in which all human rights are realized by all people.

Also promising is the fact that there is an endless supply of us, with each generation producing new, creative defenders who seek justice, fairness, equity and an end to what seems like unyielding impunity and corruption. We WHRDs are fiercer than ever in developing our analysis of human rights concerns, in posing solutions for them, and in demanding accountability. We are busy, always. And we work at all levels, from the most local grassroots advocacy to the (not so) hallowed halls of the United Nations. We are effective in all of these spaces. However, times are hard, for sure, for advocacy generally and for WHRDs in particular.

First, a definition: according to the WHRD International Coalition – a global coalition of roughly 35 human rights, women’s rights, LGBTI and sexual and reproductive rights groups – WHRDs refer to women who defend all human rights and not just rights of women. WHRDs are also people of all genders who support rights of women and rights related to gender and sexuality.

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Our new series, coinciding with the campaign against gender-based violence, reflects on the importance of global solidarity after prolonged isolation

WHRDs are targeted both for who we are and for what we do. This leads to the need for a lot of us to be omnipresent with ‘all systems firing’. Our work is always challenging. We make demands of governments, especially when they kill, forcibly disappear, and arrest us arbitrarily because of our advocacy. We make demands of corporations when they engage in extracting land and resources that leave too many struggling for livelihoods, or ill from environmental poisoning. And we make demands of family and community members, religious authorities and others who discriminate against us in places such as homes and schools because we are seen to defy gender norms.

WHRDs in the UN

For many years, we have brought our concerns to the UN human rights system. For instance, we have contributed to analysis of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and negotiations at the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly (where we have supported resolutions on human rights defenders and specifically on WHRDs) and the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women.

Governments often want to suppress the work of human rights defenders. In the current UN General Assembly, even as recently as mid-November, Nigeria, China, and Egypt, among other governments, spoke against allowing references to defenders in discussions on a number of negotiated resolutions, including one on free elections. When governments add references to defenders and WHRDs, we know our advocacy has been successful because they are listening to our demands for recognition.

In truth, clampdowns on WHRD advocacy did not begin with this health crisis. COVID has simply made a bad situation worse

Alternatively, when they attempt to suppress mention of defenders, we know we are doing our job well, too – because defenders are seen as threatening power relations and the status quo.

COVID, clampdowns and the current context

Throughout the pandemic, WHRDs and all defenders have still been engaging in resistance, but we are exasperated. Our advocacy is tiring generally and, in the context of the pandemic, even more difficult. UN Women suggests that many WHRDs have been subjected to greater regulation in public and in private. Measures to prevent COVID’s spread have included lockdowns and restrictions on public gatherings.

WHRDs, like defenders generally, have had to “pivot” and find ways to organize and make public demands from much more isolated ways of working. Many WHRDs report being subjected to increased domestic and interpersonal violence because of ‘stay-at-home’ mandates, as there is less freedom and privacy to engage in our work and there’s a greater risk of punishment within home environments. Remote work has also brought spikes in online violence and harassment.

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In truth, clampdowns on WHRD advocacy did not begin with this health crisis. COVID has simply made a bad situation worse. A number of human rights and other advocacy groups have noted a climate of greater restrictions on public advocacy in recent years (think of suppression of protests in Hong Kong, Belarus, Nigeria and in the US, particularly under the Trump administration). But what some call “shrinking civic space” is too innocent a description. Civic space doesn’t shrink and expand like a sponge with water. It is actively made to shrink, and sometimes disappear.

Technology and economics

One effective means of challenging civic space is through challenging those that fill it. Crackdowns on protest and resistance, and threats to groups of defenders, are continuing at more sophisticated levels as technology evolves. Facial recognition systems are used within Facebook and also by local police departments to target individuals. And surveillance takes place in the streets, as well as in activists’ hands – through cell phones.

The ‘Pegasus’ spyware scandal which targeted cell phones, affected human rights defenders around the globe, including WHRDs such as Yésica Sánchez Maya, a member of the Steering Group of Oaxaca Consortium in Mexico. Pegasus is a program owned by the Israeli company, NSO Group, whose products, according to its website, “help government intelligence and law enforcement agencies use technology to … prevent and investigate terror and crime.”

Too often, governments have labelled activists as threats to the state to justify authorizing surveillance efforts. Yet in a bold move from the US government, the US Commerce Department stated that NSO acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States”, in part because of its targeting human rights activists, and, earlier this month, the country placed the company’s products on its trade blacklist.

WHRDs and other defenders face another omnipresent problem: there is a market for clampdowns on advocacy, and an economic and subsequently political need for an industry that maintains a narrative of threat. One Israeli estimate suggests NSO could be valued at $2bn if it were to go public. So there is an economic and lucrative imperative behind these invasive technologies.

The view from here isn’t so good

On a global level, threats to democracy, political participation, and freedom of expression and assembly coexist with threats to multilateralism and to the human rights system, generally. There are efforts to punish truth tellers and to destabilize governance around the world– and these have significant rights implications, including for WHRDs.

In the US, for instance, these take the shape of what are often described as right-wing conservatives or extremists. Even lower-level government officials who are simply trying to do their jobs with integrity are under threat. Recently, election officials in Arizona, Vermont and Georgia have received death threats because they have not been willing to support Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. One report from June 2021 reveals that 75% of local election officials are women, which makes for a lot of targeted women.

A recent article in the Guardian explores the fact that many journalists are WHRDs and have been subjected to terrible abuses. An April 2021 UNESCO report entitled “The Chilling”, which focuses on online violence against women journalists, noted that Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist in the Philippines, was, at one point, subjected to 90 harassing messages an hour on Facebook. The experiences of Carole Cadwalladr, the fearless British journalist who exposed the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, are also featured in the UNESCO report, which drew from a survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries:

“Online violence against women journalists is designed to: belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability journalism and trust in facts; and chill their active participation (along with that of their sources, colleagues and audiences) in public debate.”

Within the UN itself, WHRDs remain unwavering in our efforts to integrate gender analyses into human rights discussions, no matter the topic. But in these environments, we also face disruptive efforts by those who wish for the human rights systems to fail and for defenders to remain threatened.

Some government officials attempt to limit participation of non-governmental organizations or specific individuals. Others specifically target defenders who participate in UN human rights meetings in “reprisals”, or forms of punishment intended to stifle advocacy and set an example for others. This is what a 2021 reprisals report by the International Service for Human Rights noted: “When comparing WHRD cases to those of other named individuals, the data from the Secretary General reports suggests that WHRDs tend to more frequently report travel restrictions, instances of surveillance, online harassment and defamation campaigns, profession-related reprisals, and threats and intimidation.”

Anti-rights, right-wing extremism and the undermining of democratic systems make the advocacy of WHRDs – who already operate in a context of great challenges and limited funding – much harder. And certain kinds of work creates even more risk; activism that focuses on sexuality and gender, including rights of LGBTI people and reproductive rights, brings scrutiny, backlash and punishment. WHRDs face killings, arrest, attacks on our credibility, and persistent violence and harassment. We pay the price for our defiance, no doubt. But our tenacity, presence and courage are needed more than ever. Despite a daunting political climate, we have resilience that sometimes feels genetic – it’s unyielding. And, over time, we have an endless supply of personnel. That, at least, is comforting.

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