Strengthening protection networks for women human rights defenders to combat discrimination: Challenges and opportunities in the current context

Thursday 18 May 2017, 3.00-5.00 p.m

Room XVII , Palais des Nations

Summary of the event

The Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women, Alda Facio, opened the event by stressing the unique challenges faced by women human rights defenders around the world, driven by deep-rooted discrimination against women and stereotypes about their “appropriate” role in society. In addition to the general risk of threats, attacks and violence faced by all human rights defenders, women human rights defenders are exposed to specific risks. In particular, women human rights defenders are targets of misogynistic attacks and gender-based violence. They lack protection and due access to justice. In addition, their organizations lack sufficient financial resources. The Chair added that discrimination against women is fuelled by today’s rising fundamentalisms of all kinds, by political populism, unchecked authoritarian rule and uncontrolled greed for profit-making, which altogether intensify the obstacles defenders face. For instance, those working on rights contested by fundamentalist groups – such as those working on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and those denouncing the actions of extractive industries and businesses – are at heightened risk for attacks and violence. She also stressed that states must stop criminalizing women for their work as human rights defenders and rather develop measures to tackle the root causes of discrimination against women, while ensuring the protection of human rights defenders in a manner that systematically integrates a gender perspective (the full statement can be accessed here).

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, highlighted the importance of networks of human rights defenders, which provide concrete solutions to the danger faced by women activists. He noted the need to support measures, such as self-protection initiatives, which could be put in place to protect women defenders but also the need to ensure a gender-based approach in the elaboration of such measures. The Special Rapporteur emphasized that women defenders should not be reduced to victims and that the diversity of women and the multiplicity of situations in which women live must be taken into account.

Further, as Mr. Forst explained, an intersectional perspective is essential to understanding the various forms of discrimination affecting women and to providing responses adapted to the realities experienced by women on the ground. It is also important to develop holistic and collective approaches to discrimination. He regretted the fact that the GA resolution on women human rights defenders was not sufficiently known even in civil society organisations where discrimination against women can occur in subtle and unconscious ways.. However, looking forward to future possible joint initiatives, Mr. Forst noted that 2018 could present occasions to give greater visibility to this issue and to follow up on the implementation of relevant recommendations addressed to States and other stakeholders.  Indeed, 2018 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on human rights defenders and the fifth anniversary of the GA resolution on women defenders (the statement can be accessed here).

Marusia Lopez from JASS (Just Associates) stressed that, despite a hostile international context, women defenders have become more prominent in social movements. However, their lives, their integrity and their contributions are in danger, a danger that is increased by discrimination and gender violence. Women human rights defenders are at greater risk of experiencing sexual violence, especially in militarized contexts and in countries in conflict, and their children are more likely to be threatened or attacked as a form of intimidation.

Some of the attacks and assaults come from their own families and immediate surrounding who disagree with their activism, accusing them of being bad mothers or bad women. She further noted that women human rights defenders must contend with the fact that, in some situations, their leadership is not recognized. Moreover, they may also encounter sexual harassment by men who are members of their own organizations and movements. In addition to these challenges, the rights women activists defend are not always recognized by the society and are even considered crimes in some countries (as is the case for those who defend sexual and reproductive rights).

 Further, gender-based discrimination against women defenders results in women defenders having less support when they are attacked, having less access to existing protection mechanisms and experiencing feelings of isolation. Against this background, human rights defenders around the world have organized networks to develop their own protection strategies. While it is clear that the responsibility for ensuring a safe environment for human rights defenders belongs to the State, women defenders also need spaces of trust among women to talk about the violence that affects them, and to feel supported. In this regard, she highlighted that protective networks among human rights defenders could be a very effective complementary measure to prevent isolation and to provide collective protection. Such networks are also necessary given the limits to individual protection mechanisms, which can create tensions within organizations. Individual visibility, in particular, can generate more risk at the community and national level. Moreover, in countries where levels of impunity are very high and women do not have access to official protection mechanisms, networks of defenders have been able to respond to emergencies and save the lives of many women and their families. They have also enabled the development of measures to prevent and strengthen protective capacities (see statement here).

Alejandra Burgos from the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative drew attention to the specific discrimination and human rights violations faced by women defenders in the Central American region. For instance, in certain countries, women defending sexual and reproductive rights are at risk of being criminalized and sentenced for up to five years of imprisonment. In this context, her organization has faced smear campaigns, hate speech by fundamentalist groups and prosecution attempts. Lack of access to justice also affects women defenders who carry out their work in Mesoamerica, given that it is a region with a high rate of impunity. In addition, it is one of the regions with the highest rates of femicide in the world; therefore, being a woman defender implies an increased risk. In 2010, the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative emerged to protect women human rights defenders, to document the regional situation of women defenders and to contribute to the analysis of gender as a component of attacks against women defenders. It was observed that, between 2012 and 2016, 60 percent of the attacks against women defenders involved intimidation and psychological harassment, threats, warnings and ultimatums, defamation, stigma and smear campaigns, excessive use of force, illegal detention and arbitrary arrests, criminalization and prosecution. During this period, 42 murders of women defenders were registered, among them the case of Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in her house despite state protection measures. Of these documented cases, 38 percent included a gender component such as sexual or family-oriented threats or violence, references to sexual orientation and/or expressions of hatred based on gender stereotypes.  Women defending sexual and reproductive rights, land, territory and natural assets were the activists most frequently attacked. In addition, for the 1,688 attacks observed against women defenders between 2012 and 2014, state actors, businesses and people from the close environment (members of defenders’ families, organizations and communities) were the main perpetrators. Against this backdrop, the Initiative established five national networks of human rights defenders, created a Regional Monitoring System for Defenders' Aggression in Mesoamerica, developed communication campaigns and self-care strategies and created a Rapid Response and Self-Care Fund. Because the Initiative observed that defenders did not feel safe when using state shelters or living outside their home countries and without their children, the Initiative built three shelters for defenders from the region and their families. Several recommendations were made regarding the need to: eliminate the discriminatory stereotyping used to denigrate and attack women human rights defenders, particularly those working for sexual and reproductive rights; implement ILO Convention 169 (on consultations) with the full participation of women; implement a gender perspective in countries with official protection mechanisms; and comply with the protection measures issued by the Inter-American Court and Commission of Human Rights (full statement available here).

Farah Salka, from the Women Human Rights Defenders Middle East and North Africa Coalition (WHRD-MENA Coalition), highlighted the many challenges faced by women’s human rights defenders as a result of increased instability in the region, including challenges caused by an ongoing struggle between States and a spectrum of extremist factions. She explained that this power struggle   differs in each country in its manifestation and in its impact on the WHRDs, but also on the Coalition’s activity. The Coalition's members, like most civil society actors, have found themselves stuck within this power struggle, invisible to the international community. Travelling within the region has been increasingly difficult. The Coalition fears, in particular, that in the future: police states will literally close down all public spaces, will not respond to international pressure and will increasingly target WHRDs through travel bans and unfair trials; that groups like ISIS, which are active in silencing women human rights defenders, will have an increased presence and exercise greater land control; that the rise of the national anti-terrorism laws across the region will be used to target civil society and women defenders with no accountability, as will the lack of a clear definition of terrorism. For example, founders of the Coalition have consistently been targeted under accusations of foreign funding and banned from travelling Individual and organizational assets have been frozen and they were forced to halt all of their human rights work. These human rights violations have considerably impacted the Coalition. As a result, the Coalition has raised questions regarding the strategies which should be used by the Coalition and international partners when dealing with unresponsive regimes. Several examples of arrests, harassment, attacks and death threats made against women human rights defenders, as well as efforts deployed by some States to limit women’s participation in the public sphere were shared. For instance, some women human rights defenders participating in the Coalition’s regional meeting reportedly received threats that they would face physical and sexual harm due to their work defending the rights of the Yazidi minority. In addition, some women’s rights institutes have had to relocate their offices due to threats received from religious groups. Ms. Falk emphasized that women defenders are targeted by state and non-state actors alike. The Coalition even had difficulty identifying secure locations where members could carry out local trainings on digital strategies and documentation for other local women defenders. The regional MENA Coalition, which is composed of individual women human rights defenders and organizations, builds on lessons learnt and has a mission to enhance the protection of women’s human rights defenders in the region. The Coalition does this by empowering local networks and providing regional solidarity and support, by breaking the isolation experienced by defenders and by building a stronger feminist movement in order to maximize the voices of those being silenced, or being their voice when they are hampered to access the public space. WHRDs should be safe from violence and attacks (full statement available here).

Winnet Shamuyarira from JASS Southern Africa illustrated how discrimination and violence is expressed in Southern Africa, specifically Zimbabwe, and how it impacts women human rights defenders in the region. She explained that, with the expansion of mining and oil extraction, military and police forces contracted to support companies have also employed violence, including sexual violence, to repress resistance and intimidate local women and girls. In some cases, soldiers or police gang-rape women as a form of punishment for: artisanal mining, for “trespassing” on diamond fields that were once their ancestral lands, or for demanding greater compensation for their land and labor rights. Moreover, women human rights defenders have also suffered from frequent arbitrary arrests and intimidation. Violence and discrimination against women who defend their rights are common in Southern Africa and are led by: deeply entrenched patriarchy within society, the fact that women are silenced and unsafe in public and private spaces and heteronormativity (most Sothern African countries have legislation criminalizing same sex relationships). She also pointed out that rising fundamentalisms play a role, as they are reversing and stalling key agendas for gender equality and fuelling a backlash against women and women activists. These adverse trends are accompanied by an increase in militarisation which sees State actors and non -state actors colluding to inflict violence and intimidate human rights defenders, particularly in areas where extractive industries are present. Across the region, communities are responding to this dangerous mix of suffering and repression. In particular, women activists have organised themselves to react to a range of issues, including to issues that impact their survival (e.g., water, sanitation, ARVs, land) and to issues that continue to place women in marginal positions as compared to men (e.g., the fight for gender equal laws). In fact, women activists and feminists are speaking out. Despite facing threats and intimidation for their work, women activists continue to fight on the frontlines of social justice, democracy and rights battles. Among them are community leaders, teachers, mothers, union members, LGBTI activists, feminists, market women, sex workers, pastors, lawyers, journalists and academics. They work to defend social and economic rights and advance political and civil rights. Women are also organising on issues that affect them specifically as women, including on reproductive health rights and with regard to women marginalized by society like sex workers and LBTI women. One of the critical lessons emerging from JASS’ long-term work with women activists in various contexts is that the very things that make women human rights defenders stronger – deep community organizing, a strong social fabric, critical awareness and alliances – are the same things that can make them more secure. To this end, JASS has invested in processes that build trust and common ground among a wide range of women and organizations, equipping them with tools for organizing and assessing risk. JASS has also supported new strategies and collaboration across identities and movements.  Recommendations were made for  official protection mechanisms be established at the regional level in Southern Africa, similar to those in Mesoamerica, to provide greater protection to women human rights defenders. It was also recommended that gender and intersectional perspectives be taken into account when addressing the needs of women human rights defenders. Finally, it would also be necessary to ensure that cultural, religious and social norms and practices are not used to justify or tolerate women’s rights violations, including those committed against women human rights defenders (full statement available here).

In conclusion, the networks of women defenders present formulated recommendations on measures needed to strengthening protection networks for women human rights defenders to combat discrimination, including: The importance to encourage states to critically assess their progress in implementing resolutions related to women, gender discrimination and violence, and women defenders, including the 2013 GA Resolution on WHRD, especially in situations where non-state actors are perpetrators; The provision and guarantee of an enabling environment for women human rights defenders and their organizations, ensuring that they are able to exercise their legitimate rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly and to continue defending their rights and that of their constituents; The allocation of political and economic resources to reinforce and legitimize the work of women human rights defenders;  The need to highlight gender-specific discrimination and violence defenders face both as women and as human rights defenders; and to recognize formal and informal networks that women are organizing themselves for their holistic protection and sustainability, as a legitimate contribution to a robust democratic society and that can complement official national protection and safety mechanisms (full recommendations available here)

The event was very well attended (over 40 delegations were present) and the States and other stakeholders which took the floor welcomed the initiative, reiterated their support for the cause and highlighted their respective actions in this regard.