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Women human rights defenders

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders defines women human rights defenders as both female human rights defenders, and any other human rights defenders who work in the defence of women’s rights or on gender issues (A/HRC/16/44). The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) recognizes the important role of HRDs, including women defenders, and outlines relevant rights of all HRDs and obligations of States.

Women defenders are subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence. The reasons behind the targeting of WHRDs are multi-faceted and complex, and depend on the specific context in which the individual WHRD is working in. Often, the work of WHRDs is seen as challenging traditional notions of family and gender roles in the society, which can lead to hostility by the general population and authorities. Due to this, WHRDs are subjected to stigmatization and ostracism by community leaders, faith-based groups, families and communities who consider them to be threatening religion, honour or culture through their work.

In addition, the work itself or what they are striving to achieve (for instance, the realisation of women’s rights or any gender-related rights) also makes them targets for attack. Their families also become targets for threats and violence, aiming to discourage WHRDs from pursuing their work. Women defenders are more at risk of being subject to certain forms of violence and other violations, prejudice, exclusion, and repudiation than their male counterparts. It is therefore important to recognise the specific challenges this group of defenders face, in order to strengthen protection mechanisms and other, both local and international level responses to their specific concerns. Prompt investigation of intimidation, threats, violence and other abuses against women human rights defenders, whether committed by State or non-State actors, should be undertaken. The situation in practice however often leaves WHRDs without effective protection mechanisms.

Although the State has the primary responsibility to protect defenders when they are threatened and attacked, the international community as well as the UN presences on the ground also have a responsibility to support and protect them, bearing in mind the basic principles of confidentiality, do no harm, and the informed consent of a person.

Feature stories

Activist at a rally for human rights defender in Thailand © EPA/Vinai DithajohnDefenders urgently need a safe and enabling space


 2013 Minority Fellow Josephine Adaza © OHCHRJosephine Adaza: fighting for freedom of religion in Nigeria


 Manal Al-Sharif is a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia © Abduljalil al NasserManal Al-Sharif: a driving force for change


 A woman activist carries a poster during a protest against family violence in Beirut, Lebanon, 2011 © EPA/Wael HamzehSupporting women human rights defenders


Studies, reports and papers

Fact Sheet on Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights (available in all UN languages)

Report of the Special Rapporteur on women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues (A/HRC/16/44) (2012)

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