Excellencies, distinguished panellists, ladies and gentlemen,
I am pleased to join you today for this panel discussion on measures needed to support women human rights defenders, who often face unique threats on account of their sex, and because of the issues they defend.
Today’s panel is timely given the of the focus this year’s CSW session on preventing and eliminating violence against women, with particular emphasis on vulnerable and targeted groups of women, among them human rights defenders. It is an opportunity for us to better understand the risks, threats and violations faced by women human rights defenders and discuss how we can best support them in their work.
Types of violations faced by WHRDs
The UN human rights office has documented a range of violations suffered by women human rights defenders and other defenders working on women’s rights and gender-related issues. These include death threats and killings; arrest, detention and criminalization; sexual violence and rape; and stigmatization and reputational attacks. While all of these violations are also suffered by male defenders, it is essential to note that women defenders are at heightened risk of certain violations, especially in respect of sexual violence. Our office regularly receives allegations of women human rights defenders —including activists, journalists and bloggers—being subjected to inappropriate touching, invasive body searches, virginity testing, as well as insults and humiliations of a sexual nature while in detention.
One reason why women defenders are threatened is because they are often perceived as challenging accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about gender and the role and status of women in society and in the family.
This is true of all women defenders but it is especially true of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, who are often subjected to especially brutal stigmatization.
Women defenders seen as challenging prevailing religious beliefs, or culture, or notions of honour, are typically treated with hostility by community leaders, faith-based groups, and, in some cases, by their own families and communities. The authorities, which have an obligation to protect the rights of all human rights defenders, all too often stand by or, worse, actively contribute to the persecution of these women.
An example is the extent of gender-based harassment and violence directed at women defenders seeking to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. According to a recent report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, which looked specifically at the challenges faced by women human rights defenders, gender-based violence and harassment was used during some of the Arab spring demonstrations. More recently, we have had reports of women protesters being sexually harassed in Egypt while marching in commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Women human rights defenders, as well as men, continue to be arbitrarily detained in Bahrain and prevented from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. And, as the Secretary-General noted in a recent report, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to restrict dramatically the activities of women’s rights activists, female journalists and lawyers, including members of the Campaign for Equality, also known as the One Million Signatures campaign.
Practical measures to protect and support WHRD
The primary responsibility for developing protection mechanisms for human rights defenders, and indeed specific measures for the protection of women human rights defenders, lies with States.
However, in the majority of States, there are still no specific mechanisms in place to protect human rights defenders. OHCHR, together with the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and other special procedures, has called for the creation and implementation of adequate and effective protection mechanisms that consider the specific needs of women human rights defenders and the environment in which they work. An example of such mechanism would be Colombia’s Security Protocol (El Protocolo para la Protección de la Mujer) that gives special protection and security to human rights defenders, including women defenders, in the case of death threats. The Protocol was developed last year in consultation with the Government and women’s rights organizations.
To ensure gender responsive and relevant protection mechanisms, women defenders must be consulted in the development and design of laws and policies on this issue.
Protection mechanisms should also take into account violations from non-State actors, since a large proportion of the perpetrators of violations of the rights of women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues are perpetrated by non-State actors.
Regrettably those with a duty to protect human rights defenders, in particular State institutions such as the police and the judiciary, are all too often implicated directly or indirectly in threats and attacks against women defenders and their families. Changing this requires political will. All alleged violations must be promptly and impartially investigated and those responsible for violations against women defenders held to account. And the importance of the work of women defenders also needs to be publicly recognized and supported, so that it is clearly legitimized on a par with the work of other defenders.
Activities of OHCHR
Defending those who defend rights is a priority for the UN human rights office. We provide targeted trainings to women defenders on international human rights mechanisms and how to engage with the UN human rights system. In the Pacific region, for example, we have set up networks of women human rights defenders who share experience and strategize together to advocate for the full realization of human rights in their respective countries. The network submitted several cases to Special Procedures mandate-holders that involve serious threats and intimidation faced by women human rights defenders providing support and assistance to victims of gender-based violence; these cases are currently being followed up. We hope to see similar networks established in other geographic regions.
Much remains to be done if the women defenders and others working on women’s rights and gender issues are to be properly protected. The first step is to recognize the special risks faced by those on the ground. This discussion here today is an important way to bring the issue into focus in the context of the ongoing discussions at the Commission on the Status of Women. It is part of a wider dialogue that is taking place at various United Nations forums and among member States. For its part, OHCHR is fully committed to not only monitoring and documenting violations against women defenders, but also to raising with Governments the steps they must take in order to comply with their obligations under international human rights law in this regard. Our collective work will not be done until women defenders and those who champion gender issues, can work in safety and we have accountability for any violations of their rights. We look forward to working closely with defenders themselves, including many of you here today, to this end. I thank you for your attention and look forward to our discussion.