Current challenges and opportunities for women human rights defenders: How can the international community better support their work?

Wednesday 13 March 2019, 6.30-8.00 p.m
Conference Room 4, UN Headquarters, New York

The Chair of the Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice (WGDAW), Ivana Radačić, opened the event by highlighting that women human rights defenders (WHRDs) make essential contributions to the effective promotion, protection and realization of international human rights law and play an important role in sustaining peace and security. She stressed that there has been a considerable backlash against women’s rights in recent years, in particular in the area of sexual and reproductive rights and that the term “gender” itself is being increasingly misused and misunderstood.

Mr. Kai Sauer, Permanent Representative of Finland to the United Nations expressed his gratitude for being there on behalf of the Finnish Government. He pointed at the most recent report on women human rights defenders by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, as an example of considerable work of analysis showing that the tools used to intimidate WHRDs are evolving faster than regulations. The Permanent Representative stressed that perpetrators are succeeding in silencing HRDs and that investigation was needed. Technology has put HRDs even at more risk. The Finnish presidency at the European Parliament recently organized a conference on women and artificial intelligence to show how artificial intelligence (AI) was contributing to increase threats against women.

Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, stressed that HRDs are major pilots for human rights globally who face specific threats including threats that target their family members. He stressed that OHCHR was determined to combat reprisals against HRDs and draw attention to this practice. He stated that OHCHR has a mandate to go to the Human Rights Council and speak about these cases of HRDs, in particular women, who are victims of intimidation or reprisals because they engage with the UN. Women are also held incommunicado, sexually assaulted, raped, tortured and arrested simply for setting up a woman’s rights organization or for defending victims of sexual slavery. He acknowledged that the phenomenon is under-reported and mentioned that anybody who is aware of such cases can contact OHCHR at this address  

Rasha Jarhum from Peace Track Initiatives (Yemen) said that in 2016 she started working to support peace talks on Yemen in Kuwait while based in Lebanon, with frequent travels to Kuwait. At the end of every trip, she and her colleagues received hate messages from those who criticized them and their work. She risked detention or death if she returned to Yemen.  She highlighted that this hatred sometimes came from women, which was the most hurtful thing for her. She explained that she created a woman solidarity network composed of 300 women inside and outside Yemen that work for peace and support each other. These women risked their lives on a daily basis, they negotiate with armed groups, work on child recruitment, open humanitarian corridors and work on the release of prisoners. She added that today the situation of HRDs in Yemen was incredibly tough, whether you are in a liberated area or under the control of the rebels. Some of her colleagues continue to be detained for doing women’s rights advocacy or peace building. The only social movement in Yemen is a women-led movement. She highlighted the need to find ways to support WHRDs inside and outside Yemen.

Haydee Castillo from Las Segovias (Nicaragua) drew attention to the fact that many of the women in Nicaragua who are threatened and assaulted are WHRDs protecting the natural resources, water and land. State agents ceased to be protectors of human rights and are now perpetrators. Nicaragua is using the legal framework to attack defenders who are accused of money laundering, organised crime and terrorism. She recommended that the international community recognize that gender violence is ending the lives of WHRDs stressing that there was a need to be proactive and put in place monitoring, early warning systems and indicators. She created feminist defence networks, but was caught by the State’s authorities and thought she would never be released. If she was still alive, it is because of the network of defenders who saved her.

Noura Al Jizawi, Start Point (Syria) said that since the situation deteriorated in 2011, there are amazing women who are doing important work in Syria. At the beginning of the conflict, her role was to document the detention of people and she was herself detained for doing so. She was detained for six months, during which she met amazing women that motivated her to keep doing this. She continues to document violations against women. She stated that the biggest challenge was to convince survivors to speak, because they believe that nobody cares and that nobody was going to being justice. Key eyewitnesses of massacres have been killed. She was worried that one day there won’t be any eye witnesses to speak out and bring evidence to courts and combat impunity.  The situation of women is Syria is worsened by the obstacles women generally face because of their gender. WHRDs are under cyber-attack and cyber security was a key issue. It is important to protect female activists because they have sensitive and personal data. She was herself the victim of such attacks. She concluded by saying that in order to achieve peace and democracy, a new constitution that respects human rights must be approved.

Shereen Essof from Jass Southern Africa (Zimbabwe) started by highlighting that Zimbabwe is affected by inequalities, political and social instability and the erosion of the democratic space. On 14 January 2019, several protests against the increased price of fuel took place. Women were on the frontline of these protests. Higher prices of fuel have an impact on the whole livelihood of a society and therefore women are always the ones looking for means of sustenance. During the three days of protests there was a wave of violence, rape, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, torture, restriction of freedom of expression, association and assembly and the Government shut down the internet. During this kind of protracted violence, WHRDs were traumatized. The erosion of basic services is a form of structural violence. Against that backdrop, WHRDs continue to get organized, with imagination and creativity, dreaming of a future free from violence. She concluded by highlighting the importance to name WHRDs, recognize their contributions and understand the risks they face.

Hala al-Karib from Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) (Sudan) started by referring to the difficult times Sudan was going through. Women are fighting for dignity and human rights across the whole country. Ongoing demonstrations were led by women who recognized that their dignity and rights are at stake and that the systematic repression they face must stop. Women were playing an important role in challenging the current political system, but were paying a very high cost. She encouraged all to talk more about women’s rights and the activism of WHRDs, because she believed that this category is often neglected and forgotten by mainstream human rights actors,  struggling with invisibility and limited capacity. She concluded by saying that it was critical to invest in grass root human rights organizations.

Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders started by firmly recognizing the important role played by WHRDs, they fight every day in adverse situations and are regularly accused to be linked with terrorism, to be bad mothers and bad daughters when promoting sexual rights, called anti-progress when they challenge the system. He expressed his happiness to be hearing from them today not only about threats they face but also about strategies.

Dubravka Šimonović, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences acknowledged that there was a challenge in addressing violence against WHRDs and asked how we can better protect them and change the system all around us by using all mechanisms available. She highlighted that she recently focused on online violence against women and on violence against women in politics and has started cooperation with some intermediaries and tech companies to hamper these forms of online violence and upload human rights in digital platforms, to better protect the space of WHRDs.

Nina Nordström, Director of the Unit for Human Rights Policy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland said that what was needed was to hear more often the stories of brave and visionary WHRDs and that they have the support of all of us.  She supported what was said by Noura on the importance of gathering evidence to fight impunity and explained that there were so many untold stories, voices are not heard and women who face multiple challenges. She asked how the international community could better support. Finland was thinking about ways to help HRDs including through providing them with a platform to speak and help local NGOs by providing financial resources. She concluded by saying WHRDs were key players in the prevention of conflict.

Wai Wai Nu from Justice for Women (Myanmar) described the heavy judicial and media harassment of HRDs in South East Asia. HRDs were under increased surveillance by State and non-State actors. The use of abusive and misogynist language was very common. She spoke about social media campaigns launched to humiliate and intimidate women. She reported a case of an Indian girl beaten because she was peacefully protesting against coal mining. There are more and more attacks on WHRDs tackling environmental issues.  In May 2018 in Myanmar, WHRDs were sentenced to 4 months of prison for leading a peaceful protest. She argued that protection must come from a strong legal framework.

The event was very well attended and stakeholders who took the floor expressed their strong support for WHRDs across the world.


​​​​​​In this section
Issues in focus
Position papers

Gender equality and gender backlash
English (PDF )| Informal Spanish translation (Word)

Women's Autonomy, Equality and Reproductive Health
English (PDF) | Informal Spanish translation (Word)

Women's land rights
English (PDF) | Informal Spanish translation (Word)

Adultery as a criminal offence violates women's human rights

Discrimination against women in nationality

Related links​
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