In the wave of rising fundamentalism and populism, States must more than ever protect women human rights defenders by tackling discrimination against women
On the occasion of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on 29 November, we, independent experts of the UN Human Rights Council, pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of women throughout the world who work tirelessly and with courage to defend women’s human rights as well as all those who work for substantive equality in every sphere of society. These agents of change, fighting against all forms of discrimination and inequality, are recognized today as women human rights defenders.
Women human rights defenders face unique challenges, driven by deep-rooted discrimination against women and stereotypes about their appropriate role. Today’s rising fundamentalisms of all kinds and political populism, as well as unchecked authoritarian rule and uncontrolled greed for profit-making further fuel discrimination against women, intensifying the obstacles facing women human rights defenders. In addition to the risks of threats, attacks and violence faced by all human rights defenders, women human rights defenders are exposed to specific risks. Those working on rights contested by fundamentalist groups such as women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and those denouncing the actions of extractive industries and businesses are at heightened risk to attacks and violence.
The overwhelming majority of UN Member States, by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), recognize that "the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and peace require the participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields”. The political and public participation of women in society and the historic work of women's organizations and feminist groups have been one of the major expressions of democracy and an indispensable engine for the recognition of women as subject with full rights and agency, benefitting millions of women and girls throughout the world, their families and communities. Every day, more women identify themselves as human rights defenders and undertake, individually and collectively, actions in pursuit of justice, equality, peace, and human rights for all.
However women’s participation in the public space has been curtailed by the discriminatory practices and gender stereotypes experienced by women throughout the world. The very concept of feminism is too often misunderstood, denigrated and discredited, even by some in the human rights community. We witness ever increasing threats and harassment including travel bans, as well as assaults, killings, and imprisonment of many women human rights defenders for their work in favour of human rights and especially for their demand for equality. As established in the CEDAW Convention, “discrimination against women" refers to any “distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality between men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. Discrimination against women human rights defenders and the obstacles they face are expressed in multiple forms:
- Misogynistic attacks: Women who decide to break away from traditional gender roles and demand their rights and the rights of their communities are often questioned and stigmatized. Attacks against them, often in and through the media, revolve around the very same stereotypes that women human rights defenders strive to challenge through their work. They are often labelled as “bad mothers” or “whores”, their sexual orientation is questioned, and they can be ridiculed for their physical appearance or supposed lack of “femininity”.
-Gender-based violence: sexual assaults or threats of rape and attacks against the family of the defender are the types of aggressions specific to women human rights defenders. These assaults are committed both by the authorities and institutions of the State and by private actors, ranging from private companies to their families, communities and organizations.
- Lack of protection and access to justice: When a woman human rights defender is attacked, she will probably be unable to count on the support of her family, her community and sometimes even her organization. This is due to the persistence of gender stereotypes which lead to questioning and criticizing the fact that women participate in politics and do not dedicate themselves to domestic tasks. On the other hand, when a woman defender is assaulted and lodges a judicial complaint, she is likely to face re-victimisation, as the validity of her testimony and the seriousness of the facts are often questioned. Many of these women also do not have the necessary resources to pursue legal proceedings. Furthermore, the existing protection mechanisms generally suffer from the absence of a proper gender perspective, lacking recognition of the inequality of power between men and women, the discrimination and exclusion faced by women in the society and an effective response to respond to their needs and priorities. Often protective measures are not sufficiently gender sensitive to take into account women’s particular situations such as their role as care takers in the family.
- Lack of resources for women's organizations and support to women defenders’ participation in political and public life: Women’s organizations tend to have less access to resources and less political support for the conduct of their work. Many women defenders are not recognized for their leadership and contribution - even in their own organizations, families and communities and have to bear, alone, the burden of domestic care and tasks while seeking time to participate in public or political activities.
The impacts of discrimination against women on the life and public participation of women human rights defenders are also multiple: increasing the risks they face in carrying out their work; affecting their health, their life, their relationships with their families and communities; diminishing their ability to contribute, thus affecting the work of the organizations in which they participate and the causes for which they struggle. They also impede more women from exercising their political rights by which they can contribute to the development of a democratic society. Women defenders who denounce violence against women, in particular in rural or semi-urban areas, women who are socially stigmatized due to their ethnicity, disability, age or sexual preference and women who live in territories in a situation of war or with military presence or in territories controlled by organised crime groups, are particularly affected. This discrimination also inhibits and discourages women who are agents of change but, out of fear of reprisals, do not even dare to identify themselves as human rights defenders.
Despite these challenges and despite the hostile context, the international community was able to make a milestone achievement, when in 2013 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the "Promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: protecting women human rights defenders" , which requires Member States to take concrete measures to eliminate discrimination against women, including:
- Stop criminalizing women for their work in transforming society and defending human rights and, on the contrary generate internal legislative and administrative provisions that facilitate their work.
- Develop measures to modify social and cultural patterns that are at the roots of violence against women and recognize that the achievement of democracy and development depend on women and on the improvement of their political, social, legal and economic situation.
- Develop measures necessary to ensure the protection of defenders which systematically integrate a gender perspective in order to create a safe and supportive environment for the defence of human rights.
This historic resolution of the UN General Assembly recognizes the indispensable role played by women human rights defenders in society and their need for support, protection and empowerment. Given the particularly hostile current context, in which the term of human rights defenders itself is questioned and crushed in international fora, this resolution was a considerable achievement. To commemorate the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day this year, we urge Member States, the United Nations and society as a whole to combat discrimination, to recognize publicly and make visible all efforts that women human rights defenders deploy individually and collectively to preserve peace and to achieve equality. We also urge States to resolutely support initiatives which are defined by women defenders themselves and their organizations and to ensure an enabling environment for their work. In the face of rising populism and fundamentalisms and deplorable setbacks on the women’s human rights agenda, we need more than ever to unite our forces to preserve the democratic space in which women human rights defenders represent an essential counter-power and a colossal force of action.
For further references:
- AWID, “Our right to safety: women human rights defenders’ holistic approach to protection” (March 2014)
United Nations General Assembly resolution 68/181 (2013)