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Gender equality in freedom of expression remains a distant goal -UN expert

NEW YORK (18 October 2021) - Gender-based violence, hate speech and disinformation are being used extensively online and offline to chill or kill women’s expression, Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, told the General Assembly today.

Presenting her report on gender justice and freedom of expression, Khan said that States were failing to respect, protect and fulfil women’s equal right to freedom of opinion and expression. Gendered censorship is so pervasive that gender equality in freedom of expression remains a distant goal, the UN expert added.

“Women’s voices are suppressed, controlled or punished explicitly by laws, policies and discriminatory practices, and implicitly by social attitudes, cultural norms and patriarchal values,” Khan said.

“Sexism and misogyny, which are dominant factors in gendered censorship, have been heightened by the rise of populist, authoritarian and fundamentalist forces around the world.”

In a number of countries, the online social behaviour of young women and gender non-conforming people, especially those with marginalized identities, is policed by fundamentalist actors and censored and criminalised by governments under the guise of protecting ‘public morals’. “Such action is paternalistic at best, misogynistic at worst,” Khan said.

The Special Rapporteur said women journalists, politicians, human rights defenders and feminist activists were particularly targeted with vicious, coordinated online attacks in order to intimidate, silence and drive them off social media platforms and out of public life, undermining human rights, media diversity and inclusive democracy.

She called on States and social media companies to act urgently and decisively to make digital spaces safe for all women and non-binary people, and to do so within the framework of international human rights law.

“There can be no trade-off between women’s right to be free from violence and the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” Khan said. “States must not use efforts to address online gender based violence, hate speech and disinformation as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression beyond what is permitted under international law.”

She urged States to remove the gender digital divide, gender data gaps, and other barriers to women’s right to information, including on sexual and reproductive health and rights. “There is not just one divide but multiple divides that must be overcome,” Khan said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an additional imperative for action, said Khan. “If women are to recover lost ground, if countries are to revive their economies and if governments are to regain public trust, then women’s equal right to freedom of opinion and expression must be front and centre on national and international agendas,” she said.

“Gender justice requires not only an end to unlawful interference with women’s freedom of opinion and expression but also the creation of an enabling environment in which women can exercise their agency and participate safely, fully and equally in the political, social cultural and economic life.”


Ms. Irene Khan was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on 17 July 2020. Ms Khan is the first woman to hold this position since the establishment of the mandate in 1993. She teaches at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and was previously Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009 and head of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) from 2012 to 2019.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please write to: Thibaut Guillet (+41 22 917 9158 /thibaut.guillet@un.org) or ohchr-freedex@un.org.

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jeremy.laurence@un.org).

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