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News Special Procedures

Women human rights defenders face worsening violence, warns UN human rights expert

28 February 2019

GENEVA (28 February 2019) - Women, girls and gender non-conforming people  standing up for human rights have been facing increased repression and violence across the globe. States must respect, protect and fulfil the right of defenders to promote human rights without discrimination, says a UN human rights expert.

“In the current political climate, in which there is a backlash against human rights, women who defend and promote rights are often the first to come under attack,” said UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, presenting his annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The report shows how the rise in misogynistic, sexist and homophobic speech by political leaders in recent years has normalised violence against women human rights defenders. In some cases, those acting on behalf of States have engaged in direct attacks against women defenders and their families.

“In many countries, women who dare to speak out for human rights are stigmatised and called bad mothers, terrorists or witches, silenced and marginalised from decision-making and can even be killed. It is particularly worrying that the hostility they face comes not only from State authorities, but also the media, social movements, their own communities and even their family,” said the Special Rapporteur.

“Public shaming, attacks on women’s honour and their reputation, doxing or publishing their personal details on the internet, sexual violence and attacks against their children and loved ones, are used to silence women human rights defenders,” he added.

The report notes that women face the same risks as men defending rights, but it makes clear that women defenders face additional and different threats that are shaped by entrenched gender stereotypes and ingrained social perceptions of women.

“We have documented how the obstacles and risks faced by women human rights defenders are shaped by their gender. Women are attacked for promoting and protecting human rights simply because of their identity as women and because of what they do,” said Forst.

The report also raises alarm about the increasing number of States which have been restricting civil society space, imposing legal and administrative requirements that curtail the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly. In some countries, women rights defenders have been targeted for promoting women’s human rights, including the right to equality and to sexual and reproductive health.

The expert also expressed serious concern at the increasing use of the concept of “gender ideology” which, in various parts of the world, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe, is presented as an attempt by feminists and LGBT rights defenders, to destabilise the social and political order.

“There are no short cuts to reversing this deplorable situation. We must dismantle harmful gender stereotypes and radically reimagine social constructs of gender to prevent the domination and marginalisation of women,” Forst stressed.

The report contains recommendations and examples of good practice to support the building of diverse, inclusive and strong movements of women human rights defenders.

“States and international organisations must recognise the specific challenges and risks women defenders face. They must ensure that such defenders are recognised, supported and enabled to participate equally, meaningfully and powerfully in the promotion and protection of human rights,” Forst concluded.


Note: The report is based on numerous discussions that the Special Rapporteur has had with women human rights defenders around the world since the beginning of his mandate, as well as on consultations held in New York, Beirut, Geneva and Bali. It also draws on 181 letters concerning women human rights defenders’ cases sent to 60 States by the Special Rapporteur between 2 July 2014 and 2 October 2018, and over 200 responses to the Special Rapporteur’s survey, which were collected with the support of the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York.

Mr. Michel Forst (France) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2014. Mr. Forst has extensive experience of human rights issues and specifically of the situation of human rights defenders. He was the Director General of Amnesty International (France) and Secretary General of the first World Summit on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. He is a former UN Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Haiti.

The 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.

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