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For International Women Human Rights Defenders Day – 29 November 2016

Twin threats

25 November 2016

Fundamentalism and populism pose deepening threat to women defending human rights, UN experts warn

GENEVA (25 November 2016) – Women who step up to defend human rights are facing worsening obstacles amid a global trend of fundamentalism and populism, a group of United Nations rights experts* has warned.

In a statement to mark International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on 29 November**, the experts said women working for rights and equality faced unique and growing challenges driven by deep-rooted discrimination.  Some were being killed for their courageous stand; others faced violence, harassment, social stigma and sometimes imprisonment.

“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,” the experts said in a joint statement.

Authoritarian rule and uncontrolled greed were fuelling discrimination, intensifying the obstacles, they added. States should take urgent action to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and to ensure they were protected for their participation in political or public life.

The experts paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of women working for equality and women’s rights around the world.

“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,” they said.

“However, this participation has been limited by the discrimination which confronts women throughout the world. The very concept of feminism is too often misunderstood, denigrated and discredited, even by some in the human rights community.”

The experts highlighted a host of specific challenges faced by women rights defenders – including misogynistic attitudes, threats of sexual assault, travel bans, lack of protection and access to justice, imprisonment, killings, laws which violate their rights, gender-based defamation questioning their “femininity” or sexuality, and gender stereotyping which questions their engagement in public life instead of sticking to their caretaker role in the family.

Women’s organizations also struggle disproportionately with access to resources and political support, they added.

“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 social or political activities,” the experts said.

The discrimination and unique challenges faced by women human rights defenders affect their health, life, relationships and families, particularly for those denouncing environmental devastation caused by industries and those who work for issues contested by fundamentalist groups, such as sexual and reproductive rights.

Women who denounce violence against women, particularly in rural or semi-urban areas, are also at high risk, along with those living in conflict areas and those facing social stigma because of their ethnicity, disability, age or sexual preference.

“This discrimination 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.,” the experts say.

They urge all States to ratify and fully implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the milestone 2013 UN General Assembly resolution  on protecting women human rights defenders", which requires Member States to take concrete measures to end gender discrimination.


(*) The UN experts: Alda Facio, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice; Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Dubravka Šimonović Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.
(**) Read the full statement at:

Read the 2013 resolution on "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":

Find out more about CEDAW:

The Working Groups and 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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