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Women activists are leading change but are under-estimated, under-resourced and undermined, says UN expert

20 October 2020

NEW YORK (19 October 2020) – The UN's expert on freedom of assembly today called for accelerated efforts to protect and assist women-led organisations and social movements during COVID-19 and beyond.

"Many of the most important movements of the past five years have been led by women and girls," Clément Voule told the UN General Assembly. "Now women are at the frontlines of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Without their continuing work, the promise to build back a better future would be simply unattainable.

"Despite their vital importance, the contributions of women and girls in activism and civil society continue to be under-estimated, under-resourced and undermined. While international commitments have placed strong emphasis on women's participation in decision making, the reality is that State and non-state actors alike continue to violate women's rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and association," he said.

Voule presented his report on women's rights to freedom of assembly and association at the General Assembly. It highlights the main forms of violations to the fundamental freedoms of women and girls. "These start at the home and continue through all aspects of the public, work and digital sphere of life," he said. "The fiercest form of violation women and girls face remains the one of gender-based violence.

"In countries with high rates of violence against women - coupled with the closing of civic space - women experience an often unrecognised double-jeopardy," he added. "Social media has also become a hostile space imbued with extreme risks for women in civil society and activism. Women human rights defenders report that sexist and derogatory comments on social media has become part of their everyday life."

While women are on the front lines of global COVID-19 responses, they represent only 24 percent of national-level decision-making bodies on COVID-19, Voule said. The efforts of their organisations are also disproportionately underfunded.

"They are working in the most affected and hardest to reach places, yet they have the least support," he said. "Many local women's groups may lose vital assistance and face closure if urgent support is not put in place," he added.

The report calls for development and donor agencies to increase funding and flexibility so that local women's organisations and movements can rapidly scale up their programmes and adapt to the risks posed by COVID-19.


Clément Nyaletsossi VOULE (Togo) is Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Clément Nyaletsossi VOULE has been Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association since April 2018. Mr. Voule has worked tirelessly as a human rights advocate and defender in his native country, Togo, and across Africa. He holds a degree in Fundamental Rights from Nantes University in France, and a Masters Diploma in International Law in Armed Conflict from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

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 organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

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