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Tackling the challenges faced by women human rights defenders through a gender lens

Working Group on discrimination against women and girls

In 2016, the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls decided to give more visibility to the unique challenges faced by women human rights defenders (WHRDs) around the world. These challenges are driven by deep-rooted discrimination against women and stereotypes about their “appropriate” role in society.

Misogynistic attacks and other specific risks

All human rights defenders face risks of threats, attacks and violence. Women who do this work are exposed to additional, unique risks. WHRDs are targets of misogynistic attacks and gender-based violence. They lack protection and due access to justice. In addition, their organizations lack sufficient financial resources.

Furthermore, discrimination against women is fuelled by today’s rising fundamentalisms of all kinds, political populism, unchecked authoritarian rule and uncontrolled greed, which altogether intensify the obstacles defenders face. For instance, those working on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, and those denouncing the actions of extractive industries and businesses – are at heightened risk for attacks and violence.

Giving voice to WHRDs: 3 groundbreaking events

The Working Group decided to take advantage of its convening capacity to offer  spaces where women human rights defenders could raise their voices, at a time of  shrinking space for civil society, including within formal UN fora. We organized three events, two of them in the framework of the Working Group’s regular sessions and the latest one during the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Strengthening protection networks for women human rights defenders to combat discrimination: Challenges and opportunities in the current context
18 May 2017, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Over 40 delegations were present for this groundbreaking event. The States and other stakeholders which took the floor welcomed the initiative, reiterated their support for the cause, and highlighted their respective actions in this regard.

Statements by panelists:

Opening statement by Alda Facio, Chair of the working group

Statement by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Statement by Marusia Lopez, JASS (Just Associates)

Statement by Alejandra Burgos, Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative

Statement by Farah Salka, Women Human Rights Defenders Middle East and North Africa Coalition (WHRD-MENA Coalition)

Statement by Winnet Shamuyarira, JASS Southern Africa


The networks of women defenders gave recommendations to strengthen protection networks for women human rights defenders to combat discrimination, including:

  • Encouraging States to critically assess their progress in implementing resolutions related to women, gender discrimination and violence, and women defenders, including the 2013 GA Resolution on WHRD, especially in situations where non-state actors are perpetrators;
  • Asking States to provide and guarantee an enabling environment for women human rights defenders and their organizations, so that they may exercise their legitimate rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly, and continue defending their rights and those of their constituents;
  • Allocating political and economic resources to reinforce and legitimize the work of women human rights defenders;

Read the full set of recommendations by the delegation and networks

States’ responsibility towards the protection of women human rights defenders: 20 years after the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
26 July 2018, UN Headquarters, New York

Panelists/moderators in attendance:

  • Ivana Radačić, Chair, UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice
  • Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
  • Andrew Gilmore, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Head of OHCHR New York Office
  • Lolita Chavez, Council of the Kiché People (Consejo de Pueblos Kiché Guatemala)
  • Lydia Alpizar, Mesoamerican Women Defenders Initiative
  • Brenda Kugonza, Uganda Women Human Rights Defenders Network (Uganda)
  • Asha Kowtal, All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum (India)
  • Marusia Lopez, Jass (Just Associates)
  • Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty International
  • Alda Facio, UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice
  • Pooja Patel, International Service for Human Rights
  • Miriam Miran, OFRANEH (Honduras)
  • Mélanie Sonhaye Kombate, West-African Human Rights Defenders Network (Togo)


Participants called attention to the particular risks and vulnerabilities faced by WHRDs, especially those working on environmental issues, the rights of minorities, including indigenous and dalit people, LGBTI rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHRs). Specific challenges include physical assaults, denial of medical treatment, degrading searches, threats to their families and communities, public defamation and attacks against their “honor”, arbitrary detention, sexual and gender-based violence, and killings, among others. WHRDs are also at risk of being rejected by their communities and of being revictimized if they rep­ort acts of violence.

All panelists and several other WHRDs from the Philippines, Brazil, Indonesia, Colombia and Spain testified about the challenges they had encountered as WHRDs. Panelists also expressed serious concerns about the record number of reprisals against WHRDs in 2017. This led to the UN’s growing engagement in the protection of WHRDs against reprisals, including the Secretary-General’s annual report on cooperation with the UN, known as the “reprisals report”.

Key recommendations for States:

  • Recognize and support the work of WHRDs, in particular by granting political and legal recognition to their work
  • Recognize that WHRDs include women working for NGOs, labor rights, land rights, cultural rights, SRHRs, collective rights and grassroots movements
  • Strengthen protection mechanisms and programs by:
    • Adopting legislations, policies and programs focused on eliminating the structural causes of violence against WHRDs
    • Preventing, investigating and punishing the perpetrators of abuse and violence
    • Ensuring that the implementation of provisions for protection, redress and remedy adopt an intersectional approach
    • Ensuring that protection legislations and mechanisms do not re-victimize WHRDs
    • Reviewing and repealing policies and practices that are not in line with international human rights standards, including laws that restrict CSOs space
    • Ensuring the financial sustainability of protection programs
    • Domesticating the UN Declaration on HRDs
    • Ensuring that official protection mechanisms do not contradict or hinder the holistic, spiritual, and collective protection practices and measures that WHRDs depend on
    • Ensuring that legislations, policies or legal frameworks do not use personal and privileged information from or about WHRDs and their organizations
  • Strengthen access to justice and end impunity by:
    • Accelerating investigations for cases of violence against WHRDs
    • Ensuring that investigations are free from sexist and misogynistic prejudices and stereotypes
    • Ensuring that investigations integrate an analysis of the context, the patterns of attacks and the socio-environmental conflicts that frame those attacks
    • Holding public officials, media, religious, cultural, community and business leaders accountable for attacking, defaming, inciting violence and stigmatizing women
    • Enforcing stringent measures against state armed forces that harm or inflict violence on HRDs
    • Strengthening the proactive role of independent public human rights and judicial institutions in the prevention and investigation of violence against WHRDs
    • Training officials, especially those in the judicial and penal system
    • Creating mechanisms that ensure that political appointments, promotions to public office or advancement of political careers take officials’ histories in relation to WHRDs into account
    • Ending extractive, agro-industrial, infrastructural and hydro-energy projects that were started without the free and informed consent of affected communities
  • Strengthen the implementation by States of their human rights obligations
  • Improve the coherence among international instruments
  • Invite UN Special Rapporteurs and other Special Mechanisms for visits
  • Facilitate cooperation between regional and international bodies

Key recommendations for UN entities:

  • Strengthen technical assistance provided to States to implement UN recommendations
  • Adopt an intersectional approach to HRDs in all aspects of the Organization’s work
  • Ensure effective follow-up, implementation and accountability in collaboration with regional human rights mechanisms
  • Strengthen the participation of WHRDs in UN bodies, processes, meetings, country visits, etc.
  • Ensure a safe space for CSOs at the UN, and denounce all acts of reprisals at the highest level
  • Strengthen country-level coordination amongst UN entities in supporting the implementation of UN recommendations
  • Monitor the adoption and implementation of legislations that legitimize or criminalize WHRDs
  • Adopt a holistic approach to protection measures
  • Urge private companies to improve how they identify, address and prevent violence and abuse against HRDs

Current challenges and opportunities for women human rights defenders: How can the international community better support their work?
13 March 2019, UN Headquarters, New York

Summary and list of panelists