Increasingly under attack, women human rights defenders need better back up

UN Women/Dzilam Mendez In Mexico City, an artistic installation consisting of a number of signs of Venus, representing women, stresses the magnitude of femicidal violence. (March 2018)

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.

A group of United Nations human rights experts issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling on States to live up to their commitments to protect women human rights defenders, as they come under increasing attack, and with inadequate protection.

Marking International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, 29 November, the statement said that the current global context of “unchecked authoritarianism” along with “the rise of populism, of corporate power and of fundamentalist groups” have contributed to closing the space for civil society.

“This is being done through the enactment of laws and practices that effectively impede human rights work, including the misapplication of certain laws such as counter-terrorism and public assembly laws,” they explained.

The experts pointed out that women human rights defenders also face the additional barriers of economic and other structural discrimination, and “unique challenges driven by deep-rooted discrimination against women and stereotypes entrenched in patriarchal societies related to gender and sexuality.”

Moreover, sexual violence, defamation and intimidation, including against their family members, are being used as a deterrence. In 2017, Front Line Defenders recorded that 44 women human rights defenders were killed; an increase from 40 in 2016 and 30 in 2015.

They are at heightened risk of attacks and violence when working in areas such as  sexual and reproductive health, and often challenged by fundamentalist groups during conflict and post-conflict situations.

“Situations of armed conflict, and the subsequent break down of the rule of law, create a dangerous environment for women and girls,” the UN experts underscored.

“Women human rights defenders are pivotal in promoting sustainable peace, yet they are constantly excluded from peace processes and politics, often criminalized, and they experience gender-based violence, which hampers their participation in decision-making processes,” the experts spelled out.

On International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, UN human rights experts express thanks and admiration for their work, calling for:

  • Public recognition by the highest State authorities of the importance and legitimacy of their work, and a commitment to protect them against violence or threats.
  • Repeal of any State legislation or elimination of any measures to penalize or obstruct their work.
  • State institutions safeguarding their work to be strengthened.
  • Investigating and punishing any form of violence or threat against them.
  • Due diligence of States to protect women human rights defenders that are threatened by non-State actors.

They flagged that women human rights defenders promote international human rights law; mobilize society in identifying human rights violations; and contribute to developing solutions with a gender perspective.

According to the UN experts, these defenders call for gender equality and an end to gender-based violence by taking to the streets, airwaves and the internet, “bringing to light truths that are too often buried in darkness.”

They often challenge social and cultural norms that limit women’s human rights, taking the necessary but often unpopular route of passionate activism for their cause.

The UN experts concluded their statement by condemning all attacks on women human rights defenders.

“We are particularly concerned regarding those who have suffered reprisals for their efforts to work with the United Nations and regional bodies.  Participation in the work of the international human rights system is in itself a right and must never be met with intimidation or attacks,” they stressed.

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