States must respect, protect and fulfil the rights of WHRDs

Oral statement at the 40th session of the Human Right Council on the crucial role of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and feminist activists and their right to engage at international and regional levels without any discrimination, violence, threats and reprisals. 

This oral statement is delivered on behalf of six organizations. 

We welcome the report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders highlighting the crucial role women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and feminist activists play in holding States accountable to their human rights obligations.

Because of their efforts to dismantle the interlocking structures of patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, militarization, and neoliberalism, WHRDs face significant and targeted threats from both State and non-State actors with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.  As the Special Rapporteur rightly notes, girls and young women HRDs are at heightened risk due to the prejudice and sensitivities around age and require specific protection measures.

By rejecting  gender norms related to sexuality and reproduction, WHRDs and feminist organizations working on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) challenge the very structural foundations of societies including religious institutions and restrictive legal frameworks, and question the impact of neo-liberal policies on all those who identify as women and girls and non-binary persons and theirright to bodily autonomy. They are therefore disproportionately at risk of being subjected, inter alia, to defamation campaigns, public shaming, judicial harassment, criminalization, incarceration, sexual and gender-based violence, torture and killings.

Women's March Oakland 2019

These violations and abuses of their human rights can be perpetrated by the State, religious and/or conservative groups, and other non-state actors, often in total impunity. 

Sexual and reproductive rights (SRR) have been broadly recognized as fundamental human rights whose realization is a necessary pre-condition to gender equality under international human rights law. This recognition wouldn’t have been possible without the resilience and persistence of women human rights defenders who, despite ongoing harassment, stigma, criminalization and physical violence, have ensured international norms and standards recognize their right to bodily autonomy.    

In a global context of severe backlash against  girls’ and women’s rights and against SRHR, States need to be reminded of their obligations under the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and under core human rights treaties such as the ICCPR, ICESCR and CEDAW. States have a duty to create an enabling environment for the defence of human rights and need to take appropriate, robust and practical steps to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of WHRDs, including girls and young women, within a framework that fully recognizes the compounded and gendered threats to WHRDs.  This should be done not only at the national level, but also by ensuring that all WHRDs, including those working on SRHR, can freely engage with international and regional human rights systems, free from discrimination, violence, threats and reprisals.