#16 Days – An Integrated Approach to Security and Protection for WHRDs
| By Susan Tolmay*
FRIDAY FILE – As we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence (25 November to 10 December) and International Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) Day on 29 November; and are witness to increasing levels of violence against WHRDs, AWID looks at the need for a holistic approach to safety and protection for WHRDs.
This year’s theme for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence - “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women!” - underscores the systemic nature of gender-based violence, including high levels of violence that women and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) face as a result of militarism, including violence perpetrated by State actors and sexual violence during and after conflict.
Over the last five years there have been some significant advances in recognizing the rights and rights violations against WHRDs. In her 2010 report, the first to focus exclusively on the situation of WHRDs, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, highlighted the need for a gender-specific approach to addressing the seriousness of the violations, persecutions and threats against the lives of WHRDs and their families. In March 2013 at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 57) WHRDs were recognized for the first time ever in the language of the Agreed Conclusions, specifically requiring States to “Support and protect those who are committed to eliminating violence against women, including women human rights defenders in this regard, who face particular risks of violence.” On November 27th2013 the UNGA adopted the first-ever resolution on women human rights defenders, including concrete recommendations on specific remedies States must take to enable the work of WHRDs and those defending women’s human rights.
And yet, just in the past year, we have witnessed increases in violent conflict, rise in religious fundamentalisms, criminalisation of dissent and increasing targeted attacks on women human rights defenders across the globe. On October 26 transitional justice officer, Yara Sallam and 22 co-defendants, arrested on charges of violating the protest law in Egypt, were sentenced to three years in prison and a 10 thousand Egyptian-pound fine. They were arrested on 21 June while taking part in a march calling for the repeal of the protest law and the release of all those arrested on background of the law, highlighting a large disconnect between policy and practice.
The publication Our Right to Safety – A holistic approach to protection being launched on 10 December by the AWID and WHRD International Coalition explores the concept of integrated security for WHRDs, assesses gaps in current protection schemes and provides recommendations to strengthen responses to ensure WHRD protection; taking into account their voices, needs and demands, as well as their contexts and identities.
Why the need for specific focus on WHRDs
WHRDs face particular risks because of who they are (women), and because of the work they do (defending human rights). They are exposed to gender-based violence and gender-specific risks, including gendered verbal abuse, sexual abuse and rape. In addition to sexual violence, there are many other attacks that are linked to the use of gender and sexual stereotypes to harm WHRDs’ reputation and delegitimize their work.
In addition to gender, there are other economic, social, cultural and geographic factors, such as class, religion, age, language, sexual orientation, location (where they live), race and ethnicity that impact the way that WHRDs experience a violation.
Safety and protection - One size does not fit all
Because the risks and violations that WHRDs face are different, their protection needs are also very different. One of the weaknesses of current protection schemes is that they do not adapt to the different roles that WHRDs play in the workplace, in families, in their organizations, movements and communities. Most protection programs provide a set of common measures for all defenders at risk, without taking into account how factors such as gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity impact their experience of a violation.
Lack of recognition for the work that WHRDs do continues to pose a major challenge in providing protection. In many cases, women activists “may not identify as WHRDs because they are unfamiliar with human rights language, or do not feel comfortable using it. WHRDs may not use the term to describe themselves out of a sense of humility or respect for the women-at-risk they are seeking to defend, who may be more marginalized than themselves. As a result, WHRDs rarely access the protection measures that exist for HRDs.”
Gender-specific protection and integrated security for WHRDs
Protection must take into account unequal power relations between genders, as well as the discrimination and exclusion faced by diverse women in most societies, as a result of the mainstream social construction of gender. Consequently, developing gender specific measures involves a process of assessing how WHRDs experience human rights violations differently because of their gender and other economic, social or cultural factors. This means involving and engaging WHRDs “on their own terms”, so they can define their own needs and priorities. Gender-specific measures should also look at how protection can be used to empower and strengthen the work of WHRDs.
WHRDs have emphasized the need to advance an integrated concept of security that goes beyond just the physical protection of the individual. The concept of integrated security “incorporates concern for the well-being of the WHRD and her family, and recognizes the gender-specific nature of violence. Integrated security measures therefore offer a range of support, including childcare and healthcare, which have not traditionally been considered in security measures. Integrated security also entails addressing the contexts that enable violations of human rights to take place in the first place, and promotes the full realization of women’s rights as a strategy to sustain WHRDs, their organizations and movements.”
This approach to protection addresses physical protection needs, but is also linked to a process of change that promotes the development and implementation of a legal framework that advances gender equality; contributes to eliminate gender-based violence; ensures the participation of women in all processes that affect them; and promotes changes in institutional practices, in the workplace and in relation to women’s roles in the family and the community.
This approach to protection also raises questions about the predominant model of activism - which is built on the traditional role assigned to women as caregivers, who must sacrifice their lives for others. Playing this role makes WHRDs more vulnerable because it affects their capacity to identify risk, to put in place preventive measures, to deal with trauma, and to protect themselves.
WHRDs have highlighted the difficulties of changing mindsets to understand, that in order to sustain the work, they need to sustain themselves. The notions of self-care and wellness should be an integral part of protection. In this sense, protection requires the integration of responses from different fields such as health, education and justice.
In addition to providing protection to WHRDs and their organizations, an integrated approach to security should also address structural violence against WHRDs and its root causes. Accordingly, protection programs should include measures directed to end impunity and eliminate barriers to access justice, as well as measures directed to develop a supportive environment for WHRDs to do their work.
As we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism and International Women Human Rights Defenders Day show your solidarity and stand with WHRDs:
Download this ribbon and display it on your Facebook and Twitter profiles in support of WHRDs, and invite your friends and followers to do the same.
Look out for AWIDs Tribute to WHRDs (29 November to 3 December)
Are you running a campaign in line with 16 days of activism? Are you writing an article about gender-based violence? Are you organizing a social media campaign? Whatever action you are involved in, we want to know. Upload your picture, video or text to the Guardian Witness App
* The author thanks Inmaculada Barcia for her contribution
Extract from “Our Right To Safety: Women Human Rights Defenders’ Holistic Approach to Protection”.  See some of the latest urgent actions and alerts:
- Cambodia: Seven Land Rights Defenders Sentenced to One-Year Imprisonment and Fine for Peaceful Protest
- Morocco: Ibn Rochd Center for Studies and Communication to Shut Down
- Guatemala: Criminalisation of Human Rights Defender Bárbara Díaz Surín
- Belarus: Authorities Cancel Residence Permit for Human Rights Defender Ms Elena Tonkacheva as She Faces Expulsion
- Ecuador: LGBTI Rights Defender in Hiding Awaiting Investigation into Recent Attacks