Stay Informed

Your go-to source for the latest trends impacting gender justice and women’s rights around the world

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Are Central to the Work of Women Human Rights Defenders

FRIDAY FILE - Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) work under precarious conditions, often putting their lives in danger as they defend and protect women’s economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) across the globe.

By Katherine Ronderos

On 13 June 2012, Yolanda Oquelí, a WHRD working for Frente Norte del Área Metropolitana which has been protesting against the alleged negative economic and health effects of a mining project in her community, was shot at while driving home from a protest outside a mine site El Tambor in San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, in Guatemala.

Cambodian land and housing rights defenders, Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony, were arrested in early September 2012, on dubious charges. In late December 2012 they were convicted and sentenced on baseless charges in separate trials. It appears that WHRDs are targets of the Cambodian authorities who use seemingly trumped-up criminal charges to intimidate human rights defenders and social activists in Cambodia.

On 9 October 2012, Malala Yousafzai, 14-year old defender of girls’ right to education in Pakistan, was shot in the head in her school van by members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. A wave of targeted attacks by the Taliban and other groups claimed the life of Miss Farida Afridi and Miss Zarteef Afridi, who were also working on women and girls’ education in Pakistan.

These are only a few of the many cases of WHRDs who face serious threats and violence for advancing and advocating for a range of rights that are essential elements of a life of freedom and dignity. WHRDs worldwide are now more visible and actively participating in different movements, protests and civil society organizations contributing to the defense of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR), such as work, health, education, food, water, sanitation, housing, land, social security, a healthy environment and culture in particular.

Defending women’s economic, social and cultural rights

Economic, social and cultural rights are empowering and transformative because they provide women with control and economic independence over the course of their lives, facilitating the enjoyment of other rights, including civil and political. A large part of the transformative aspect of ESCR is being able to challenge stereotypical roles, characteristics and capabilities ascribed to women and men, which determine the scope of activities they are allowed to undertake in a given society.

Once seen as being peripheral to human rights concerns, the indivisibility of all women’s human rights (civil, political, economic, social and cultural) has received growing recognition. Issues such as violence against WHRDs, denial of women’s equal rights to property and inheritance, discrimination against women and girls in the field of health, education, employment and political participation, denial of women’s reproductive and sexual rights, women’s experience of forced evictions, the impact of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, women’s restricted access to water and food security, are all fundamentally and intimately connected. ESCR are indispensable to women’s daily lives, and violations of these rights as well as the violence that WHRDs faced when defending these rights, affect women in ways that are gender-specific and which reaffirm women’s unequal status within their families, communities and societies.

According to the WHRD International Coalition (IC) definition, WHRDs face risks both because of who they are and what they do. The Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders explored the impact of globalization on ESCR and the correlating increase of WHRDs exposure to violence and noted that “the continued growth in the power and influence of the private sector, which is bolstered by endorsement of States for the purposes of economic gain, poses a number of challenges to WHRDs”.[1]

The Global Report underscores that “economic policies within the globalization agenda have increased labour-intensive production in countries with minimal protection for women workers and poor pay, as a cheap workforce is the country’s so-called ‘economic advantage’”.[2] In the Philippines, for example, marginalization and violence against indigenous WHRDs for defending their ancestral lands under the development of mining mega-projects is exacerbated when combined with democratic failure to hold economic actors to account. WHRDs have increasingly defended a number of labour issues, such as the right of women workers to fair and equal remuneration, the right to unionize, and rights to better working conditions.[3]

International mechanisms to claim ESCR

The international human rights system provides a common framework of universally recognized values, norms and jurisprudence, both to hold States, and increasingly non-State actors, accountable for violations; and to mobilize collective efforts for economic and social justice, political participation and equality. ESCR are embodied in international treaty law at the universal and regional level. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) recognizes the interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights: a vision that guarantees people’s civil and political freedom as well as economic and social wellbeing.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is the primary mechanism within the United Nations human rights system that protects ESCR. The ICESCR creates legally binding international obligations on those States that have ratified or acceded to it. The UN Committee on ESCR monitors the implementation of the ICESCR and over-sees adherence to standards. The Optional Protocol of the ICESCR establishes a mechanism for accepting individual or group complaints, enabling victims of violations of ESCR to seek justice within the United Nations.

Growing recognition for WHRDs, their role and the need for protection

Ongoing and increasing violence and intimidation of WHRDs serve to underscore the important role they play in the defence, protection and enjoyment of women’s ESCR and recent developments in key UN spaces have sent a clear message that WHRDs should be supported and protected.

This year’s 57th session of the UN Committee of the Status of Women (CSW 57) was a major achievement for WHRDs who were, for the first time ever, formally recognized in the language of the CSW 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.” The WHRD International Coalition pointed out that such “recognition is essential because WHRDs are targeted both because of their activism and because of their gender. WHRDs are activists on all human rights issues, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. They make vital contributions to human rights all over the world”.[4] But, unfortunately, the language falls short of requiring States to ensure WHRDs can carry out their work in defense of human rights without fear of reprisals, coercion, intimidation or any such attacks.

The UN Human Rights Council in its latest session (22th) also adopted by consensus a landmark resolution on protection of human rights defenders, stressing that the use and abuse of national law to impair, restrict and criminalise the work of human rights defenders is a contravention of international law and must end. Very importantly, the resolution calls on all states to support the work of human rights defenders and to protect them from harassment, threats and attacks.

While these recent UN commitments are vital to raising awareness about the specific violence WHRDs face, and are important steps forward to recognising the work and risks for WHRDs’, there is much to be done to turn these commitments into actions and to implement concrete protection measures for enabling a safe environment for WHRDs to work without fear of persecution, criminalization, stigmatization, death threats, assassinations and sexual violence.

Useful Resources:

English: A primer on women’s economic and cultural rights

Spanish: Breve guia sobre los derechos economicos, sociales y culturales de las mujeres en los organos internacionales de proteccion de derechos humanos

[1]Kaavya Asoka, “Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders”, Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, January 2012

[2]Kaavya Asoka, “Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders”, Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, January 2012

[3]In 2012, a total of 4,191 cases were received and resolved by the Nicaraguan women’s organization Maria Elena Cuadra Movement of Employed and Unemployed Women (MEC) for violation of the labor rights of women workers who got redundant without their payment, complaints of mistreatment and unequal salary among others.