New Global Report Highlights Challenges to Women Human Rights Defenders and Proposes Responses
Friday File: This week the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC) launched its Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders to advance the recognition of WHRDs, the violence and human rights violations they face, and the contexts that enable these violations.
By Katherine Ronderos
One year ago 26-year-old environmentalist and activist Sandra Viviana Cuéllar Gallego disappeared on the outskirts of the City of Cali, Colombia on her way to the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Palmira to participate in a forum on water issues. She is still missing and she is considered one of many activists who have been forcefully abducted because of their defense of environmental rights.
This is one of 43 cases in the new Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders (hereafter referred to as the Global Report) launched on 29 February by the WHRD IC. By selecting a wide range of geographical regions, perpetrators, groups affected and other relevant elements, the WHRD IC seeks to expose the varied and complex contexts in which violations against women human rights defenders (WHRDs) occur, the differentiated impact of this based on their gender and the strategies that have been used so far to support their lives and work.
In her third report in 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders highlighted the need for a gender-specific approach for addressing the seriousness of the violations, persecutions and threats against the lives of WHRDs and their families. However, much work still needs to be done in providing contextual analysis on the situation of WHRDs.
The Global Report focuses on the context in which WHRDs work and aims to respond to this gap “recognizing that the social, cultural, economic and political environment substantively influences the challenges WHRDs face and can exacerbate their vulnerability.” Coalition members encourage the use of the Global Report as an advocacy and capacity building tool for organisations working with, and supporting WHRDs.
This report presents cases studies from across the globe that illustrate specific trends and frameworks used by WHRDs groups to identify the root causes of risks to defenders. The premise of the report is that “patriarchal and heteronormative ideologies shape the diverse and often inter-woven contexts in which WHRDs work”. The report examines these contexts under five key phenomena: fundamentalisms, militarization and situations of conflict, globalization, crises of democracy or governance, and heteronormativity. Offering crosscutting discussions, with patriarchy and heteronormativity as the two particular ideologies for investigation, this publication argues that both ideologies have permeated private and public discourses, resulting in the perpetuation of gender discrimination and inequality.
Fundamentalisms and other discourses
Case studies from Nepal, Chechen Republic, Malaysia and USA illustrate the growth of fundamentalist forces that pose particular risks to WHRDs. These examples and analyses expose the emergence of new challenges, perpetrators, and forms of violations against WHRDs, including domestic violence in retaliation for human rights work, legitimacy of fundamentalist actors and impunity, speaking from ‘within’ religion, traditional structures of authority, and threats to WHRDs of reproductive rights.
The case of the Sisters in Islam (SIS) Forum illustrates how intimidation is used to hinder the work of WHRDs. SIS faced a court order from the Malaysian Assembly of Mosque Youths (MAMY) prohibiting them to use ‘Sisters In Islam’ as their name and identification in pamphlets, correspondence, publications or statements until this was provided for under the law. It also sought an order for SIS to remove the name ‘Sisters In Islam’ from their website, and prevent them from distributing, printing and publishing materials and/or broadcasting the name ‘Sisters In Islam’. On 29 October 2010, the High Court in Malaysia ruled that Sisters In Islam could keep the word ‘Islam’ in their name, “because MAMY had no legal standing to challenge the name.”
Militarism and situations of conflict
The Global Report recognizes the growth in militarization and situations of conflicts in different parts of the world. Examples from Colombia, Mexico, and Democratic Republic of Congo provide a full spectrum of situations and the risks related to normalization of military presence, sexual violence against WHRDs, and threats to WHRDs from non-State actors.
The analysis signals the resurgence of old and emergence of new challenges for WHRDs, as militarization of societies supports the growth of fundamentalisms as well as strengthened patriarchal and heteronormative ideologies and practices. Issues including decision-making roles and political processes, peace-building and democratization, and post-conflict rebuilding processes, are interrogated in this section, which argues that the exclusion of WHRDs from these processes is a major concern due to “the replication of gender and social hierarchies predating and exacerbated by the period of conflict”.
The case of Valentina Rosendo and Ines Fernandez, members of the Organization of the Indigenous Me'phaa People in Mexico are examples of attacks on indigenous communities that are intended to stop their protests and calls for justice and human rights in their territories. In addition impunity continues unabated and becomes an important element for lobbying and advocacy.
The report explores the cases of WHRDs in Guatemala, Colombia and Honduras, illustrating how issues related to lack of accountability of economic actors, defending rights to land and natural resources, and vulnerability of WHRDs working on economic, social and cultural rights continue putting the lives and work of WHRDs at risk. The section of the report shows the power and influence of the private sector, supported by States, as main contributor to the marginalization of indigenous people and greater impoverishment of communities under the globalization agenda.
Examples include that of Lorena Cabnal and other members of the Association of Indigenous Xinka Women of Santa María Xalapán in Guatemala. Despite public support for their opposition to the mining and oil industry activities being conducted in the region, and for their work to demand recognition and respect for the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples and women, they continue to receive “open threats.”
Crises of democracy or governance
Using case studies from Zimbabwe, Gambia, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Iran the report explores five areas of analysis that provide evidence of how authoritarian regimes reinforce gender and other social hierarchies that can have negative consequences for WHRDs: undemocratic environments, failure to protect, impunity for violence against women, violations by State agents, and violations of freedom of expression and assembly.
There is strong evidence of State’s failure to fulfill their obligations to protect WHRDs from human rights violations, showing that general lawlessness and impunity for violations, as well as restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly are used against WHRDs and censor the human rights issues that they strive to bring into the public domain.
To illustrate the point, the report cites violations of human rights against members of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), including harassment and ill treatment of members by police officers since its inception in 2003.
Special attention to heteronormativity is not only present throughout the report but it is also analyzed as a particular context. This section strongly challenges the dangerous environment of the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or inter-sex (LGBTI) persons, as well as the criminalization or discrimination against them.
Organizations from Uganda, Guatemala, Kenya, Mongolia, Philippines and China provide evidence that despite recognition achieved at the international level for their work on gender identity and sexual orientation rights, “WHRDs at the local or national level continue to be persecuted, often in highly violent ways, for their work on these issues or for their identities”. These case studies accompany the argument presented in this section, which confronts the fact that the lack of support from mainstream human rights defenders on sexual rights have left WHRDs focused on this area in isolation, vulnerable and without ‘natural allies’.
The case of Uganda shows the public harassment by the Ugandan tabloid newspaper The Rolling Stone, which published a story under the headline ‘’100 Pictures of Ugandans Top Homos Leak’’ releasing the names, and in some cases, pictures and descriptions of where specific activists and WHRDs working on LGBTI rights lived and included the words “Hang Them’. In a follow up in the same month, the paper published “photos and detailed information on 17 more alleged LGBTI persons. This resulted in individuals being harassed, verbally physically attacked and having their homes pelted with stones.”
By using an intersectional approach, the report exposes “the ‘ways in which power, privilege and marginalization are produced through the intersecting deployment of identities’, mediated by multiple factors such as gender, class, race, ethnicity and sexuality.” The intersectionality framework used in the report takes into account the multiple structures and ideologies of oppression that underlie violations against WHRDs. This tool will help readers to adopt a more dynamic approach to analysis and to simultaneously examine the particularities of the experiences of WHRDs. And furthermore, to recognize their multiple and shifting identities whilst examining the structural and systemic discrimination present.
To find out more:
The Global Report was launched on 29
While the full report is currently only available in English, the abstract is available in Spanish and French, and can be viewed online and downloaded from AWID’s website.
 Sandra Viviana is the director of the NGO Sur Viviendo, an organization that works to protect water, watersheds and wetlands in the Valle del Cauca, in the southwestern part of Colombia.
 National University of Colombia
 Ibid, p. 17
 Ibid, p. 29
 Ibid, p. 32
 Ibid, p. 54
 Ibid, p. vii
 Ibid, p. 78
 Ibid, p. 103