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Women Human Rights Defenders: Targeted for identity and activism

AWID’s 5th Online Tribute to Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) who have died in recent years, commemorates sixty feminists and activists. Thirty eight of these defenders died violently, and were murdered as a result of who they were, their identities, and the rights they defended. 

Their biographies submitted to AWID include the following hard facts:

…shot and killed at point-blank range, brutally raped and murdered, beaten, home destroyed, killed by car bomb, abducted, her death considered a hate crime, received death threats, stabbed, disappeared, died of gunshot wounds, assassinated, shot dead in front of her children, went missing, circumstances of death unclear, sexually assaulted and murdered, stoned to death, kidnapped, tortured and publicly executed, message left by criminal gang next to her body, denied proper medical treatment, killed by unidentified gunmen…

These crimes are not coincidences and over the five years that AWID has honoured WHRDs who have died, we have seen an alarming increase in the number of activists who are murdered or disappear as a direct result of their activism. Although all WHRDs are at risk to some extent, there is a trend of increasing violence against certain groups of WHRDs. In this year’s Tribute alone close to 65% of those who were killed were part of one or more of the following groups: environmental justice activists, journalists, indigenous rights activists, LGBTQI rights defenders, and sex workers' rights advocates. From Honduras alone, AWID commemorates six WHRDs murdered for either working to protect indigenous and environmental rights or trans and LGBQI rights. Amongst the defenders commemorated this year were  eleven journalists who had been murdered. 

Context-specific risk

Protection International states that “vulnerability means the degree to which people are susceptible to loss, damage, suffering and death in the event of an attack. This varies for each defender or group, and changes with time.” The violence that WHRDs face is multifaceted and global with specific regional, social and political context affecting risk levels faced by activists. For the afore mentioned groups, threats and vulnerabilities are higher than the existing protection capabilities, which results in a corresponding increase in risk for these groups of defenders.

For three years Nilce de Souza Magalhães opposed the construction of a dam in north-western Brazil that would rob her community of their home, and cause them to move to a place without running water and electricity. She went missing in January 2016, and her body was subsequently found in June 2016. Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman from Honduras, fought to protect the Gualcarque river and the indigenous people who loved and lived by it against the world's’ largest dam builder. Berta Cáceres was murdered in March 2016 after numerous death threats.

The perpetrators of such crimes against environmental and indigenous rights activists mostly are not arrested and there is rarely accountability for the corporations and state actors that are suspected to be behind these murders. Before her death, Berta Caceres had stated in 2014 that the patriarchal alliances between corporations, states and repressive institutions resulted in an onslaught of violence that“... is three times worse for an indigenous woman”. For Trans and LGBQI defenders, especially in countries where the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) rights are violated and threatened, where society is widely homo and transphobic, and a lack of legal protection is chronic, there are multiple vulnerabilities and an increased risk of being targeted not only due to the type of work they do, but additionally because of their identities.

Hande Kader, a trans woman, sex worker and LGBTQI activist from Turkey, fought against discrimination and persecution in her country. In August 2016 she was brutally raped and murdered. Like Hande, Alesha, a trans woman from Pakistan who defended trans rights was shot in May 2016 and, after reportedly being denied proper medical treatment, died from the injuries she suffered. 

Another group of WHRDs increasingly facing threats across the globe are those working as journalists especially in unstable and conflict environments. In these contexts, activist journalists experience violence as a result of investigating crimes, uncovering human rights abuses, reporting government corruption, abuse of authority and the wrongdoings of political establishments. 

In the Philippines, Melinda “Mei” Magsino a journalist, was known for her political exposés that revealed corruption and injustices in her province. She was shot and killed by an unknown gunman in April 2015. Elisabeth Blanche Olofio, a radio journalist in the Central African Republic, worked in a community-based media setting to provide information to a population for whom radio is one of the main sources of news in a country that has been marked by conflict and violence in the past years. She died of injuries she sustained from a Seleka rebels attack in June 2014. 

Who protects those that defend our rights?

Too often, states are failing to adequately protect Women Human Rights Defenders even though they have the obligation to do so under international law. A 2016 report by AWID and the Solidarity Centre shows that on the contrary, collusion amongst corporate actors, and the political elite is strengthened by state structures such as the police, and military. The rising power of corporate interests is an urgent challenge which oppressively, and in some cases lethally, negatively impacts on the rights of communities, and the defenders who stand up for human rights and justice. States need to centre, and prioritise human rights above corporate interests.

Funders who support the work of WHRDs also need to adequately resource, and support protection mechanisms beyond the immediate needs of physical safety. The wellbeing and care of WHRDs is political and essential, and needs to be fully funded as part of a holistic approach to safety and security. 

Feminist, human rights, and social justice movements, also need to continue to build solidarity with one another, whilst amplifying our calls for security, safety and collective self-care in our political agendas. AWID’s Tribute to WHRDs is a contribution to the collective memory and recognition of defenders, our struggles and, reminds us that we need to honor WHRDs we have lost and protect those living that defend our rights.

The 2016 WHRD Online Tribute is co-created with diverse feminists, activists, and organisations who contributed details of WHRDs who have passed away or have been killed recently. This year's Tribute commemorates activists lost mainly between September 2014 and November 2016.