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Women’s Human Rights Defenders: A clear target of violence and repression

FRIDAY FILE: Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders submitted her third report to the UN Human Rights Council. This report is the first to focus exclusively on the situation of women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues.

By Analía Penchaszadeh

Human rights and women’s organizations have welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s report as a significant contribution to validating the important role that women human rights defenders play in the defending human rights and acknowledging them not just as victims, but as active agents of social change and transformation. The report raises the necessity to address the seriousness of the violations against them and the need for gender-specific protection. AWID and members of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition will be present at the public presentation and discussion of the report at 16th Session of UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 10 March 2011, demonstrating support for itsvfindings and recommendations.


In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The declaration states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.” It stresses that “the prime responsibility and duty to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms lie with the State” and that “all members ofthe international community … [should] promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction of any kind, including distinctions based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…”

In order to support the implementation of the Declaration on human rights defenders and also to gather information on the actual situation of human rights defenders around the world, the UN Secretary General established the mandate for a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in 2000.

Overview of Rapporteur’s Report

The new report reviews the Rapporteur’s activities from December 2009 to December 2010, and provides an analysis of risks and challenges faced by women human rights defenders andthose working on women’s human rights and gender issues during the period 2004to 2009. The report affirms that “women defenders are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence and other violations, prejudice, exclusion, and repudiation than their male counterparts. This is often due to the fact that women defenders are perceived as challenging accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society.”

The report presents compelling data about violations against women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues as well as violations against their families. It describes the wide-ranging issues that women defenders work on - sexual and reproductive rights, indigenous rights and environmental issues, trade unions and labor rights, impunity and access to justice, among others. Defenders denouncing abuses in contexts of military conflict, counter-terrorism and conflict-affected (and post-conflict) countries are present in all regions, with mentions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sudan, Colombia, the North Caucasus, the Balkan countries, and Nepal. Women professionals, including medical and health professionals, legal professionals, journalists and media professionals are specifically highlighted as being at risk.

Report’s Findings

The risks and violations reported in the period 2004-2009 include (a) threats, death threats and killings; (b) arrest, detention, and criminalization; (c) stigmatization; and (d) sexual violence and rape. Some of the striking findings include:

  • “An alarming number of women human rights defenders and their relatives have paid the highest price for their work.” There were 39 communications to the Rapporteur regarding killings and 35 communications regarding attempted killings.

  • Defenders in the Americas are most likely to face threats, death threats, killings and attempted killings; more than half the communications relating to death threats concerned defenders working in the Americas, highlighting Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, and Peru. “Among the groups which appear to be most at risk are women defenders working to fight impunity for alleged human rights violations”. Special mention was made of risks to women trade unionists, women indigenous rights activists, and women environmental and land rights activists.

  • Violations against defenders working on LGBT issues were also noted.These ranged from judicial issues (arrests, judicial harassment, administrative detentions, etc.) to restrictions in freedoms of assembly, but also killings,rape and sexual violence, physical attacks, and stigmatization. Concern for LGBT defenders were specifically highlighted in Africa (Sudan and Uganda).

The report “reveals a worrying trend of criminalization of the activities carried out by women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues throughout the world.” This includes arrests and criminalization of the defenders’ work, as well as criminal investigations and irregularities relating to due process and fair trial procedures. “By contrast to Central and South America where threats and death threats are most commonly reported, arrests and criminalization were most commonly reported in Asia and the Pacific.” China and the Islamic Republic of Iran are mentioned in relation to concern for arrests and prison sentences. Europe and Central Asia are also mentioned regarding arrests, detentions and criminalization.

Protection Mechanisms

In addition to the risks faced by women human rights defenders and those working on women’s human rights and gender issues, the report discusses protection mechanisms and security strategies, and the obligation of the State to protect all human rights defenders from violations by State as well as Non-State actors.

A review of protection mechanisms found them to be inadequate because of the lack of implementation, political will or gender-sensitivity. In the Americas, the current protection mechanisms werefound to be ineffective because they do not recognize non-State actors as part of the group of perpetrators. Mexico’s effort to develop a protection program for human rights defenders was singled out, with cautious support as it is unclear whether it includes a gender dimension for women’s rights defenders. Similarly, Colombia’s protection program for internally displaced women was mentioned with a note that it would be important to extend this program to protect other groups of women defenders in the country.

The Special Rapporteur makes special mention of the strategies developed by women human rights defenders to keep themselves safe, “considering the dearth of State-based resources for protection.” Some of these strategies include increasing visibility through public denunciation and public campaigns, strategic alliances with other national and international organizations, accompaniment to defenders at risk, and lowering the profile of activities to avoid drawing attention. “While such initiatives are commendable and often extremely effective, they are insufficient to replace the State’s policies or programs necessary to effectively address the security needs of this group of defenders.”


The conclusions of the report highlight the extraordinary risks that women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues in the different regions of the world face due to their work. Importantly, the report acknowledges that the risks and violations faced by women human rights defenders must be understood in the context of the work the defenders are carrying out. As such, “the security of such defenders is inherently linked to the security of their communities and can only be fully achieved in the context of a holistic approach which includes deepening democracy, the fight against impunity, reducing economic inequalities, and striving for social and environmental justice, among others.”

The majority of recommendations are directed at States, who are identified as the main actors responsible for guaranteeing the safety and well-being of human rights defenders. The Rapporteur recommends that States “publicly acknowledge the particular and significant role played by women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues in the consolidation and advancement of plural and inclusive societies as a first step to preventing or reducing the risks they face.” Additionally, the Rapporteur calls for prompt and impartial investigations of violations, and fighting impunity; increasing resources for, and incorporating a gender perspective into protection programs; and improving mechanisms for documentation of cases of violations. An important recommendation is that women human rights defenders be involved in consultations, as specific stakeholders in protection programs and other initiatives.

The report includes recommendations for national human rights institutions, regional protection mechanisms, and national and international NGOs. These are primarily in the areas of documentation of cases, support networks, and promoting the integration of a gender dimension in programs and interventions.

Validation for trends seen by Women Human Rights Defenders and allies

Human rights and women’s rights organizations have been alarmed by the increase in violence against women human rights defenders – women who defend human rights as well as women and men who work on women’s rights and gender issues. The Special Rapporteur’s report confirms these concerns. The report, which is based on complaints made to, and acted upon by the Special Rapporteur, acknowledges its limitations. The report does, however, make an important contribution to the international community by increasing the visibility of the risks and violations to women human rights defenders. It emphasizes the importance of improving documentation of violations in order to increase their visibility, as well as to better understand the trends and risks. This is an important area of work for human rights and women’s rights organizations in their accompaniment of women human rights defenders.

Despite its limitations, the report is clear on specific risks that demand attention, specific groups of defenders who are in need of protection, and specific countries and regions where violations are particularly severe. This provides an important tool for women human rights defenders and allies to advocate for better security measures and to strengthen support networks.