A A+ A++
Women human rights defenders in an illustration by Illustration by artist María María Acha-Kutscher
María María Acha-Kutscher

United Nations: the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders dedicates his annual report to women human rights defenders

On the occasion of the 40th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is taking place in Geneva and will last until 22 March 2019, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, presented his annual report, dedicated this year to women human rights defenders.

In that report, the Special Rapporteur reviews the situation of women human rights defenders, covering the period since the issuance, in 2011, of the last report by the former Special Rapporteur, Margaret Sekaggya (A/HRC/16/44). He focuses in particular on the additional gendered risks and obstacles women human rights defenders face and recognizes their important role in the promotion and protection of human rights. The Special Rapporteur refers to the relevant normative framework for the work of women human rights defenders, describes the challenging environments in which they operate and analyses the impact of patriarchy and heteronormativity, gender ideology, fundamentalisms, militarization, globalization and neoliberal policies on the rights of such defenders. He also refers to the situation of specific groups of women human rights defenders.

Michel Forst affirms that “women the world over have played a crucial role in advancing human rights. Not only have they shaped the architecture of the current international human rights system and held leadership roles in government, civil society and business but they also engage in daily acts “in small places, close to home” that result in the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights".

"Women of diverse backgrounds promote and protect rights in very different contexts. There are, for instance, women calling for gender equality, indigenous women fighting for land and environmental rights, women in rural areas pressing for socioeconomic rights, girls campaigning on social issues, trans women speaking up against discrimination, lesbians calling for equality, migrant and refugee women advocating for their rights and security, homeless women demanding the right to housing and shelter, women fighting for justice for the disappeared, gender non-conforming persons resisting gender-based violence, women promoting choice and bodily autonomy, women expanding digital rights, women with disabilities fighting for independent living and women involved in peace processes.
They include women human rights lawyers representing victims in court, women journalists exposing issues of interest to the public, women union leaders calling for labour rights, women politicians and parliamentarians debating public issues, women judges upholding rights though the law, women in the police and the military protecting populations, women in the civil service developing policies, women in academia teaching and researching human rights, women leading communities, non-profit organizations and social movements for transformative change, women in intergovernmental organizations working with States to fulfil rights obligations, and women humanitarian workers, development workers and health workers providing access to essential services.

Because of decades of action by feminist defenders, women in many places now enjoy greater equality, including before the law, in politics, education, workplaces and marriage and at home. Because of feminist defenders, more women are able to enjoy the right to vote, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to privacy, the right to family life, sexual and reproductive rights and many other rights.

Nevertheless, many women defenders continue to face significant risks in their human rights practice. They often face the same risks that defenders who are men face, for women defenders, too, are subject to restrictions on rights and fundamental freedoms and live in the same social, cultural and political milieux that shape responses to human rights. However, women defenders often face additional and different risks and obstacles that are gendered, intersectional and shaped by entrenched gender stereotypes and deeply held ideas and norms about who women are and how women should be. Women, for example, can be stigmatized for the very same actions for which men are venerated. Women are often perceived not as agents of change but as vulnerable or victimized persons in need of protection by others, typically men. The rights of women to promote and protect human rights continue to be challenged by those who believe that women do not have these rights or that they should fight for them only in limited, circumscribed ways”.

In the current political climate, in which there is a backlash against human rights, women defenders are often the first to come under attack. In his report, the Special Rapporteur calls on the international community to recognize the specific issues, challenges and risks that women defenders face in diverse circumstances and to ensure that such defenders are recognized and supported and enabled to participate equally, meaningfully and powerfully in the promotion and protection of human rights.

The report stress that women generally face greater risks and challenges that men do. Aside from gender, aspects of their identities, such as age, religion, ethnicity, class, immigration or legal status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and the way those aspects intersect shape the way women human rights defenders are perceived and treated. Women defenders are not just targeted as individuals; they are also targeted because they belong to networks, collectives and movements, and attacks against them are meant to serve as warnings to others. Some of the risks and violations they experience have not been sufficiently understood, analysed, documented and exposed, in particular:

  • non recognition, marginalization and systematic exclusion;
  • public shaming, stigmatization, attacks on honour and reputation;
  • risks, threats and attacks in the private sphere and against families and loved ones;
  • physical attacks, sexual violence, torture, killings and enforced disappearances;
  • online harassment, violence and attacks;
  • judicial harassment and criminalization;
  • denial of participation, restrictions and reprisals for engagement with international and regional human rights systems;
  • threats to status;
  • physical incarceration;
  • attacks against collectives and movements of women human rights defenders.

The report contains recommendations and examples of good practices to support the building of diverse, inclusive and strong movements of women human rights defenders, and recommendations addressed to all stakeholders to ensure that women defenders are supported and strengthened to promote and protect human rights.

The full version of the report is available at the link below.