“Women human rights defenders are changing the world.”
Cristina Hargada Fernandez is a Woman Human Rights Defender working for Just Associates-Mesoamerica (JASS). She was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina and moved to Mexico as a child. Hardaga Fernandez’s commitment and passion for human rights can be traced back to her early years growing up in Mexico during the Zapatista movement and reading the news about the genocide in Srebrenica. During her university years she became familiar with a group of women in Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, who were demonstrating to raises awareness about inaction on the part of authorities in the face of increasing femicides and disappearances of women on the border. Today she lives in Guerrero, one of the most impoverished and militarized municipalities in Mexico.
JASS, an international women’s rights organization that was founded in 2002, brings together member organizations and social movements in 27 countries throughout Southern Africa, South East Asia and Mesoamerica. In Mesoamerica, JASS works to build cross-border and cross-movement networks of diverse women activists to foster collective action on the most pressing issues in their communities, countries and regions. Hardaga Fernandez works closely with the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center through the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defender Initiative to promote national and regional dialogue, joint action, and alliance-building among women defenders to ensure greater protection and support for their work.
“Unfortunately, governments still do not fully acknowledge the active role women human rights defenders play in changing the world”.
According to Hardaga Fernandez, impunity fosters the vulnerability of women human rights defenders because it gives rise to the perception that violations of human rights can be carried out without consequence. In addition to ending this impunity Hardaga Fernandez believes that an enabling environment for women human rights defenders is crucial to allowing them to do their important work.
“Thousands of defenders are currently at risk in Mexico and Central America. We have colleagues who work in some of the most difficult conditions, and because of their work, they are facing threats.”
Hardaga Fernandez recalls her close work with women such as Valentina Rosendo Cantu, a brave women human rights defender who has been challenging the militarized structure of governance in Guerrero since 2002. She says it is those individuals that work in periphery, away from city centers, that are at the most risk of facing reprisals. In addition to the types of attacks faced by their male counterparts, women human rights defenders must also contend with gender-specific violence, including sexual violence. While some governments have made efforts to address this through national human rights institutions and human rights mechanisms, violence is increasing and impunity has remained constant.
“We must get to the point when governments truly believe that human rights defenders are positive tools in a democratic country. We don’t want to center the attention only on protection, but on how to change the situation that makes the threat possible in the first place.”
Hardaga Fernandez highlights that in Mexico there is now an interest in creating special legislation and national mechanisms to ensure the protection of human rights defenders. However, protection legislation is not enough and is only the first step in ensuring human rights for all individuals are secure. JASS is working to ensure that governments address the structural issues that prevent human rights defenders from carrying out their work in the first place, for fear of reprisal.
“The work that the UN system is doing is saving lives…but there is still much to be done.”
Hardaga Fernandez notes that the UN system has, in the past fifteen years, dedicated resources, including a Special Rapporteur to address the protection of human rights defenders. However, she notes that at this session of the UN General Assembly, States have a real opportunity to address the particular risks and protection needs of women human rights defenders through a resolution currently being debated in the Third Committee. She acknowledges that while the UN system has made significant strides in establishing a framework for the protection of defenders, it is now up to the States to declare their unwavering support for women human rights defenders by passing the resolution by consensus and implementing its recommendations at the national level.