WHRD l Women human rights defenders making ‘immeasurable contributions’, say UN experts

‘Women human rights defenders have flooded the streets, the airwaves, and the internet with their energy and their testimonials, bringing to light truths that are too often buried in darkness’ said a group of UN experts, recognising the important leadership role of women activists.

Marking the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, UN experts issued a public statement expressly recognizing the work and challenges of women human rights defenders.

“The current global context of unchecked authoritarianism as well as the rise of populism, of corporate power and of fundamentalist groups are contributing towards closing the space for civil society. This is being done through the enactment of laws and practices that effectively impede human rights work, including the misapplication of certain laws such as counter-terrorism and public assembly laws. In this context, women human rights defenders face additional barriers of economic and structural discrimination and unique challenges driven by deep-rooted discrimination against women and stereotypes entrenched in patriarchal societies related to gender and sexuality.” (Read the full statement)

Independent experts working on the elimination of discrimination against women in law and practice, on violence against women, on protecting human rights defenders and on ending extrajudicial killings made a joint call with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

They called on States to:

        1. publicly recognise the importance and legitimacy of the work of women human rights defenders, and make a commitment that no violence or threats against them will be tolerated;
        2. repeal State legislation or elimination of any measures intended to penalize or obstruct the work of defenders;
        3. strengthen State institutinos responsible for safeguarding the work of defenders;
        4. investigate and punish any form of violence or threat against defenders, including in relation to reprisals for engaging with the United Nations System, and;
        5. ensure due diligence of Statesin protecting women human rights defenders that are threatened by non-State actors.

They expressed particular concern over those who have suffered reprisals for their engagement and participation in UN human rights mechanisms and processes. ‘Participation in the work of the international human rights system is in itself a right and must never be met with intimidation or attacks’ the experts stated.

Recognising the work of CEDAW in the protection of WHRDs

The joint statement of UN experts follows from an informal discussion with members of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and civil society to put forward suggestions for the Committee to strengthen their work and protection.

Pooja Patel, Programme Director at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), underlined the specific nature of risks women face in fighting for human rights. “Women human rights defenders are being threatened, harassed, intimidated, stigmatized, jailed, forcibly disappeared, and killed because of their work to promote human rights”, said Patel. ‘It is of grave concern that the targeting of WHRDs is increasing globally, yet the Committee can play an important role in authoritatively setting out the legitimacy of their work and strengthening the framework for their protection’ she added.

The specific risks of women defenders

A feminist activist from the Bahamas highlighted how difficulties faced by WHRDs in their work are significantly based on gender, gender identity, and how gender is perceived in society. “When you combine this with the challenges of being at constant risk, you can get an understanding of what it is to be at the frontline” she further explains.

The particular risks and threats, together with specific protection needs of WHRDs, have been analysed in various reports from different UN human rights mechanisms. Yet, women defenders often dedicate the limited space available for civil society in different fora to highlight human rights violations, and do not always bring attention to the threats and attacks they face themselves.

A woman defender working on minority rights in Thailand explained how hate speech campaigns online have specifically targeted WHRDs in her country. “Violations continue to persist, but it is very meaningful that CEDAW continues to bring up these cases and the specificities of the situation of women human rights defenders” she added.

Recognising the work and challenges of WHRDs

ISHR welcomes the Committee’s efforts to underline the vital role played by women defenders in ensuring the effective realization of the rights contained in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. “We encourage the Committee to strengthen its ongoing work in supporting WHRDs and their meaningful participation in both national and multilateral fora”, declared Patel.

joint briefing paper with the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition and other NGOs recommended that the Committee:

      • Issue a public statement celebrating the work of WHRDs on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
      • Develop concrete and targeted concluding observations to States under review related to the situation of WHRDs
      • Build a new General Recommendation on the recognition and protection of WHRDs, underlining the legitimacy of their work, their specific protection needs and adequate remedies to the specific violations they face

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