Brazil, Myanmar, United States of America, Zimbabwe
, North America

WHRDs | Women leaders of change gather to demand respect and recognition for their work

 This week, courageous women human rights defenders and feminist activists are gathering in Geneva to demand that their rights be upheld, to share experiences and to demand an urgent response from the UN member States to the growing global trend of pushback and reprisals they experience.

Women across the world have always been on the frontlines of struggles to attain peace, security, dignity, sustainable development and human rights for all. Despite their contributions they are usually ignored, often attacked and seldom recognised for their achievements. This week, courageous women human rights defenders and feminist activists are gathering in Geneva to demand that their rights be upheld, to share experiences and to build networks. They demand an urgent response from the UN member States to the growing global trend of pushback and reprisals they experience as human rights systems are increasingly undermined and delegitimised.

Cindy Aung is a woman human rights defender working in the Kachin state of Myanmar. She has been working to document the military and the government’s exploitation of natural resources in her state, including by collecting information on large-scale development projects such as mining, monocrop plantations and hydropower. Through the Kachin Development Networking Group, Cindy and others are promoting local and community-led solutions to address the large-scale destruction caused by such development projects. Their work is led and driven by women.   

Cindy is one of the 10 participants to the Women Human Rights Defenders Advocacy Week organised by ISHR along with Amnesty International, Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), Just Associates (JASS), Mesoamerican Initiatives for Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras) and the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights[1]. “My goal this week is to learn how to best tell my story to the UN so that member States finally see the huge contributions that I and other women activists are bringing to our whole communities – not just to women,” she says. “And for our diligent work to continue, we know exactly what we need: better and more efficient measures against the threats and attacks we face because we are women and because of our work.”
Last year, human rights defenders across the globe marked the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. They expressed concerns of doing human rights work in the present-day context of threatened democratic values, unaccountable governments and businesses, systemic corruption, inequality and discrimination, overexploitation of natural resources, religious and political extremism.
At the same time, feminists note that there is a concerted ideological effort across the globe to undermine gender equality and human rights. “The global pushback on feminist activism from authoritarian, fundamentalist and corporate powers is real. Political and social leaders as well as religious and traditional leaders have unashamedly peddled a toxic rhetoric blaming women, LGBTI and gender non-conforming individuals and groups for social or economic grievances. This is deeply rooted in structural and systemic discrimination faced by all those who identify as women and gender diverse people” says Pooja Patel, Programme Director at ISHR. 
“One consequence of criminalising, delegitimising and creating repressive environments for human rights work is that dissent and democratic participation becomes increasingly dangerous and an existential threat for both human rights defenders and their communities. But make no mistake, the other consequence is that women leaders rise to this challenge and bring their communities with them,” adds Verónica Vidal, Solidarity Tactic Lead at AWID.
Often branded as “villains” and “deviants” or characterised as victims with special vulnerabilities in need of protection by others, women human rights defenders are in reality fierce agents of transformative change in all societies. The recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, notes that feminist defenders have for more than a century played crucial roles in advancing the right to vote, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to privacy, the right to family life, sexual and reproductive rights, among others. They have been instrumental in a number of self-determination and independence movements across the globe. They remain key actors in resisting authoritarian governments, fundamentalist movements, and the closing of civic space. They confront corporate power and defend land and territories on a daily basis.
“Nevertheless because of who they are and the work they do to challenge and disrupt systems and structures rooted in power, patriarchy and privilege, women human rights defenders often face particular and specific types of violations and challenges,” says Marusia Lopez from JASS.
In parallel to the 40thsession of the UN Human Rights Council, on 1 March several of the participants to the Women Human Rights Defenders Advocacy Week will tell their story, present their needs and recommendations for effective and gender sensitive protection mechanisms, drawing from both their own experience and ideas as well as from the Special Rapporteur’s findings and suggestions. 
“I really hope that after this event, States and UN experts will finally recognise the diligent work we are all doing to advance justice, freedom and equality for all and to meet the ultimate goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, says Brenda Valladares, one of the participants to the Advocacy Week and a panellist at the event. “And that they will work to prevent human rights violations, especially by implementing protection measures that respond to our experiences, so we can continue our work in future.”

Members of the media are welcome to attend this event and meet the following women activists (see event details): 

  • Rogeria Ferreira Peixinho, Brazil

Rogeria is a lesbian activist and popular educator. She was a member of assassinated politician Marielle Franco’s cabinet in Brazil and is a member of the Brazilian Women Articulation. She is currently serving in the team of the newly elected Parliamentarian Monica Francisco, who was also part of Marielle’s team.

  • Brenda Valladares, USA

Brenda is a member of the Cosecha Movement, a non-violent movement fighting for permanent protection, dignity and respect for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States of America.  

  • Lucy Mazingi, Zimbabwe

Lucy is a Zimbabwean feminist and the Regional Director of Just Associate (JASS) Southern Africa. Feminists in Zimbabwe have been documenting recent cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the military. 

  • Cindy Aung, Myanmar

Cindy is a Kachin woman human rights defender working to promote community-based solutions to corporate and military activities in her state. 
Media contact:  
Pooja Patel, Programme Director, ISHR: [email protected], +41 76 787 39 28


[1]The organisers are members of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition. Full list of members are here:
Photo: FlickR/Hillel Steinberg

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