Somewhere in the world right now there’s a woman putting her life at risk to fight for human rights.
She could be standing up to injustice, calling for sexual reproductive health and rights, fighting for the environment, securing the right to education, tackling domestic violence or campaigning for gender equality.
These women human rights defenders are as diverse as the causes they champion, but one common thread unites them: they’re putting themselves in danger to protect the vulnerable and improve society.
Amnesty International has released a new report that lays bare the shocking threats that activists face around the world. It shines a light on the plight of women who’ve been killed or forcibly disappeared as a result of their campaigning work over the past 20 years.
This cannot continue. It’s time for these women’s mountain-moving work to be recognised and celebrated – and crucially, for these people to enjoy a safe working environment and protection from attacks.
Women human rights defenders, whether individually or within organisations or movements, are at the forefront of struggles to protect human rights. Together, these courageous activists are an engine for change - and without them progress on women’s human rights simply cannot happen.
When the UN adopted a landmark Resolution on the Protection of the Women Human Rights Defenders in 2013, the international community committed itself to supporting them and recognising the indispensable role they play in society. But instead of being applauded and recognised for their achievements, human rights defenders are increasingly being threatened and attacked, and portrayed as ‘criminals’, ‘terrorists’ or a ‘threat to traditional values’. In the worst cases, they’re imprisoned and killed.
Women human rights defenders are attacked because they challenge injustice and break traditional gender norms and stereotypes in their societies. Berta Cáceres, for example, an indigenous and environmental rights defender in Honduras, was murdered in March last year after being threatened for opposing a hydroelectric project. Her daughter, Bertha Zuñiga, survived an armed attack in July this year, just weeks after being named the leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, the organisation her mother previously led. Justice is yet to be served.
But women human rights defenders are also being killed and attacked simply for who they are. Aura Lolita Chavez, an indigenous human rights defender from Guatemala, was threatened with death and sexual assault by armed men in June. She said:
“When they threaten me, they say they will kill me, but before they kill me they will rape me. They don’t say that my male colleagues. These threats are very specific to Indigenous women.”
Some women human rights defenders are under threat because of where they live - they might be caught up in armed conflict, surrounded by widespread criminality, or be working under severe restrictions imposed by their government. In Syria, for example, women human rights activists have suffered widespread abuses since the conflict began. In December 2013, prominent Syrian lawyer Razan Zaitouneh and three other activists were abducted by a group of armed men from their office. They have not been seen since.
These are just few examples. Regrettably, there are many, many more. Killings, enforced disappearances, and all other forms of abuse create a ripple effect on other women human rights defenders, their friends and families, and also society at large.
And what is so utterly frustrating is that most of these attacks could have been prevented if countries had taken their human rights obligations seriously.
When crimes are not investigated and punished, a chilling message is sent out, leaving many women human rights defenders fearing for their lives or too scared to stand up for what is right. This is why we need governments to take heed of our report. They must publicly acknowledge the enormous contribution of women activists in the advancement of human rights, and take steps to prevent any further attacks on them by ensuring they’re adequately supported.
And countries such as the UK have a big role to play. Given the scale of attacks globally, Amnesty is calling on the UK Government to create a decisive and strategic plan on how it will support human rights defenders abroad and globally, with ministerial leadership and proper funding.
In the face of rising populism, fundamentalism, inequality, and a backlash against women’s human rights, voices of women human rights defenders and the communities and movements they represent are now more important than ever.