During the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, the week of February 25 to March 1 was declared a week in support of women human rights defenders. Michel Forst, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, presented a report drawing attention to the additional risks and barriers that women human rights defenders face, including the difficult conditions in which they work and the impact of patriarchal cultures, gender policies, militarization, and other factors on them. Women human rights defenders are frequently perceived as challenging traditional views of the division of male and female roles in society, which can give rise to hostility from government structures, society, the media, and other non-State actors. Women human rights defenders face stigmatization and ostracism from community leaders, religious groups, families, and neighbors who believe that their work poses a threat to religion, honor, culture, and traditional ways of life.
Although often ignored, women have been at the forefront of social change throughout history. Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1956, 20,000 women of diverse backgrounds mobilized to protest apartheid in Pretoria. Tawakkol Karman in Yemen and Asmaa Mahfouz in Egypt played critical roles in sparking the mass uprisings in 2011 that led to regime change. Eleven-year-old Malala Yousafzai wrote about her life under the Taliban in 2009 and continues to be a passionate advocate for the right to education. In 2016, on what was known as Black Monday, thousands of women and girls in more than 60 Polish cities took to the streets, successfully stopping a total ban on abortion. In 2017, women and girls launched the powerful #MeToo movement, which continues to reverberate globally.
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 personsresisting 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.
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.
The Special Rapporteur calls on the international community to recognize the specific problems, challenges, and risks that women human rights defenders face in different conditions and secure recognition and support for them and for the possibility of their equal, constructive, and active participation in activities to promote and protect human rights. After consulting with women human rights defenders, the Special Rapporteur identified eight interdependent priorities requiring attention, resources, and cooperation between states, national human rights institutions, donors, civil society, human rights defenders, and other interested parties. In consultation with women defenders, the Special Rapporteur has identified eight interconnected priorities for action that require attention, resources and cooperation among States, national human rights institutions, donors, civil society, human rights defenders and other stakeholders.
Priority 1: Publicly recognize the importance of the equal and meaningful participation of women human rights defenders at every level and in every institution in society, devoting resources to achieve this aim in accordance with the principle ofsubstantive equality
Priority 2: Ensure that women human rights defenders enjoy freedom of movement and have safe spaces and communication channels that enable them to meet and share ideas, experiences, resources, tactics and strategies regularly.
Priority 3: Build a safe and enabling environment for women and all other human rights defenders to promote and protect human rights, ensuring that all non-State actors respect human rights and that all State actors respect, protect and fulfil human rights.
Priority 4: Document and investigate all forms of risk, threats and attacks against women human rights defenders, ensuring that perpetrators – both State and non-State actors – are brought to justice and that these defenders have access to an effective remedy, including gender-responsive reparations.
Priority 5: Develop protection mechanisms and initiatives that incorporate the Special Rapporteur’s seven principles underpinning good protection practices.
Priority 6: Recognize that security must be understood holistically and that it encompasses physical safety, digital security, environmental security, economic stability, the freedom to practice cultural and religious beliefs and the mental and emotional well-being of women defenders and their families and loved ones.
Priority 7: Recognize that sexism and discrimination against women, girl and gender non-conforming defenders exist in communities and human rights movements and take measures to address them.
Priority 8: Ensure that funding enables women defenders in their diverse circumstances to promote and protect human rights in a continuous, sustainable and effective manner.