Defending the Defenders: The Daunting Global Challenge for Women

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Defending the Defenders: The Daunting Global Challenge for Women

Women human rights defenders are under attack. The Nobel Women's Initiative conference this weekend intends to deepen the understanding of the risks, and to develop strategies to strengthen efforts to defend the defenders.

'International treaties and norms, domestic laws and new reports and recommendations are worth less than the paper they are written on if they are not enforced and implemented,' writes Williams. (Image: Nobel Women's Initiative)

Women human rights defenders are under attack. The Nobel Women's Initiative conference convenes today to deepen the understanding of the risks, and to develop strategies to strengthen efforts to defend the defenders.

Some of the people most at risk in the world are those who dare to work to promote and defend the human rights of us all. Not surprisingly, because women are always among the most vulnerable in a world that still chooses to treat us as beings with something less than an equal status with men - and because their very act of speaking up and taking action against authority is a threat to the patriarchal status quo - it is women defenders who are most frequently under threat and attack. They need and deserve our support.

Some 120 women who work to protect and promote human rights around the world are meeting in the Netherlands from April 24 to 26, at the 5th biennial conference convened by the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Many of the women coming to the conference are those we have met and worked with through Nobel Women’s Initiative delegations to the Thai/Burma border, to Palestine/Israel, to Liberia, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada, and to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. 

The purpose of these various trips and others, in their essence, is to gather evidence and first-hand stories of the impact of escalating violence against women and their rights, assess the role and response of governments and regional bodies, and evaluate ways of supporting women who are organizing to protect themselves and their communities.  We are coming together in the Netherlands to deepen our understanding of the most recent risks for activists, and to strategize about how to strengthen efforts to defend the defenders.  It is a daunting challenge.

Human rights activists around the globe tackle a wide range of issues, from defending the right to life and human dignity, to the defense of land rights and the environment, to socio-economic justice and to disarmament and arms control. Human rights defenders promote and defend freedom of speech and association as well as denouncing torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial executions. And these name only a few of the areas they tackle. 

With our rights under attack - either directly or by being eroded over time - women defenders are more vulnerable than ever.

When they stand up to protect and promote human rights in countries all around the world, women defenders are frequently subjected to intimidation and persecution, defamation campaigns, criminalization and illegal arrests. They endure cruel and inhumane treatment, rape, forced disappearance, murder, threats against themselves and their families, robbery and home invasion and destruction. 

Once women human rights defenders speak on behalf of others, nothing in their own lives is sacred any more - including the security of their family members.

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, despite the high rhetoric and resolutions of the UN, governments and high-profile/powerful individuals alike - both about human rights and defending the defenders - that rhetoric rarely trickles down to meaningful action for people working on the front lines where rights are most under attack, and impunity for the violators, despite some inroads, seems virtually inviolable. 

Women everywhere are tired of hearing governments offer up new reports or new commissions or special positions created to “study” violence against women and come up with recommendations to address the problem. Women in Mexico, for example, reported that the government simulates compliance with international treaties and norms on preventing and addressing violence against women rather than make real changes.

International treaties and norms, domestic laws and new reports and recommendations are worth less than the paper they are written on if they are not enforced and implemented.

And it can be worse than that. Governments are more than willing to turn a blind eye to human rights violations if defending our rights gets in the way of either “national interest” or economic interests. In the competing arenas of government policies, economic power and money, and the human and civil rights of people around the world, our rights are almost always the first to go. And often as the erosion of human rights escalates, so does the rhetoric about their importance and/or the importance of “balancing” human rights with threats against “security.”

Defending human rights can be life threatening for anyone taking the risk, but women fighting to defend their land and way of life in the face of huge economic interests - such as extraction industries and oil and gas interests - are increasingly vulnerable.  In mid-April, Global Witness released a new report, “How Many More?”, indicating that at least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014, almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period, and that indigenous communities are the hardest hit. 

While the report does not indicate how many of those 116 activists were women, it is safe to say that many were. Another report on climate justice and women’s rights notes that while there is a lot of money for work on climate and the environment, little of it goes to support women.  At the same time the report states that women environmental activists are very vulnerable because they tend to work at the grassroots community level, and the threats against them are mostly undocumented.

Widespread violence against women and women human rights defenders is a top priority not only for humanitarian reasons, but because it represents a serious violation of human rights, and clearly demonstrates governments’ non-compliance with two fundamental obligations: to guarantee the safety and rights of their citizens and to eliminate discrimination. 

Too many women human rights defenders have suffered this violence, and countless numbers who have refused to remain silent have lost their lives as a result. When governments fail to protect, we carry the collective responsibility to fight for human rights and justice. Women human rights defenders are under attack and international support and solidarity is crucial in defending the defenders, and also in pushing governments to demonstrate the political will needed to bring about real change in people’s lives. 

We must build enough public awareness and pressure to force governments to do what they should be doing anyway - and that is protecting and promoting equality and the human rights of us all.

Jody Williams

Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

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