Women around the world stand at the forefront of rising movements to defend and protect the health of water, land, air and diverse communities. On this International Women’s Day, it is vital to honor the women defenders who, with incredible courage and effort, are taking on corporations and governments to say ‘no’ to resource extraction and the continued violation of human rights, women’s rights, and the rights of Indigenous peoples and frontline communities. Through their work, these women act so that the generations to come may yet stand a chance of inheriting a sustainable and livable planet.
With increased frequency however, many of the women and men who advocate daily in defense of a just world are being systematically criminalized, attacked and murdered with impunity. According to 2016 reports by Global Witness, 2015 was the most dangerous year on record for land defenders, with at least three people per week killed for non-violent opposition to mining and fossil fuel projects, agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, logging and other extractive industries.
"The violation of women rights and land defenders speaks in a profound way to the derangement of our times."
Indigenous peoples defending ancestral territories represent upwards of 40% of those killed. Women, and Indigenous women in particular, face even greater challenges and dangers, as they navigate the brutal intersection of environmental devastation, cultural dislocation, and sexual violence and gender based persecution.
Tragedies such as the 2016 murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceres indicate the acceleration of these trends, which have prompted United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz to warn of an “epidemic” of murder of Earth defenders.
The violation of women rights and land defenders speaks in a profound way to the derangement of our times, and to the dangerous worldviews of domination and exploitation, which sit at the root of both degradation of Earth’s natural systems, and violence against women of the world.
Despite experiencing the impacts of environmental harms with disproportionate severity, women are rising in diverse manifestations to demonstrate that they hold the knowledge, skills and heartfelt passion needed not only to protect their homelands, but also to build substantial and creative solutions needed to avert the worst impacts of environmental destruction and the climate crisis.
In this context, standing in solidarity with women defenders is critical – to uphold fundamental human rights, to protect frontline communities, and to ensure sustainability on Earth. Frontline women can also be supported by demanding governments and corporate actors comply with Indigenous rights and sovereignty, issues which often lie at the root of violations.
On International Women’s Day, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network shares the stories of just a few of the world’s countless women human rights and Earth defenders, and raises the call to visibilize, support, and honor all frontline women defenders for their fierce dedication and unrelenting voice and action for justice.
Melania Chiponda, Zimbabwe
After bearing witness to violence and sexual abuse of women by security and military forces attempting to suppress local opposition to mining, Melania Chiponda of Marange, Zimbabwe began advocating as a woman defender, working independently and with WoMin. For many years, Melania has been speaking out against actions by the diamond mining industry to forcibly break the connection between women and their ancestral lands. For her work to protect Indigenous women’s land rights, and stop land grabbing and militarization of mining regions, Melania has been arrested, detained and threatened many times. She commented recently as part of the DefendHer campaign.
"We fight. Because we have nothing else to lose."
—Melania Chiponda, Zimbabwe“If you take away land from women in the rural areas, you take away their livelihoods; you take away the very thing that they identify with. Then we fight. Because we have nothing else to lose.”
Josephine Pagalan, Philippines
In the Philippines, Manobo Indigenous woman leader Josephine Pagalan is fighting to protect her people's ancestral lands from mining and logging operations. Following the murder of several of her colleagues, Josephine was forced to leave her community to seek safety in the city, fearing that impunity in her remote village would lead to her own death. Despite harassment, Josephine continues representing the public face of the many Indigenous Lumad women who are on the frontlines demonstrating, documenting human rights abuses, and filing legal suits in opposition to the militarization, violation of community rights, and environmental devastation taking place across their homelands.
Josephine explained to Womens E-News, “We want the government to be made accountable for the human rights violations and attacks. Mining companies promised too many things in the past but they did not deliver. We don’t want to give up our land because money can be consumed but land will not perish.”
Ana Mirian Romero, Honduras
"That is all we want – land, air and water that is not contaminated by the dams. We are persecuted and threatened for this, but we do it for our children’s future."
—Ana Mirian Romero, HondurasIn Honduras, Ana Mirian Romero, leader of the Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz and San Isidro Labrador Indigenous Council, is standing for land rights for the region's Indigenous peoples, working most recently in opposition to the Los Encinos hydro-electric dam, a project which never received free, prior and informed consent, as required by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Repeatedly since 2014, Ana Mirian has been subject to harassment, death threats, raids, beatings by police while pregnant, arson attacks and gunmen outside her home. In 2016, while being awarded the Front Line Defenders Award for outstanding contribution to the protection of human and land rights despite the immense personal risk endured, she explained, “We defend the river, the forests, and the pure air that we breathe. That is all we want – land, air and water that is not contaminated by the dams. We are persecuted and threatened for this, but we do it for our children’s future.”
Joy Braun and LaDonna BraveBull Allard, North Dakota, United States
Joy Braun (Cheyenne River Sioux Peoples) and LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Standing Rock Sioux Peoples) are two of the extraordinary Indigenous women defenders of the Standing Rock, Dakota Access Pipeline resistance movement, both taking action to protect water and life since the first day of the encampments. For many months, both women and their families have been exposed to violence, militarized police forces, raids and surveillance.
Joy Braun works in the region of North Dakota where rampant fracking (which would supply the Dakota Access pipeline if it becomes operational) has been taking a devastating toll on the health and safety of Indigenous women for many years.
LaDonna’s home, and the grave of her son, overlook the Missouri River at the point of Dakota Access pipeline crossing. During a Fall 2016 interview she pronounced:
“First and foremost we are water protectors, we are women who stand because the water is female, and so we must stand with the water. If we are to live as a people, we must have water, without water we die. So everything we do as we stand here, we must make sure that we do it in prayer, and that we do it in civil-disobedience. We do it with goodness and kindness in our hearts, but we stand up. We will not let them pass. We stand. Because we must protect our children and our grandchildren.”
When women land and water protectors are harmed we must speak out and take action to resist and repudiate these abuses, and acknowledge that these women put their bodies on the line for the survival of all of us. Though the challenges and dangers faced are dire, we cannot help but remember the proverb which says: “They tried to bury us, they forgot that we are seeds.”
For each woman persecuted for her courageous defense of people and planet—let one hundred more rise to build the world we seek.