Wednesday January 23rd 2019



Defending Women, Defending Rights: The International Consultation on Women Human Rights Defenders

Originally appeared in Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) Forum News Volume 18 No. 3 (September-December 2005)

By Lisa Pusey, APWLD Programme Officer

Over 200 women’s rights and human rights activists from approximately 70 countries worldwide gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from November 29 to December 2, for a historic meeting marking the first time women’s rights and human rights groups have come together on a global level to address gender-specific concerns and experiences of women as human rights defenders. The meeting was the culmination to the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders, which APWLD co-founded in 2003. As a member of the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) of the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD), APWLD co-organised the International Consultation. The event was hosted by Inform of which Sunila Abeysekera of the APWLD WHR Working Group is the Director. The consultation was opened with a welcome address by Nimalka Fernando, from the Women’s Alliance for Peace and Democracy in Sri Lanka, and an APWLD founding member. Hina Jilani, UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders and also a founding member of APWLD attended the Consultation.

The meeting focused on four separate sources of abuses commonly experienced by women human rights defenders. These included state-based violence and issues of accountability and justice; the growing rise in fundamentalist movements seeking and gaining political power; the use of sexuality-based attacks to intimidate women and harm their bodies and reputations; and the need to address abuse perpetrated by communities and families. Over the four day Consultation, WHRDs shared a wide range of experiences. From policies and practices that regulate women’s sexuality, to restrictions on our work because of misuse of counter-terrorism efforts, the Consultation outlined the nature and depth of these violations as they apply to women human rights defenders around the globe. Furthermore, the Consultation explored responses to abuses of WHRD, including use of international and national mechanisms and NGO initiatives such as campaigning strategies.

The first day of the Consultation outlined the abuses faced by WHRD. In a keynote speech, Hina Jilani spoke of an urgent need to identify and consider the special issues faced by women working in the human rights field in order to ensure that their important part in the struggle for universal human rights is fully recognised and valued. She noted that women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to attack because they often defy cultural norms of gender, heterosexuality and femininity in their identities and in the course of their advocacy. She pointed out that in addition to formal state structures, groups including religious movements, local communities and families are often responsible for these violations, and that it is vital for human rights strategies to take these actors into account.

The second day of the Consultation focused on the mechanisms available for the protection of WHRD and prevention of abuses against WHRD at international, national and local levels. Plenary speakers outlined some of the mechanisms available, including the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998 marking the first international recognition of the need for protection of human rights defenders. Kamala Chandrakirana of Komnas Perempuan (and a member of the APWLD WHR Working Group) gave a plenary presentation on the role of the National Commission in Indonesia in protecting and defending WHRDS. Two sets of consecutive workshops followed building upon the discussions in the morning plenaries. The first set of workshops gave participants an opportunity to explore the particular challenges to the effectiveness of mechanisms for protection and prevention of WHRDs in particular contexts, including state repression, fundamentalisms, family and community, sexuality based attacks, the security imperative/war on terror, and neo-liberal globalisation.

APWLD organised three workshops during this breakout session, two of them in collaboration with Amnesty International.

a. ‘Neo-Liberal Globalisation’: APWLD organised a workshop on protection of WHRDs and prevention of abuses in the context of ‘neo-liberal globalisation’. This workshop explored the threats to WHRDs opposing corporate control on their lives and livelihoods in the context of neo-liberal globalisation and the dominance of multi-national (MNCs) and trans-national corporations (TNCs) around the world. The increasing collusion between states and corporate actors results in State complicity to many human rights violations by corporate actors such as the use of private security forces to intimidate and kill WHRDs who protest against the actions of corporations. This clouds the reality of state accountability for these violations. The workshop critically assessed various international, national and civil society mechanisms addressing accountability of corporations (domestic, trans-national and multi-national) and their actors (including para-military groups, private security forces and state military and police) for attacks against women human rights defenders. The workshop identified the need for the creation of international mechanisms and strategies to hold corporate actors accountable for human rights violations and the development of more effective strategies for the protection of WHRD and prevention of abuses against WHRDs by corporate actors at a national and local levels,  including documenting cases, and launching campaigns using documented cases, action alerts and community protesting.

b. ‘State Repression’: In collaboration with Amnesty International, APWLD organised a workshop on ‘state repression’ which was designed to give participants an opportunity to explore protection and prevention strategies and mechanisms in the particular context of state repression. The workshop explored the particular difficulties WHRDs face from the state when carrying out their work, highlighting the strategies used by the different organs of the state to target WHRDs (such as the use of the courts and legal proceedings to harass and silence activists; enacting regulations that allow for monitoring and tight control of civil society activities; and restrictions of movement of NGO workers). The discussions in the workshop identified the specific vulnerabilities of WHRDs working in the context of state repression as well as the specific challenges in holding the State accountable for violations against women human rights defenders perpetrated by the state and state actors. Zenaida Soriano from AMIHAN presented the difficulties faced by defenders of land rights in Philippines who face intense state repression including political killings and disappearances. She highlighted some of the strategies which AMIHAN  has developed, including holding secret meetings to plan actions; holding brief rallies in a number of places around the city to avoid police confrontation and ensuring that no one is arrested alone. Many similarities in experiences and strategies between different region were highlighted in the discussions, including the important role of the international community in pressuring states and community based strategies. Participants shared successful community based strategies.

c. ‘Family and Community’: In collaboration with Amnesty International, APWLD organised a workshop on strategies and mechanisms for the protection and prevention of WHRDs from attacks by their family and community. The workshop explored the difficulties many WHRDs face in the context of their family and community around the globe. The disapproval of family and community to the work of WHRDs can have negative impacts on a WHRDs relationship with her family and status within her community. Participants shared examples of the many obstacles WHRD face within the family and community sphere including; direct attacks (both physical and verbal) against them and against their work, ostracism, and a lack of support (making it difficult for women to continue their work for example if they also need to care for children). Discussions highlighted that women are placed at risk by social norms and assumptions about women’s primary role being located within the private/domestic sphere and constructions of women as the symbols of family and community ‘honour’. In this context, women who speak out and act in defense of their own rights, the rights of other socially marginalised groups or particular rights which challenge social and cultural norms (such as reproductive rights) are rendered most vulnerable to attack and abuse.  Often the attacks come from those most close to them, intimates and their community. Some participants also shared examples of attacks from the HRD community itself.  Participants shared the gaps in existing mechanisms for protection and prevention of abuses within the family and community sphere including: the nature of the abuse and lack of remedies for it (verbal not physical) and isolation and dependency. The workshop provided an important opportunity for participants to share common experiences of the difficulties they encounter in the family and community.

After these workshops participants broke into ‘skills workshops’ where they explored specific skills for the protection and prevention of abuses against WHRDs including; campaign and advocacy skills; security training; urgent action tools; psychological well-being of WHRDs; and documentation, investigation and monitoring training.

The third day of the Consultation examined the problems and obstacles to justice and accountability for violations against WHRD. It critically examined the State as both the violator of rights of WHRDs and a body with a primary duty to safeguard the rights of WHRDs. It also examined the different types of non-state actors who abuse WHRDs rights, including fundamentalist groups, and the obstacles in holding them accountable.  The afternoon gave participants an opportunity to identify areas where they would like to an opportunity to further strategize and work.

APWLD profiled the cases of a number of our member who are WHRDs at risk in their national contexts including Irene Fernandez, from Tenaganita in Malaysia, Rumiko Nishino from VAW-NET Japan, Jintana Kaewkhao from Thailand, and Carmen Buena from AMIHAN Philippines. APWLD did this through displaying posters highlighting their stories, circulating press statements and Zenaida Soriano from AMIHAN represented a joint press statement for APWLD members in Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia at the Press Conference on the last day of the Consultation.

While the Consultation marked the end of the ICC’s collaborative work together, the work and campaigning on WHRDs will continue through the continuing commitment of ICC members to the issue, and the commitment of participants to integrate this issue in their work. A suggestion was made by participants to declare November 29 the ‘International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders’ as part of the 16 days of activism to mark the beginning of this Consultation. Charlotte Bunch as the Director of the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership stated that the Centre is looking at next year’s theme for the 16 days of activism to be on WHRD also.

The feedback from participants was very positive with many participants noting that knowledge that there is a discourse on ‘us’ gives them much strength to continue their work. The day following the Consultation APWLD met with the ICC to assess the success of the campaign and consultation in meetings its objectives. From the assessment of participants and critical reflection of ICC members, it was felt that it had succeeded in raising awareness on the issue, bringing conceptual clarity to identifying the specific forms of repression faced by WHRDs and generating links between organizations and networks who will continue to work on the issue. However it was felt that more work could be done to generate greater capacity and tools for use of WHRDs in their work at a local level for their protection. APWLD is furthering this objective and commitment to the campaign by working with the Inform and Forum Asia in developing a WHRD Documentation Manual for documenting abuses particularly in the context of conflict situations. Since general public, including human rights defenders, know little about the UN Declaration on HRD, APWLD will also disseminate information on this within the region as well as continuing to work on the campaign at a regional level.