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Who is a defender
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Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

Commentary to the Declaration on human rights defendersCommentary to the Declaration on human rights defenders
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Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders
Women defenders

1. Extracts from the Special Representative’s 2002 annual report to the Commission on Human Rights

(See the ‘Reports’ page of this web site for the full-text of the report, E/CN.4/2002/106)

1.                  Since the submission of her first report, the Special Representative has been receiving information from many sources regarding the situation of women human rights defenders worldwide.  With respect to the cases upon which the Special Representative took action, out of 161 communications sent by her to Governments, 70 concerned women human rights defenders or women’s organizations.  Fifteen cases of women human rights defenders were also raised in reports of other thematic mechanisms to the Commission on Human Rights at its fifty‑seventh session and the Special Representative has paid due regard to these cases as a source of information regarding the situation of women human rights defenders worldwide.  The following paragraphs highlight some of the trends that the Special Representative was able to discern from this information.

2.                  The world over, against all odds, women human rights defenders are working tirelessly for the protection and promotion of the human rights of all.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize the sheer wealth, diversity and breadth of the human rights work they undertake.  However, given the wide-ranging nature and scope of the activities these women are involved in, it is an impossible task to list them all.  The following remarks provide examples and should in no way be considered as exhaustive, but merely as illustrative.

3.                  During the period under review, as professionals and as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, partners and colleagues, women human rights defenders have been at the forefront of demands for an end to “disappearances”.  They have campaigned indefatigably for humane prison conditions and have been documenting and exposing human rights abuses.  Women defenders have asserted the rights of, among others, ethnic and religious minorities, and protested against widespread impunity for violence against women; they have supported countless victims of human rights abuses and their relatives in demanding justice; they have led projects dedicated to helping other women, victims of sexual abuse, obtain legal redress.  As victims themselves of human rights abuses, they have testified in proceedings against the alleged perpetrators.  As trade union activists they have championed workers’ rights; as lawyers they have been active in seeking redress for victims of human rights abuses and in combating impunity; and they have also organized and campaigned for the rights of human rights defenders.  It is a testament to their courage and achievements that this list could go on and on.

4.                  However, it is also important to highlight the fact that, worldwide, women human rights defenders are paying a heavy toll for their work in protecting and promoting the human rights of others.  Unfortunately, an equally impossibly long list could be drawn up of the human rights abuses women defenders face or to which they have actually been subjected simply for upholding human rights.  For women human rights defenders, standing up for human rights and the victims of human rights abuses - be they migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers or political activists, or simply people unwillingly relegated to the margins of society, such as ex-offenders and members of sexual minorities - can result in intimidation, harassment, unfair dismissal, death threats, torture and ill-treatment, and even death.

5.                  At best, the harassment that women human rights defenders have had to endure has seen them proving their innocence in time-consuming, energy-draining and costly proceedings brought against them by corrupt prosecuting authorities and a subservient judiciary in order to put an abrupt end to their human rights work.  At worst, however, women human rights defenders have suffered violations of some of the most fundamental rights, including the right to life, to mental and physical integrity, to liberty and security of person, to freedom of expression and association, and to privacy and family life.

6.                  In the reporting period, women human rights defenders have been deliberately killed.  Some have been abducted and made to disappear, others have been raped or otherwise sexually abused.  They have suffered arbitrary arrest and detention without charges or have been falsely accused and prosecuted on various spurious charges, including espionage, subversion, anti‑national activities, being a threat to national security and passing secrets to foreign organizations, all of which can result in long terms of imprisonment.  Some women defenders have been forced to flee their s and countries in fear for their life.  Others have survived attempts on their life.  Some have been verbally and physically assaulted, or have been threatened with violence and death simply for, for example, protesting against abysmal prison conditions.  Some have been subjected to compulsory treatment for a falsely diagnosed mental illness.  Their family members have also come under threat and have suffered harassment, intimidation, beatings, verbal abuse, arbitrary arrest and detention.

7.                  The offices and s of women human rights defenders have been searched, broken into or raided, and their belongings confiscated or destroyed or rendered otherwise useless.  Their standing in their communities has been called into question with slanderous allegations in an attempt to discredit and humiliate them.

8.                  At times the authorities have resorted to insidious ways to make women human rights defenders desist from their work in the defence of human rights.  Accusations of financial irregularities or even fraud have been brought against them or the police have kept them under constant surveillance in an attempt to intimidate them. 

9.                  Often, despite repeated requests, women human rights defenders have been denied protection or have been offered hopelessly inadequate protective measures, leaving them to fend for themselves.  Such denials or inadequacies on the part of the authorities further increase the risk that women defenders will themselves become victims of human rights violations, especially at the hands of non-State actors, for whom these failures act as a green light for abuse.

10.              On the basis of the information received, the Special Representative has been able to observe that, while women defenders work as indefatigably as their male counterparts in upholding human rights and the rights of victims of human rights violations, there exist some characteristics that are specific to them as women involved in the defence of human rights.  The following remarks seek to highlight some features that are peculiar to the situation of women human rights defenders worldwide.

11.              Women human rights defenders are on a par with their male colleagues in putting themselves on the front line in the promotion and protection of human rights.  In doing so, however, as women, they face risks that are specific to their gender and additional to those faced by men.

12.              In the first instance, as women, they become more visible.  That is, women defenders may arouse more hostility than their male colleagues because as women human rights defenders they may defy cultural, religious or social norms about femininity and the role of women in a particular country or society.  In this context, not only may they face human rights violations for their work as human rights defenders, but even more so because of their gender and the fact that their work may run counter to societal stereotypes about women’s submissive nature, or challenge notions of the society about the status of women.  Secondly, it is not unlikely that the hostility, harassment and repression women defenders face may themselves take a gender‑specific form, ranging from, for example, verbal abuse directed exclusively at women because of their gender to sexual harassment and rape.

13.              In this connection, women’s professional integrity and standing in society can be threatened and discredited in ways that are specific to them, such as the all too familiar pretextual calling into question of their probity when - for example - women assert their right to sexual and reproductive health, or to equality with men, including to a life free from discrimination and violence.  In this context, for example, women human rights defenders have been tried using laws criminalizing conduct amounting to the legitimate enjoyment and exercise of rights protected under international law on spurious charges brought against them simply because of their views and advocacy work in defence of women’s rights.

14.              Thirdly, human rights abuses perpetrated against women human rights defenders can, in turn, have repercussions that are, in and of themselves, gender-specific.  For example, the sexual abuse of a woman human rights defender in custody and her rape can result in pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

15.              Certain women-specific rights are almost exclusively promoted and protected by women human rights defenders.  Promoting and protecting women’s rights can be an additional risk factor, as the assertion of some such rights is seen as a threat to patriarchy and as disruptive of cultural, religious and societal mores.  Defending women’s right to life and liberty in some countries has resulted in the life and liberty of women defenders themselves being violated.  Similarly, protesting against discriminatory practices has led to the prosecution of a prominent women’s rights defender on charges of apostasy.

2. Extracts from the OHCHR Fact Sheet on human rights defenders on the challenges faced by women human rights defenders

(See the Training page of this web site to access the full text version of the Fact Sheet.)

It is essential to ensure that women human rights defenders as well as men are protected and supported in their work and, indeed, that such women are fully recognized as human rights defenders.

 The following paragraphs provide a few examples (by no means an exhaustive list) of ways in which women human rights defenders can face different pressures from those confronting men and so require particular protection.

In many parts of the world, the traditional role of women is perceived as integral to a society’s culture. This can make it especially hard for women human rights defenders to question and oppose aspects of their tradition and culture when they violate human rights. Female genital mutilation is a good example of such practices, although there are many others.

Similarly, many women are perceived by their communities as an extension of the community itself. If a woman human rights defender is the victim of a rape because of her human rights work she may be perceived by her extended family as having brought shame on both the family and the wider community. As a human rights defender she must carry the burden not only of the trauma of the rape, but also of the notion within her community that, through her human rights work, she has brought shame on those around her. Even where no rape or other attack has occurred, women who choose to be human rights defenders must often confront the anger of families and communities that consider them to be jeopardizing both honour and culture. The pressures to stop human rights work can be very strong.

Women human rights defenders having day-to-day responsibility for the care of young children or elderly parents often find it very hard to continue their human rights work knowing that arrest and detention would prevent them from fulfilling that role in the family.

This remains a concern for women human rights defenders even though, across the world, men are increasingly sharing responsibility for the care of dependants. However, women have also used this role to strengthen their work as human rights defenders, for example where “mothers of disappeared persons” have formed human rights organizations. The fact that they are mothers of victims of human rights violations has provided a very strong rallying point and advocacy tool for these defenders.

The challenges faced by women human rights defenders sometimes require a broader analysis and understanding than those confronting men.

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