Success of 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda depends on women human rights defenders


Achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is only possible if women human rights defenders are genuinely involved in programmes for its implementation, panelists have said at a high-level event at the UN this week.

(New York) - Achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is only possible if women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are genuinely involved in programmes for its implementation.

Such was the clear message of panelists at a high-level UN event this week, 'Empowering Women by Empowering Women Human Rights Defenders'. They called for States and the United Nations itself to urgently take steps to ensure the protection of WHRDs and their recognition as key stakeholders and partners in the 2030 Agenda.

The calls came as the human rights community reels at the murder of another prominent WHRD, Berta Caceres in Honduras on 3 March, and in the context of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, currently meeting in New York.

Panelists paid tribute to Ms Caceres. Her daughter, Bertha Isabel Zuniga Caceres also spoke on the panel, describing her mother as her greatest inspiration. 'The authorities did not protect my mother’s life as they should have,' she said. 'Now the Honduran government is ignoring the clamour of the world that is calling for justice.'

ISHR's Programme Manager for women’s rights, Pooja Patel said panelist after panelist expressed their outrage at the continuing threats and attacks on women human rights defenders, so sharply illustrated in the murder of Berta Caceres. 'Given the critical role of women to the success of the 2030 Agenda - acknowledged by State representatives at the panel - their protection and the promotion of their work is essential.'

'We look to States to acknowledge and facilitate the work of women defenders and to restate the commitments made regarding their protection at the General Assembly in 2013 through the current sessions of the Human Rights Council and Commission on the Status of Women,' Ms Patel said.

State Secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms Tone Skogen said during the event that the 2030 Agenda provides a roadmap and a call to action for the international community.

'We all have a role to play and we all need to contribute to ensure that no-one is left behind. Without the tireless and courageous efforts of WHRDs, the ambitions of Agenda 2030 will not be realised,' she said. She drew attention to the 2013 UN General Assembly resolution on WHRDs, and Norway’s commitment to making the protection of human rights defenders a foreign policy priority.

In her opening remarks, Ambassador Mara Marinaki, EU/European External Action Service (EEAS) Principal Advisor on Gender, said the EU is determined more than ever to do more to support and protect all human rights defenders, especially women.

'Activists are the voice of the voiceless. The empowerment of women and girls is at the core of Agenda 2030, not only Goal 5 but across all 17 sustainable development goals,' she said.

Despite their essential role, women human rights defenders on the panel shared experiences of the huge challenges they face in their work. Bai Ali Indayla, Secretary-General of KAWAGIB – Alliance for the Advancement of Moro Human Rights in the Philippines, said those working to oppose human rights violations linked to the extractive industries were especially vulnerable. 'We are labeled as enemies of the State, and this becomes a reason for States to target WHRDs. There are extra-judicial killings and the conviction rate for this is 0%. Any (development) goal that the Philippines government signs up for is of no use if the State continues to implement anti-people policies and if it does not protect WHRDs.'

'We see the brutality of those who oppress us,' said Fatima Outaleb, co-founder of Union de l’Action Feminine (Union of Women’s Action, UAF) in Morocco, paying tribute to friends and colleagues who had been harassed, forced to leave their countries, or killed, because of their work. 'We have no words for the atrocities happening in our countries. Women are supposed to be present but their voices often don’t count. If we leave women behind, there will be no sustainable solutions,' she said.

Ms Patel said that the women human rights defenders who spoke at the event had highlighted the gravity of the many human rights crises facing humanity and how we are at a critical moment for our future on earth. 'Women defenders are central to achieving the vision Agenda 2030 sets out. Those who spoke on the panel provided a stark message: that in killing women defenders we are killing our future. Protecting women defenders and promoting their work provides us with hope.'

The event at the UN this week was co-sponsored by the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC), of which ISHR is a founding member. The coalition calls on States to:

  • Ensure that WHRDs are protected from gender-specific threats, intimidation, and violence they may face due to their work and their challenging of deep-seated patriarchal structures and societal gender norms.
  • Take effective action to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for these violations.
  • Enable the work of WHRDs, including by ensuring their meaningful participation in the development and monitoring of relevant policies and programmes, including Agenda 2030, and by creating an environment conducive for WHRDs to carry out their important work free from harassment, intimidation and violence from State and non-State actors.

Contact: Pooja Patel, ISHR Women’s Rights Programme Manager, on


  • Women's rights and WHRD
  • Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)
  • Honduras
  • Morocco
  • Philippines