WHRDs from Asia highlight key concerns regarding challenges faced when carrying out human rights activities


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By Saartje Baes, Human Rights Defenders Programme Officer at Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development

Este artículo también se encuentra en español aquí

By Saartje Baes, Human Rights Defenders Programme Officer at Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development

Women human rights defenders in Asia had the opportunity to highlight the particular challenges they face in carrying out their human rights activities in a dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. The participants raised concerns related to harassment, threats and attacks that WHRDs in Asia are confronted with, which challenge discriminatory cultural, religious or social norms. As WHRDs, they face human rights violations because of their work as human rights defenders, and also have to deal with risks that are gender-specific.  

In December 2014, human rights defenders from 22 countries in Asia participated in the 6th Asian Regional Human Rights Defenders Forum in the Philippines. This Forum is organised biennially by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA). The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Michel Forst, joined the event, making this his first visit to Asia since his appointment six months earlier.

Protection mechanisms

WHRDs in Asia work in a context where no regional protection mechanisms are in place, while supporting mechanisms are minimal. In this, Asia is lagging behind other regions.

The lack of recognition most of the WHRDs in Asia receive from both their governments and societies is a major factor in the lack of specific policies or mechanisms that are put in place for WHRDs. Meanwhile, those policies or mechanisms put in place for the protection of women do not take into account the particular status of women as WHRDs, in contrast to being victims, and the specific needs that come along with that. This exacerbates the vulnerable position WHRDs in Asia find themselves in. WHRDs have been denied protection or have been offered inadequate protective measures, leaving them to fend for themselves. 

Non-State actors

WHRDs increasingly face threats from non-State actors, with authorities either being complicit or failing to take action. In recent years, WHRDs in Asia have been on the receiving end of increasing online intimidation, threats and harassment, facing backlash for their online advocacy. Examples shared by participants were those of doctored photos of WHRDs circulated via social media to discredit or shame them. Another example involved an entire blog dedicated to discrediting an LGBTI  organisation and defaming LGBTI activists.

Other non-State actors, such as religious groups, were named as specifically attacking the morality of WHRDs by portraying them as ‘loose’ or ‘bad women’. As the meeting took place in Manila, the influence of the Catholic Church was specifically mentioned. WHRDs shared that there is no one to turn to when the Church turns against them because of their work on particular issues, such as on reproductive rights.

Family and private life

One participant discussed the difficulties of addressing issues in the private sphere. For example, women working with victims of domestic abuse often find it difficult to ensure protection from the husband of the victim. Similar difficulties arise when the perpetrator is family of the WHRD.

Others raised the issue of being pressurised by their husband or family to discontinue their work. Such pressure may also come from extended family and community networks. Few male human rights defenders will face such pressure. In many instances, this has led WHRDs to leave their human rights work.

Asian WHRDs at risk

For the Asian region, women defending land, natural resources or indigenous women, were named as particularly at risk. More so, since they are often in remote areas, it is difficult for them to get access to justice.

WHRDs working on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as sexual and reproductive rights, are often not recognized for their work as human rights defenders. This not only means that they are excluded from consultation or funding opportunities, but it also limits the protection they should receive from protection or support schemes aimed at human rights defenders. While the LGBTI movement appears to be growing in some countries, one WHRD shared that the relative invisibility of LGBTI activists was one of the most disheartening aspects of her work.

Similarly, while Asia has a high migrant and refugee population, migrant and refugee WHRDs are often not on the radar. Consequently, they are not included in national protection or support schemes, while they are also faced with unsympathetic sentiments from nationals.


In their recommendations, the WHRDs called on Asian governments, as well as national, regional and international institutions, to publicly recognise the role of WHRDs as well as the gender-based discrimination they face. Governments should ensure effective protection of WHRDs, which needs to go beyond mere physical protection and be in line with their specific needs and realities. Too often, ‘everyday’ harassment is dismissed until a WHRD’s civil or political rights are curtailed.

WHRDs urged media to cover news on WHRDs as their stories are underrepresented in coverage. Visibility and education are widely recognised tools to mitigate threats. Participants further pointed out that civil society organisations should address the lack of ‘intersectionality’ in their work. Many organisations merely focus on their own specific area of expertise, while collaboration across issues would likely be beneficial for all. At times this might even mean that victims or human rights defenders that are currently not being supported by anyone, would be included. For example, there are no organisations focusing specifically on LGBTI who are also migrant workers or LGBTI people with disabilities. There is a need for a mechanism to monitor and document cases of violations against LGBTI activists, in particular to determine when incidents start becoming a pattern.

Lastly, the participants identified supporting networks as a particularly efficient means to confront the critical situation in the region. These networks should include victims, to facilitate the transformation from victim to WHRD. As one of the participants put it: “We refuse to keep silent. Threats will not disappear with silence.”

Photo: The Nation


  • Asia
  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Women's rights and WHRD