WHRDs | UN expert highlights 'critical' work of women human rights defenders for social progress


Women leaders of change have made huge contributions to social progress throughout history - at great risk for their own life, safety and reputation. As the UN Special Rapporteur presented his report to the Human Rights Council focusing on the situation of women human rights defenders, a group of women activists called for more action by States to end the impunity over violations they face. 

In a report to the Human Rights Council, the UN expert on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, noted that 'because of feminist defenders, more women are able to enjoy the right to vote, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to privacy, the right to family life, sexual and reproductive rights and many others'. 

The report was crucial in spotlighting the important work and contributions of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) at a time their activism and their rights are particularly targeted. As highlighted by the Special Rapporteur, WHRDs work in the following contexts:

  • WHRDs often challenge deeply-rooted social constructions of gender shaped by patriarchy and heteronormativity;
  • the rise of fundamentalism,extremism and nationalism in all regions of the world punish 'deviance' and lead to accusations of WHRDs, who might be labelled as being 'foreign agents' and 'anti-nationals';
  • militarism and the normalisation of the use of force and violence not only target WHRDs - labelling them as terrorists - but also excludes them from peace processes;
  • globalisation and neo-liberal policies create power inequalities that affect the rights of women, while non-State actors such as businesses, organised criminals, investors and financial institutions have growing power and influence over States;
  • the concept of 'gender ideology' is posited by religious leaders, politicians and members of conservative groups who seek to discredit the work of defenders working on LGBTI rights in order to justify discrimination and shape political outcomes.

The Special Rapporteur further noted that the attacks are faced by collectives and movements of WHRDs using different forms of repression, criminalisation, hate speech and incitement of violence. In this regard, he recommended that States recognise the initiatives, strategies and networks created by WHRDs themselves and ensure they are adequately resourced. This would be a means for strengthening and supporting women's leadership and feminist, community-centered approaches to protection. 

The report outlines eight interconnected priorities for States, the UN, donors and civil society to consider:

  1. publicly recognise the importance of the equal and meaningful participation of WHRDs at every level and in every institution in society, devoting resources to achieve this aim in accordance with the principle of substantive equality
  2. ensure that WHRDs enjoy freedom of movement and have safe spaces and communication channels that enable them to meet and share ideas, experiences, resources, tactics and strategies regularly
  3. build a safe and enabling environment for women and all human rights defenders to promote and protect human rights, ensuring that all non-State actors respect human rights and that all State actors respect, protect and fulfill human rights
  4. document and investigate all forms of risk, threats and attacks against WHRDs, ensuring that perpetrators - both State and non-State actors - are brought to justice and that these defenders have access to an effective remedy, including gender-responsive reparations
  5. develop protection mechanisms and initiatives that incorporate the Special Rapporteur's seven principles underpinning good protection practices
  6. recognise that security must be understood holistically and that it encompasses physical safety, digital security, environmental security, economic stability, the freedom to practice cultural and religious beliefs and the mental and emotional well-being of WHRDs and their families
  7. recognise that sexism and discrimination against women, girls and gender non-conforming defenders exist in communities and human rights movements and take measures to address them
  8. ensure that funding enables WHRDs in their diverse circumstances to promote and protect human rights in a continuous, sustainable and effective manner 

In response to the report, ISHR along with Amnesty International, AWID, Nazra and Front Line Defenders made a joint statement on behalf of a group of women human rights defenders.

The statement highlighted the lack of impartial and independent investigations into the deaths of WHRDs to identify all those implicated through collusion, particularly in relation to the cases of Cao Shunli, Berta Caceres and Marielle Franco. It further called for a UN-wide policy on supporting and protecting human rights defenders. 

Watch the statement here: 


UN Photo: Jean-Marc Ferré