Women human rights defenders in Africa: States and civil society should work together to ensure protection


States and civil society should work together to disseminate, promote and implement a resolution and expert recommendations on the protection of women human rights defenders in Africa.

(Banjul, The Gambia) - On the margins of the 58th session of the African Commission for Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) and with 2016 being the African Union’s ‘Year of Human Rights - with a particular focus on the rights of women,’ ISHR hosted an interactive dialogue with the ACHPR Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders (HRDs) on the implementation of the ACHPR’s first report on the situation of women human rights defenders in Africa.

The panel was composed of Ms Reine Alapini-Gansou, the ACHPR's Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders; Ms Pedan Marthe Coulibaly, a human rights defender representing the Coalition Ivoirienne des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CIDDH); Ms Francess Piagie Alghali, representing the Human Rights Defenders Network-Sierra Leone; and Mr Clément Voulé, ISHR’s African Advocacy Director, who co-moderated the panel along with Mr Ulrik Spiid from The Danish Institute for Human Rights. The panelists expressed the challenges faced by WHRDs, framing their discussion on the relevance of the Special Rapporteur’s report on the situation of WHRDs in Africa, its recommendations and the need for their implementation by civil society and Member States. 

‘ISHR welcomes the recently adopted African Commission Resolution 336 on Measures to protect and promote the work of women human rights defenders,’ said Mr Voulé, ISHR’s Director of African Advocacy. ‘The resolution reinforces a key element of the Special Rapporteur’s report, which encourages African governments to work in partnership with women human rights defenders in the dissemination and implementation of the recommendations,’ emphasised Mr Voulé.

Côte d’Ivoire is the only country in Africa that has a specific law on the protection and promotion of HRDs, with a provision focused particularly on the protection of WHRDs.

‘Article 9 of the Iviorian HRD law protects women human rights defenders against violence and discrimination in relation to their work,’ explained Ms Coulibaly. ‘While we wait for the law in general to be fully operationalised by a decree, women defenders are calling for a follow-up mechanism to enable the enforcement of this specific article,’ she said.

She suggested that the Ivorian National Human Rights Commission should create a desk that deals with the protection of WHRDs. Starting with the challenges WHRDs face, such as reprisals and harassment, she added that it is important for the law to say who these defenders should report to when necessary.  

‘It is not enough to just have laws but we must establish mechanisms to implement and realise the legal commitments made by States to protect and promote human rights defenders,’ said Ms Reine Alapini-Gansou urging the Ivorian Government to operationalise the HRD law in the country. 

‘Women human rights defenders in Sierra Leone are vulnerable as there are incidents of branding, harassment and reprisals,’ said Ms Francess Piagie Alghali. ‘This report’s recommendations are very timely because there is no law specific on human rights defenders and laws specific to women such as the gender equality law are still to be enacted,’ she added.

Recalling the Maputo Protocol, Commissioner Maiga, ACHPR Special Rapporteur on the rights of women, said that ‘countries still have outdated laws and are failing to respect the standard of respecting women human rights.’

Noting her involvement in the production of the report, she commended the efforts of Commissioner Alapini-Gansou in producing it. Commissioner Maiga explained the importance of disseminating and popularising the report among Member States and citizens.  Moreover, she called for the development of a specific action plan to implement the report’s recommendations. ‘Access to justice is the major step that must be taken to protect women human rights defenders,’ said Commissioner Maiga. ‘This is where civil society can help by lobbying and advocating for better laws.’

‘Civil society organisations have a big role to play by networking among themselves at the sub-regional level and lobbying for better national human rights laws that are aligned to international standards,’ echoed Commissioner Alapini-Gansou.

During the discussions most participants that intervened welcomed the adoption of this report and Resolution 336 as a big step towards the protection of WHRDs on the continent. Examples of threats and risks faced by WHRDs from both State and non-State actors were highlighted. Religion and cultural practices were also mentioned as sources of threats and risks for WHRDs who challenge such practices. 

In closing, Commissioner Alapini-Gansou called on civil society organisations to take the report to the national level, disseminate the it and, most importantly, convey its recommendations to national governments. While the report is an African Union report, it is important for all stakeholders, Commissioners, Member States and civil society alike, to take ownership of it and in particular its recommendations. 

Contact: Clément Voulé, ISHR Africa Advocacy Director,  c.voule@ishr.ch



  • Africa
  • Human rights defenders
  • Women's rights and WHRD
  • African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights