Protecting women human rights defenders


Women human rights defenders continue to face intimidation, violations and abuses for their work. A resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly focusing on women human right defenders indicates that ensuring an effective structural framework for their protection of is crucial, writes ISHR's Pooja Patel.

By Pooja Patel, Head of Women Human Rights Defenders Programme at ISHR

In Egypt, Yara Sallam, Sanaa Seif, Hanan Mustafa Mohamed, Salwa Mihriz, Samar Ibrahim, Nahid Sherif (known as Nahid Bebo) and Fikreya Mohamed (known as Rania El-Sheikh) are seven women human rights defenders (WHRDs) detained since 21 June 2014 on charges of violating the Protest and Public Assembly Law. Their trial was based on scant and dubious evidence, serving as a warning to dissuade other defenders in Egypt.  

In Thailand’s north-eastern province of Loei, a women-led group of human rights defenders – the Khon Rak Baan Koed Group – protecting their community and the environment from harmful mining operations faced brutal attacks in May 2014 by unidentified armed men. To date, there has been no investigation or prosecution for these attacks.

In El Salvador, several WHRDs face slander and intimidation in the media as a result of their work to seek the pardon of 17 women imprisoned on charges of abortion. Women’s rights groups and human rights organisations working on the issue of abortion, a criminal offense in the country, are vulnerable to both harassment and criminalisation as a result of their work.

In her capacity as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani reported to the Commission on Human Rights in 2003 that ‘women constitute almost half of the human rights defenders who are subjected to torture, murder and violence as a consequence of their work in defense of human rights, not only of women but of all communities that suffer discrimination and exploitation’.

Little has changed since then in terms of alleviating such challenges faced by WHRDs across the world.

However, it is encouraging to see that at the very least there has been some growing recognition that WHRDs not only face the same threats from both State and non-State actors as their male counterparts, but also often face specific threats from authorities, families and societies due to their gender – acts that often go unseen and undocumented. 

The women human rights defenders movement has worked diligently to sensitise partners and stakeholders that WHRDs are particularly vulnerable to attack because they often defy cultural norms of gender, heterosexuality and femininity in their identities and in the course of their advocacy, and that it is vital for human rights strategies to take these actors into account. Indeed, this means that WHRDs include not only women, but anyone working to defend women’s human rights as well as in the fields of sexuality and reproductive rights, for instance.

This awareness must be increased and deepened for it to resonate at the national level. At the same time, governments need to respond urgently to the violations and abuses faced by WHRDs that are increasingly reported by ensuring protection for WHRDs at risk, an enabling environment for the work of WHRDs and accountability for violations perpetrated against WHRDs.

The UN General Assembly adopted by consensus the first ever UN resolution focusing entirely on WHRDs in December 2013. Certainly a historic development, though it’s real value will be determined on its effective implementation and how far it can be used as a momentum for ground-level change.

The resolution, read in conjunction and in connection with the normative frameworks developed by human rights mechanisms and institutions at the international and regional levels pertaining to the protection of human rights defenders and of women’s rights, serves as a roadmap for implementation. This includes, in particular, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted in 1998. Recommendations by civil society actors also contribute key insights into how to ensure protection tailored to the specific experience and needs of WHRDs.

As a start, governments must take efforts to bring awareness to this resolution to ensure that authorities refrain from delegitimising the work of WHRDs including through stigmatisation, defamation, discrimination and sexism. 

The resolution indicates that ensuring an effective structural framework for the protection of WHRDs is crucial. This includes setting up or strengthening national human rights institutions which have a focal point to address allegations of violations against human rights defenders, as well as a demonstrated sensitivity and understanding of gender-specific violations. It also includes passing legislation that recognises the work of human rights defenders, including WHRDs, and makes provisions for the targeted and tailored protection of those who are at risk.

It is also time for States to more consciously acknowledge the essential role and contribution of WHRDs in strengthening democratic processes, the rule of law and development. WHRDs are crucial partners in the implementation of State obligations on human rights promotion and protection. Their participation needs to be ensured  and safeguarded in the development of laws and policies affecting them and their work, and their expertise should be actively sought out.

Contact: Pooja Patel, Program Manager, ISHR, on + 41 76 787 39 28 or

Photo: UN Women / Caroline Pankert


  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Women's rights and WHRD
  • UN General Assembly
  • Egypt
  • El Salvador
  • Thailand