On 10 March 2011 the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, presented her third annual report to the Human Rights Council (the Council) during a clustered interactive dialogue together with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. In her report Ms Sekaggya focused on the situation of women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues, since they are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence, prejudice and repudiation. Her analysis, based on a survey and communications sent to governments during the 2004-2009 period, shows that women defenders are indeed those that are most exposed to rights violations. The overwhelming majority of States taking the floor welcomed the focus of her report. However, controversies arose because of the inclusion of defenders working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in the report. Furthermore, some States accused the report of being based on unfounded allegations and called for a clear distinction between violations committed by State and non-state actors.
According to Ms Sekaggya’s presentation, violations faced by women defenders are most commonly threats, death threats and killings. During the reporting period, 292 communications were sent to governments regarding threats. Of those, more than half concerned defenders working in the Americas, especially in Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala. The report also identifies a worrying trend of criminalisation of the activities carried out by women defenders, particularly in China and Iran. Furthermore, women working in the legal profession and in the media are disproportionately target of intimidation, harassment and arrest. In addition, women defenders as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists run a particularly high risk of being subject to sexual violence and rape as a consequence of their work. Especially worrying is the systematic use of sexual violence against defenders, as practised in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In addition to being harassed, detained or killed, women defenders are often facing exclusion from society and their families. As Ms Sekaggya pointed out in her introductory statement: ‘While defenders in general are too often branded as terrorists, extremists, and separatists, this study shows how women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues are in addition stigmatised by virtue of their sex, or indeed the gender or sexuality-based rights that they advocate.’ This is often due to the fact that they challenge ‘accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society.’