Gambian woman Dr. Isatou Touray has dedicated her life to stamping out female genital cutting, through her organisation GAMCOTRAP. Despite the authorities repeatedly threatening Dr. Touray, and arresting her on false charges, her organisation’s work has resulted in more than 100 circumcisers abandoning the practice of female genital cutting.
“Women defenders have been and remain a vibrant part of the human rights movement. In several countries, women defenders are the leading force in the human rights community,” Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, report to United Nations General Assembly, 2008.
In Colombia a woman Indigenous leader, Aída Quilcué, has fought tirelessly for Indigenous rights. She’s survived death threats, false charges, and the murder of her husband by the Army, to continue her activism and be nominated for a major international human rights award.
Ang Ladlad, An LGBT political party in The Philippines, was blocked from participating in the 2007 national elections on moral and religious grounds. The party challenged this in court, won, and went on to participate in the 2010 elections.
From the grandmother demanding an end to military attacks on her village in Palestine, to the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, to the lesbian activists publicly condemning ‘corrective rape’ in Uganda – these are women human rights defenders.
They are women and girls, in every corner of the world, who actively work to defend their own rights and the rights of others, as well as a range of other activists of all sexualities who also defend the rights of women.
Throughout history, women have won successes in every area of human rights, and their role in these successes is being recognised at the international level like never before.
Some WHRDs are active as part of an organised collective, while some fight virtually alone – unsupported and even abused by their family or their community because of their human rights work.
As they fight for human rights, they also battle against gender stereotypes that invalidate their role as leaders of the community.
Women human rights defenders struggle continually against the idea that a woman’s role should be restricted to the private and domestic spheres.
Women human rights defenders not only face the same threats from Governments and corporations faced by their male colleagues, but often they also face threats and violence from family and community due to their gender, acts that go unseen and undocumented.
“Women defenders are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence…., in particular when they work in the area of women’s rights. This can be particularly acute when women defenders are perceived as challenging cultural norms and social constructs related to gender, femininity and sexuality,” Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, report to United Nations General Assembly, 2011.
They are targeted not only for what they do, but for who they are.
Women who defend human rights are much more likely than men to face sexual violence; restrictions on their ability to leave the home or travel; conviction of ‘moral’ crimes; threats and violence against their children; slurs on their role as mothers and wives; gender-based attacks on their reputation; and social isolation.
LGBTQI activists can face additional discrimination, violence and abuse by police, colleagues and family members who accept only heterosexuality and the representation of the male or female gender only.
Even within human rights movements, women often do not have the status and the protection of ‘recognised’ human rights defenders, who are usually male.
For all these reasons, women human rights defenders have formed a supportive, solid global movement.
The women human rights defenders’ movement affirms and validates the essential work of women defenders, while recognising the unique threats faced by women in their human rights work.
“There is no better protection for women human rights defenders than the strength and support of their own movement,” Hina Jilani, woman human rights defender and former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, in the Claiming Rights, Claiming Justice guidebook
This movement enables women human rights defenders around the world to discuss tactics and successes, as well as share resources.
Crucially, the movement provides a global network of support and solidarity, and the ability to band together and demand action when a particular defender is under threat.
The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC) is a focal point for this movement, providing a resource and advocacy network for women human rights defenders worldwide.