Human Rights Advocacy
Women human rights defenders
Women are promoting human rights as advocates, social workers, nurses, counselors, grassroots activists, journalists, teachers, and lawyers. Their activism is vital as they effectively advance the rights of all people by challenging inequality and repression. As women taking a leading role in human rights promotion they challenge traditional gender roles in patriarchal societies.
As a result, women human rights defenders are sometimes more vulnerable to hostility and reprisals than their male colleagues. They are targeted because of their gender and because of their work on women's rights by government agents; non-state actors, such as organized crime rings, extremist religious groups, and paramilitary groups; community members, including religious leaders; and family members. Speaking out against abuses of women's rights, they often challenge ingrained cultural beliefs and attitudes about the role of women in their societies. Because the changing role of women is often highly contested within societies, when women take action to defend their rights, they may be perceived as a threat to social stability and the status quo.
As a result, women human rights defenders are subjected to gender-specific threats and attacks that include:
- Sexual harassment and violence, including rape
- Specific forms of torture, including forced psychiatric treatment
- Physical abuse, including beatings, disfiguration, and murder
- Threats of divorce or disownment
- Discrimination, including by male human rights defenders
- Verbal abuse, including use of the term “feminist” in a derogatory sense
- Sexuality baiting: attacking a woman defender's reputation by using the most pejorative labels available, which may include “lesbian” or “whore”
Verbal abuse of women defenders is widespread and can seriously impede women's ability to continue their work. Often more difficult to document and prove, verbal harassment typically goes unreported, uninvestigated, and unpunished. But the devastating impact of verbal abuse and threats should not be minimized.
Another form of gender-specific intimidation includes the targeting of women activists' children and families as a way to exert additional pressure to stop their human rights work. Colombian human rights defender Soraya Gutierrez Arguello, for example, received a package containing a decapitated doll whose body had been quartered, burned in several areas, and covered in red nail polish to make it appear bloodied. An attached handwritten note read: “You have a lovely family. Look after them, don't sacrifice them.”
Lesbian and gay rights activists may face particularly harsh treatment. In September 2004, Fannyann Eddy, a lesbian rights activist in Sierra Leone, was brutally raped and murdered in her office; police have not classified the attack as a hate crime. In some countries, the human rights and women's movement have difficulty accepting lesbian activists, leaving them exceptionally vulnerable to attack.
In addition, women human rights defenders are not immune to the threats their male colleagues face, and the impact of these attacks can be greater for women defenders. For example, after receiving death threats, women defenders have described greater difficulty relocating to safer environments due to their familial responsibilities.
Source: Human Rights First.