Supporting women human rights defenders

“Women human rights defenders have always been a part of the human rights movement as well as other social movements, although their role and contribution has not always been recognized,” says Mona Rishmawi, UN Human Rights Chief of Branch, on behalf of UN Human Rights Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang, during a panel discussion on women human rights defenders at the latest session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

A woman activist carries a poster during a protest against family violence in Beirut, Lebanon, 2011 © EPA/Wael HamzehThe panel discussion was part of a full-day gathering on women’s human rights with leaders and experts in women’s rights, human rights defenders, and Member States. While the first panel focused on remedies and reparations for women who have been subjected to violence, this particular panel was dedicated to exploring the situation of women human rights defenders and recommendations to ensure their protection. 

“Although much progress has been made in realizing women’s rights, we must acknowledge that we still live in a world where women face serious inequalities in all spheres of life—at home, at work, in communities and in politics,” Rishmawi said on how women human rights defenders find themselves working within this reality of inequality.

On behalf of Kang, Rishmawi highlighted the work of the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) to adopt a comprehensive framework to strengthen its work to protect all human rights defenders with specific measures to assist women. She noted that all OHCHR staff should “take into account gender dimensions in assessing risks and integrate gender perspectives in all measures at all levels designed to protect civil society actors under threat.”

“This includes taking appropriate measures to respond to violence against women. OHCHR will remain committed to working with women human rights defenders, and ensuring protection of these defenders in their important work,” Rishmawi said.

Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, said that women face several gender-specific threats in conflict areas such as “violations ranging from verbal abuse based on sex, to sexual abuse and rape.” Sekaggya also added that women face gender discrimination and gender stereotypes. “Quite often States use their security agencies to quell demonstrations, violence, and in many instances, violence against women is very prominent,” she added.

Sunila Abeysekera, from the International Coalition for Women Human Rights Defenders, presented several key areas where women human rights defenders are faced with challenges. Abeysekera stated that there were brutal violations suffered by those who worked on issues of people’s right to land, water and a clean environment. There were also violations confronted by women human rights defenders who worked on reproductive rights and on rights related to sexuality. The defenders who organize and mobilize communities, as well as the women who participate in rebuilding societies and their structures of governance are exposed to repeated violations.

Jose De Jesus Orozco, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said that women face more risks than other human rights defenders and the situation is increasingly worsening in some countries.

The panel offered recommendations for helping women human rights defenders. Abeysekera suggested that the “fight against impunity was critical in combating violence against women and protecting women human rights defenders.”

Sekaggya stressed that “States should recognize good practices and examples from programs implemented at the domestic level to avoid duplication, and stressed the need for closer cooperation and consultation with human rights defenders themselves in the design of policies.” 

Nayar Abdelgadir, of the Geneva Institute for Human Rights, said that countries in transition should implement protective measures so that women human rights defenders could continue working without the risk of violence.

30 July 2012

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