“We don’t only need women in positions of power, we need feminist women”
On 6th March 2019, two days before international women’s day, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation brought together 5 women Laureates from around the world to discuss ‘local realities and shared global challenges’ facing Women Human Rights Defenders. The side event, organised in parallel to the Human Rights Council’s fortieth session, was co-sponsored by CIVICUS, Human Rights House Foundation, International Network for Human Rights, and supported by the International Platform against impunity and the International Dalit Solidarity Network.
The panellists spanned five countries, four continents, and a wide range of expertise in issues such as women’s rights in conflict settings, sexual and reproductive rights, transitional justice, political participation, women’s health, and the intersections between gender, racial, and caste-based discrimination. The speakers described the particular gendered obstacles they had encountered in their own countries, which highlighted some critical global patterns. They then outlined key recommendations and strategic priorities.
Here are a few takeaways from the discussion:
Fabiana Leibl, Head of Protection and Advocacy at the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, opened the meeting by describing the worsening trend for women human rights defenders who are prevented from working, not only because they are advocating for human rights, but also because they are women. As the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders noted in his recent report, this trend is often fuelled by deeply rooted ideas about ‘who women are, and who they should be’. Nahla Haidar, a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, remarked that women are frequently ‘targeted with charges of counter-terrorism’, which allows their oppressors to act with impunity.
Sima Samar, Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and a leading women human rights defender in Afghanistan, emphasised that achieving parity in educating people of all genders was a key starting point. As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she explained, “we need female human rights defenders in order to really change the environment on the ground, and to make the environment conducive for the women to exercise their basic human rights.” She called for an end to the misuse and misappropriation of culture, tradition, and religion as justifications for male dominance. Access to paid work, reproductive services, and justice mechanisms was also identified as crucial in the struggle for gender equality. Samar received the Right Livelihood Award in 2012 “for her longstanding and courageous dedication to human rights, especially the rights of women, in one of the most complex and dangerous regions in the world.”
Mozn Hassan, founder of Nazra for Feminist studies, is one of the defendants in the well-known NGO Foreign Funding case targeting civil society organisations in Egypt. Her career’s focus on sexual and reproductive rights adds additional restrictions to her work. In July 2018, she was charged with, among other things, establishing an entity in violation of the law and receiving foreign funding with the intention of harming national security. The charges – which are clearly politically motivated – could lead to life imprisonment. Hassan could not attend the event due to a travel ban imposed by the Egyptian government since 2016. However, via video message, she conveyed the serious dangers for human rights defenders, ranging from asset freezing to arrests, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances. On top of this, women must confront gender-specific threats from state and non-state actors. As Mozn noted, “women are facing various gender-based violence in their custodies from harassment to threats of rape.” Mozn Hassan received the Right Livelihood Award together with Nazra in 2016 “for asserting the equality and rights of women in circumstances where they are subject to ongoing violence, abuse and discrimination.”
Helen Mack Chang, who has persistently sought justice and an end to impunity in Guatemala as head of the Myrna Mack Foundation, emphasised that women often suffer multiple dimensions of discrimination. Indigenous women, for instance, “suffer double discrimination (…) when defending their land or territory against the claims of international corporations.” She noted that recent years have seen a resurgence of conservatism and of global threats to the rule of law and democracy. Corruption and impunity, she stressed, go to the heart of this challenge, in Guatemala and elsewhere. Helen Mack Chang received the Right Livelihood Award in 1992 “for her personal courage and persistence in seeking justice and an end to the impunity of political murderers.
Ruth Manorama is India’s most effective organiser of, and advocate for, Dalit women, belonging to the “scheduled castes” sometimes also called “untouchables.” She is, among other things, President of the National Alliance of Women (NAWO) and National Convenor to the National Federation of Dalit Women. Ruth called for counter-narratives to combat the negative view of human rights defenders in the media. In India, for instance, activists are routinely called “enemies of the State,” “militants,” “anti-nationals,” “traitors,” and “terrorists.” She stated: “I am a patriot. I am an Indian citizen. I must enjoy my constitutional rights. (…) Protecting human rights defenders is a state obligation.” Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to systematic sexual abuse at work, forced sexual slavery such as the Devadasi system, and forced labour. Manorama received the Right Livelihood Award in 2006 “for her commitment over decades to achieving equality for Dalit women, building effective and committed women’s organisations and working for their rights at national and international levels.”
Charlotte Dos Santos Pruth is an Advocacy and Policy Advisor at Kvinna till Kvinna, a Swedish organisation working to strengthen and promote women’s organisations in several regions of the world. She presented the findings of their recent report, “Suffocating the movement – shrinking space for women’s rights”, which identifies the main effects of shrinking civic space for women. “A strong feminist movement is the single most important factor to advance women’s rights and gender equality”, she stated, adding that women often have limited access to formal decision-making processes. “This makes defending civil society space particularly crucial”, Dos Santos Pruth continued by saying. She suggested that addressing the lack of funding for women’s organisations would be an important first step.
The speakers brought together experiences from very different cultural contexts. Nevertheless, there were important parallels in their descriptions of defending human rights on the ground. The panellists all showed that the crackdown on women human rights defenders must be viewed within the context of other global trends including growing material inequality, counter-terrorism, corporate impunity, environmental degradation, and corruption. As Sima Samar pointed out, in this worrying global landscape, international solidarity must remain an important principle. In her words: “We don’t only need women in positions of power, we need feminist women; women who don’t support male domination in order to keep their own space and position”.