#WPSAdvice on Women Human Rights Defenders

by Rachel Vincent and Jackie Hansen

Rachel Vincent is the Director of Advocacy and Media at the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Follow her @Rachel_NWI. Jackie Hansen is the Gender Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International Canada. Follow her @AI_WomenRights

Iran may be one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a woman human rights defender, and no one knows that better than Nasrin Sotoudeh. The country’s most prominent women human rights defender has spent her life speaking truth to power, at enormous personal cost. 

A 2010 conviction of “conspiring against state security” put her in prison for three years, most of them in solitary confinement, and she endured two life-threatening protest hunger strikes. Then, earlier this year, Nasrin, now 56, was again jailed and convicted in absentia of national security offences—including stoking “corruption and prostitution,” for her defense of women arrested for peacefully protesting against an Iranian law which compels women to wear hijab (headscarf) and loose clothing.   Nasrin has been jailed for defending the right of women to choose whether or not they wear hijab.

Nasrin is a lawyer—and brings legal skills to her work as a defender of human rights. But women human rights defenders come from all walks of life, and also include peacebuilders, journalists, doctors, farmers, politicians, and leaders of social movements. What they all have in common is that they face heightened risks because of their gender, along with other aspects of their identity such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity and/or expression.  They are also not afraid of taking on the status quo—the very social fabric of society that permits using someone’s gender or identity as a basis for discrimination. 

Around the world, women human rights defenders are proving to be effective leaders in challenging populist and authoritarian forces that seek to undermine democracy and global progress on ensuring basic rights.  Most recently in Sudan, women played a leading role in the recent protests against the military dictatorship, and were specifically targeted for their activism by security forces that violently attacked the demonstrations and detained hundreds of people. 

This kind of targeting is part of a worrying global trend.

In March 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders reported “a worrying rise in misogynistic, sexist and homophobic speech by prominent political leaders in recent years, normalizing violence against women and gender non-conforming persons” and that women human rights defenders have reported “increased repression, violence and impunity.” In May 2019, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm at the number of human rights defenders, including women, community leaders, Afro-Colombians, Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and journalists, killed in Colombia – 51 activists in four months. 

It is abundantly clear that threats to women human rights defenders undermine global efforts to prevent conflict and sustain peace. The lack of recognition for the legitimate work of all human rights defenders—including women—creates a context that enables all kinds of attacks, including physical, legislative, judicial and digital, to take place.  

Women human rights defenders around the world are being targeted, smeared, stigmatized, harassed, marginalized in movements and communities, assaulted, and killed because of who they are and because of the rights they are peacefully defending. These rights violations must stop, and Canada, with its Feminist Foreign Policy, Feminist International Assistance Policy, and National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, must consistently advocate for laws, policies and practices which lead to women human rights defenders being targeted and criminalized to be changed; must support women human rights defenders to conduct their advocacy in a safe and enabling environment; and must support women human rights defenders who must temporarily or permanently relocated outside their home country because of threats against them.

Recognizing the profound and increasing threats to women human rights defenders the world over, in 2019, a Parliamentary Committee conducted a study on women human rights defenders. Its final report includes four recommendations to the government of Canada to take urgent action in support of women human rights defenders. Canada’s 43rd Parliament would do well to take these recommendations as a starting point for action on this issue. 

Here is our #WPSAdvice to the new government on how it can be a powerful and effective champion of women human rights defenders:

  • Ensure that a whole-of-government approach for protecting and promoting the work of women human rights defenders is integrated into Canada’s National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security.
  • Implement the recommendations of the 2019 Parliamentary Committee study on women human rights defenders.
  • Recognize the collective rights of the movements that support women human rights defenders—including peace, labour, environmental, Indigenous, feminist and LGBTI rights movements.  These movements are under threat, and need Canada’s support.
  • Ensure effective and transparent across-the-department (trade, diplomacy and international development) implementation of Voices at Risk, Canada’s guidelines to support human rights defenders. 
  • Develop and provide ample funding for a rapid response protocol and re-location mechanism that builds upon the new Voices at Risk guidelines, and ensures its implementation really meets the needs of women human rights defenders when they are most at risk.
  • Engage with women human rights defenders through the movements and civil society organizations that support them, and include their participation in advisory committees. Put their voices at the centre of our efforts to support them.

Please note that the views in these blog posts are those of the authors and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.