Original HRC document


Document Type: Final Report

Date: 2019 Jan

Session: 40th Regular Session (2019 Feb)

Agenda Item: Item3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development



Human Rights Council Fortieth session

25 February–22 March 2019

Agenda item 3

Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil,

political, economic, social and cultural rights,

including the right to development

Situation of women human rights defenders

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights



In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights

defenders, Michel Forst, reviews the situation of women human rights defenders, covering

the period since the issuance, in 2011, of the last report by the mandate holder on this topic

(A/HRC/16/44 and Corr.1). He focuses in particular on the additional gendered risks and

obstacles women human rights defenders face and recognizes their important role in the

promotion and protection of human rights. The Special Rapporteur refers to the relevant

normative framework for the work of women human rights defenders, describes the

challenging environments in which they operate and analyses the impact of patriarchy and

heteronormativity, gender ideology, fundamentalisms, militarization, globalization and

neoliberal policies on the rights of such defenders. He also refers to the situation of specific

groups of women human rights defenders.

The report contains recommendations and examples of good practices to support the

building of diverse, inclusive and strong movements of women human rights defenders,

and recommendations addressed to all stakeholders to ensure that women defenders are

supported and strengthened to promote and protect human rights.

United Nations A/HRC/40/60

I. Introduction

1. Women the world over have played a crucial role in advancing human rights. Not

only have they shaped the architecture of the current international human rights system and

held leadership roles in government, civil society and business but they also engage in daily

acts “in small places, close to home”1 that result in the enjoyment of a wide range of human


2. Although often ignored, women have been at the forefront of social change

throughout history. Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force behind the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights. In 1956, 20,000 women of diverse backgrounds mobilized to

protest apartheid in Pretoria. Tawakkol Karman in Yemen and Asmaa Mahfouz in Egypt

played critical roles in sparking the mass uprisings in 2011 that led to regime change.

Eleven-year-old Malala Yousafzai wrote about her life under the Taliban in 2009 and

continues to be a passionate advocate for the right to education. In 2016, on what was

known as Black Monday, thousands of women and girls in more than 60 Polish cities took

to the streets, successfully stopping a total ban on abortion. In 2017, women and girls

launched the powerful #MeToo movement, which continues to reverberate globally.

3. Women of diverse backgrounds promote and protect rights in very different

contexts. There are, for instance, women calling for gender equality, indigenous women

fighting for land and environmental rights, women in rural areas pressing for

socioeconomic rights, girls campaigning on social issues, trans women speaking up against

discrimination, lesbians calling for equality, migrant and refugee women advocating for

their rights and security, homeless women demanding the right to housing and shelter,

women fighting for justice for the disappeared, gender non-conforming persons resisting

gender-based violence, women promoting choice and bodily autonomy, women expanding

digital rights, women with disabilities fighting for independent living and women involved

in peace processes.

4. They include women human rights lawyers representing victims in court, women

journalists exposing issues of interest to the public, women union leaders calling for labour

rights, women politicians and parliamentarians debating public issues, women judges

upholding rights though the law, women in the police and the military protecting

populations, women in the civil service developing policies, women in academia teaching

and researching human rights, women leading communities, non-profit organizations and

social movements for transformative change, women in intergovernmental organizations

working with States to fulfil rights obligations, and women humanitarian workers,

development workers and health workers providing access to essential services.

5. Because of decades of action by feminist defenders, women in many places now

enjoy greater equality, including before the law, in politics, education, workplaces and

marriage and at home. Because of feminist defenders, more women are able to enjoy the

right to vote, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to privacy, the right to family life,

sexual and reproductive rights and many other rights.

6. Nevertheless, many women defenders continue to face significant risks in their

human rights practice. They often face the same risks that defenders who are men face, for

women defenders, too, are subject to restrictions on rights and fundamental freedoms and

live in the same social, cultural and political milieux that shape responses to human rights.

However, women defenders often face additional and different risks and obstacles that are

gendered, intersectional and shaped by entrenched gender stereotypes and deeply held ideas

and norms about who women are and how women should be. Women, for example, can be

stigmatized for the very same actions for which men are venerated. Women are often

perceived not as agents of change but as vulnerable or victimized persons in need of

protection by others, typically men. The rights of women to promote and protect human

1 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Where do human rights begin?”, in Courage in a Dangerous World, Allida M.

Black, ed. (New York, Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 190.

rights continue to be challenged by those who believe that women do not have these rights

or that they should fight for them only in limited, circumscribed ways.

7. In the current political climate, in which there is a backlash against human rights,

women defenders are often the first to come under attack. In the present report, the Special

Rapporteur calls on the international community to recognize the specific issues, challenges

and risks that women defenders face in diverse circumstances and to ensure that such

defenders are recognized and supported and enabled to participate equally, meaningfully

and powerfully in the promotion and protection of human rights.

II. Methodology

8. The present report is based on numerous discussions that the Special Rapporteur has

had with women human rights defenders around the world since the beginning of his

mandate. The Special Rapporteur considers the security and protection of women human

rights defenders to be a core aspect of his work and, wherever possible, has sought

opportunities to meet and hear directly from them on official country visits and academic

visits. The report draws on these discussions and on consultations held with women human

rights defenders for the preparation of the present report in New York, Beirut, Geneva and

Bali (Indonesia).

9. The report also draws on 181 communications concerning women human rights

defenders sent to 60 States by the Special Rapporteur between 2 July 2014 and 2 October

2018. In those communications, the Special Rapporteur highlighted concerns about: the

inclusion of women human rights defenders on a list of terrorists; death threats and

harassment; defamation; smear campaigns; raids; deportation proceedings; interrogation;

travel bans; asset freezes; surveillance; arrests and judicial harassment; detention, including

incommunicado; mistreatment and denial of health care in detention; criminalization;

attempted killings; killings; and disappearances.

10. Finally, it also draws on over 200 responses to the Special Rapporteur’s survey,

which were collected with the help of the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the

University of York, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The aim

of the survey was to gather information on women human rights defenders from States,

national human rights institutions, civil society organisations, human rights defenders and

other stakeholders. The respondents expressed concern about the situation of women

human rights defenders at risk around the world and called for their recognition, security

and protection.

III. Definition and normative framework

A. Definition

11. As women human rights defenders have observed, women are attacked for

promoting and protecting human rights because of their identity and because of what they

do. 2 Many women exercise rights described in the Declaration on the Right and

Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect

Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Declaration on Human

Rights Defenders) without identifying as women human rights defenders. Some women are

unfamiliar with the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders or the term “human rights

defenders”. Some, for their own safety, deliberately avoid referring to their actions as being

related to human rights. Some frame their work in different ways to access much-needed

funding and support. Many women are engaged in the defence of human rights on a

voluntary basis, outside professional or employment-related roles.

2 Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, Global Report on the Situation of Women

Human Rights Defenders (2012); A/HRC/16/44 and Corr.1.

12. The present report is focused on women engaged in the promotion and protection of

human rights. References to women in the report also include girls and gender non-

conforming persons affected by social constructions of women who promote and protect all

types of rights. It builds on the foundational work of previous mandate holders Hina Jilani

and Margaret Sekaggya in this area, including the report on the situation of women human

rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues presented to the

Human Rights Council in 2011 (A/HRC/16/44 and Corr.1). Although the definition of

defenders of women’s human rights includes persons of all genders working on women’s

rights and gender issues, the focus of the present report is specifically on women who

promote and protect human rights and the ways of building diverse, inclusive and strong

movements of women human rights defenders around the world.

B. Normative framework

13. The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders sets out the rights of human rights

defenders and states that everyone has the right, individually and in association with others,

to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental

freedoms at the national and international levels (art. 1).

14. The right to participate in public life, including the promotion and protection of

human rights, is contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 25 of

the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both instruments also enshrine the

rights of everyone to freedom of expression, opinion, association and assembly. Article 3 of

the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires States parties to undertake

to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights

set forth in the Covenant, while article 3 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social

and Cultural Rights states the same in relation to economic, social and cultural rights.

Equality before the law is recognized in the former Covenant (art. 26).

15. In its general comment No. 36 (2018) on article 6 of the Covenant, on the right to

life, the Human Rights Committee states that the duty to protect the right to life requires

States parties to take special measures of protection for persons in situations of

vulnerability whose lives have been placed at particular risk by specific threats or pre-

existing patterns of violence, including human rights defenders. The Committee likewise

states that article 6 also reinforces the obligations of States parties under the Covenant and

the Optional Protocol to protect individuals against reprisals for promoting and striving to

protect and realize human rights, including through cooperation or communication with the

Committee, and that States parties must take the necessary measures to respond to death

threats and to provide adequate protection to human rights defenders, including the creation

and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for defending human rights.

16. Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination

against Women states that States parties must take all appropriate measures to eliminate

discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in

particular, must ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right (a) to vote in all

elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies,

(b) to participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof

and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government and

(c) to participate in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and associations concerned

with the public and political life of the country.

17. In its general recommendation No. 33 (2015) on women’s access to justice, the

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women states that other factors

that make it more difficult for women to gain access to justice include the stigmatization of

women fighting for their rights. That human rights defenders and organizations are

frequently targeted because of their work, the Committee also states, must be emphasized

and their own right to access justice protected (para. 9). In general recommendation No. 35

(2017) on gender-based violence against women, updating general recommendation No. 19,

the Committee states that discrimination against women is inextricably linked to other

factors that affect their lives, such as the stigmatization of women who fight for their rights,

including human rights defenders (para. 12). States parties are called on to encourage the

media to eliminate discrimination against women, including the harmful and stereotypical

portrayal of women or specific groups of women, such as women human rights defenders,

from their activities (para. 30).

18. In its general comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the

child during adolescence, the Committee on the Rights of the Child states that States should

guarantee that adolescents’ right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly in all its

forms is fully respected, consistent with the restrictions delineated in article 15 (2) of the

Convention on the Rights of the Child, including through the provision of safe spaces for

both girls and boys. Measures should also be introduced to protect adolescent human rights

defenders, particularly girls, who often face gender-specific threats and violence (para. 45).

On 28 September 2018, the Committee held a day of general discussion on protecting and

empowering children as human rights defenders.

19. States have an obligation to protect women human rights defenders and ensure a safe

and enabling environment for actions related to human rights. On 18 December 2013, the

General Assembly adopted by consensus a landmark resolution on women human rights

defenders, resolution 68/181, in which it called on States to, inter alia, protect women

human rights defenders, respect and support their activities, condemn and prevent human

rights violations and abuses as well as violence and discrimination against them, create a

safe and enabling environment for the defence of human rights with a gender perspective,

ensure that they can engage in peaceful protests, ensure that the promotion and protection

of human rights are not criminalized and refrain from any act of intimidation or reprisal

against them or their family members and associates for their cooperation with international


20. In its resolution 72/247, adopted in December 2017 in advance of the twentieth

anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 2018, the General Assembly

continued to express particular concern about systemic and structural discrimination and

violence faced by women human rights defenders of all ages, and reiterated its strong call

upon States to take appropriate, robust and practical steps to protect women human rights

defenders and to integrate a gender perspective into their efforts to create a safe and

enabling environment for the defence of human rights, as called for by the Assembly in its

resolution 68/181.

21. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has adopted several

resolutions recognizing the threats and attacks against women human rights defenders in

Africa and the need for measures to protect them and promote their work,3 including the

Resolution on Measures to Protect and Promote the Work of Women Human Rights

Defenders of 2016.4 The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also called

frequently on States in the region to take urgent measures to protect women human rights


22. In a statement given on International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, 29

November 2018, by the Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender

Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka,

women human rights defenders were recognized as key to the realization of the Beijing

Declaration and Platform for Action. They also play a critical role in the 2030 Agenda for

Sustainable Development, through which Governments have committed to achieving

gender equality and empowering all women and girls (Sustainable Development Goal 5)

and other gender-specific targets.

3 Including ACHPR/Res.376 (LX) 2017, ACHPR/Res.345 (LVIII) 2016 and ACHPR/Res.245 (LIV)


4 ACHPR/Res.336 (EXT.OS/XIX) 2016.

IV. Background and environment

23. In recent years, there have been significant gains for gender equality in

intergovernmental spaces. However, greater resistance to the work of women human rights

defenders has also emerged, at multiple levels and in many spaces.

24. These forms of resistance are linked to wider political developments, such as the rise

of populism, fundamentalism and violent extremism. There has been 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. Women human

rights defenders stress that they have been facing increased repression, violence and

impunity despite formal State commitments to respect, protect and fulfil their legal human

rights obligations without discrimination. In some cases, State actors have engaged in direct

attacks against women defenders and their families, including through defamation

campaigns, judicial harassment and criminalization. An increasing number of States in the

global North and South have been restricting civil society space, imposing legal and

administrative requirements that curtail the rights to freedom of opinion, expression,

association and assembly.

25. A significant issue for women defenders is the reduction of funding for women’s

rights in recent years. In a study by a subsidiary body of the Development Assistance

Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it was found

that in 2014, only 0.5 per cent ($192 million) of aid for gender equality went to women’s

rights organizations in the North and South, compared to 1.2 per cent in 2011.5 Ninety-two

per cent of the funding for gender equality went to international NGOs or NGOs in the

donor country, and only 8 per cent to NGOs in developing countries.

26. Restrictive donor policies have also had a distinct impact on women defenders. For

example, the policy of the United States of America entitled “Protecting Life in Global

Health Assistance” (known as the global gag rule), which was introduced in 2017, requires

NGOs receiving funding from the United States to certify that they do not engage in certain

abortion-related activities, including counselling, referrals and advocacy on access to safe

services. The policy has had an adverse impact on women defenders working on sexual and

reproductive rights, HIV, sexual orientation and gender identity rights and sex workers’

rights. It has reduced access to services for marginalized women, threatened the integration

of health services and created division in civil society around the world.6

27. Efforts to question, subvert or co-opt international human rights law and weaken

multilateral cooperation have also been made. There have been attempts to instil fear and

sow discord between and within rights-based movements. There has also been renewed

emphasis on “traditional values” and a resurgence of conservative narratives suggesting that

the role of women should be limited to the private sphere, family and procreation. These

trends subvert efforts to ensure that women in diverse circumstances enjoy substantive

equality and the freedom to voice their opinions and participate meaningfully in processes

that have an impact on their lives.

V. Contexts and root causes of violations

28. The reasons behind the targeting of women defenders are multifaceted and complex

and depend on the specific contexts that they act in. Women defenders are often perceived

as challenging traditional notions of family and gender roles in society, a perception that

can generate hostility from State actors and from the public, the media and other non-State

actors. They can be stigmatized and ostracized by community leaders, faith-based groups,

5 OECD DAC Network on Gender Equality (GENDERNET), “Donor support to southern women’s

rights organizations” (November 2016).

6 International Women’s Health Coalition, Reality Check: Year One Impact of Trumps Global Gag

Rule (2018).

families, neighbours and communities in the belief that they and their actions are a threat to

religion, honour, culture or ways of life.

29. Social constructions of gender are shaped by patriarchy and heteronormativity. 7

Patriarchy – the privileging of men in social relations – often results in the

disempowerment of women and their exclusion from decision-making processes.

Patriarchal ideas circumscribe how and when women exercise voice and agency in the

private and the public spheres. Similarly, heteronormativity – the privileging of

heterosexuality and the rigid definition of gender identities, sexualities, and gender relations

– reinforces clear distinctions between men and women. Heteronormative ideas render

gender non-conforming persons invisible and reproduce expectations about how women

and men should express their sexuality and gender; those who do not conform are cast as

“deviant”, “abnormal” or “wicked”. Human rights defenders whose actions are perceived as

challenging patriarchal and heteronormative systems tend to face threats and attacks, as

they question understandings of women’s identity and their place and role that are taken for

granted and disrupt gendered power relations.

30. In some societies, the risks that women human rights defenders face are also shaped

by their position in castes, tribes, clans, ethnicities or races and nations. Fundamentalist

ideologies simplify and homogenize identities; those who do not conform are excluded, or

even punished for their “deviance”. Aggressors also stoke nationalist fears of women

defenders, accusing them of being anti-national or foreign agents who are spreading foreign

ideas and practices.

31. Of deep concern is the rise of the concept of “gender ideology” as posited by

religious leaders, politicians and members of conservative groups, who, misunderstanding

and misusing gender matters, describe the “ideology” as a threat to religious values, the

family and morals in society (A/HRC/38/46, para. 14). In this view, put forward with

particular vehemence in Latin America and Eastern Europe, “gender ideology” is

positioned as the attempt by defenders of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and

transgender persons and those of other diverse orientations and gender identities, and by

feminists, to destabilize the political and social order; the supposed threat is being used to

shape political outcomes and justify discrimination.

32. In some regions, militarization normalizes the use of force and violence; it often

results in the idealization of violent masculinities. Militarization often changes local

economies, affecting people’s access to their land, agriculture, water and resources. In

many places, communities are terrorized by different parties in a conflict, accused by each

of siding with the other. Ensuring security – particularly during and after conflicts and

foreign occupation – also disrupts economic activities, impoverishing communities. Actions

taken to prevent and counter violent extremism have resulted in women defenders being

labelled as potential terrorists, thus silencing legitimate, peaceful dissent. Women also often

find themselves excluded from peace processes.

33. Globalization and neoliberal policies have, moreover, led to economic

disempowerment and power inequalities that affect that the rights of women. Non-State

actors such as businesses, organized criminals, investors and financial institutions have

been growing in power and influence over States and societies. Projects carried out in the

name of economic development – for example, by extractive industries and agribusiness –

have resulted in environmental destruction, displacement and high levels of human rights

abuses and violence. Such projects often marginalize, impoverish and fragment

communities and families. Women defenders have been at the forefront of protesting such

changes and claiming their rights, often with far fewer resources than those whose actions

they resist.

34. The difficulty of gaining access to justice and impunity for violations increases the

risks faced by women defenders. In some contexts, people of different genders are not

equal before the law. Women may be subject to tribe- or clan-based systems of adjudication

7 Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, Gendering Documentation: A Manual for

and about Women Human Rights Defenders (2015).

that are independent of the laws of the State and can complicate their efforts to advance

human rights. Many women defenders struggle to afford the legal fees they must pay to

defend themselves from judicial harassment and criminalization. Reports to the police

about crimes committed against them sometimes go unheeded. Impunity for human rights

violations and abuses is a root cause of the threats and attacks they continue to endure.

VI. Gendered risks faced by women human rights defenders

35. The experiences of women defenders are diverse. They promote and protect human

rights in very different circumstances. In doing so, they generally face greater risks and

challenges than men do – risks that are gendered and intersectional. Aside from gender,

aspects of their identities, such as age, religion, ethnicity, class, immigration or legal status,

disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and the way those aspects

intersect shape the way women human rights defenders are perceived and treated. Women

defenders are not just targeted as individuals; they are also targeted because they belong to

networks, collectives and movements, and attacks against them are meant to serve as

warnings to others. Some of the risks and violations they experience have not been

sufficiently understood, analysed, documented and exposed; some have not been treated as

legitimate human rights concerns.

Non-recognition, marginalization and systematic exclusion

36. The first issue that women defenders face is that they and their actions are often

rendered invisible or their contributions marginalized, sometimes subtly. It is common for

their views to be ignored, treated with scepticism and belittled, including in human rights

movements. Women are often relegated to support roles in groups and organizations, while

men occupy formal positions and hold formal authority to make decisions that affect their

lives. Women often find it more challenging to gain access to information and participate

meaningfully in meetings and decision-making processes. Women defenders have

expressed deep concern about the reluctance of organizations and social movements to

address gender-based discrimination, violence, and the marginalization of women in their

own structures and practices.8

Public shaming, stigmatization, attacks on honour and reputation

37. A powerful way of attacking women defenders is to damage their “honour” or

reputation. Efforts to shame women have led to their stigmatization and isolation. In some

contexts, women are often reduced to their roles as mothers, daughters and caregivers rather

than seen as legitimate political and economic actors in all spheres of society. In particular,

in conservative societies, women defenders are derided for their efforts to create change.

They are labelled “bad mothers”, “difficult”, “loose”, “loud”, “nasty” or “witches”. They

are cast as “unbelievers”, “atheists”, “guerrillas”, “separatists”, “the enemy within”,

“traitors”, “anti-nationalists” or “terrorists”.

38. Sexuality baiting is a tactic commonly used to attack women defenders. Comments

and insinuations about their sexuality, sexual orientation and reproductive or marital status

are used to discredit their work. They are falsely accused of being promiscuous or engaging

in prostitution. They are referred to derogatorily as “divorcees” or “lesbians”.

39. Public shaming is an effective tactic because it alienates women, often turning

family members, colleagues and neighbours against them. Where families and communities

are the primary source of protection, this tactic can leave women defenders vulnerable to

physical attacks and psychological harm. As a result, some of them retreat to activities

permitted by custom and tradition, which are less heavily regulated by law.

8 Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting

Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations (2017).

Risks, threats and attacks in the private sphere and against families and loved ones

40. Women defenders face distinct risks in the private sphere. They have at times – girls

especially – been forcibly confined at home by family members to prevent them from

engaging in human rights activism. Some experience domestic violence because of their

activism, as partners or parents subject them to verbal and physical abuse to pressure them

into ceasing their efforts. They have been separated from their children by their husbands as

a form of punishment. Women are sometimes targeted on their way home or while they are

at home.

41. Family members and loved ones of women defenders – in particular, their children,

partners, relatives and close friends – have been targeted by aggressors to coerce them into

giving up their activism. Such attacks trigger deep feelings of guilt in women defenders;

this pain is deepened when others blame them for causing these attacks.

Physical attacks, sexual violence, torture, killings and enforced disappearances

42. The threat of violence, including sexual violence, is often used to silence women

defenders. Even rumours alone, for example, of sexual violence committed during

detention or imprisonment, can be damaging. Women defenders are also at risk of femicide,

rape, acid attacks, arbitrary arrest, detention, killings and enforced disappearances.

43. On 31 July 2018, anti-corruption campaigner Kateryna Handzyuk was attacked by

an unknown man with sulfuric acid in Kherson, Ukraine, and died three months later.9 Ms.

Handzyuk, a member of the executive committee of Kherson City Council, had exposed the

corruption of local authorities, including the police. The killing was one in a series of brutal

attacks against human rights defenders, for which few perpetrators have been brought to


44. The Special Rapporteur is concerned about the enforced disappearances of three

women defenders in Saudi Arabia – Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, 10 who had

campaigned for civil and political rights, including for the lifting of the ban on female

drivers and the end of the guardianship system that makes women legally and socially

dependent on men, 11 and Amal al-Harbi, who had campaigned for the release of her

imprisoned husband, Fowzan al-Harbi, a human rights defender. All three women were

arrested on 30 July 2018 by the Mabahith State security forces in the wake of a government

crackdown on public figures and other human rights defenders that began in September

2017 and a wave of arrests of women defenders in May 2018. They remain detained in the

Al-Mabahith prison in Dhahban.

Online harassment, violence and attacks

45. Women human rights defenders are often subjected to online harassment, violence

and attacks, which include threats of sexual violence, verbal abuse, sexuality baiting,

doxing (a practice in which private information about a person is shared online by others)

and public shaming. Such abuse occurs in comments on news articles, blogs, websites and

social media. The online terror and slander to which women are subjected can also lead to

physical assault. Women defenders have been maligned by “deepfake” videos, in which

images and videos are combined and manipulated to create computer-generated replicas of

them saying and doing things they have not done. Women are often unable to defend

themselves from these acts.

9 See also press release from International Federation for Human Rights dated 16 November 2018.

Available from www.fidh.org/en/issues/human-rights-defenders/ukraine-suspect-arrested-in-the-


10 References are made throughout the document to urgent appeals and allegation letters sent by the

Special Rapporteur. All such communications are available from

https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/Tmsearch/TMDocuments. With respect to Ms. Badawi and Ms. al-

Sadah, see UA SAU 11/2018.

11 Alkarama, “Saudi Arabia: crackdown on human rights defenders continues unabated” (9 August


46. In April 2018, Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub was subjected to an online

hate campaign and death threats when she was misquoted on Twitter.12 She was threatened

with sexual violence on social media and subjected to misogynistic vitriol and hate speech

for being a Muslim woman. A deepfake pornographic video manipulated to include her

face was circulated. She was doxed and bombarded with sexual messages. Her reports to

the police were not taken seriously, and the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.

Judicial harassment and criminalization

47. The Special Rapporteur has received many reports of women defenders being

subjected to judicial harassment and criminalization. Women defenders whose activism is

interpreted as a challenge to religious customs have been charged with blasphemy; women

who work on sexual and reproductive rights have been charged with violating so-called

public morality laws. False accusations have been made against women defenders, for

example, stating that they are engaged in adultery and prostitution or in terrorist acts. They

have also been subjected to strategic lawsuits against public participation by businesses, to

intimidate and silence them.

Denial of participation, restrictions and reprisals for engagement with international

and regional human rights systems

48. Women defenders have been excluded from engagement with multilateral

institutions, intergovernmental organizations and regional bodies on human rights issues;

some have been subjected to reprisals when they have engaged with them all the same.

States sometimes delegitimize their work, restricting or prohibiting their participation in

international meetings. NGOs have been excluded through the General Assembly’s no-

objection procedure, which allows Member States to veto the participation of any NGO

without providing a reason. Gaining access to international meetings often poses

challenges, such as obtaining visas and funding for travel and even entry to buildings.

Women defenders have also reported experiencing sexism, misogyny and racism in

multilateral spaces.13

49. A method of undermining women in civil society is the formation of government-

organized “NGOs”, which then make representations in intergovernmental spaces.14 Such

organizations advocate for the support of government policies, enabling States to claim that

they cooperate with and support civil society groups while sidelining their critics. They also

create an impression of conflict and fragmentation in civil society.

50. Women defenders have been subjected to travel bans, harassment, interrogation,

arbitrary detention and physical attacks before and after meetings. On 26 October 2017, for

example, five special procedure mandate holders expressed concern over allegations of

physical attacks, intimidation and harassment of the executive director of a coalition of

human rights defenders of Central Africa, Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, after she participated in

the review of Cameroon by the Human Rights Committee (A/HRC/39/41, annex I, para. 7).

51. Of concern to the Special Rapporteur is the withdrawal by the African Commission

on Human and Peoples’ Rights of the observer status of the Coalition of African Lesbians

on 8 August 201815 on the basis of a 2015 decision by the African Union Executive Council

wherein the Council considered the Coalition to be an NGO attempting to impose values

contrary to African values.16 As civil society organizations have noted,17 this withdrawal of

12 UA IND 10/2018.

13 Submission prepared by the Sexual Rights Initiative, International Women’s Health Coalition,

Independent Consultant Cynthia Rothschild and Association for Women’s Rights in Development.

Available at



14 Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Suffocating the Movement: Shrinking Space for Womens Rights


15 EX.CL./Dec.1015 (XXXIII), para. 8 (vii).

16 EX.CL./Dec.887 (XXVII), para. 7.

17 See http://independenceachpr.org/.

status raises concerns about the Commission’s independence and impartiality, views of

women’s rights and sexual rights and the space for defending human rights in the continent.

Threats to status

52. In some situations, women defenders have experienced threats to their status,

whether as citizens, migrants or refugees. In Bahrain, women defenders are at risk of

denaturalization. Some women defenders on the move are fearful that their work permits

may be revoked or their asylum claims jeopardized because of their activism (see

A/HRC/37/51). In November 2018, Ana Quirós, 18 director of the NGO Centro de

Información y Servicios de Asesoría en Salud, was stripped of her Nicaraguan citizenship

of over 20 years and deported to Costa Rica.

53. Women defenders who seek asylum in other countries are vulnerable to extradition

requests. According to information provided to the Special Rapporteur, in 2017, opposition

activist, journalist and blogger Zhanara Akhmetova, who had sought asylum in Ukraine,

was detained for a month in a pre-detention centre in Kyiv because of an extradition request

by Kazakhstan.

Physical incarceration

54. Some women are held against their will for their activism, for example in

immigration detention centres or psychiatric institutions. Young lesbian defenders have

been incarcerated and forced to undergo treatment to “correct” their homosexuality.19

55. According to information received by the Special Rapporteur, in March 2018, the

Kazakh activist and blogger Ardak Ashym was forcibly placed in a psychiatric facility for

over a month and subjected to psychiatric treatment, including with psychotropic drugs.20

She was accused of inciting social discord under article 174 of the Criminal Code of

Kazakhstan and of insulting a State official through the mass media under article 378. She

was released after international pressure and went abroad to avoid forced hospitalization.

Attacks against collectives and movements of women human rights defenders

56. At times, States specifically target feminists and movements of women defenders,

using different forms of repression, criminalization, hate speech and the incitement of


57. Since the outbreak of the political crisis in Nicaragua in April 2018, for example, the

Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative (IM-Defensoras) has

documented the cases of 273 women human rights defenders who have experienced 370

different types of attacks.21 More than a hundred such women were arbitrarily detained by

the police and/or paramilitaries, of which 53 remain detained and 40 have been formally

charged. Two trans women defenders were executed. Around 75 women defenders have

been forcibly displaced internally or externally, and 22 had to flee with their families.

Women defenders, their organizations and their families have experienced harassment,

surveillance and threats and have been slandered and defamed systematically by the

Nicaraguan Government and its allies.

VII. Challenges and risks faced by specific groups of women human rights defenders

58. A woman human rights defender may belong to several of the following groups.

18 AL NIC 4/2018.

19 Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, Claiming Rights, Claiming Justice: A

Guidebook on Women Human Rights Defenders (2007).

20 Amnesty International, “Kazakhstan: civil activist detained in psychiatric facility – Ardak Ashym”,

(27 April 2018).

21 Data are from the Nicaraguan Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative and the registry of attacks

against such defenders of IM-Defensoras (November 2018).

Girl human rights defenders

59. In August 2018, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden began a school strike on

Fridays to protest inaction by the Government of Sweden on climate change, inspiring

thousands of other students to do likewise in other countries. When she was 8 years old,

Amariyanna Copeny called attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in the United

States, by writing to President Barack Obama and continues to be a prominent activist.

Sixteen-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi was detained in December 2017 in connection

with her human rights work against Israeli occupation, land confiscation and settlement

construction. She was sentenced to eight months of imprisonment.22

60. Girls the world over promote and protect a wide range of rights – not just the right to

education and gender equality – but because of their age, dependent status and other aspects

of their identities they often face challenges. Perceived as too young or immature to

participate in human rights activism, they are often sidelined or just given token attention.

They are not given the same access to resources, knowledge and technologies as older

human rights defenders. Funding is often inaccessible, as most girls do not have the track

records and organizational structures required by funders. As they often lack the means to

support themselves independently, losing family support because of their activism can be

devastating. Support from fellow human rights defenders, especially girls, is crucial.

Gender non-conforming defenders

61. Gender non-conforming persons do not conform to gender norms in, for example,

their behaviour, dress or activities. They can be subjected to threats and attacks for their

gender non-conformity, including from fellow defenders.

62. The Special Rapporteur is concerned about the situation of student transgender

activist Victoria Obando, who was arrested by paramilitaries in León, Nicaragua, on 25

August 2018 for participating in student demonstrations against the Government. She

remains at risk of mistreatment while she is held in a men’s prison, La Modelo.

Indigenous women human rights defenders and women human rights defenders from

minority groups

63. Indigenous women defenders are often involved in protecting their rights to their

lands, territory and natural resources. They often resist the actions of corporations and local

authorities that are much better resourced. Geographically dispersed and often living in

rural areas, they can find it difficult to connect with fellow women defenders.

64. Women defenders belonging to minority groups are often at greater risk of prejudice

and discrimination because of their activism and their minority backgrounds. In

Chhattisgarh, India, for example, Adivasi schoolteacher Soni Sori continues to be

slandered, harassed and intimidated by the police for her activism.23 In February 2016, she

was the victim of an acid attack by unidentified assailants who warned her not to complain

about the Inspector General of Bastar District and threatened her daughter. In 2011, she was

arrested on eight charges. She was acquitted of seven of them and granted bail in

connection with the eighth. While in custody, she reported being tortured and sexually


65. Sudha Bhardwaj, a lawyer who assists Adivasis, Dalits, workers and farmers,

endured a vicious smear campaign and was arrested on 28 August 2018 under the Unlawful

Activities (Prevention) Act.24 Her house was raided, her personal items seized, and she has

been placed under house arrest.

22 UA ISR 1/2018.

23 AL IND 1/2016.

24 AL IND 16/2018; AL IND 21/2018.

Women human rights defenders with disabilities

66. Women defenders with disabilities often have a harder time defending their rights

because of their disabilities and the effects on their standard of living. Depending on the

disabilities and barriers in society they live with, they may face obstacles to

communication, social interaction and access to information and spaces of dialogue, as well

as financial precarity. They may need reasonable accommodations and specific support to

enable them to conduct activism, such as accompaniment, human and/or technical support

and transportation assistance. Those with disabilities such as autism may not perceive

danger signals and may be more vulnerable to violations and abuses.

Women journalists and lawyers

67. Women journalists and lawyers face high risks, often because, exposing issues and

challenging those in power, they are highly visible. In 2018 alone, three journalists were

victims of targeted attacks – Leslie Ann Pamela Montenegro del Real was killed in Mexico,

Maharram Durrani in Afghanistan and Wendi Winters in the United States. In 2017,

Reporters Without Borders notes, 10 women journalists were killed, often as they

persevered in the face of threats, harassment and intimidation. Women lawyers are

sometimes accused of protecting criminals or stigmatized for defending the rights of

marginalized minorities, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons and those

of other diverse orientations and gender identities. They are sometimes subjected to gender-

based discrimination by colleagues and judges and mistreated by the police.

Women human rights defenders in prominent and leadership positions

68. Women leaders who represent their groups and speak out on issues tend to be

targeted for their visibility – not only to silence them but also to discourage broader dissent.

69. In the Philippines, Senator Leila de Lima has been in detention since February 2017

for denouncing President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs, which has led to violence,

extrajudicial killings and human rights violations. 25 She has been held on politically

motivated, non-bailable charges for violating the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of

2002; while in detention, she has been subject to restrictions.

70. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines Maria Lourdes Sereno was

unseated in May 2018 by a Supreme Court decision widely considered unconstitutional.26

Ms. Sereno had objected to President Duterte’s policies on drugs and martial law, after

which he publicly pushed for her resignation. When she refused to resign, he pushed for her

impeachment, even ordering Congress to remove her. Also in the Philippines, award-

winning journalist Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of the news website Rappler, has

been indicted on tax evasion charges, in what is considered political persecution in response

to critical reporting on the Government.

Women human rights defenders in conflict and post-conflict situations and living

under occupation

71. Women often find it more challenging to promote and protect rights when they live

in insecure and unstable environments. Where non-State actors dominate, State authorities

may have little power or control. Religious non-State actors may impose restrictions on

behaviour and dress, subjecting women to discipline for perceived infractions.

72. For example, women living in Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh)

face restrictions that make it difficult and dangerous to engage in public spaces, much less

in human rights activism. In Afghanistan, women defenders have been displaced from

several provinces because of Taliban attacks, affecting their level of engagement. In

Yemen, they have experienced verbal and physical violence, and militant groups have

25 Amnesty International, “Philippines: drop politically motivated charges against Senator de Lima and

ensure her immediate and unconditional release” (27 August 2018).

26 Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, “Statement of the Commission on Human Rights

on the Supreme Court decision to oust Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno”, (15 May 2018).

broken into their homes and offices. In Sri Lanka, women defenders in grass-roots areas

documenting war crimes have been placed under surveillance. In the Occupied Palestinian

Territory, women defenders have faced severe restrictions on their activities, including

limitations on funding, and have been subject to the excessive use of force when they

engage in peaceful protests. Women are also often excluded from peace processes,

including in post-conflict settings.

Women human rights defenders on the move

73. Women defenders on the move include refugees, internal and international migrants,

internally displaced persons, victims of smuggling and trafficking and the stateless (see

A/HRC/37/51). They include women who have been forced into exile – temporarily or

permanently – because of the risks related to their activism. Women defenders on the move

face many restrictions. Those with precarious status and who live in irregular situations

often fear retaliation for their activism, including arrest, detention and deportation.

Women human rights defenders deprived of their liberty

74. Women in forced confinement struggle to advocate for their rights. They are at risk

of mistreatment, medical negligence, isolation, inhuman and degrading treatment and

torture. Women defenders have been coerced into signing confessions or have received

prison sentences in absentia despite being in government custody.

75. The Special Rapporteur is concerned about the situation of women defenders in Isa

Town Prison for women in Bahrain, who, as noted by civil society in a joint letter of

October 2018,27 were allegedly subjected to reprisals in September 2018 for the attention

drawn to their situation by the United Nations and the British Parliament. According to

reports, Hajar Mansoor Hasan,28 Najah Yusuf and Medina Ali were beaten harshly and kept

in isolation. Following the assault, Ms. Mansoor required hospitalization. Prison authorities

applied restrictions to all inmates and prison conditions deteriorated. On 14 October 2018,

the three women launched a hunger strike in protest over inhumane conditions.

76. The Special Rapporteur looks forward to the forthcoming report of the Working

Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice on women

deprived of liberty, to be presented at the forty-first session of the Human Rights Council in

June 2019.

Women human rights defenders working on land and environment rights

77. Global Witness reported that 2017 was the deadliest year on record for land and

environmental rights defenders. 29 Women defending their lands, territories and rights

related to the environment are often at a disadvantage in their activism. They are often

excluded from land ownership, community negotiations and decisions about the future of

their lands. When they engage in activism, they are often criticized for neglecting their

domestic duties and endangering their families. In some cases, perpetrators deliberately

target women in communities as a strategy of intimidation and fear.

78. Feminist indigenous leader Berta Cáceres30 was shot and killed at her home in La

Esperanza in Honduras in 2016. She had been facing sexual harassment, death threats and

spurious criminal charges for her work in defending land and environmental rights. While

eight men accused of her murder have been brought to trial, there are serious concerns,

including among the family members, about the conduct of the trial. The Special

Rapporteur continues to monitor developments in this case and urges the Government of

Honduras to ensure that the trial is fair.

27 Available at http://birdbh.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Joint-letter-by-NGOs-3-Bahraini-


28 UA BHR 4/2017.

29 Global Witness, At what cost? (2018).

30 AL OTH 8/2017, AL OTH 9/2017, AL HND 4/2017, AL HND 4/2016, UA HND 2/2016, UA HND


Women human rights defenders working on womens rights, gender equality, and

sexual and reproductive rights, including sexual orientation, gender identity and

gender expression

79. Persistent discrimination in family, cultural and sexual and reproductive rights have

a debilitating impact on the capacity of women to claim equal standing in all aspects of life

and promote and protect human rights.

80. Women working on women’s rights and gender equality act on diverse issues. They

highlight how laws and practices concerning inheritance, land and property leave daughters

and wives subjugated and impoverished. They act to eliminate domestic violence, incest,

early and forced marriage, marital rape and female genital mutilation. They call for women

and girls to have the autonomy to make decisions about their lives and their bodies and

access to safe and legal abortion.

81. These issues are often considered private or shameful matters, leading family

members to pressure the women to give up their advocacy efforts. These are also issues that

may be perceived as challenging religious and cultural norms and may trigger a backlash

from religious and conservative groups.

82. Women defenders also stress that when they provide direct assistance and support to

women survivors of violence, they put themselves in danger of harm. Safe houses or the

offices of women defenders who find themselves subject to stalking, intimidation and

threats sometimes receive no police protection.

Women defenders working on sex workers rights

83. Sex workers are often stigmatized and treated as if they are not deserving of rights.

Some sex workers who have sought help from the police for crimes perpetrated against

them have been ignored, mistreated and subjected to sexual violence. Women who defend

sex workers’ rights have also endured smear campaigns, threats and attacks.

84. Angélica Miriam Quintanilla, the director of Liquidambar, a sex worker-led

organization in El Salvador, was found murdered on 6 May 2016 in an area known for sex

work. There has been no progress in the investigation into her killing.

VIII. Building diverse, inclusive and strong movements of women human rights defenders

85. Women defenders advance rights both individually and collectively. They draw

strength and sustenance from each other, their families and communities. There are no short

cuts to building diverse, inclusive and strong movements of women defenders. It requires

the wholesale dismantling of harmful gender stereotypes and a radical reimagination of the

world so that understandings of gender are not used to legitimize the domination and

marginalization of women. Also required is an intersectional analysis of power relations

that clarifies how gender interacts with such factors as age, race, ethnicity and disability to

affect the risks and obstacles faced by women defenders and their space for action.

Everyone must question harmful gender stereotypes and reflect on how expectations,

conscious and unconscious biases and actions affect the rights and freedoms of women in

diverse circumstances. This requires State actors to meet their legal obligations, and non-

State actors to work with them. Recognition, commitment, resources and structural change

are required.

86. In consultation with women defenders, the Special Rapporteur has identified eight

interconnected priorities for action that require attention, resources and cooperation among

States, national human rights institutions, donors, civil society, human rights defenders and

other stakeholders.

Priority 1: Publicly recognize the importance of the equal and meaningful

participation of women human rights defenders at every level and in every institution

in society, devoting resources to achieve this aim in accordance with the principle of

substantive equality

87. There should be a significant increase in the number of women defenders

represented at all levels of decision-making in government, civil society and business.

Women defenders of all backgrounds and circumstances should be listened to and their

contributions taken seriously in a sustained manner. They should be invited not just to share

their experiences or stories; their expertise and perspectives should be valued.

88. A commitment to the equal and meaningful participation of women defenders must

be expressed publicly by leaders in all sectors of society. This message should be conveyed

consistently, including in political dialogue, media communications and education.

89. Where women defenders might face disadvantages that restrict their meaningful

participation in decision-making processes, tailored programmes should be developed to

ensure that they have the access to the knowledge, information and resources needed. Such

programmes should consider diversity among women, including their age, geographical

location, ethnicity, disabilities, religious beliefs, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity

and gender expression.

Priority 2: Ensure that women human rights defenders enjoy freedom of movement

and have safe spaces and communication channels that enable them to meet and share

ideas, experiences, resources, tactics and strategies regularly

90. Women human rights defenders need to be able to network, meet and communicate

regularly at the local, regional and international levels. Women defenders have emphasized

the importance of building partnerships and sister solidarities across geographical divides.

This is often more difficult for women living in developing countries, under repressive

regimes and in fragile and conflict-affected countries. These spaces and channels are also

opportunities for mutual capacity-building and thus to gain access to greater knowledge,

resources, skills and networks for their human rights practice.

91. Women defenders must define their own protection strategies in safe spaces.

Women-only spaces should cut across cultures, age groups and the rural-urban divide,

enabling women to raise common concerns, define collective action and, over time, develop

strong networks for greater influence and self-protection.

92. Safety networks diminish the isolation of women defenders and provide a sense of

belonging and support. They enable women defenders to better understand and confront

sexism and violence by fostering a shared understanding of the impact of these dynamics

and encouraging collective approaches to safety, well-being and survival. These contextual

analyses enable women and their organizations to strategize, respond to and prevent

violence. Such networks help women feel strong enough to push for more inclusive and

feminist social justice movements.

Priority 3: Build a safe and enabling environment for women and all other human

rights defenders to promote and protect human rights, ensuring that all non-State

actors respect human rights and that all State actors respect, protect and fulfil human


93. Protection begins with the creation and sustenance of an enabling environment for

the promotion and protection of human rights. States should disseminate and build

awareness of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders at all levels, for example,

through education in schools and public campaigns.

94. States must ensure that domestic laws and administrative practices recognize and

protect the rights of all persons to promote and protect human rights. Examples of good

practice include the January 2018 adoption by Mali of a law on human rights defenders that

includes specific protection for women defenders. Similarly, the Law on the Promotion and

Protection of Human Rights Defenders adopted by Côte d’Ivoire in June 2014 specifically

recognizes the threats faced by women defenders and their protection needs.

95. States must review, amend and repeal laws that restrict the rights of human rights

defenders, including the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, assembly and association.

Laws should not be used to harass or criminalize women defenders. Instead, laws should

protect women defenders from discrimination, marginalization, slander, hate speech and

hate crime, on- or offline.

96. National human rights institutions play an important role in monitoring and

investigating the situation of human rights defenders and should have the independence and

resources to achieve these aims, as noted in a report submitted by a previous mandate

holder (A/HRC/25/55).

Priority 4: Document and investigate all forms of risk, threats and attacks against

women human rights defenders, ensuring that perpetrators both State and non-

State actors are brought to justice and that these defenders have access to an

effective remedy, including gender-responsive reparations

97. The risks, threats and attacks faced by women defenders should be monitored and

trends analysed so that precautionary measures can be taken. States should clarify how and

with whom women defenders should report concerns and lodge complaints about risks,

threats and attacks. Reports of risks, threats, and attacks originating in both the private and

the public sphere should be taken seriously.

98. States should ensure the prompt and effective investigation of intimidation, threats,

violence and other attacks against women defenders, whether committed by State or non-

State actors. Prosecutors and judges should take these threats and attacks seriously,

operating independently and with gender sensitivity to ensure that perpetrators are brought

to justice while safeguarding the dignity and security of women defenders.

Priority 5: Develop protection mechanisms and initiatives that incorporate the Special

Rapporteurs seven principles underpinning good protection practices

99. Women defenders need access to the right protection initiatives and resources on an

ongoing basis, especially in emergencies. Funders have developed processes and

mechanisms to ensure that women around the world have access to fast, flexible and

responsive support when they face immediate threats. Other valuable responses include

urgent actions, emergency relocation, legal aid and accompaniment. Protection strategies

must focus on the gender-based violence faced by women defenders, including when it

occurs in families, organizations or communities.

100. The Special Rapporteur has previously highlighted seven principles that underpin

good protection practices, namely, they should adopt a rights-based, inclusive approach;

recognize that defenders are diverse and might not self-identify as human rights defenders;

exhibit gender sensitivity, with an intersectional approach to assessing risk and designing

protection initiatives; focus on the “holistic security” of defenders, in particular their

physical safety, digital security and psychosocial well-being; be oriented to protecting

groups, family members and loved ones, along with individual defenders; invite

participation, not least by involving defenders in the choice of strategies and tactics; and

prove flexible, so that the specific needs and circumstances of defenders are taken into

account (see A/HRC/31/55).

Priority 6: Recognize that security must be understood holistically and that it

encompasses physical safety, digital security, environmental security, economic

stability, the freedom to practice cultural and religious beliefs and the mental and

emotional well-being of women defenders and their families and loved ones

101. The security of women defenders is multidimensional and should not be understood

as physical safety alone. It is therefore critical for women defenders to be provided with

multidimensional forms of support. In the face of online attacks and increased surveillance

in particular, digital security has become increasingly important. Women defenders have

also highlighted concerns about their economic security and their mental and emotional


102. Support should be provided to women defenders so that they are able to acquire

knowledge and develop skills and capacities to conduct risk assessment and take mitigation

measures, develop individual and collective security plans and protocols, deal with

stigmatization, smear campaigns and online harassment, develop creative tactics and

strategies for advocacy that lower the risks of retaliation and engage in practices for self-

and collective care and well-being.

Priority 7: Recognize that sexism and discrimination against women, girl and gender

non-conforming defenders exist in communities and human rights movements and

take measures to address them

103. Women defenders and their contributions are often made invisible, including within

human rights movements. Those working on issues that challenge social, cultural or

religious norms have found that they receive limited support from fellow defenders. For

human rights movements to thrive, causes of discrimination, marginalization and

fragmentation within movements must be addressed. More effort is needed to build

solidarity between different groups in human rights movements and bridges with other


Priority 8: Ensure that funding enables women defenders in their diverse

circumstances to promote and protect human rights in a continuous, sustainable and

effective manner

104. The way funding operates is critical. Funding can strengthen and sustain women’s

participation in human rights movements, but it can also diminish it. Short-term, project-

oriented funding that does not cover staffing and core costs, for example, can be damaging

to smaller NGOs. Funds with highly bureaucratic reporting requirements can also be

inaccessible and impractical. Women defenders are chronically underfunded, especially

those working on politically sensitive topics. More should be done to ensure that women

working in grass-roots organizations, community-based organizations and small NGOs

receive the funding they need.

105. Funders should be attentive to the multidimensional security needs of women

defenders. Women defenders should be given the support they need to take measures for

their physical safety, digital security, economic security and mental and emotional well-

being. Such support might include making provision for security measures, security

training, training on software and hardware for digital security, legal aid, bail, emergency

relocation, health insurance, pensions, social security and well-being-related activities.

106. In one example of good practice, the With and For Girls Collective took 12 girl

activists from different countries to the Human Rights Funders Network conference in

Mexico City in October 2018. The girls developed 10 pledges that they would like funders

to make – namely, to fund capacity-building, networking and mentoring opportunities for

girl-led organizations; to fund informal, non-established groups; to make grant processes

more accessible; to increase core and long-term funding of girl-led and girl-centred groups;

to include girls in strategic decision-making; to acknowledge the intersectionality of girls’

issues; to ensure that there are protocols to give girls platforms from which to speak

candidly about issues, beyond the confines of organizational alignment; to see girls not as

trends or gimmicks but as real change makers; to collaborate with girls at the board level;

and to actively seek out diverse, marginalized and hard-to-reach groups.

IX. Conclusion and recommendations


107. In conclusion, the Special Rapporteur recognizes and celebrates the

significance of women defenders in the promotion and protection of human rights

worldwide. Women have been critical to the furtherance of human rights worldwide,

but, because of the way aspects of their identities and their actions are perceived, they

continue to face systematic discrimination, marginalization and repression. The

Special Rapporteur calls on all stakeholders to work together to ensure that women

defenders are supported and strengthened to promote and protect human rights.


108. The Special Rapporteur recommends that Member States:

(a) Protect the rights of women defenders, including by taking a public

stand against all State and non-State actors who violate these rights, ceasing all

attacks and threats against women defenders and investigating all that occur,

ensuring that impunity does not prevail;

(b) Ensure that women defenders enjoy a safe and enabling environment to

exercise their rights, considering their specific and diverse needs. This includes

addressing systemic and structural discrimination and violence that women defenders

experience and enacting laws that recognize and protect the rights of all human rights

defenders, with a specific focus on the needs of women defenders;

(c) Ensure that non-State actors including businesses, faith-based groups,

the media and communities meet their legal obligations to respect human rights. The

Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are key for business enterprises;

(d) Prioritize the protection of women defenders in online spaces and adopt

laws, policies and practices that protect their right to privacy and protect them from

libel and hate speech;

(e) Dedicate part of their budget to strengthening the participation of

women in human rights activities, ensuring that they are supported to respond

meaningfully to issues in a sustainable manner;

(f) Refrain from interfering with funding provided to women for human

rights work and ensure that legal and administrative frameworks do not restrict

access to funding for human rights activism;

(g) Address barriers to the participation of women defenders in public life,

including in regional and international human rights forums, such as travel bans, visa

restrictions and their lack of identity or travel documents and resources;

(h) Assess protection practices for women defenders against the seven

principles underpinning good protection practices and examine ways of strengthening

those practices.

109. The Special Rapporteur recommends that multilateral institutions,

intergovernmental organizations and regional bodies:

(a) Identify ways in which the right to promote and protect human rights

and womens rights are being opposed and take measures to counter regression;

(b) Ensure that women defenders who engage with multilateral institutions

and international and regional human rights bodies can do so without fear of

persecution or violence and that any allegations or instances of reprisals are promptly


(c) Recognize the initiatives, strategies and networks created by women

defenders themselves and ensure that they are adequately resourced;

(d) Strengthen and support womens leadership and feminist, community-

centred approaches to protection;

(e) Renew efforts to ensure the security, protection and well-being of women

human rights defenders, while respecting confidentiality, the need for informed

consent and the principle do no harm;

(f) Ensure that there is effective follow-up, implementation and

accountability for recommendations to Member States concerning the security and

protection of women defenders.

110. The Special Rapporteur recommends that national human rights institutions,

civil society, human rights defenders of all genders, donors and other stakeholders:

(a) Document, monitor and denounce the threats and attacks faced by

women defenders, highlighting whether perpetrators were brought to justice;

(b) Respond to women defenders concerns about sexism, discrimination

and marginalization within communities and human rights movements, including by

taking measures to prevent those phenomena;

(c) Develop and support specific programmes of work on the security and

protection of women defenders, recognizing their diversity;

(d) Develop a deeper understanding of how protection practices can be

gender-sensitive, by viewing them through the lens of intersectionality;

(e) Assess protection practices led by multiple stakeholders for women

defenders against the seven principles underpinning good protection practices and

examine ways of strengthening these practices.