40/60 Situation of women human rights defenders - Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
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
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.
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
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
III. Definition and normative framework
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
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 Trump’s Global Gag
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
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
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
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.
14 Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Suffocating the Movement: Shrinking Space for Women’s 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
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
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
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
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 women’s rights, gender equality, and
sexual and reproductive rights, including sexual orientation, gender identity and
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
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
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
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
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
Rapporteur’s 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
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
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 women’s 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 women’s 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.