Women who step up to defend human rights are facing worsening obstacles amid a global trend of fundamentalism and populism, a group of United Nations experts has warned.
“In the face of rising populism and fundamentalisms and deplorable setbacks on the women's human rights agenda, we need more than ever to unite our forces to preserve the democratic space in which women human rights defenders represent an essential counter-power and a colossal force of action,” the experts said in a joint statement issued ahead of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on 29 November.
In the statement, the experts said women working for rights and equality faced unique and growing challenges driven by deep-rooted discrimination, with some being killed for their courageous stand and others facing violence, harassment, social stigma and sometimes imprisonment.
The UN experts are Alda Facio, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice; Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Dubravka Šimonoviæ Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.
“Every day, more women identify themselves as human rights defenders and undertake individually and collectively actions in pursuit of justice, equality, peace, and human rights for all,” they said, paying tribute to the hundreds of thousands of women working for equality and women's rights around the world.
“However, this participation has been limited by the discrimination which confronts women throughout the world. The very concept of feminism is too often misunderstood, denigrated and discredited, even by some in the human rights community,” they added.
The experts highlighted a host of specific challenges faced by women rights defenders – including misogynistic attitudes, threats of sexual assault, travel bans, lack of protection and access to justice, imprisonment, killings, laws which violate their rights, gender-based defamation questioning their “femininity” or sexuality, and gender stereotyping which questions their engagement in public life instead of sticking to their caretaker role in the family.
Women who denounce violence against women, particularly in rural or semi-urban areas, are also at high risk, along with those living in conflict areas and those facing social stigma because of their ethnicity, disability, age or sexual preference.
“This discrimination inhibits and discourages women who are agents of change but, out of fear of reprisals, do not even dare to identify themselves as human rights defenders.,” the experts said.
They urged all States to ratify and fully implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the milestone 2013 UN General Assembly resolution on protecting women human rights defenders,” which requires Member States to take concrete measures to end gender discrimination.