For all its words about human rights and women’s issues, the United Nations has so far given lukewarm political support to defenders of gender rights worldwide — particularly women who defend women’s rights, a dangerous occupation in many regions. These women generally work in challenging circumstances, and their hard-won victories, by their own accounts, suffer a violent backlash in some of the world’s most traditional societies.
The UN has approved just one resolution on the work of women’s rights defenders, proposed by Norway and passed in December 2013 in the General Assembly, but it has proved too broad to be truly useful for activists working on the ground, say people in the field.
Meanwhile, to the chagrin of many activists, the political declaration issued on the first day of the 2015 Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which ran from March 9-20 at UN headquarters, contained no mention of human-rights defenders.
The 2013 resolution, like all documents approved by the General Assembly, is not binding, but it presents a moral basis on which governments must act and civil society interprets as a call from the international community.
The resolution has prompted initiatives at both national and regional levels to ensure its implementation, Hans Brattskar, the state secretary of Norway’s foreign ministry, said during a UN side event at the annual women’s meeting.
Cristina Hardaga Fernández, a representative of JASS, or Just Associates, in Mexico and Central America, an organization that works with more than 400 women’s rights defenders, said at the event that the resolution led to consultations in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras on it could be used “as a political tool on the grass-roots level.”
The resolution calls on countries to exercise due diligence in preventing violations and abuses against women who defend the rights of women, “who face particular risks” and recognizes their role in promoting “rights and fundamental freedoms.” These include “combating impunity, fighting poverty and discrimination and promoting access to justice and democracy.”
Although widely regarded as an invaluable cornerstone for women’s rights defenders, the shortcomings of the resolution begins with the definitions of a rights defender herself.
Mozn Hassan, the founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a group in Egypt, said that her group was not limiting the definition to defenders operating on a broad definition of human rights but on female activists who “are serving in the public space,” including those working on sexual and identity issues, she said.
The need for a more inclusive definition arises from increasing sexual violence, Hassan said, committed by countries and by nonstate actors in places where women are often harassed for occupying a role in the public sphere and for standing up for other females who are facing threats, Hassan added.
“One of the things we think we didn’t achieve [in the definition] is the role of those women working on the different violations that women have been through, like gender-based violence,” Hassan said.
The scope of the problems faced by women’s rights defenders in the developing world were painfully exposed by Mary Akrami the Afghan Women’s Network and the director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center. “A woman talking about women’s rights, that’s a disaster; that is not even acceptable for my family members, but I have kept up with my work,” Akrami said at the UN event. “As other workers, we are going farther and we will go further.”
Afghan Women’s Network has provided protection for thousands of women facing domestic violence who “would not be alive today,” she said, if they had not received help from activists.
In 2008, for example, Akrami was the first woman to be arrested by the attorney general in Afghanistan for protecting women, she said, and her marriage was canceled “because I was not seen as acceptable by my in-laws.”
Separately, in her report to the General Assembly during the debates on the women’s rights defenders resolution, Margaret Sekaggya, the UN special rapporteur on human-rights defenders, said that during her tenure, from 2008 to 2014, she highlighted the situation of more than 4,500 individuals, of whom approximately 950 were women. Her report said that only 40 percent of the responses from countries substantively addressed the issues raised in cases of rights violations.
In fact, Brattskar of Norway said at the recent event, the “special rapporteur noted a resurgence of reprisals against women’s human rights defenders.”
Showing support for women’s rights defenders in this year’s declaration from the Commission on the Status of Women would have been valuable, many activists said in interviews at the UN, including those representing indigenous women and the group Catholics for the Rights to Decide.
Activists said that such an endorsement would have been especially useful for women who work in places where, as Sekaggya said in her report, defending women’s rights “is often perceived as challenging accepted sociocultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society.”
For women’s rights defenders in Mexico and Central America, for example, the challenge is growing more complex. “In this context, powerful nonstate actors, such as religious hierarchies, organized crime, transnational monopolies and mining companies have gradually increased their control over our public entities,” Hardaga Fernández of JASS said.
Hardaga Fernández said later that although expectations were dashed regarding mention of women’s rights defenders in the political declaration, she was optimistic that the General Assembly resolution could still effect positive change on the ground.
“The resolution should be used as our political tool, and we expect that this year another reminder of that document passes in the General Assembly,” Hardaga Fernández said. “We think that it would be ideal that Norway promotes every two years this kind of instruments, and on that basis we could strive for more achievements.”
Madeleine Kuhns contributed to this article.