Women Human Rights Defenders and Safety

In partnership with UN Women, The Advocates for Human Rights created the following section for UN Women's Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls. This section, along with sections addressing the role of the justice sector in ending violence against women, may be found under Justice at www.endvawnow.org.

Protect Women's Safety in All Aspects of Programme Work

Women’s safety must be the top priority in justice reform initiatives. Protecting women’s safety also means ensuring safety for Women Human Rights Defenders.

Working to reform the informal justice sector can be particularly dangerous for women’s advocates. Challenges related to the informal sector, including logistics, perceptions of supernatural power, and the political nature of justice sector reform can lead to increased risks. Especially for advocates working in isolated communities, challenging the established order can lead to ostracism and an increased risk of violence. Women human rights defenders are subject to specific types of violence, risks, and constraints because of their work on gender issues. The following are types of violations that women’s human rights defenders often confront:

  • Attacks on life, bodily and mental integrity
    • Killing and attempted killing
    • Disappearance
    • Torture; cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment
    • Rape, sexual assault and abuse
    • Domestic violence
    • Excessive use of force
  • Physical and psychological deprivation of liberty
    • Arbitrary arrest and detention
    • Administrative detention
    • Kidnapping / abduction
    • Psychiatric incarceration
  • Attacks against personhood and reputations
    • Threats, warnings, and ultimatums
    • Psychological harassment
    • Blackmail and extortion
    • Sexual harassment
    • Sexuality-baiting
    • Slander, vilification, labeling, and smear campaigns
    • Hate speech
    • Stigmatization, segregation and ostracism
  • Invasion of privacy and violations involving personal relationships
    • Raids of offices or homes
    • Attacks and intimidation of family and community members
  • Legal provisions and practices restricting women’s activism
    • Restrictive use of customary law and legal frameworks based on religion
    • Criminalization and prosecution
    • Illegal investigation, interrogation, surveillance, and blacklisting
    • Laws formulated against non-governmental organizations
    • Sanctions in the workplace
  • Violations of women’s freedom of expression, association, and assembly
    • Restrictions on freedom of association
    • Restrictions on the right to receive funding
    • Restrictions on freedom of expression
    • Restrictions on access to information
    • Restrictions on communication with international bodies
    • Restrictions on freedom of assembly
  • Gendered restrictions on freedom of movement
    • Requirement of permission or denial to travel abroad
    • Internal travel restrictions or obstruction
    • Denial of visas for travel
    • Deportation
  • Non-recognition of violations and impunity

Documentation of violations perpetrated against women human rights defenders is an important component of the work. When documenting violations against human rights defenders, much of the same information should be gathered as in any human rights documentation case, but information should be collected that makes a clear link between the work on justice sector reform or other human rights violations and the abuses that were perpetrated. Source: Oxfam 2007.

List of Materials and Resources for Women Human Rights Defenders (AWID, 2010). Available in English.

Claiming rights, Claiming Justice: A Guidebook on Women Human Rights Defenders (Oxfam, 2007). Available in EnglishSpanishFrenchThaiArabic

There are many ways that women human rights defenders can enhance their safety and hold perpetrators of violations accountable. Some of the most commonly used methods include (Oxfam, 2007; Australian Agency for International Development, 2008):
  • Using action alerts or urgent appeals. See FrontLine for examples of urgent appeals on behalf of human rights defenders.
  • Using awareness campaigns to spread the word about women HRDs under threat
  • Emergency support in the form of calls and faxes to authorities, funds for medical or legal expenses, temporary relocation, etc. FrontLine hosts a 24-hour emergency phone line for human rights defenders at risk.
  • Participating in networks of advocates
  • Building supportive activities into programming can help reduce burnout and maintain safety.
  • Awards nominations or seeking leadership roles in human rights groups can raise the profile for women HRDs who are under threat and change the cost benefit analysis for those who seek to harm or silence them
  • Seeking support from national human rights institutions. For more information about working with national human rights institutions, see NHRI Forum.

What’s the point of revolution if we can’t dance?, a guide to self-care for women’s rights advocates available in EnglishFrenchSpanishSerbian, and Albanian.