Nearly 200 activists from approximately 70 countries worldwide gathered yesterday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to begin an historic global gathering of women human rights defenders. The consultation meeting, attended by the First Lady of Sri Lanka, Shiranthi Rajapakse, is addressing experiences of women who defend a range of human rights issues, as well as women and men around the globe who defend the human rights of women.
The consultation is focusing on the challenges faced by women human rights defenders in their political organizing, including violence, harassment, and intimidation. Conference participants will promote a more nuanced understanding of the experience of women human rights defenders, and will devise practical strategies to address challenges such as a global rise in fundamentalisms and militarism, and a climate increasingly hostile to the work of political activists in various social movements. The gathering is linked to an international campaign entitled “Defending Women Defending Rights: the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders" (ICWHRD).
Launched in April 2004, ICWHRD is an international initiative for the recognition and protection of women activists who advocate the realization of human rights for all people. Formed as a coalition of women's rights and human rights organizations, the Campaign is rooted in overwhelming evidence that many women who are active in different aspects of human rights work routinely face harassment, abuse, violence, discrimination and marginalization. Human rights groups and UN experts have begun to document the fact that defenders are antagonized by governments, media, and police and within communities and families. Defenders are attacked because of their advocacy and because of their actual or assumed identitities.
In a keynote speech, Hina Jilani, the UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, spoke of an urgent need to identify and consider the special issues faced by women working in the human rights field in order to ensure that their important part in the struggle for universal human rights is fully recognized and valued. She noted that women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to attack because they often defy cultural norms of gender, heterosexuality and femininity in their identities and in the course of their advocacy. She pointed out that in addition to formal state structures, groups including religious movements, local communities and families are often responsible for these violations, and that it is vital for human rights strategies to take these actors into account.
Presenters addressed primary themes of the consultation, which include sexuality-based attacks, the persecution perpetrated by fundamentalist groups, and the significant role of family, community and state in creation of widespread marginalization of and discrimination and violence toward defenders.
Ruth del Valle, from Movimiento Nacional por los Derechos Humanos in Guatemala, described a culture of governments paying lip service to the principles of human rights in many parts of Latin America, describing this as a “dialogue of the deaf.” “Nobody actually hears what is being said. We complain and they listen, but there is no effective attempt to address the abuse. They use the fact that they listen as a smokescreen to claim they are interested in human rights.” She also talked about the attitude of many families to the mobilization and work of women human rights defenders, noting “There are many cases where men are supportive of the idea of human rights and women's rights in theory – yet they want their own women to stay at home for them and not to get involved personally.”
Ndeye Nafissatou Faye, from Reseau SIGGIL JIGEEN in Senegal, spoke to the conference participants about challenges to the women's movement in Africa, and attributed these to three linked social factors: “First there is sacrifice. Women who work as human rights defenders or in unions are often called to late meetings. Our kids and families suffer – and our men sometime threaten to divorce us. Then there is fear. Fear of social rejection, of the way people look at us and of aggression. Fear of what will happen to us if we become victims of violence in countries where there is little provision for women in that situation. And fear of the generally negative interpretation of feminism in Africa. And finally, there is culpability. We often find ourselves asking if it is really worth it. There's a strong internal dilemma in Africa that is contributing to the decline in participation in our women's movement. We need to change that.”
The conference continues through Thursday, and will culminate in a final session on Friday in which the International Campaign for Women Human Rights Defenders will host a public event and address its plans for the future, and will call for the protection of women human rights defenders around the world.
For further information, please contact:
John Tackaberry, Media Relations (Ottawa)
Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations (Toronto)