“We don’t only need women in positions of power, we need feminist women.”

Voices of Women Human Rights Defenders on the ground.

By Anna Pick

On 6th March 2019, two days before International Women’s Day, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation brought together five women laureates from around the world to discuss ‘local realities and shared global challenges’ facing Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) during the UN Human Rights Council.

The panellists spanned five countries, four continents, and a wide range of expertise in issues such as women’s rights in conflict settings, sexual and reproductive rights, transitional justice, political participation, women’s health, and the intersections between gender, racial and caste-based discrimination.

Fabiana Leibl, Head of Protection and Advocacy at the Foundation, opened the meeting by describing the worsening trend over recent years for WHRDs. As Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, noted in his recent report, this is often fuelled by deeply rooted ideas about ‘who women are, and who they should be’.

Nahla Haidar, a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, remarked that women are frequently ‘targeted with charges of counter-terrorism’, which allows their oppressors to act with impunity.

One by one, the panellists described the particular gendered obstacles they had encountered in their own countries, which highlighted some critical global patterns. They then outlined key recommendations and strategic priorities:

Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), emphasised that achieving parity in education for people of all genders was a key starting point. She called for an end to the misuse and misappropriation of ‘culture’, ‘tradition’ and ‘religion’ as justifications for male dominance. She noted the need to support not only men and women, but those of all genders. Access to paid work, reproductive services and justice mechanisms were also identified as crucial in the struggle for gender equality.

Mozn Hassan is one of the defendants in the well-known NGO Foreign Funding case targeting civil society organisations in Egypt, and an advocate for sexual and reproductive rights. Mozn could not attend the event due to a travel ban imposed by the Egyptian government since 2016. However, via video message she conveyed the serious dangers for HRDs, ranging from asset freezing to arrest, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance. On top of this, women must confront gender-specific threats from state and non-state actors.

Women are facing various gender-based violence in their custodies from harassment to threats of rape’.Mozn Hassan



Helen Mack Chang, who has persistently sought justice and an end to impunity in Guatemala as head of the Myrna Mack Foundation, emphasised that women often experience oppression in intersecting ways: indigenous women, for instance, ‘suffer double discrimination… when defending their land or territory against the claims of international corporations’. She noted that recent years have seen new threats global threats to rule of law and democracy. Corruption and impunity, she stressed, go to the heart of this challenge, in Guatemala and elsewhere.


Ruth Manorama speaking at the panel. (Photo: Amy Au)


Ruth Manorama is an activist for Dalit women’s rights, President of the National Alliance of Women (NAWO) in India, and the National Convenor to the National Federation of Dalit Women. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to systematic sexual abuse at work, forced sexual slavery such as the Devadasi system, and forced labour. Ruth called for counter narratives to combat the negative view of HRDs in the media. In India, for instance, activists are routinely called ‘enemies of the State, militants, anti-nationals, traitors, terrorists’.

‘I am a patriot. I am an Indian citizen. I must enjoy my constitutional rights.’ — Ruth Manorama

Charlotte Dos Santos Pruth is an Advocacy and Policy Advisor at Kvinna till Kvinna, a Swedish organisation working to strengthen and promote women’s organisations in several regions of the world. She presented the findings of their recent report, “Suffocating the movement — shrinking space for women’s rights”. Charlotte was keen to note that, in all countries, ‘a strong feminist movement is the single most important factor to advance women’s rights and gender equality’. Women often have limited access to formal decision-making processes: this makes defending civil society space particularly crucial.

The speakers brought together experiences from very different cultural contexts: nevertheless, there were important parallels in their descriptions of defending human rights on the ground. As Samar pointed out, in this dangerous global landscape, solidarity remains an essential principle.

We don’t only need women in positions of power, we need feminist women, women who don’t support male domination in order to keep their own space and position’. — Sima Samar

The crackdown on women activists must be viewed within the context of other global trends: growing material inequality, environmental degradation, the resurgence of the far right. Women’s liberation, therefore, goes hand in hand with many other struggles — against corporate power and impunity, exploitative economic systems, and state corruption and violence.

On International Women’s Day, this is a timely reminder to zoom out, to look at the full picture. It is important not only to reflect on global problems, but also to identify shared experiences of resistance.