human rights

[OPINION] Pathways to peace: Protect women human rights defenders

Mary Lawlor

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[OPINION] Pathways to peace: Protect women human rights defenders

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'Only when women are free to safely promote and protect  human rights in conflict will we see peace overcome war'

It takes courage to be a human rights defender. It takes even more courage to be a woman human rights defender and to step out of the space allocated to you to confront abuses. In the last 40 years I have met many courageous women who have risked everything to defend the rights of others in conflict settings.

One of the names that comes to mind is Bety Cariňo, from Oaxaca in Mexico, who spoke at the 2010 Front Line Defenders Dublin Platform. Her words have stayed with me: “Today we want to live a different history. We are rebelling and we are saying enough. Today we say that they are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them. The time is coming of us the peoples, the rebellious women and the people from below.” Two months later, Bety was shot dead by paramilitaries as she delivered provisions to an indigenous community under siege by armed groups.  

The time of the peoples remains elusive and it is hard to think of a single greater threat to human rights and the dream of people like Bety than violent conflict. This year in which we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights is also the year in which there are more ongoing conflicts than at any time in those 75 years. 

An estimated 2 billion people – 25% of the world’s population – live in places affected by conflict. According to data recently released by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, 2022 saw more people killed in conflict than in any year since the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. When war rages it is usually women who step into the breach to provide humanitarian relief and psychological support to the victims. Yet in doing their human rights work, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) face overlapping and gendered risks: general violence in a conflict situation, targeted attack because of their human rights work, and misogynistic attacks because they are women. If to this volatile mix we add the issues of gender equality, sexual orientation, indigenous rights, and environmental protection, the level of risk increases exponentially.

Lawyers for Justice in Libya recently informed me that WHRDs there have been  forced out of public life due to online and offline attacks against them, including threats, sexual assault, physical assault, abduction, and murder, as well as gendered smear campaigns designed to ostracize them. The same is happening in Afghanistan, where women persist in confronting the gender apartheid that the Taliban has imposed on their country. 

For years, WHRDs in Gaza have been documenting human rights violations by both Hamas and Israeli occupation forces. The situation has long been past boiling-point, but now that fully fledged conflict seems inevitable, these defenders need support more than ever. If they had been listened to, along with those of other WHRDS in the region, things may not have gone this way. Yet their voices are being drowned out and would-be allies seem to be abandoning them. Human rights cannot be collateral damage and nor can women human rights defenders.

In preparing an upcoming report to the UN General Assembly, I spoke with dozens of WHRDs in conflict settings. In the report, I detail how WHRDs provide services to the most vulnerable. Lyudmyla Yankina, a nurse by profession, drove around Kyiv in the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in order to deliver essential food and medical supplies to the disabled, the elderly and the terminally ill.  

The Abductee Mothers Association in Yemen, composed of relatives of the disappeared, monitors the enforced disappearances of their male relatives and have secured the release of dozens. The fate of Razan Zaitouneh, who founded a center to document human rights violations in Syria in 2011, is a reminder of the  risks faced by women undertaking this work; Razan remains missing having been kidnapped in December 2013. 

Women subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, which is used as a weapon during conflict, are often left without adequate state support. The NGO Sudanese Women Rights Action has been bridging this gap in Sudan since the outbreak of conflict there this year, providing medical  and psychosocial support.

WHRDs document human rights violations, which  paves the way for a just peace post-conflict and accountability for crimes. In Iraq, WHRDs collected evidence of the crimes carried out by ISIS against the Yazidi community and it was their persistent advocacy that led to the passage of the Yazidi Female Survivors Law in Iraq in 2021. The law recognizes ISIS attacks against the Yazidi community as genocide and crimes against humanity, and provides for reparations and rehabilitation for survivors

In conflict it is women who hold families and communities together, and when it comes to rebuilding a shattered country it is those women who know what is needed based on their first-hand experience.  Instead they are expected to retreat into the shadows, leaving the decision making to men. In such a troubling context, it is vital to protect WHRDs in conflict situations and recognize their work to build sustainable peace. Such peace means, in the words of April Dyan Gumanao from the Alliance of Concerned Teachers in the Philippines, “food on tables, decent work and opportunities, equality, respect for human rights, and justice.” Studies show that where women are meaningfully involved in peace negotiations, the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years increases by 20%, and by 35% the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years.

One WHRD from Syria told me that, where women were asked to participate, “it was mostly in the consultation phase, rather than directly in the negotiation phase.” Another defender from Yemen noted that even when she was invited to peace talks, she was not able to obtain a visa for the country in which they were taking place. Nearly every woman I spoke to highlighted the lack of protection they receive when they become more visible as a result of their peace-building work. Neither of the two women quoted above felt safe enough to have their quotes attributed to them.

In the 23 years since Women, Peace, and Security became an agenda item on the UN Security Council, there has been some progress in addressing conflict-related sexual violence and improvements in the support and protection offered to potential or actual victims. However, there must be more focus on the role of WHRDs as legitimate actors and the protection that they require. Only when women are free to safely promote and protect  human rights in conflict will we see peace overcome war. 

Razan Zaitouneh, the disappeared WHRD who I mentioned above, documented the brutality of the war in Syria and the grotesque violence inflicted by both government forces and armed opposition groups. Her words are a constant reminder to me of the courage of women human rights defenders and a challenge to me, and others in the international human rights movement, to never give up: “Not even 100,000 deaths, a harsh siege or the betrayal of the international community can ever defeat the will of a people who has a dream and faith in the future.” –

Mary Lawlor is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

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