Mary Lawlor: Women who defend human rights take immense risks for little recognition

International Women’s Day is a good time to reflect on the dangers faced by WHRDs across the world, and also to celebrate their courage and pay tribute to the astonishing work they do

‘Women all over the world are promoting and protecting rights in very different contexts’. Picture: Getty

News last month that Saudi Woman Human Rights Defender Loujain Al Hathloul had been released from prison was a rare moment to rejoice.

Even that was a qualified celebration — she has been released but not set free; she’s not allowed to leave the country and faces other restrictions. Other Woman Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in Saudi Arabia are still in jail.

I’ve spoken to hundreds of WHRDs from all over the world since I became United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders last May. They’ve told me about how they’re targeted, that they regularly harassed and abused. They’ve told me how they often receive death threats, how some of their colleagues have been murdered for the peaceful human rights work they do, and how for many of them Covid-19 has made things even more dangerous.

Last week I presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council outlining how hundreds of HRDs are killed every year for their peaceful promotion of the rights of others. The report opens with the story of environmental rights defender Fikile Ntshangase, who was shot dead in her home in Mtubatuba, South Africa, on the evening of 22 October last. She’d been receiving death threats by phone for more than a year, but still carried on her human rights work.

Three gunmen fired six shots and she died at the scene. She was 65 years old and had been involved in a dispute over the extension of an opencast mining operation. In 2019, at least 38 WHRDs were killed for their human rights work.

Many WHRDs are attacked because they are seen to challenge patriarchal systems, cultural norms or stereotypes, or because they ask questions about women’s place in society, or because they disrupt gendered power relations.

But today, International Women’s Day, is a good time to reflect not just on the risks and dangers faced by WHRDs across the world, targeted for who they are as well as what they do, but also to celebrate their courage, and to pay tribute to the astonishing work they do defending human rights.

I hear from WHRDs every day. Many tell me how they’ve been forced to change their work during the pandemic, but still manage to defend human rights. Some have changed their primary focus from doing advocacy to providing local communities access food and medicine. Others have adapted to working online by reaching and developing new networks with other WHRDs in remote areas.

Women all over the world are promoting and protecting rights in very different contexts. There are WHRDs working for gender equality, indigenous women fighting for land and environmental rights, women in rural areas pressing for socioeconomic rights, girls campaigning on social issues, and trans women speaking up against discrimination. There are WHRDs fighting for justice for the disappeared, gender non-conforming persons resisting gender-based violence, women expanding digital rights, women with disabilities fighting for independent living and women involved in peace processes.

There are women human rights lawyers representing victims in court, women journalists exposing government corruption to the public, women union leaders calling for labour rights, women judges upholding rights though the law, women in the police and the military protecting populations, women in the civil service developing policies, women in academia teaching rights, women humanitarian workers, and health workers providing access to essential services. Ruth Mumbi in Nairobi, Kenya received death threats after she exposed evictions during Covid, and then delivered food to these poorest of families forced to move their belongings out onto the road.

Because of decades of work by feminist defenders, women in many places now enjoy greater equality, including before the law, in politics, education, workplaces and marriage and at home. Because of feminist defenders, more women are able to enjoy the right to vote, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to privacy, the right to family life, sexual and reproductive rights and many other rights.

Much of this work still goes unnoticed, and uncelebrated, by the international media. Most WHRDs work in relative obscurity, peacefully defending the rights of others, building fairer, societies, fighting injustice and protecting the environment.

It’s rare that a WHRD and her work to get the sort of attention that has been given to Loujain in Saudi Arabia. But Loujain’s case also shows how important such coverage is — she was released after a huge publicity campaign that made her a household name across the world.

Today is a good day for us to commit to continually promote the stories of WHRDs, the work they do, and the risks they face. We know with heavy certainty that more Women Human Rights Defenders will be killed before next year’s International Women’s Day. But we also know that by then WHRDs all over the world will have progressed human rights for all of us in countless, unreported ways.

Mary Lawlor is UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and adjunct professor at the Centre for Social Innovation, Trinity Business School