Fighting While Female: Gendered Attacks on Women Human Rights Defenders
“I am absolutely convinced that if I were a man, this level of aggression wouldn’t be so violent.”
- Berta Cáceres
Two years before she was murdered, environmental rights defender Berta Cáceres told a Grist reporter it was her gender as much as her work that endangered her life.
Across the world, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) face extreme risks - and highly gendered violence - to promote and protect the rights of their communities.
The attacks they face are often more sexualised and stigmatised than those faced by male defenders. When a women human rights defender is killed, local authorities and media outlets tend to dissociate their murder from their human rights work, in an attempt to minimise the significance of both their death and life.
WHRDs also encounter severe barriers to justice following attacks.
1. Multinational corporations who attack WHRDs regularly act with the consent or complicity of authorities.
Others get support from organized crime groups with links to governments, so the odds of police intervention or protection are slim.
2. Attacks on WHRDs perpetrated by male family members receive little validation.
Police often consider these attacks “domestic violence,” or tell WHRDs it is a “private family matter.”
A study from the MesoAmerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders found that from 2012 to 2014, at least 5% of assaults against WHRDs were perpetrated “within WHRDs’ immediate environment” — mostly by male family members and colleagues.
3. In some countries, police themselves are the attackers.
On the day she had acid-like chemicals poured onto her face, Indian WHRD Soni Sori said:
I received a call at 6.12 pm on Saturday that some people were conspiring to attack me. I was getting constant reminders from people that the police want to eliminate me. But I thought the police and the politicians keep fighting anyway, and ignored it. Most of my fight so far has been against the Police Department in Bastar.
I was getting constant reminders from people that the police want to eliminate me.
- Soni Sori
Impunity is a clear enabler of violence against women human rights defenders (VAWHRDs) in many countries. Around the world, incidents of gender violence and attacks on HRDs are under-reported, under-investigated, and seldom result in justice delivered through courts. WHRDs thus face tremendous obstacles to having attacks validated and prosecuted.
Impunity for VAWHRDs also stems from the false belief that gender violence and violence against human rights defenders are mutually exclusive.
In fact, the two are inextricably linked. Attacks on WHRDs are motivated by both their work and their gender.
As human rights defenders, they endure types of attacks traditionally perpetrated against women - such as rape, sexualised defamation campaigns, and acid-attacks.
As women, they endure types of attacks and harassment common to human rights defenders - such as threats, intimidation, judicial harassment, and killings.
The identities "woman" and "human rights defender" are unique and intersecting, and WHRDs occupy a life-threatening position at their intersection.
My acid-burned face is the face of the struggle.
- Soni Sori
On UN Women’s Day, Front Line Defenders is honouring three WHRDs who have faced extreme and gendered violence aimed at stopping their powerful work.
Soni Sori of India, Hana Shams Ahmed of Bangladesh, and the late Berta Cáceres of Honduras risked their lives in defense of human rights, and for them we demand justice and protection.
“We are women who are reclaiming our right to the sovereignty of our bodies and thoughts and political beliefs, to our cultural and spiritual rights — of course the aggression is much greater.”
- Berta Cáceres