In 2017, a women’s rights watchdog group reported that 25 women were killed for their human rights work, a decrease from the 37 women human rights defenders (WHRDs) killed in 2016. These deaths are an outrage, but represent only the most extreme form of violence and repression that human rights defenders around the world are confronting.
We are witnessing a growing trend of “closing space” for civil society actors – a term which refers to restrictions that authoritarian and right-wing governments are imposing to obstruct and limit oppositional voices. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders receives complaints from activists world-wide about closing space, and reports that one-third to nearly one-half of which concerned WHRDs in the years from 2004 to 2014.
Women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI*) human rights defenders the world over are targeted in the closing space phenomenon both for who they are as well as for the work they do. These defenders are targeted because they are often “perceived as challenging accepted sociocultural norms, traditions, perceptions, and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society.” Yet, only limited analysis has been made of their experiences of closing space.
In response, the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) of Berkeley Law and the Urgent Action Funds for Women’s Human Rights (UAF) conducted a review of the laws and their impacts on WHRDs in 16 countries. Our report Rights Eroded: A Briefing Report on the Effects of Closing Space on Women Human Rights Defenders offers a window on the challenges women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders face as well as their resistance strategies and recommends action international and state authorities as well as donors should take to protect these front-line activists.
Women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders interviewed for the report spoke of their experiences of structural and social discrimination, targeted efforts by the State to hinder their work, gendered forms of harassment, and criminalization of their activities. They described a climate in which States have moved to restrict their access to the funds essential to their work. Governments have applied a complex web of rules including anti-money laundering and national security legislation to ensnare organizations engaged in legitimate human rights work. They emphasized how social stigma and targeted campaigns by the State to delegitimize their work undermine public support for their activities and limit the resources available to them. Activists revealed the ways in which they self-censor to avoid confrontation and abuse from State actors. And, importantly, they cataloged the strategies that they employ to resist closing space through alliance building with other human rights activists, leveraging media attention, and adopting new funding strategies.
The international legal framework presumes the activities of human rights defenders to be legitimate and lawful and seeks to facilitate their work. This stands in stark contrast to the lived experience of women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders who face daunting legal and administrative barriers to their activities and chilling threats to their well-being. Given the current climate—what we term a “rights-deprived” environment—the focus for these activists shifts from transformative social change toward basic survival, as their ability to claim their right to advocate for human rights is challenged and undermined.
State policies and practices that restrict funding to civil society organizations create uncertainty and dependence for human rights defenders and perpetuate a vicious cycle in which their organizations are less able to maintain the kind of public presence that draws funding and support.
We also appreciate that women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders are savvy. They make calculated choices about how to navigate the landscape in which they operate, at times choosing to limit their activities to preserve their continued existence. However, such censorship comes at the hidden cost of pushing their work further to the margins, weakening their ability to hold the State to account, and undermining participatory democracy.
The innovative approaches that women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders take to resist closing space are a testament to their perseverance, creativity, and commitment to human rights promotion. We must also acknowledge the gendered nature of the constrained space in which these defenders operate. These activists shoulder disproportionate burdens among civil society groups because they advocate for politically unpopular and often socially marginalized communities. This inequity must be reversed if societies are to benefit from the transformative social change that these human rights defenders advance.
The voices of women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders urge action. The report includes recommendations and calls on States, the United Nations, and funders to act vigorously to create the “safe and enabling” environment for human rights defenders called for under international human rights law.
States must relax legal and administrative obstacles to human rights work, end gendered harassment, intimidation, and attacks, and take proactive steps to champion the invaluable role that women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders play in protecting and promoting human rights.
The United Nations must recognize the disproportionate, particular, and intersectional ways in which women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders are impacted by closing space and carry this perspective forward in creating protections, interpretations of norms, and elaborations of new standards that are responsive to the particular experiences of these defenders. UN mechanisms must proactively seek the input and expertise of women and LGBTQI* activists impacted by closing space in monitoring and reporting on State compliance with human rights standards and in interpreting these norms.
To support the leading role that women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders play in creating transformative, structural change in their communities, donors must continue and deepen their efforts to offer flexible, creative, and sustained funding to women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders. These defenders need support that takes into account the informal and formal ways that they organize themselves, gives defenders the ability to respond to the changing nature of closing space, and provides core funding in contexts where the very existence of these organizations is under threat.
Women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders are key to realizing the potential of the international human rights framework for society’s most vulnerable members. They deserve our respect, protection, and support.