On 8 March, International Women’s Day, women across the world will take to the streets to express their commitment to the defence of human rights, often at great risk to their safety.
These rights include freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the right to be treated equally under the law, sexual and reproductive rights, and the rejection of violence against women. But, in promoting these rights, activists come face to face with discriminatory laws, policies and practices.
Aline Castellanos is a leading member of the Committee for Parliamentary Dialogue and Equality in Mexico. She documented and publicized human rights violations in the Oaxaca region of the country during widespread protests in 2006. At that time, Aline Castellanos was working to encourage women’s activism and heighten women’s visibility in public life.
On 28 April 2007, Aline’s house was broken into and searched. The following day, a judge re-issued a warrant for the arrest, despite the fact that it had been successfully challenged twice before. She subsequently fled Oaxaca, fearing arrest on charges of assault, which appear to be baseless.
Given the nature of the harassment, threats and marginalization women human rights defenders can face, their protection is of particular concern. Women can be victims of a host of violations, some gender-specific, including sexual attacks.
Many women activists carry out their work in societies that impose heavy restrictions on women and find themselves vulnerable to harassment and abuse. In some contexts, working on issues viewed by some as unpopular and controversial, such as women’s rights, results in human rights defenders, their families and communities being targeted by the state authorities or other groups.
Delaram Ali is an active member of the organization Campaign for Equality, an Iranian human rights network which works to end legalized discrimination against women. She was arrested in June 2006 during a peaceful demonstration and was sentenced to 30 months in jail. This sentence has been suspended temporarily.
In Zimbabwe, forced evictions and government policies on land reform have had a disproportionately negative impact on women. As economic and social conditions in Zimbabwe have worsened, this has affected access to food, health, education and housing. Women have had little choice but to publicly condemn the government while demanding respect for these rights. Since 2000, hundreds of women have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, beaten and even tortured while in police custody.
Governments are obliged to both promote and protect the work of human rights defenders. Governments must:
Acknowledge the role human rights defenders play in documenting violations of human rights and in upholding democratic practices.
If the rights of defenders are violated, then governments must ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.
Women human rights defenders often face a whole series of violations designed to silence them and paralyse their work. On International Women’s Day, women defenders will once again speak out for human rights. Their voices must be heard.