#NotHer? International Women’s Day and the Attack on Female Human Rights Defenders

International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to not only reflect on the state of women’s rights globally but to consider the efforts of those who risk their lives daily to promote those rights.

Last week, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders presented his most recent report during the fortieth session of the Human Rights Council. The report revealed a worrying increase in attacks against women rights defenders around the world, attributable to the scapegoating of “gender ideology.” These attacks take various forms, ranging from killings, beatings, and harassment, to restrictions on funding for women’s rights organizations. Because women defenders constitute an essential and vibrant part of civil society, these actions have serious repercussions for the health of civic space as a whole and demand immediate action by the international community.

The rise of populism, fundamentalism, and violent extremism has amplified narratives by authoritarian governments and democracies with illiberal tendencies that seek to demonize gender equality. According to the UN report, an increasing number of countries, in both the Global North and South, are attempting to restrict civil space for society by imposing legal and administrative requirements to curtail the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. Of particular concern is the scapegoating of what is called “gender ideology,” via rhetoric deployed by oppressive governments to silence the voices of women defenders and narrow space for civil society. While this is far from being a new phenomenon, it has become ever more prominent in countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America, such as Poland, Brazil, Colombia, and Nicaragua.

“Gender ideology,” as explained by Michelle Gallo, is a concept constructed by reactionary politicians that redefines reforms that benefit women and LGBTI people—such as the right to same-sex marriage—as the ‘imposition’ of a system of beliefs that threatens ‘Christian values’ and corrupts society.” As characterized by Gillian Kane,  it is “neither a legitimate academic term, nor a political movement,” but “a theory described  by far-right religious activists to be a gay– and feminist-led movement out to upend the traditional family and the natural order of society.” According to Human Rights Watch, this rhetoric serves two purposes: “to unite people around a concept of ‘traditional values’ in opposition to a perceived foreign threat and to demonize women’s rights activists and individuals who do not conform to sexual and gender norms.”

A recent Human Rights Watch report entitled, “The Breath of the Government on My Back” unveils the extent to which the Polish government consistently targets women’s rights organizations by engaging in public smear campaigns, raiding their offices without reason other than to instill fear, and cutting off funding for their operations without any justification. Between 2015 and 2017 alone, the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights cut the budget for gender equality in half. These actions have denied thousands of women access to legal services that protect them from domestic violence and abuse, as well as reproductive health services. Moreover, government actions to thwart efforts of women’s rights organizations are not limited to the organizations themselves but sometimes extend to anyone who openly supports their work. For example, the government has retaliated against school employees simply for allowing non-governmental organizations to host workshops on women’s rights at their schools.  

In Brazil, shortly after his election, President Jair Bolsonaro removed the concerns of the LGBTQIA community from consideration by the new human rights ministry, without appointing any other agency to deal with these issues. This action is consistent with his previous attempts to spread his theory that so-called “gender ideology” “poses a threat to Brazil’s Christian values.”  Perhaps as a result of this rhetoric, the country has witnessed an alarmingly high number of LGBTQIA deaths—445 in 2017 alone, representing a 30 percent increase from 2016.

Colombia has also faced its fair share of anti-gender hyperbole, even though the country has seemingly taken actions that support gender equality, such as the introduction of a “gender focus” into 2016 peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, and decriminalizing abortion and same-sex marriage. These actions, however, are claimed to have prompted a backlash; the country has subsequently witnessed a significant increase of violence against human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders.

In December of 2018, UN Women expressed great concern over increased acts of violence, intimidation, and harassment against women defenders and women’s organizations in Nicaragua, as the government raided several woman-focused civil society organizations and withdrew their legal status. There have been at least 273 cases of attacks against women human rights defenders since April 2018. In November of 2018, the director of the NGO Centro de Información y Servicios de Asesoría en Salud, Ana Quiros, was stripped of her Nicaraguan citizenship of over 20 years and deported to Costa Rica.

Against this backdrop, it is vital for the international community to ensure that gender equality is protected and promoted. To protect civil society, all human rights defenders, regardless of their gender, should be afforded the necessary space to work on their agendas freely and without fear of retaliation from their governments.

To that end, a recent report published by the Human Rights Initiative of CSIS, entitled, Polish Civil Society: Adapting to New Pressures examines the current state of civic space in the country, including that of women defenders, and provides concrete policy recommendations to the European Union, the United States and civil society organizations (CSOs) on how to push back against the phenomenon. These recommendations can be applied to other countries where civil society focused on women’s issues face similar attacks.

Building on the report’s recommendations, the European Union can make funding to EU and non-EU countries alike contingent on open space for civil society, including women’s rights organizations, to operate. Where necessary, the European Union could enforce sanctions against member states, under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, to eventually suspend their EU voting rights. Such sanctions are unlikely to succeed, since they require the support of all EU countries except the targeted country, including governments with similarly antiquated views on gender. However, they could still signal the European Union’s intolerance for such practices. The European Union should continuously encourage member states to strongly oppose practices that undercut gender equality and threaten women, as it recently did during the UN Human Rights Council through its joint statement that rebuked the Saudi government for detaining and torturing women’s rights activists since May of 2018.

Likewise, the United States should raise concerns in bilateral meetings with the countries in question. This would be consistent with the White House’s recent commitment to women’s empowerment globally, which aims to promote prosperity and peace for women by 2025 by engaging the private sector, public sector, and civil society. The United States should also target funding and technical support for programming focused on women’s empowerment to countries where gender equality is under attack.

Lastly, local women’s rights organizations can diversify their activities so that funding received for less controversial activities can be used to support the work of women’s rights organizations on more controversial issues. CSOs can also diversify their funding approaches to extend beyond public fundraising, to gain more revenue. For example, CSIS’s report on Poland highlights instances where CSOs improved their financial situation by performing services, such as gender training for corporations. Moreover, CSOs focused on women’s rights can gain space to operate if they frame their work in a more culturally palatable way. A CSIS report entitled Broadening Local Constituencies highlights an example of a CSO in Ethiopia, a country with considerable legal constraints on CSOs working on women’s rights. This CSO was able to work freely on issues such as HIV, child marriage, and gender equality by including the cross-cutting issue of “gender and power” into their work, rather than explicitly focusing on “women’s rights.”

Fortunately, there are ample ways to protect women defenders and space for civil society. It is the necessary political will that is lacking. As the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders noted: “we have a historic, collective responsibility to change the way in which societies look at human rights defenders.” Women human rights defenders are a vital part of that equation.

Mariefaye Bechrakis is program manager and research associate for the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Amy K. Lehr is director of the Human Rights Initiative at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Amy K. Lehr
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative

Efthimia Maria (“Mariefaye”) Bechrakis