Women activists face disproportionate violence for work

women activists, WHRD
© Anton Skavronskiy

On International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, a report examines stories across 21 countries and finds a global failure to protect women activists

Women activists are being murdered at an escalating rate.

Between 1 January and 1 October, Front Line Defenders recorded 39 confirmed killings of women activists globally.

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, said:

“Women human rights defenders are attacked because of who they are and what they do.

“The risks are even greater for those facing intersecting forms of discrimination: if you are a woman and from a racial minority, indigenous, poor, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or a sex worker, you have to fight so much harder to have your voice heard by those in power.”

NGOs have been campaigning for the UK Government to intervene in the treatment of women activists around the world, citing responsibility as a matter of urgency due to swiftly increasing outbreaks of violence.

‘Fake news’ campaigns by governments

Women particularly face prolonged campaigns against them that are intended to create public hostility toward them, which are often successful. The loss of a “good” reputation can dehumanise a woman, which allows the attacker to treat them violently without one of their main weapons – the watchful eyes of the public.

This report describes how women “may be accused of being “bad mothers”, “insane”, “immoral”, “against national values”, which are insults that put into question their imagined ‘morality’ in the eyes of the public and within their communities.

For example, Mekfoula Brahim, an activist from Mauritania, has campaigned for an end to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in her country. She faces the possibility of being sentenced to death because the government noticed that she defended a blogger (also sentenced to death) who made Facebook posts in 2016 against using religion as an excuse for discrimination against minorities.

Working with people who are perceived to be bankrupt in ‘morality’ also creates a window for the government to spin a new reality. They can then have the public do their silencing work, which is often a constant threat of violence for the activist. It becomes increasingly difficult to exist in the public realm and carry out the same work because they fear for their lives becomes a heavy factor. In addition, women are more likely to experience severe pressure from people they love – their communities, their families and their friends.

It becomes their ‘own fault’ for stepping out of the private sphere into the public, and domestic violence is a common issue faced by those who are being pressured to abandon their work. Mekfoula faced public condemnation so strong, a Fatwa (order by a Muslim cleric to kill, only used by radical individuals) was placed on her in 2014.

Fake news is contagious for Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs), and the result of this disease is sadly often fatal, even in 2019 where key human rights are theoretically accepted by the majority of governments.

Gendered abuse as a silencing tool

Aside from government-engineered fake news campaigns, another immense problem witnessed globally is reactionary sexual abuse and threats based on gender.

The report also highlights the use of the internet as a new weapon against activists:

“WHRDs have faced different forms of online attacks including harassment and attacks on reputation and credibility through social media; cyberstalking; violations of their privacy; unlawful surveillance; censorship; hacking of e-mail accounts, devices and platforms; as well as online threats of sexual violence, verbal abuse, sexuality baiting, doxxing (a practice where private information about a person is shared online by others) and public shaming on social media.”

This is particularly poignant for LGBTI individuals, sex workers, and women working in countries that have not yet meaningfully implemented general human rights for women, where social acceptance of sexism defines the public sphere.

Saudi Arabia is one of the key countries in this discourse.

To achieve the legalisation of women drivers, WHRDs pioneered the right to drive movement in collaboration with the women’s rights movements overall, facing jail time and online attacks, limitation on travelling and threats of rape.

Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the early proponents of the right to drive movement, was jailed along with other women in May 2018. She was arrested multiple times before this. During her time inside, she was sexually abused and tortured by Saudi authorities, who later asked her sister Lina al-Hathloul to deny the abuse in exchange for her sister’s freedom.

Her sister Lina reflected that this was probably due to the government not wanting to “give merits to the people, and [show] that decisions have to be made top-down and never bottom-up”. Although some of the Saudi WHRDs have since been released, Loujain remains locked up for contacting journalists from other countries and working with Amnesty International to share her experience.

Her ongoing torture is part of the price demanded by authorities for the driving milestone that is now celebrated by women throughout the country.

Read the full report, “Challenging power, fighting discrimination.”


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