Defenders speaking out: challenges for women HRDs

Today, on 8 March, we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Women are some of the bravest human rights defenders the DefendDefenders supports: they not only engage in the dangerous work of promoting human rights, but also do so in a context that is often biased and prejudiced against them. And yet, women human rights defenders are indispensable to the promotion of human rights and in building peace, justice, and equality in the East and Horn of Africa.

In December 2013, the landmark Resolution on the Protection of Women Human Rights Defenders was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It called upon States to recognise the valuable contributions of women human rights defenders to the struggle for human rights, as well as the particular threats and harassment that emanate from this work.

However, the sub-regional context of the East and Horn of Africa still poses specific challenges to women engaging on human rights issues, who face a system plagued by structural discrimination against women, as well a more general climate of abuse and impunity.

On International Women’s Day we asked a human rights defender about the particular issues she faces in her work. This is her story.

“Last year, I was forced to leave my home for three months because of my human rights work. While I was away, some people started a rumour that my husband made a girl pregnant. They were saying that, because I was not at home, he took advantage of her. The worst part of the rumour was that he had forced her to abort the pregnancy.

It was not uncommon for people around the neighbourhood to drop by our house. They said my husband abused her when she came to visit. That was the worst part: they added just enough truth so that people would believe it.

As a woman, it was very difficult. I remember a day when I carried money that was reserved for my family. When the youths that blackmailed us stopped me and I had to hand over that envelope… People later told my husband “Yes, we made up that story. But we did it instead of killing your wife and children.”

I realised what happened when the youth that supported the ruling party started asking us for money. They could stop us whenever they wanted. Abortion is illegal and my husband would have gone to jail if the police had arrested him. “All the people at Court are our friends,” the people who took our money said. “You will not win the case if we report you.”

I tell you this to show you how a woman human rights defender can be targeted through members of her family. Male and female HRDs are targeted everywhere. But women do face specific threats because of their work.

If a woman is targeted and continues to receive threats, when she is obliged to leave her family, it is not the same as for a man. A mother cannot just leave her family behind and go hide by herself.

If you are working together as a male and female HRD, the community seems to understand what the man is doing. They accept that it is his job, even if there is risk involved. When you are female, people are happy to say “this is our woman representative” when it is safe. But when you are threatened, people will say you should have kept quiet and stayed with your family.

When men and women are caught by the police or some other militia, they are not treated the same. Yes, there is torture. But for women it is done in a specific way. There is a loss of dignity that we have never seen before in in my country. They will tear of her clothes and sexually violate her before they kill her. There is a special way of torture for us.

Sometimes women just disappear. A friend of mine was taken by security forces. Her husband was left behind with their two children, both not even eight years old. Even though he paid a ransom she was not released. We assume she is in one of the many mass-graves that exist here.

A man can go to prison and come out stronger. If a woman has been harassed, if she has been away from her children for a long time, if people point at her in the streets because she has been raped, it will be hard for her to do the same job when she is released.

It is true that position of women has evolved. Just look at the number of girls in the schools. Yes, women work alongside men in all sectors now. But if you work in the human rights domain it is different – in the way we are targeted, the threats we receive, and the risks we face.”

Due to security concerns this interview has been published anonymously.