Governments failing to protect women activists from increasing attacks – new report

Women in Lahore, Pakistan, march to mark International Women's Day 2019
Women in Lahore, Pakistan, march to mark International Women's Day 2019 © Ema Anis for Amnesty International

Women activists subjected to sexual violence, smear campaigns and threats

‘Governments must live up to their commitment to ensure these activists can operate freely and safely’ – Kumi Naidoo

Governments around the world are failing to protect women human rights defenders from increasing attacks, Amnesty International said today [29 November] on International Women Human Rights Defenders Day.

In a new report -Challenging power, fighting discrimination based on interviews with 23 activists across 21 countries, Amnesty highlights how women human rights defenders continue to be assaulted, threatened, intimidated, criminalised and even killed for their campaigning.

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.

“All over the world, women human rights defenders are speaking out against injustice, abuse and discrimination, often because they have experienced it first-hand.

“They are central to human progress: they fight for human rights and against patriarchy and racism, while pushing for ground-breaking reforms on so many fronts. Governments must live up to their commitment to ensure these activists can operate freely and safely.”

In recent years, campaigners working on the rights of women, LGBTI people and other marginalised groups have come under growing pressure from politicians, religious leaders and violent groups. Women campaigning on these issues tend to be the first to be targeted in increasingly frequent backlashes against a more inclusive, fairer world.

Sexual violence

The report highlights several cases in which violence, including sexual violence as a form of torture, was used against women human rights defenders to silence them.

In Bahrain, Ebtisam El-Saegh, an activist with the human rights organisation SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, was sexually assaulted, badly beaten, kicked in the stomach and kept standing for most of the seven hours she was being interrogated while in detention in 2017.

El-Saegh told Amnesty: “I was threatened that they would harm my family and that they would bring my husband and torture and electrocute him. The men told me ‘no one can protect you’.”

In Egypt, Malak al-Kashef, a 19-year-old transgender woman human rights defender was arrested in March this year following her involvement in peaceful protests in Cairo. She faced trumped-up charges of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation’ and ‘misusing social media to commit a crime punishable by law.’ While in detention, she was subjected to a forced anal examination and other forms of sexual assault. Even though she was undergoing gender affirming treatment, Malak was placed in an all-male detention facility which put her at increased risk of sexual violence. She was eventually released in July this year.

Smear campaigns

Women activists are often subjected to smear campaigns which vilify their “deviant behaviour” and are designed to fuel hostility against them.

After rescuing migrants from the central Mediterranean Sea in June 2019, Carola Rackete, the Italian captain of the rescue boat Sea-Watch 3, was repeatedly insulted by the Italian Minister of Interior who called her a pirate and a criminal. His slurs were followed by vicious verbal attacks by others who incited sexual violence against her while also targeting her gender and appearance.

In Mauritania, Mekfoula Brahim, a woman human rights defender who has campaigned for an end to female genital mutilation, was branded an apostate in 2016 Facebook posts after defending a blogger sentenced to death for criticising those who use religion to discriminate against minorities. The slur exposed her to the risk of being prosecuted and sentenced to death.

UK responsibility

Amnesty has been campaigning for the UK Government to take urgent action on the increase in attacks of women human rights defenders globally.

Sara Rydkvist, Amnesty International UK’s Human Rights Defenders Campaign Manager, said:

“Amnesty is calling on the UK Government to help protect human rights defenders around the world as a matter of absolute urgency.

“The level of danger facing activists has reached crisis point. Every day women are threatened, tortured, imprisoned and killed for what they fight for, believe in or simply for who they are.”

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