(Washington, DC, October 29, 2008) – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is in a crucial position to bring overdue attention to the violations and abuses that women’s human rights defenders face in the Americas, four rights organizations said today after a historic hearing that raised these issues before the commission for the first time.
“People working for women’s rights have to stop suffering attacks and disrespect by government officials,” said Valéria Pandjiarjian, international litigation specialist at CLADEM. “The commission is in a strong position to tell governments throughout the region that people who are seeking basic human rights deserve recognition and protection.”
In Nicaragua, several leading feminists have been subject to repeated threats and acts of intimidation, and are facing criminal investigations into their work, she said. In Colombia, women trade unionists and leaders of economic, social, and cultural rights movements have been killed, assaulted, and threatened in the last few years.
In its session on October 28, 2008, the commission heard testimony from women’s rights defenders in Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and the United States. Defenders spoke about the risks they take in their countries when protecting women from all forms of violence, guaranteeing their sexual and reproductive rights, and fighting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. They also pointed to domestic laws and policies that hinder their missions.
The director of a reproductive health clinic in the United States reported that anti-abortion extremists target the clinic’s medical professionals with violence, threats, and smear campaigns. Instead of passing measures to provide better protection, state and federal legislators have responded by passing laws restricting access to abortion. These laws create insurmountable economic burdens for medical professionals offering safe abortion services, in addition to women who seek those services, and impose harsh sanctions on those who cannot comply.
“Women’s rights defenders include both advocates for and providers of reproductive rights,” said Katrina Anderson, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights. “It is high time for the US government to step up its efforts to protect people who risk their lives to help women gain access to reproductive healthcare.”
Sexual rights advocates are also under attack. One defender described how a climate of homophobic violence makes any public discussion of the rights of lesbian women deeply dangerous in Jamaica, where homosexual conduct remains criminalized. Transgender and intersex rights defenders from Costa Rica and Peru provided vivid examples to the commissioners of the repeated attacks they face when fighting discrimination, violence, and exclusion based on gender identity and expression.
“The ‘official history’ of humankind, as we know it, is a history in which ‘travestis,’ trans and intersex women are invisible,” said Natasha Jiménez from Mulabi. “Most of us are forced to live in the margins of society after being rejected by our families and the community as a whole. When we organize ourselves to defend our rights, usually we face police abuse and extortion. The price we pay for becoming leaders and encouraging our peers to resist is often murder, torture, arbitrary arrest, or forced displacement.”
In some of these cases, the commission has already granted precautionary measures to protect the life and safety of the human rights defenders. Such measures, however, are not enough. Governments do not always implement these protections, nor does the commission always follow them up adequately. Where threats come from state officials, those called on to provide protection may actually be in collusion with the perpetrators.
“States must protect all of those defending women’s rights, in every aspect of a woman’s life,” said Juliana Cano Nieto, researcher in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.
The four human rights organizations called for immediate implementation and rigorous follow-up on the commission’s recommendations in its 2006 report to improve the situation for women’s rights defenders in the Americas. They urged the commission to recognize that a broad range of women’s rights defenders are at risk, and to continue to promote the protections that are necessary to ensure that all women’s rights defenders can work freely, safely, and effectively.