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UN Human Rights Council: Call to Recognize the Status of Women's Human Rights Defenders

Oral Statement during the Annual Day of Discussion on Women's Human Rights

Thank you to the Council for this opportunity. Human Rights Watch collaborates closely with individual women and groups worldwide who fight for rights of women.

While all human rights defenders may face risks, we have seen firsthand in our interaction with women defenders the additional threats and unique obstacles they face because they are women. Governments’ actions are sometimes insufficient to address the gendered nature of risks and assaults. And even worse, we’ve documented examples where governments target women human rights defenders directly.

Today I would like to focus on just two categories of common threats and obstacles: first, legal barriers and second, physical assault, sexual violence and threats to security.

Women defenders can only conduct their work of promoting human rights when they are able to participate fully in society, as independent actors in charge of their own lives. Human Rights Watch has spoken directly with women human rights defenders who juggle doing already dangerous work with the reality that they cannot legally leave their house or work without permission. Legal barriers and restrictions imposed by some governments around the world range from complete restrictions like legal guardianship, which treats adult women like legal minors, to other barriers like limits on political participation of women.

Even when women can legally conduct their work, they may face physical assault, sexual violence, and threats. We’ve documented: physical attacks, hand delivered threats, terrifying phone calls, sexual harassment, rape and threats against children of activists– all creating a chilling environment in an effort to silence these women.

Investigations into the cases we’ve documented have often not resulted in anyone being held accountable. And sufficient protection measures for these women are rare. 

In some contexts, governments themselves target, arrest, and assault women because of their activism for women’s rights. We’ve documented sexual harassment and attacks on women by government forces for demonstrating in public. And, in some cases, women and girls have been arrested and abused based on alleged activism by their male relatives.

Human Rights Watch therefore calls upon governments to:

  • Recognize the status of women’s human rights defenders and provide protection sensitive to their specific needs
  • Guarantee access to justice and protection for women, including by actively investigating threats and attacks on women and their children
  • Dismantle any legal guardianship system for adult women or other restrictions, and ensure that women enjoy full and equal legal capacity at 18 years of age, full equality before the law and full participation in society and public life

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