Thousands of advocates for the reproductive rights and health of women and girls are gathering in Malaysia this week for the international "Women Deliver" Conference.

But not every activist who might wish to attend the global summit in Kuala Lumpur will be able to do so.

Far too many human rights defenders and women's rights activists face harassment and violence each year for their advocacy on a variety of issues. And some are languishing in jail because of their work.

Madhuri Krishnaswamy, a tenacious Indian activist, has for years worked to secure the rights of poor adivasi (indigenous) communities in a remote part of Madhya Pradesh state in central India. On May 16, 2013, the police, following court orders, arrested and sent Krishnaswamy to jail.

She has been accused of rioting and using criminal force to deter public officials from discharging their duties in a case from 2008.

The timing of the detention order is ironic. On the same day, far away from rural Madhya Pradesh, India was hosting the fifth India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Women's Forum in New Delhi.

Officials from India, South Africa, and Brazil signed a resolution recognizing that governments have a key role to play in achieving gender equality and should work together with the support of civil society.

Exposure equals dwindling apprecation

 Unfortunately, when civil society exposes abuses, governments' appreciation often dwindles, or worse.

Krishnaswamy earned the ire of local authorities for doggedly exposing a variety of human rights problems, including maternal deaths in Madhya Pradesh's Barwani district.

In 2008 she reported on a government hospital worker who demanded a bribe from a pregnant woman in labor, forcing her to give birth on the roadside.

Local residents who discovered what had happened gathered outside the public health center and peacefully protested.

Krishnaswamy made phone calls and alerted local officials about the demanded bribe. The hospital worker filed a criminal complaint against her.

Since then local authorities have taken various actions against Krishnaswamy and members of her organization.

In 2012 local district officials threatened to remove her from the district and ban her from entering nearby districts because of the so-called "criminal activities" she engaged in.

Rights advocacy earns gov't wrath

Since her arrest this month, women's rights activists in India have initiated online petitions to help gather support to secure her release from jail.

Krishnaswamy is not alone. There are numerous examples of rights defenders targeted for the important work they do.

Of course, in some countries, abuses against rights activists are worse than in others.

In December 2012 a court in the Philippines convicted Carlos Celdran, who protested against the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to the reproductive health rights bill that was under consideration by the legislature.

The court sentenced Celdran to from two months to up to a year in prison for "hurting religious sentiments" with his protests.

Chen Guangcheng, who filed a class action suit in 2005 challenging China's one-child policy that brutally subjected thousands of women to forced abortions and sterilization, was repeatedly harassed by Chinese authorities until he eventually left the country in May 2012.

Over the course of seven years, Chen faced repeated house arrest, was briefly disappeared and kept under detention, and charged and convicted for damaging property in retaliation for his activism against family planning practices and other human rights issues.

Even after serving his full sentence, he was kept under incommunicado house arrest in which he and his wife were subjected to beatings and other mistreatment.

Brave hearts defy torture

Another rights activist in China, Mao Hengfeng, endured repeated detention for her opposition to China's one-child policy.
She was first detained in a psychiatric hospital in 1988 when she refused to abort her second pregnancy and got fired from a factory.

She lost her court battle against the factory and was forced to terminate her third pregnancy even though she was seven months pregnant at that time.

Since then Mao has repeatedly been detained in "reeducation through labor" facilities for her human rights advocacy, and tortured in custody.

She was eventually released in February 2013 and allowed to serve the rest of her sentence at home.

At the heart of the issue is a struggle to make governments accountable for upholding the rights of advocates to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful protest. This includes their advocacy for reproductive rights and health.

More than a few governments will take the opportunity this year to praise their own progress in reducing maternal mortality, which is Goal 5 of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

While this is cause for celebration, it cannot be an excuse to ignore the plight of those who continue to suffer harassment and abuse at the hands of government because of their advocacy of reproductive rights and health.

Gatherings of activists, like at Women Deliver, should not pass by without a call to governments to ensure that those who play a crucial role in helping countries meet their global goals have their rights protected.