Violations, risks and constraints
The violations, risks and constraints that women Human Rights Defenders face are grouped into the following basic main, and sometimes interlinked, categories:
- Attacks on life, bodily and mental integrity
- Physical and psychological deprivation of liberty
- Attacks against personhood and reputations
- Invasion of privacy and violations involving personal relationships
- Legal provisions and practices restricting women’s activism
- Violations of women’s freedom of expression, association and assembly
- Gender-based restrictions on freedom of movement
- Non-recognition of violations and impunity
Attacks on life, body and mental integrity
Contrary to Articles 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and Articles 6, 7 and 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Women Human Rights Defenders suffer serious attacks to their life, like their male counterparts. Abuses may be physical or mental, but at the core of the attacks is a clear disrespect for the integrity of women’s bodies and what they represent. In addition, they are particularly subjected to sexual violence, such as rape, or forced participation in humiliating practices with sexual overtones. These forms of violence against women are also prohibited under international women human rights laws.
Killing and attempted killing
Killings or attempted killings of WHRDs have been recorded around the world. Such acts, especially when they are committed by state actors, are violations of the basic right to life protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ICCPR. In the context of WHRDs, the attacks are directed at the integrity of their bodies and the motives are central to their women’s rights activism. Attachs may be intended to prevent continued activism in conservative contexts, or derail the advancement of women’s rights in situations of religious extremism, such as under fundamentalist regimes. It may also be aimed at destroying a whole movement of peace and resistance. The issue of reprisals faced by those seeking to access international protection frameworks has also been raised as a worrying global trend, with more work needed to remedy the high personal costs of accessing justice, including the risk of being killed. In Kenya, it has been reported that a number of people who went to talk to the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings have been shot dead.
Enforced disappearances occur when persons are arrested, detained or abducted by state agents or non-state actors, sometimes with the complicity of the state, and their whereabouts are undisclosed or their fates generally unknown. Often, if the victim has been killed, the body is concealed to mask the crime. Disappearances in the case of WHRDs are not just politically motivated, but relate to the reproductive roles, both biological and socio-cultural, of women in their communities.
Torture; cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment
Torture is criminalized by many domestic laws around the world. It is explicitly prohibited under Article 5 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 7 of the ICCPR and the entire UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). According to Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture, torture means: any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on someone to obtain from her/him or a third person information or a confession, punishing her/him for an act s/he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing her/him or a third person or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted, instigated or carried out with the consent or acceptance of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
While both men and women defenders have been tortured, WHRDs are subjected to it as punishment for their advocacy on controversial issues such as sexual rights. Torture has also been used as a ruthless means to attack lesbian, gay, transgender and other sexual rights activists who defy hetero-normativity. The perpetrators implicitly express male power and control by inflicting severe pain on the victims. Torture can also be performed through sexual violence as described in the next category.
Sexual assault and abuse
Women Human Rights Defenders are vulnerable to all forms of sexual violence because of their gender. Rape, sexual assault and abuse can take place while they are in the custody of the state, such as during detention, while in prison or under ‘protective custody’ by state agents. Sexual violence can also take place within their homes or communities. These forms of gender-based violence are prohibited under the international women human rights laws and in a majority of domestic criminal statutes. They are employed fundamentally to manifest control over WHRDs and penalize them for their activism. WHRDs agree that sexual assault is common both from the community and from law enforcement.
WHRDs are by no means safe from domestic violence. It is one of the risks they face in their work. They often suffer such violence when the family wants to prevent them from exercising a public role or being politically active. Male family members claim that the work of the defenders, and the defenders themselves, are bringing shame to the men or to the family’s honour.
Excessive use of force
Police and other law enforcement personnel are allowed to use force in the conduct of their duties. Use of force is allowed when it is strictly necessary; when required to perform a duty such as prevent a crime or conduct a lawful arrest; and when all non-violent methods have been used and remained ineffective. Beyond that, use of force is considered excessive, in violation of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force. When excessive force has been directed at women Human Rights Defenders, it includes not only physical aggression but various forms of sexual assault. WHRDs in informal settlements are handled with excessive force especially during arrests.
 Monitoring and Investigating Excessive Use of Force, Amnesty International (AI) and Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) (2000), http://www.codesria.org/Links/Publications/amnesty/force.pdf
Physical and psychological deprivation of liberty
Article 9 of the ICCPR prohibits the deprivation of ‘liberty and security of person’. While almost all defenders have been prone to this violation, the form of deprivation has been different for many Women Human Rights Defenders. Aside from the physical deprivation of liberty such as arbitrary arrest, arbitrary or administrative detention, kidnapping or abduction, LGBTIQ activists are also targeted at the core of their sexual identity by being victimized for their sexual orientation.
Arbitrary arrest and detention
ICCPR under Article 9 states that ‘everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.’ The same Article 9 under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders also gives defenders the right ‘to complain about the policies and actions of individual officials and government bodies with regard to violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms’. In spite of these legal protections, defenders have been subjected to or are at risk of arbitrary arrest or detention.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention further elaborated on the definition of arbitrary detention. A detention can be considered as arbitrary when:
- there is no legal basis for the deprivation of liberty (e.g., when a person is kept in detention after the completion of the prison sentence or despite an amnesty);
- when a person is deprived of liberty for exercising the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR;
- when a person has been deprived of liberty after a trial which did not comply with the standards for a fair trial set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant international instruments
For WHRDs, many of their activities have been criminalised, allowing authorities to use the law to justify their abuses. Increasingly, they are also subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention, in order to punish or intimidate them. This is so particularly in countries where the defence of women’s rights is considered to be a threat to the state and to social order and stability. In these circumstances, women, LGBTIA and other sexual rights activists are at particular risk of arrest and detention, and would find it difficult to obtain redress. Lawyers of HRDs have been reluctant to come to the defence of WHRDs precisely because of the nature of the rights involved; they don’t want to be ‘tainted’ by taking on these cases.
Administrative detention is detention without charge or trial, authorized by an administrative order rather than by a judicial decree. Adminstrative dentention is permitted under international law, which recognises that under certain circumstances there may be no alternative to preventative detention. But because of the serious injury to the right to due process inherent in this measure and the obvious danger of abuse, international law has placed strict restrictions on its application. Administrative detention can be used solely as a short-term, exceptional preventative measure, in response to clear dangers to security.
By the detention order, a detainee is given a specific term of detention. On or before the expiry of the term, the detention order is frequently renewed. Since no charges are filed against a person administratively detained, there appears to be no intention of bringing the detainee to trial. This process can be continued indefinitely and the violations against WHRDs remain unchecked. WHRDs have been subjected to this form of abuse particularly in countries where governments are not responsive to international scrutiny, and are placed at risk of sexual and other abuses.
Attacks against person and reputation
This category highlights the violations against Women Human Rights Defenders that target their gender or sexual identity, or attempt to destroy their professional and personal reputations. Many of these abuses are sexual in nature, or of an intimate character such that they have harsher emotional and psychological effects on WHRDs. Aside from being violations of their rights as defenders, many of these acts are serious constraints on the environment in which WHRDs do their work.
Threats, warnings and ultimatums
In general, WHRDs receive threats in the course of their work. These include death threats against the defenders, their colleagues or those intimately related to them, such as family members. In some instances, husbands may threaten with divorce or separation and they and other family members may threaten with physical abuse against WHRDs to stop them from their human rights involvement.
There is a thin line between threats against WHRDs, and threats which are actual human rights violations. On one hand, threats are issued generally to warn or intimidate potential victims. They usually precede the actual commission of violations, making the victims vulnerable. Threats can be sent to a women’s rights organisation prior to attacks. On the other hand, threats, whether issued to warn or intimidate victims, can sometimes already be actual violations prohibited under the law. They include psychological and sexual harassment, slander and other forms of vilification.
Many, if not all, forms and types of human rights violations and abuses against WHRDs have consequences on their psychological well-being. Psychological harassment, which is aimed at creating fear or making a person feel vulnerable and powerless, is a particularly potent form of abuse. It can evolve into a form of violence against women prohibited under the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and CEDAW Recommendation 19. Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders also protects WHRDs from this type of violence. Most of the WHRDs in urban settlements in Nairobi suffer psychological harassment because they have to prove constantly to society and the authorities that they are HRDs. They work in challenging environments and sometimes in the course of their work, the horrors they experience on a daily basis can be numbing. This may lead to WHRDs developing a mental block that assesses all these situations as normal, no matter how extreme. Ordinarily this would call for regular debriefing sessions to bring back normalcy and psychological well-being but this support is difficult to access or unavailable. A WHRD from Mukuru put it thus;
“No one ever gives us any psychosocial support. I think it does not even cross anyone’s mind of (society and government) that people like me need psychosocial support, as a WHRD I don’t get psychosocial support. I personally need psychosocial support. I have in the past handled many cases of dead bodies. I do not know where to get psychological support. We even have to go an extra mile by attending to victims who are severely injured but at our own cost. I am not sure of any mechanism to support the WHRDs within this community.
Blackmail and extortion
Blackmail is the act of threatening to reveal information about a person, unless the threatened party fulfils certain demands. The information is usually of an embarrassing or socially damaging nature. Blackmail can also take place alongside extortion, which often entails misuse of a position of power by making threats in order to obtain money, property or something of value to the victim. While extortion is a punishable offence in several countries, blackmail does not constitute a breach of law in many states.
Threats to privacy are often central to the experiences of blackmail by WHRDs. LGBTIQ activists and defenders of sexual rights in particular are prone to this form of abuse because of the confidentiality regarding their actual or assumed sexual orientation. In some instances, they have even been blackmailed by colleagues in the human rights and women’s movements to prevent them from raising issues relating to LGBTIQ rights, which are perceived as a threatening or divisive policy. It has been difficult to document these cases of blackmail that are intended to silence them because defenders do not report them.
After arrests have been made, bribes, blackmail and extortion are commonly used to buy freedom.
Sexual harassment is unwelcome attention of a sexual nature. It includes a range of behaviour from mild transgressions and annoyances to serious abuses, which can involve forced sexual activity. It is a manifestation of gender power relations, and is considered a form of sexual discrimination prohibited under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the CEDAW. It is also a form of abuse, sexually and psychologically, which is considered a punishable offence under criminal or labour regulations in many countries.
WHRDs are prone to this form of harassment because of their sex and, in many instances, because of their work. Many sexual harassment incidents take place in work environments that do not have codes of conduct and do not punish acts of harassment. Defenders have spoken of particularly difficult situations when they were sexually harassed by male colleagues in the human rights community. Some of them suffered sexual harassment from state authorities during arrests or detention. Worse, for defenders of sexual rights, it is presumed that they are immune to this abuse, or their work on sexual rights somehow solicits the harassment or makes it excusable.
Sexuality-baiting is the strategic use of negative ideas about sexuality. It is expressed in verbal attacks against women defenders to silence, intimidate, humiliate or embarrass them, with the intention of discouraging and inhibiting their organising. This form of baiting strategically manipulates prejudices about women’s gender roles and sexuality in order to achieve a political end. It is designed to challenge the credibility of individual activists and inhibit or destroy their organisations, networks and political agendas. Women who defend a range of rights are subjected to this practice. It is not only sexual rights activists who are targeted in this way. Allegations used often have something to do either with sexuality itself, or the reproductive role of women in society.
WHRDs are labelled ‘bad women’ or ‘bad mothers’, ‘unnatural’, ‘abnormal’ or ‘deviant’, ‘frigid’, ‘infertile’, ‘man-haters’ or ‘witches’. In certain circumstances, they are accused of promoting ‘Western’ or ‘alien’ cultures, being anti-religion and being responsible for the break-up of families or threatening the state.
Urban settlements are characterised with communities where people believe in cultural and religious norms which make them believe that a woman’s role in society is to build a family and no being on the frontline of issues affecting the society.
Slander, vilification, labelling and smear campaigns
Slander is defamation expressed in spoken words, signs or gestures, and intended to injure the character or reputation of the person defamed. Slander can be sexual or otherwise personal in nature. Slander, labelling and other forms of vilification are used as a means of destroying the public image and reputation of WHRDs. The aim is to undermine or to cast doubts on their credibility, integrity and character in order to disempower them. In some countries, slander and other attacks against reputation are considered criminal offences. Defenders are also protected from these abuses under Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Many WHRDs in the urban settlements have been branded names like «prostitute» and «bad mother» for standing their ground on protecting human rights.
The line between freedom of speech and incitement to violence can be a controversial one. Some states punish hate speech, while others choose not to restrict freedom of speech. Hate speech is a pronouncement used to degrade, intimidate or incite violence or prejudicial action. It can include calls for physical violence aimed at targeting individuals or specific groups. Community leaders, including but not limited to religious or political officials, are sometimes responsible for using hate speech to bolster their political agendas. It can put WHRDs at extreme risk, since it can foster a political or cultural climate that could lead perpetrators to believe attacks would be justified and go unpunished.
Stigmatisation, Segregation and Ostracism
Stigmatisation and imposed restrictions from the family or community are serious constraints that WHRDs face in their work. Women defenders and LGBTIQ activists have experienced being stigmatised because of their gender, sexual orientation or identity. Some of them have been pressured to choose between living in isolation from their family or loved ones, or abandoning their activism and returning to their ‘traditional gender roles’. Powerful actors in the community or members of the family are often behind these acts; and the state treast these abuses either with indifference or tolerance.
Aside from presenting constraints in the work of WHRDs, segregation and ostracism can also be constituted as violations of Article 11 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, if women or LGBT activists abandon the ‘lawful practice of their occupation or profession’ as a result of these abuses. Further, these abuses can also become acts of discrimination on the basis of sex or gender prohibited under the CEDAW.
Invasion of privacy and violations involving personal relationships
Raids of offices or homes
A raid is a form of search which state authorities may lawfully conduct with or without a search warrant. Constitutional or criminal laws in many countries allow police and other law enforcement agents to conduct a raid if a search warrant is issued, or if it is an authorised warrantless search. However, there have been many instances of raids on offices and homes of Human Rights Defenders that are illegal. They have been conducted without search warrants or beyond the purview of warrantless searches. The raids sometimes involve confiscation and destruction of property.
Women Human Rights Defenders’ offices and homes have been raided too. The raids were carried out by state authorities, in many instances illegally. They serve a dual purpose of harassing the defenders, and gathering information about them, their organisations and their contacts in violation of their right to privacy protected under Article 17 of the ICCPR. Sometimes illegal arrests also occur during these raids or, in some cases, rape or sexual assault against WHRDs are committed. Increasingly, raids are also being conducted by unknown actors.
A WHRD from Mathare reported of her house being razed to ashes as a result of defending land that was being grabbed from a public school in the area.
Attacks and intimidation of family and community members
Targeting individuals who are intimately close to WHRDs such as members of their families, their colleagues and members of the community they are working within tends to be a very effective way of intimidating and silencing WHRDs. Perpetrators are aware that WHRDs are prepared to face certain risks to their personal safety, but that they may be less willing to see loved ones and others who are close to them suffer as a result of their activism. These threats can be constituted as violations of human rights under Article 17 of the ICCPR, or as criminal offences in some jurisdictions. In relation to WHRDs, they can also be risks or constraints they face in their work.
Criminalization and prosecution
The report of the Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders to the UN General Assembly in 2003 noted that ‘restrictions on defenders have been justified as measures to improve security and support counter-terrorism, while in many cases the objective has clearly been to conceal human rights abuses that defenders would have otherwise investigated and revealed, or to punish defenders for their human rights work and to discourage others from continuing it’. The Special Representative underscored the trend in states’ use of the legal system to criminalise the work of Human Rights Defenders, putting them at increased risk.
The criminalisation of human rights activism has a significant impact on WHRDs. On one hand, those working in conflict areas are disproportionately affected by security laws imposed by governments. Often they are accused of siding with the enemy and breaching national security. On the other hand, WHRDs working in non-conflict situations may be prosecuted if the issues they are working on are declared illegal. For example, those helping undocumented migrants have been charged with assisting people’s illegal entry and stay. WHRDs advocating for the right to terminate pregnancy or for LGBTIQ rights face prosecution in states where such rights are not recognised.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has called for the decriminalisation of defamation and other related laws which limit the freedom of expression. The UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders under Article 6 also protects this right. Article 8 of the Declaration also explicitly provides that Human Rights Defenders may submit to governmental bodies or agencies concerned with public affairs criticisms and proposals to draw attention to any aspects of their work that hinder or impede the promotion of human rights. However, state authorities cite defamation, libel, disinformation and incitement laws to restrain WHRDs’ exercise of this freedom. False or spurious charges are filed against them under these laws for criticising the governments.
Illegal investigation, interrogation and surveillance
With the global ‘war against terror’, many countries enacted national legislations which justify surveillance without warrants, investigations without proper charges or unauthorised questioning of Human Rights Defenders. There are also allegations that governments have developed a ‘blacklist’, which is a list of activists that are targeted for extrajudicial killings or government restrictions. These acts are prohibited under Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
WHRDs have been placed under unauthorized investigations by police and other law enforcement officers. During the investigations, interrogations were conducted about their activities, motives and contacts. They were warned that their activities are considered suspicious, and that they are targeted for escalated violence. These threats are acts of intimidation intended to make WHRDs feel vulnerable. In violation of their right to privacy, some WHRDs are also put under unwarranted surveillance as a means of intimidating them or gathering information on their activities. Sometimes this is done secretly by intelligence or undercover agents. In other instances, it is overt and defenders are made aware that they are being watched at all times. Information gathered through monitoring their calls, emails and other communication channels are sometimes used to bring false charges against them.
Surveillance within Kenya
Surveillance can take place in two ways. First, authorities have direct access to networks and services and can pull information themselves: surveillance can be initiated directly by the government agency which would involve the government using communications surveillance technologies. In Kenya, the State has put in place numerous initiatives that grossly affect the working environment of HRDs under the guise of counter-terrorism measures. These include the Integrated Public Safety Communication and Surveillance System, Umoja Kenya Initiative, SIM card registration, registration when using public Wi-Fi, increasing capabilities of the Kenyan National Intelligence Service (NIS) to conduct surveillance, and the adoption of restrictive legislation with the amendments to the Security Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2014. Secondly, the authorities can request assistance for surveillance from operators. Cooperation with telecommunication providers is sometimes referred to by surveillance proponents as ‘lawful access’, when laws require communications service operators to deliver information to either law enforcement or intelligence agencies when requested.
Impact of Surveillance measure on Women Human Rights Defenders
The privacy implications of the aforementioned surveillance methods are numerous and significant. Key concerns include the possibility of data sharing with third parties (including foreign agencies and the private sector), the processing and collection of communications and images without the consent of individuals, the risks of insecure storage facilities and unauthorised external access, and the potential for data to be deleted or modified.
The provisions of Article 31(c) and (d) of the Kenya Constitution are given effect by the Data Protection Bill which regulates the collection, retrieval, processing, storage, use and disclosure of personal data. However, this bill has not yet been enacted thereby lacking a legal framework to protect individuals from violations or seek redress for violations meted against them.
Digital biometric technologies rely on soft and contemporary biometrics which quickly sort people into categories of race and gender. Therefore digital biometric technologies would facilitate hi-tech forms of racial and gender profiling which can be classified as gender based violence in accordance with the United Nations definition.
Disclosure of intimate information has a detrimental effect on the lives of WHRDs who not only have their dignity and reputations to uphold but also need to protect their children who are usually targets of such malicious acts. The right to privacy is conceived as a protection against potential abuses by the state. Yet state surveillance, too, when its target is a woman, often takes a specific gendered form.
Another interest very commonly associated with the term “privacy” is the interest in controlling access to one’s body by touching, sight, and other forms of surveillance. There is a deep concern for keeping certain parts of the body, and certain bodily acts, hidden from the sight of others and also a more general concern that, whatever one is doing, one should not be watched without one’s consent.
Physical surveillance is enabled through the initiative that has been put in place by the state. This can be used to not only infiltrate communication but also to locate an individual. In Kenya, the security forces are known for torturing people of whom they require pertinent information or to intimidate WHRDs into silence. The threat particularly to WHRDs is the threat of sexual forms of torture to silence them.
All surveillance must meet the minimum standards of being both necessary in a democratic society to achieve a legitimate aim and must be proportionate to that aim. Individuals must be protected against arbitrary interference with their right to communicate privately. When a government wishes to conduct communications surveillance, it must only be done in accordance with clear and transparent laws which maintain the dignity of individuals. WHRDs are especially prone to psychological torture that is attached to the adverse use of sensitive information by third parties to intimidate them from carrying out their human rights work.
Sanctions in the work place
Judges, prosecutors and other civil servants who maintain their independence from state interests and decide to take a stand in promoting and protecting women’s rights are sometimes punished for doing so. In violation of their rights under Article 11 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, these defenders suffer sanctions in the workplace because of their support for women’s human rights. The sanctions can have specific bearing on their professions, and eventually hamper the advocacy for women’s rights. For WHRDs, these sanctions that withdraw support to their activism translate into constraints on their work.
Report of the UN Special Representative for Human Rights Defenders to the 58th session of the UN General Assembly, 18 September 2003 (A/58/380)
 ‘Umoja Kenya will transform how you are governed and ensure your security’
 The United Nations defines violence against women as “a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women” and that “violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” It calls out by name “physical, sexual and psychological violence” in the family, general community and as perpetrated or condoned by the State.
Violations of women’s freedom of expression, association and assembly
Defenders’ rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly are fundamental to their capacity to organise. When these rights are threatened, space for advocacy is limited, and participation in civil society is constrained. When gender discrimination is also at play, Women Human Rights Defenders’ capacities can be harmed.
Restrictions on freedom of association
Article 5 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders explicitly recognises the right of any group or individual to form/join and participate in non-governmental organisations. Nonetheless, the freedom to do so is often restricted, particularly for WHRDs working in environments where women’s role in public affairs is questioned, or when the issues they are defending seem threatening to powerful actors. Retaliation against WHRDs because they participate in NGOs and movements should also be considered attacks on their freedom of association.
One particularly effective means of blocking freedom of association is the inhibiting of registration of organisations. In the case of LGBTIQ activists, the fact that homosexuality is outlawed in a particular country can be used as pretext to prevent activists from forming an organisation and functioning legally. Some LGBTIQ groups are forced to operate ‘underground’ or hold office in private places in order to provide safety to individual members and keep the group away from scrutiny by police and other government officials. Undue state interference in the activities of NGOs can also be considered as a direct challenge to this freedom.
Restrictions on the right to receive funding
The right to solicit, receive and use funding upheld by Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders implies that states should ensure that defenders are able to access funds for human rights purposes and for peaceful activities without undue restrictions. However, many WHRDs experience that this right is being violated by the state. Non-state actors who have a direct interest in preventing WHRDs from carrying out their activities also try to discredit their organisations to prevent them from receiving funding.
Restrictions on funding include: undue controls imposed on funding, such as requiring government authorization; undue and cumbersome reporting requirements that in effect negate access; absolute prohibition to receive foreign funding; excessive tax regulations. Considering that most women’s organisations as of 2005 operate at a budget of about US$20,000 – 50,000, these restrictions on funding have immediate repercussions on their work and also significantly affect the advocacy for women’s rights.
Restrictions on freedom of expression
Guarantees to freedom of expression of Human Rights Defenders are enshrined in articles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Article 6 recognises the right to publish and disseminate information and reports, hold opinions and draw public attention to human rights issues. Article 7 recognises the right to discuss new ideas. Article 8 recognises the right of defenders to participate in the conduct of public affairs on a non-discrimination basis.
Repression of WHRDs’ freedom of expression takes many forms, some of which have already been highlighted. In fact the aim of most attacks against WHRDs is to silence them. WHRDs who are threatened sometimes resort to self-censorship in order to protect themselves and others who are closely associated with them.
Restrictions on access to information
Enshrined in Articles 6 and 14 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, access to information is an indispensable factor enabling HRDs to carry out their monitoring and advocacy role. Access to information includes being able to collect data on human rights violations, publishing reports and obtaining information on specific human rights issues, particularly on the governments’ actions to implement human rights at the national level.
One other aspect of the right to access information included in Article 9 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is the right to observe trials. This right recognises that WHRDs should be permitted to observe court proceedings in order to form an opinion on their compliance with national law and applicable international obligations. However, in many countries, access to the courts is restricted. Considering the general male bias in the legal system, this restriction can lead to a denial of justice for WHRDs.
Insufficient or no access to information is detrimental to WHRDs’ capacity to analyse and draw conclusions on particular human rights situations they are working on, and to call for accountability of perpetrators. Those parts of internal security legislation that are used to deny defenders’ the right to access information as well as to prosecute their efforts to seek or disseminate information critical of states and their actions, should be repealed. This is essential in order to break impunity for violations and protect WHRDs.
Restrictions on communication with international bodies
Article 9 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognises that defenders have the right to unhindered access to and communication with international bodies that have general or special competence on matters of human rights. However, WHRDs who provide information to these bodies sometimes do so at their peril. Defenders have been targeted and accused of betrayal because they provided information critical of the human rights situation in their countries to international organisations or agencies. Some have been subjected to violent attacks after exercising their right to share such information.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
The report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani, to the 61st session of the UN General Assembly in 2006 gives an in-depth analysis of the violations of the defenders’ right to freedom of assembly. This right is protected under Articles 5 and 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. However, WHRDs have reported cases regarding the violation of this right.
The ideological sexual division of labour between men and women has also translated into restrictions on women’s freedom of assembly. In many places, women do not have equal access to public life, including the freedom to hold and attend meetings. Those WHRDs who stake a claim to have their voices heard in public are at risk of attack because of their sex.
In certain places, WHRDs’ right to assembly is also violated through restrictions on their ability to participate or initiate human rights activities. The restrictions include the requirement to seek permission prior to holding the event or participating in it; or calling in participants for interrogation by state agents. Authorities implementing religious or traditional laws may also prohibit women from gathering with men during such meetings.
Excessive force has also been used to disrupt many peaceful protests and gatherings of activists. Gender-based attacks such as sexual abuse have been reported to occur during violent dispersal of peaceful demonstrations. This is in violation to the freedom of assembly, and can also trigger numerous violations of the right to life or physical and mental integrity of WHRDs.
Some governments also regulate both who can demonstrate and about which issues. Where authorities require permission in order to peacefully demonstrate, WHRDs are often denied permission for unwarranted or specious reasons due to the lack of recognition of their status as defenders.
Gendered restrictions on freedom of movement
Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ensure everyone the liberty of movement. It guarantees the freedom to leave any country, including one’s own. It specifically mentions that these rights are not subject to any restrictions, except those which are necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals. Further, these restrictions are strictly construed: they should be provided for by law, and they should be consistent with the other rights recognised in the Covenant.
In some cases women’s mobility is restricted solely because of gender. Communities impose social norms, which dictate the terms of women’s mobility. These cultural or religious restrictions in many instances can violate women’s freedom of movement guaranteed under the CEDAW and other international human rights instruments. They betray of a lack of respect for women’s rights, which can make WHRDs vulnerable to abuses.
Requirement of permission or denial to travel abroad
In contravention of the international human rights guarantees mentioned above, WHRDs have been required to request permission to travel abroad in connection with their women’s rights advocacy. In some instances, the permission is denied on vague allegations of ‘protecting national security’. Another more subtle way of impeding travel outside the country is to create administrative barriers or delays in issuing passports.
Internal travel restrictions or obstruction
In many countries, there are also regulations to restrain travel within the country. Formal controls including imposition of travel permits and establishment of check points prevent WHRDs from moving freely within the territory of their own country to document human rights abuses. In conflict zones, preventing them from accessing survivors, documenting violations or providing emergency assistance or remedy can have severe consequences to civilians at risk. These restrictions also put WHRDs at particular risk of sexual assault or other forms of abuse since they are at the mercy of military officials, armed groups or other security agents that dominate the conflict areas.
Non-recognition of violations and impunity
Article 9 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders commits states to provide effective remedies and to protect defenders in the event of any violation of their human rights. According to Article 2 of the Declaration, the state also has a duty to create an enabling environment for activists to defend human rights in safety. This duty is not only applicable to situations where state agents are the perpetrators, but also where other non-state and private actors are involved. Article 12 further establishes that the state has a responsibility to protect anyone, including Women Human Rights Defenders, who suffers reprisals because of their activism.
Defenders face a complicated dynamic with regards to the state: the Articles above point to the state as a fundamental recourse to address the violations inflicted against them, yet in some instances, the state can be the perpetrator of these violations. Some defenders have even resisted receiving direct protection from state institutions as it is these very bodies that are likely to be violating their rights. In all, the protection measures accorded by the state to Human Rights Defenders are far from adequate.
Gender inequality and discrimination partly account for the non-recognition of WHRDs and the violations committed against them. Bias against women defenders and lesbian, transgender and other gender rights activists has led to a lack of appreciation of the precise nature of the abuses. In many instances, the centrality of patriarchal relations embedded in these atrocities is ignored, or the complexities of the relationships with and among the perpetrators are glossed over. The serious consequences of these violations or the effects of the non-recognition of these offences are seldom accounted for.
There is often less likelihood of state actors providing proper redress for violations against WHRDs that are gender-based or gender-specific. This is the case both where laws against the abuses exist, and where no laws exist that punishes these particular crimes and women are left with no remedy. Police, members of the judiciary and other actors in the justice system can simply be biased against women. Such prejudices can translate into a refusal to acknowledge that the acts are crimes or violations of human rights; a reluctance to investigate the offences; or a general failure to deliver justice to the victims.
As a result, impunity has become a major obstacle that impedes the protection of WHRDs. They are unable to obtain justice and accountability for the abuses committed against them. Fears of reprisals directed at them, their family members or colleagues by the perpetrators at large have discouraged many of them from reporting the attacks. It is important to end this impunity and advocate for perpetrators to be sanctioned and to engage the state in its responsibility to protect defenders.
One WHRD gave a scenario were she said that
“The police do not perform well in cases of sexual violence. There is a big delay in cases: lax in arresting and follow-up. There is also laxity in investigations due to laziness and corruption by police. This hampers justice for victims since the culprits go unpunished. The police mess the cases such that the cases end up dismissed. A case in point is of a teacher at a primary school who defiled a pupil. The matter was reported, the girl has since delivered but the girl is yet to find justice. The teacher remains at large and still working in the same school. The form of sexual violence that is predominant here is defilement and mainly for the girl child. Once in a while grown women and boys (around 10 years to teenage).We handle about 3 cases a month. The few cases of rape we receive are victims raped by their ex- husbands. Sometimes they conceive in the process.”
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