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Activist, feminist AND a woman human rights defender!

  • JASS

Throughout the world, many feminists and other women activists working for social justice or gender equality are reluctant to recognize themselves as human rights defenders either because they believe their work goes beyond the human rights framework; because they feel that by naming themselves as such, their political identity as feminists becomes blurred; because they think that the term is too focussed on the law or too dangerous in their particular contexts; because they fear retaliations by the State or other groups; or simply because the term does not appeal to them or sometimes  because the way the term  is used  mistakenly conveys the idea that human rights defenders are part of a special exclusive club – a framing which sets up an us-them dynamic that can alienate people and cause resentment. Although the decision to recognize oneself as a woman human rights defender depends very much on the context in which one lives and works, the truth is that it is a very personal decision and therefore, each activist must decide for herself whether or not she wants to name herself and be recognized by others as such. But like any decision, it is always better that it be an informed one. To that end, in this document I will enumerate some advantages to naming oneself and being recognized as a woman human rights defender (WHRD) and the responsibilities that this entails.

First of all, it is important to know that those who call themselves or are recognized as WHRDs are women who act to promote or protect any or all human rights and all individuals who defend the human rights of women or work for gender equality.  They are members of civil society organizations, NGOs, grassroots activists, social justice agents, lawyers, journalists, parliamentarians, members of the judiciary, artists for social change and all types of service providers who help ensure that women can exercise their rights.  

Not identifying as a WHRD does not automatically protect you from retaliation by extremist groups because even if you don´t identify as such, if you are promoting and defending racial and gender equality; if you are a member of a group or organization that provides reproductive health services for women; if you are promoting freedom of expression or religion for the women in your community; are working to end a civil or armed conflict; trying to stop violence against women or helping migrant women workers get their papers in order, you may be perceived by these extremist groups as a WHRD and could very well be a target of their sexist attacks.

Secondly, it is important to know that naming oneself a WHRD is not incompatible with being a social or feminist activist, in fact, one is usually both those things and even more. As Marusia López says, “stating I am a women´s human rights defender means being moved, outraged and aware of the social reality in which we live and act collectively. It implies valuing and reinforcing within a human rights framework what we, as women, have built. It legitimizes and promotes the coming together of women from very different movements to look at each other and communicate, to see and value each other; that is why it is so powerful.” 

Identifying as a WHRD does not mean you have to stop being a feminist or a peace builder or social activist, lawyer or health provider, etc. On the contrary, being an activist for equality in any sphere is a way of putting human rights theory into practice which requires individual and social transformation. That is why I believe that globally, more and more women activists for social justice, feminists, those who struggle to protect their territories from extractive capitalism, those who fight against impunity, for racial justice, against poverty, militarization, among many others struggles, are identifying themselves as WHRD because they understand that this has many advantages even though it involves some responsibilities and dangers.

But before enumerating these advantages, I would like to remind us that human rights are the product of the historical struggles of our ancestors and not the concessions or benefits that the elites or the powerful hand out to us. The set of human rights that we now call “women’s human rights” are also the product of centuries of organized women’s struggles culminating in 1993 with the recognition by all the States gathered at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, that women´s rights are human rights and that this means that women are no less human than men.

This recognition that women´s rights are human rights is the product of an amazing mobilization that began when the World Conference on Human Rights to be held in Vienna was announced. Almost a million women around the world, from all origins, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, ages, abilities, etc. got organised in multiple ways to demand it and in this struggle millions more woke up to their humanity.  And yet, millions of us still live under inhuman conditions and face violations of many or all of our rights on a daily basis.  Violations which are still understood by many as normal or natural because the truth is that women are still understood and treated in law and in practice as not fully human.  This is the norm around the world because discrimination against women has not been completely eradicated in any country. However, the impact of the recognition that women´s rights are human rights has been enormous and has empowered millions of women, even those who do not know or recognize this history.

The list of achievements that have been obtained through this recognition is long and is not the aim of this document. However, for the purposes of this document, I believe that it is important to mention the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1999.[1] I would like to recall one of the rights contained therein: “Everyone has the right, individually or collectively, to promote and ensure the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.”  Thanks to the Vienna World Conference, we can affirm that this right to defend rights is also ours, that is to say, a right of all the women who defend human rights, and of all those who fight for peace, justice, protection of their territories and the planet, etc.

And in order to make it clear that women have the right to defend their rights, in 2013, a broad movement of WHRDs got the General Assembly of the UN to adopt a resolution on the protection of women human rights defenders and of people defending women´s human rights.[2] The adoption of this first-ever resolution on WHRDs is a step forward in protecting those who face risks and attacks for their work to promote human rights. This resolution – still to some extent unknown among human rights defenders – is very important because it reiterates that the State has the obligation to take concrete measures to ensure women’s participation in the defence of human rights. Furthermore, this resolution provides elements that allow women to decide whether or not to recognize themselves as a WHRD.  I encourage activists to read it and use it in their work.

Advantages of identifying oneself and being recognized by others as a WHRD:

  • It means you have become aware that you have the right to combat discrimination, sexist violence, impunity, corruption, to fight for sexual rights, to preserve your territory, to fight for freedom of expression, etc. and are acting with the knowledge that the State has specific legal obligations towards all persons under its jurisdiction.  This is empowering.
  • It helps you to see and understand yourself as a member of a huge and diverse movement. Feminists as well as those who combat discrimination, gender- based violence, impunity or corruption, those who fight for education for all, the indigenous women who defend their territory, the Muslim or Catholic women who defend their religion while questioning patriarchal aspects of them, and so many different women in so many different social movements are possibly all a minority within their movements or communities. But if all the women who are part of different movements are gathered under the term “WHRDs”, we become many more. In this way, the movements and their members complement and strengthen each other without losing their specificity. At the same time, recognizing oneself as part of a broader movement facilitates the exchange of successful strategies and actions in different spheres and countries. That is to say, recognizing yourself as a WHRD does not imply leaving your activism aside. On the contrary, it allows activists to organise amidst great diversity and to develop joint actions that will have much more impact.
  • It allows a group of WHRD to continue to push for causes from their specific needs or interests knowing that other WHRDs are pushing for other causes that are also necessary for the success of what each group seeks.  This is due to the interdependent nature of human rights which means, for example, that a movement that focuses on the elimination of violence against women will benefit from a movement that focuses on the economic empowerment of women. Or, for example, that indigenous and peasant women who struggle to protect their territory benefit from the political power and freedom of expression that other women have struggled for to make their voices heard, and so on.
  • It gives activists the possibility of using a common language with all those who defend a wide range of rights. This strengthens the different struggles because it allows identifying common aspects and sending a message of unity both inside the movements and  to the State or third parties (companies, transnational, powerful individuals).
  • It allows activists to gain ownership of the resolution on the protection of WHRDs that explicitly requires States not to criminalize but to protect all defenders who, as we know, not only suffer from discrimination for being women, but also work in a context of specific and systematic violence. Although this resolution does not establish new obligations or rights, it articulates existing ones to make them more visible and ensure their implementation. Moreover, in using this resolution as a shield against the multiple aggressions that WHRDs face, activists remind States and society in general of the legitimacy and importance of their work.
  • It gives activists greater awareness of the broad normative protection framework for human rights defenders, made up of international instruments and the authoritative interpretation of treaty bodies and human rights mechanisms which enumerate and define the content of each right. These norms and their interpretation are public and easily accessible instruments that describe in great detail the obligations of States and the elements that make up each of the various rights guaranteed. We know that in many countries, women do not have access to justice, so activists may not expect these instruments to protect them in practice. However, they can be used to put political pressure on States when WHRDs are attacked.
  • It can help activists to reach consensus among the great diversity of social movements built on the minimum floor of rights and standards already recognized worldwide. Starting from that minimum floor, activists can concentrate their energies in the definition of objectives and plans based on these standards. Furthermore, this minimum floor provides a framework for developing strategies to increase State accountability.
  • In many contexts it gives activists the legitimacy to promote and defend these rights and standards, and, in some States, active legitimacy to claim these rights before courts, on the basis of international legal obligations and national commitments. This enables WHRDs to claim, for instance, the protection of natural resources and goods, to demand gender equality in any sphere including demanding that basic social services, which are indispensable to women, take precedence over military spending, and even to denounce when economic rights are compromised by trade agreements, among others.
  • It gives activists the possibility of linking their work to a right that is embedded in an international, regional or national human rights instrument, which does not only have an empowering effect, but it also makes it evident for activists that they themselves are also rights holders and this knowledge can make it easier for them to detail the obligations of the State.

However, identifying and being recognized as a WHRD also entails certain duties or commitments that give consistency to the human rights discourse and which should be translated into concrete actions. Recognizing oneself as WHRD entails that the activist, agent of change, social transformer or feminist:

  • Recognises and acts in accordance with the principle that the women they defend are the right holders and one´s job is not to make decisions for them but to help create an environment where it is the right holders themselves who make informed decisions about their lives, their bodies and their territories.
  • Adopts measures to build capacity, strengthen and empower women as well as oneself while ensuring that women have substantive involvement in structuring their organizations, communities and governments.
  • Strives for equality in every area and combats all forms of discrimination against women, including those that women themselves generate or reproduce, based on the understanding that human rights are grounded in the principle of equality.
  • Takes into account the opinions, interests and needs of all concerned in accordance with human rights principles.
  • Is familiarised and takes ownership of human rights instruments in order to use them in the best way.
  • Carries out a comprehensive human rights analysis of all the social, cultural, economic, religious or other barriers to the enjoyment of particular rights by all women or subgroups of women, based on the State’s obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination against any woman.  For example, a human rights analysis of participatory democracy would examine family and social structures that prevent women from fully participating in their communities, governments or any other organization.  A human rights analysis of domestic work would also examine family and social structures that have given this type of work so little economic and social value. 
  • Designs or works with methodologies and techniques based on participatory processes rather than quick fixes or other imposed models. In the area of economic empowerment for women living in poverty, for example, this means that  women living in poverty should participate in their own empowerment as rights holders and not as victims of poverty who depend on hand-outs. Defending economic empowerment also means that, as a WHRD, one recognizes that we all need assistance from each other and one embraces our interdependency.   In the area of peace building, it requires that affected women have an equal place at the negotiating table and that those participating have a responsibility towards the rest of the affected women.
  • Is aware of discriminatory structures or practices that have become invisible or naturalized and takes measures to protect herself from violations and human rights abuses even though they may be perpetrated by partners or relatives or by her own harmful habits or low self-esteem.

In the current context of increasing fundamentalisms, populism, racism and misogyny, to self-identify and be recognised as a WHRD does not guarantee you security, safety or equality or that civil society spaces will not continue to be weakened, that violence will diminish or that States will stop criminalizing our search for peace, fair trade, the protection of our environment, labour rights, racial or sexual minority rights, etc.  But not identifying as a WHRD will not guarantee these either.  And, even without these guarantees, activists should ponder the advantages listed and re-evaluate their ideas about human rights defenders.

And remember, if you make the decision to recognize yourself as a WHRD you will be joining a global movement of activists with a shared identity of being human rights defenders. With this common identity, which is at the same time so diverse, activists could have an interdependent and indivisible global movement, not only within the human rights community but within all those communities working for peace, social and economic justice, our planet, etc. Only by working together can we create that other.


Picture Credit: Guatemala Human Rights Commission

[1] General Assembly, Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,  A/RES/53/144, 8 March 1999. Available at:

[2] General Assembly, Promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: protecting women human rights defenders, A/RES/68/181, 18 December 2013.   Available at:


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