“We are united in our diversity by a common experience of repression,” explained Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic who leads the Council of K’iche’ Peoples in Guatemala at an unusual gathering between 30 women human rights defenders at risk in Central America and Mexico, and 40 donors committed to advancing social justice and human rights. Responding to questions from donors about how such a diverse array of activists from distinct political agendas had come together under the umbrella of the Mesoamerica Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative, Lolita and others from five countries in the region explained that this collaborative regional project—coordinated by JASS Mesoamerica in partnership with 6 organizations—has united many women by focusing on what it takes to protect women activists and their families.
The Initiative, together with its partners Consorcio Oaxaca (Mexico), UDEFEGUA (Guatemala), La Colectiva Feminista (El Salvador), AWID, the Central American Women’s Fund, JASS Mesoamerica and our donor partners, including Mama Cash, Channel Foundation, Oak Foundation, Fund for Global Human Rights and the General Services Foundation, hosted a ground-breaking conference in Mexico City (January, 31-February 1, 2014) to facilitate direct relationships between the global donor community and grassroots human rights defenders to introduce the Initiative, its innovative movement-building approach to protection, and the women, organizations and networks driving it all.
The 40 representatives from funding organizations from the US, Mexico and Europe were eager to learn first-hand about the increased risks and violence faced by women activists; to fully understand how a context characterized by fragile states, organized crime and high rates of violence impacts women. The meeting enabled women defenders to share their experiences—fostering a deeper sense of connection to the work and between one another—building trust and hope in a context of growing violence.
We got this sense that we are in this together, we are going to face this together and the sense of hope that this kind of shared story and solidarity provides is what keeps everyone going. Hope and knowing they are not alone is what keeps activists going against the odds. Lisa VeneKlasen, JASS Executive Director
Through several testimonies from different activists, donors and allies heard about the difference the Initiative makes by calling attention to the fact that women defenders face unique and considerable risks—both as a result of their justice work and gender discrimination—and how its developing innovative and informed strategies to help protect them.
“I wouldn’t be here, alive without the support from the national network and the Initiative…the collectivity that surrounds me, gives me security,” says Berta Cáceres, leader of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) who has been arrested for speaking out against illegal logging, mining and other land occupations by corporations.
The National Women Human Rights Defenders Network in Honduras, which Berta attributes her wellbeing, works like a safety net. It’s success is partly because it has emerged as an unusual alliance between feminist and other social movements from across the country. Launched after the 2009 coup d’état, where repression and violence were tearing movements and communities apart, the Network was a partial response to the fact that women activists who played a critical role in the resistance were not adequately supported by their movements. JASS, COMPPA-Colectivo de Comunicador@s Populares por la Autonomía, the Initiative, and the national Network successfully launched a new digital radio station (available in Spanish only) in January 2014 that allows women defenders to speak openly about their struggles and fears, bridging the information gap that often separates women in the country.
REFLECTIONS & THE ROAD AHEAD
“Congratulations on what I think was a historic event and the beginning of the next phase in this incredibly important Initiative.” Ana Paula Hernández, Fund for Global Human Rights
Many were impressed by the Initiative’s ability to manage resources and funding, despite its complex collaborative nature—a true testament to how political trust, rather than rigid structures, leads to stronger partnerships and movements. Others were intrigued by the unique backstory and partnerships that gave birth to the Initiative—an organically grown collaborative response to violence against women. Since its formation in 2010, the Initiative has brought together 350 defenders, a dozen social movements, 150 organizations, four national networks in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador, and key players in the global human rights community to provide the protection and support they need to continue to sustain their activism.
Thanks to Nicky McIntyre (Mama Cash) and Florence Tercier Holst-Roness (Oak Foundation), and the incredible behind the scenes work of Holly Bartling (General Service Foundation), Katrin Wilde (Channel Foundation) and Ana Paula Hernandez (Fund for Global Human Rights) and others, donors committed to raising and finding nearly US$900,000 in support for the Initiative. JASS and other members of the coordinating group are working to follow up on these commitments. Even though there are challenges in sustaining this kind of work, the convening provided the opportunity to collaborate on a much bigger scale, and this holds a lot of promise both in the region and as a model for amplifying the human rights impact while protecting the women who create it.
Photo Credit: Consorcio Oaxaca