Facing increasing threats to their safety, women human rights defenders sustain their work by creating safe spaces where they can not only share experiences of violence, trauma, and insecurity, but also exchange survival strategies and plan for joint actions.
The Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative, currently coordinated by JASS Mesoamerica, decides on action according to the needs expressed by defenders. One frequent demand is for local and national support networks to confront threats and violence in slightly differing contexts. As a result, the Regional Initiative is supporting four networks that link more than 200 women organizing within a range of social movements.
I want to say to my little boy, my Brandon, that you are still Mommy’s little prince. Never will I give up, until I find you.” Lulú, from the Mexican state of Coahuila, addressing her son, who disappeared when he was eight years old, while speaking at a demonstration of mothers searching for their disappeared daughters and sons.
Mothers throughout Mexico are demanding that the government resolve the whereabouts of almost 25,000 people forcibly disappeared over the past six years. Increasingly, these mothers, daughters, wives and sisters are joining the ranks of human rights defenders, as they speak out and demand justice for their disappeared loved ones. Meanwhile, Guatemalan indigenous and rural women are fighting to protect their territory and natural resources from a government that will unjustly cede their ancestral lands to multinational corporations for exploitation. In El Salvador, women human rights defenders are supporting rape victims who seek to terminate their pregnancies in a safe environment, even in the face of legal restrictions.
In Mesoamerica, millions of women are participating in mixed social movements for equality, peace, and development. In an environment of discrimination and gender violence that affects all women, these activists’ struggles mean that their lives, their families’ safety and the future of their struggle are in peril.
Activating Support & Action
In collaboration with the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative, a number of organizations have pushed back and are mobilizing action and processes to create alternative understandings and strategies for their security, protection and self-care from a feminist perspective. JASS Mesoamerica is taking the lead with a number of local partners in coordinating national committees in both Mexico and Honduras that respond to the needs of women activists at risk – including risk analysis, security plans and protocols, and funds for urgent mobilizations. In addition to organizing support networks, women defenders call for the violence against them to be registered and documented, and for the information to be disseminated nationally and internationally. Data and information are now available, thanks to the first System for Registering Assaults against Women Human Rights Defenders, specifically designed for Mexico and Central America. International advocacy increases foreign actors’ awareness and commitment to pressuring governments to fulfill their responsibilities and guarantee the safety of woman human rights defenders. JASS has taken a leading role in spotlighting the contribution of women defenders to democracy and justice through fact-finding missions, media outreach and sharing cutting-edge analysis with US and European actors.
The search for justice after the murder of my father, together with my ongoing work defending human rights, led to a breakdown in my physical and mental health. I applied for support from the Mesoamerican Initiative to be able to rest and take care of my health. The main message of this support: ‘May my life be important to other women.’“ – Woman defender from Guatemala
When a woman human rights defender is assaulted and attacked, her life changes. For this reason, multiple levels of support are vital to accompany her recovery and provide the necessary environment for her to return to her justice work. All of us, no matter where you stand or what you do, can help by donating resources for emergency situations, by denouncing violence at all forums and venues where we participate, and by helping garner support and international recognition for the important work done by women defenders.
Cutting-Edge Research on Violence
The alarming rise in violence against women includes a rapid increase in the rate of femicides, especially in militarized areas, regions controlled by organized crime, and countries where democratic institutions have been weakened; such is the case of Honduras in the aftermath of the coup d’état in 2009. In parallel, social protest is criminalized and defenders are being labeled as anti-development extremists, deepening fear and repression. Since 2010, at least 36 women human rights defenders have been murdered directly or indirectly by government forces, in countries supposedly democratic and at peace. According to data from the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative, 414 attacks against women human rights defenders were registered 2012 alone. As the Initiative and the work of JASS Mesoamerica highlights, the countries with the highest number of assaults are Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
On February 25, 2010, they illegally detained me, tortured and raped me, threatening to kill me if we followed through with our case. They told me that this was a little present from the mayor. This happened while I was on my way to pick up my son from school.” Mexican woman defender
Every time women who work in human rights are attacked, they face more than a single act of aggression—mainly threats, psychological harassment and the excessive use of force. A ranking of perpetrators puts local authorities, police and military personnel as the most common, followed by private security agents, and aggressors from women’s home communities, families, and fellow colleagues. Ranking by movement shows women defending territorial rights and for the preservation of natural resources face the greatest level of attacks and threats, followed by those fighting for women’s right to a life free from violence, defenders of the right to political and community participation and women journalists.
Many women defenders also experience domestic violence at the hands of family members and partners or abuse from colleagues within their organizations and movements. Many women activists do not identify themselves as human right defenders, and those who do are often rejected by their communities and families for abandoning what is seen as women’s traditional roles— mothers, wives and homemakers. This type of violence is rarely prosecuted, but affects women human rights defenders deeply and often sidelines them from their struggle for human rights and democracy.
Article based on the presentation Violence against Women Human Rights Defenders and Experiences in Protection and Self-Care in Mexico and Central America by Marusia Lopez Cruz, during the conference Moving Beyond Militarism & War (May 30, 2013).