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Why was JASS recently at the United Nations in Geneva?

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JASS’ recent participation at the United Nations in Geneva during October 25-30, 2014 had two objectives. The first was to follow up on the 27th session of the Human Right’s Council where important resolutions where passed.  For more information check out the International Service for Human Right’s page:

The second objective was to have a meeting with the different UN special procedures to discuss and integrate key issues affecting women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the work of different mandates.  JASS co-organized this effort with AWID’s Women Human Rights Defenders Programme, the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition and the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative. JASS participates in these last two groups.

JASS also participated at the 21st Annual Meeting of Special Rapporteurs, Representatives, Independent Experts and Chairs of Working Groups of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council. This meeting was a crucial moment to discuss and inform the mandate holders of particular concerns and regional realities. JASS’ priority was to address WHRDs’ situation in different regions.

Why was JASS’ participation important?

WHRDs continue to face attacks, harassment and intimidation which are frequently justified in the name of tradition, culture or religion because as women activists, they challenge the socially constructed gender roles which tend to keep them subordinate and out of the public sphere.

According to the 2013 report from the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the breakdown by region shows that approximately 420 communications concerning the situation of WHRDs and Human Rights Defenders were sent to countries in the Asia-Pacific region (28 percent); approximately 400 to countries in the Latin American region (26 percent); more than 250 to the Middle East and North African region (17 percent), about 230 to countries in Europe, North America and Central Asia (15.2 percent) and approximately 200 to countries in Africa (13 percent). We don’t know how many of the communications involved WHRDs however 18 percent of all communications in 2013 expressly involved women. [1]

The adoption of a resolution protecting WHRDs at the UN General Assembly on November 27, 2013 sent a clear message about this issue’s global importance. However, not a single country in Africa nor a handful in Latin American have co-sponsored the resolution which demonstrates a disappointing political will to actually implement the resolution.

How is JASS Mesoamerica protecting WHRDs?

Understanding comprehensive protection for human right defenders through a gender perspective, including the specific needs for WHRDs, is a difficult task that many civil society organizations and international human right instruments have not yet achieved.

There have been important advances in protection mechanisms from international systems like the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which recognize the unique situation of WHRDs. Nevertheless, these protection measures still lack a gendered understanding of the discrimination and violence these women face as human right defenders.

Thanks to their indefatigable spirit, there is more recognition that in societies marked by gender-based violence, being a WHRD translates into defying the cultural norms and stereotypes which limit women’s participation in all facets of life. It also means women carry out their human rights activism in spaces where inequality reigns. The scarce social recognition for their activism, the burden of their domestic responsibilities and the elevated level of violence against women, among other factors, obstruct their participation in public life.

In addition to the factors listed above, there is a significant lack of understanding about what a “women human rights defender” is. An immediate result of this unfamiliarity is insufficient protection and prevention mechanisms for WHRDs. Civil society and government must incorporate more precise and stronger references to the specific causes and needs of WHRDs in order to provide them with adequate protection mechanisms. It is important to highlight these special protection mechanisms are necessary not because women face more or less attacks than men, but because the nature and consequences of these attacks are different than the those faced by men.

Since 2009, JASS Mesoamerica decided to join the discussion among regional human rights defenders organizations about the general situation of insecurity in the region as well as collective strategies and actions to prevent and protect our allies.

The gender neutral reference to “human rights defenders” in the paragraph above is intentional because that is what the conversation sounded like in 2009. The analysis of human rights defenders’ risk, protection mechanisms, experiences and needs did not consider women. This androcentric vision precluded any nuance of a gendered perspective for WHRDs.

Based on JASS Mesoamerica’s experience using a feminist approach within the women’s movement, we created spaces for open dialogue with our allies to better understand the specific experiences of WHRDs in the region. We learned how they were carrying out their activism safely, we identified their principal concerns, problems, obstacles and particular needs which were being ignored in the general analyses of human rights activism. These spaces explicitly recognized the discrimination WHRDs face for the simple fact that they are women.

From that point on, JASS Mesoamerica began focusing on building strategic alliances in order to join regional efforts to protect WHRDs. One such alliance is the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative[2] (known for its Spanish acronym “IMD”). Created in 2010, the IMD creates alternative holistic protection, safety and self-care mechanisms in order to respond to the violence WHRDs face in the region. We’ve also made significant progress through Mexico and Honduras’ national WHRD networks[3] comprised of numerous organizations and activists in both countries.

We have learned that the challenges WHRDs face in order to carry out their work safely are volatile and change from one context to another. Nevertheless, through various years of discussion and working together with WHRDs in situations of risk, JASS Mesoamerica has learned a great deal. It has been important for us to validate the difficulties and complexities through updated assessment reports which break down the diverse environments where WHRDs carry out their work, their particular profiles and the nature of the attacks they face.

Additionally, through the testimonies of WHRDs, we discovered the need to create a map to visually display perpetrators (identify if they are state or non-state actors when possible), risk factors and types of attacks reported. The act of not reporting has a negative impact in the design of preventative and protective measures. In terms of state responsibility, we identified the pressing need to improve the capacities of justice system workers. It is impossible to reduce risk without visibilising the major obstacles and impunity that typically affect filing a report with the authorities.

Recognizing that almost all social constructs (including the theory of holistic human rights protection and its instruments and mechanisms) are created according to the needs of men reaffirms our belief that prioritizing WHRDs is necessary in the context of exclusion, discrimination and inequality that all women have and continue to suffer.

We continue to the highlight the importance of driving the design of gendered protection strategies that are adequate for the particular realities of WHRDs. We do this by accompanying them in protection strategy design and implementation.

Currently, the IMD is in the process of creating alternatives to comprehensive protection[4] including safety and self-care mechanisms in order to respond to the violence WHRDs face as a result of their activism. As part of the IMD coordinating group, JASS Mesoamerica aims to reduce some of the differences and inequalities between women and men by contributing towards adequate protection mechanisms which will allow WHRDs to continue with their work in more equitable environments.

 * This text was written by Cristina Hardaga with the support of Alda Facio, Marusia López and Dana Preston. 

[2] The IMD was created and is coordinated by several organizaitons: UDEFEGUA, AWID, La Colectiva Feminista, Consorcio Oaxaca, FCAM and Defensoras de Derechos Humanos en Honduras. The IMD is online: Facebook IM_Defensoras and Twitter @IM_Defensoras. To submit to the IMD’s Scribd account,, email

[3] To learn more about the Red de Defensoras Honduras we recommend: To learn more about Red-México please reach out to: Facebook: Red Defensoras Dh México Twitter:@RedDefensorasMx

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