Rethinking Activists’ Safety at a Time of Escalating Risk


By: 
Adelaide Mazwarira & Alexa Bradley

On May 7, a group of armed men barged into Miriam Elizabeth Rodriguez Martinez’s home in Mexico and killed her. Miles away in Nicaragua, police arrested and beat Aydil del Carmen Urbina Noguer. In Marange area in Zimbabwe, police and military are using violence to silence women who speak out against mining companies that have occupied the area. This is just a glimpse into the reality that women activists are facing everywhere. Unfortunately, despite considerable effort, institutional and conventional responses to this violence are coming up short—as evident in the escalating risk for women activists. Given the urgency of the situation, JASS and allies are questioning the underlying assumptions guiding activist safety, and bringing a feminist and movement building perspective to rethinking the approach. We are drawing on knowledge from our long-standing collaborative work in the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative and with other protective networks and strategies of women activists in that region and beyond. To deepen our learning and analysis and better inform practices, we are convening a series of dialogues and joint strategic spaces with human rights organizations, donors, frontline activists, and UN human rights officials that contribute towards building a shared understanding and joint solutions that can effectively address this escalating violence against women activists. 

What are women confronting?

Around the world, women activists are increasingly at risk, threatened, harassed, and even killed for daring to stand up to powerful interests including the state and private institutions such as transnational companies or drug cartels. Because women are working to protect human rights, economic justice, their land, water, territories, and democracy itself, many, but not all, call themselves women human rights defenders (WHRDs), or simply defenders. For their courage and leadership, these women activists face attacks in the streets to silence their political activism, criminalization and stigmatization in the courts and media, and even rejection and abuse in their own communities and homes for stepping outside traditional gender norms. The public and private forms of this violence are compounded by on-going gender-based violence and other forms of inequality (class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.), which heighten women’s vulnerability.

A variety of trends and power dynamics are converging into what many call the ‘closing space for civil society’. Governments are increasingly using national security rhetoric and the threat of terrorism to restrict citizen engagement and repress dissent. And “shadow power” actors—a range of non-state entities including corporations, fundamentalist religious groups, narco-traffickers—once behind the scenes, are now wielding growing influence in the formal power sector of government decisions and policymaking, and asserting their interests without hindrance even when that entails violence. Both state and non-state actors are dominating the public narrative and media to promote a political narrative favorable to their interests. By manipulating “invisible power”—social norms, ideas and beliefs, including those related to race, class, ethnicity and gender—these actors are able to discredit the work of defenders and social movements (labeling them as “terrorists”, “obstacles to development”, “backward”, “destroyers of families”) to legitimize, in fact normalize violence, inequality and repression. Although contexts differ, the convergence of extractive capitalism (the scramble to control and exploit resources), militarism (war on terror, war on drugs), with fundamentalisms (conservative forces within religion, culture, and tradition) have become a fertile ground for this escalating violence and repression.

Why have measures failed?

In recent years, donors and UN bodies have responded with significant initiatives and millions of dollars to support the protection of WHRDs and to halt the closing space of civil society. These resources support campaigns, legal actions, urgent response, safe houses, security measures, data gathering, and analysis, among other actions. These efforts while vitally important, have not translated into increased safety for women activists as hoped because they fail to address systemic issues and the power dynamics fueling violence and putting those who speak out at risk. For example, many of us look to the state for protection when it is the state complicit with organized crime or illegally operating businesses fueling the violence.

JASS’ Contributions

To meet the challenges of this rapidly changing landscape, the foundation of JASS' work is the power and protection of women activists and organizations, our principal cross-regional priority for 2017-2019. As part of this, JASS is also organizing a series of dialogues to look more closely at the violent context and explore a range of strategies used to protect and sustain human rights defenders and their environments. We are also using strategic convenings and advocacy to inform key institutions — including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders — on how power, gender, and violence converge in particular ways for WHRDs and share the emerging insights on protection strategies.

Thus far, JASS has convened multiple national, regional and crossregional processes to share some of the initial learning and analysis gleaned from the last decade of building safety networks among diverse women community activists and human rights defenders, primarily in Mesoamerica. These are women-to-women solidarity webs constructed through deep organizing to defend each other from the violence they face for speaking out and defending their rights, freedom of expression, land, and water. This analysis draws lessons from both our sustained popular education efforts to women— particularly our multi-year Alquimia Femininst Leadership School for indigenous and rural leaders defending natural resources — and our experience in co-creating and co-coordinating the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative.

Regional and Cross-regional convenings

Earlier this year, we collaborated with the Fund for Global Human Rights to convene a 2-day dialogue, "Protection of Human Rights Defenders against Non-State Actors" in Mexico City that brought together activists under attack with regional and international human rights organizations, donors, and researchers to look at violence, civic space and HRD protection. This Mexico gathering is the first in a two-stage process, with a follow-up, more global gathering in November, titled "Defending Rights in Hostile Contexts: Understanding and Confronting the Crackdown against Activists and Democratic Space," that will include donors, organizations and frontline activists from the other regions where we work. Building on insights from the Mexico gathering, we are producing a new installment in our widely used Making Change Happen series focused on rethinking strategies for protection of women activists from a movement-building perspective, set to be released in June 2017.

We need to continue to look for alternative protection strategies that increase the impact of our struggle and position the defender as a protagonist of change, not a victim.” – Claudia Somayoa, UDEFEGUA 

WHRD networks in Geneva

In mid-May, JASS collaborated with 10 national, regional, and international groups to bring together a delegation of women human rights defenders to Geneva from networks in Mesoamerica, Southern Africa, and the MENA region to spotlight both the specific challenges they are facing and the innovative strategies they are using to organize safely. The delegation met with a range of UN human rights procedures and offices including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice. Together we hosted a public event, "Strengthening Protection Networks for Women Human Rights Defenders to Combat Discrimination: challenges and opportunities in the current context,” which included the participation of more than 40 member states and numerous UN agencies. UNICEF representatives “...acknowledge the crucial role that WHRD play in the defense of the right of the child” and called “... on immediate acts to follow up to protect women human rights defenders.”

Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said "women make the greatest sacrifices in their fight for human rights” adding that "we must support the groups of protection that women are forming themselves" and that "we must avoid speaking about women defenders as victims, they are a positive force and we must see them as such." Chair of the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, Alda Facio, concluded that "[s]tates should stop penalizing women for their work as women defenders and develop measures to address the root causes of discrimination against women and ensure the protection of women defenders in a way that systematically integrates a gender perspective."

The delegation also offered a space to begin exchanging and learning from different and diverse women-led networks from around the world, that although operate in different contexts, face many of the same underlying issues and attacks. The voices of the WHRD from MENA, Zimbabwe, and Mesoamerica included analysis, data, and recommendations. "One of the critical lessons emerging from JASS’ long time work with women activists in various contexts is that the very things that make us stronger – deep community organizing, strong social fabric, critical awareness, alliances – are the same things that make us safer. We've invested in processes that build trust and common ground among a wide range of women and organizations, equipping them with tools for organizing and assessing risk, and support new strategies and collaboration across identities and movements. These are a political act, built around a sustained movement building strategy," said Winnet Shamuyaria, JASS Zimbabwe Officer during the May 18th public event. 

Later in the year, JASS will also be collaborating with the Nobel Women’s Initiative on a high-level women’s mission to Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to spotlight the situation of women defending territories and natural resources. Throughout 2017, JASS will share further reflections and analysis gleamed from our work, the convenings, and other discussions through our new series of publications and tools for building collective power and protection. Our goal is to contribute to conversations and reshape practices among a broad range of justice and human rights organizations to better understand, sustain, embolden, and protect activists and movements in the face of backlash and systematic restrictions of civic and democratic space.