Women human rights defender Lina Abou Habib presents the Call to Action at Stockholm Gender Forum. On her left is Kvinna till Kvinna's Secretary General, Petra Tötterman Andorff. To the far left: Veronica Birga from OHCHR.
Women human rights defender Lina Abou Habib presents the Call to Action at Stockholm Gender Forum. On her left is Kvinna till Kvinna's Secretary General, Petra Tötterman Andorff. To the far left: Veronica Birga from OHCHR.

Countering the shrinking space for Women Human Rights Defenders – A Global Call to Action by the Bravest Women in the World.

Today, over 60 women human rights defenders from all over the world along with The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation present a Call to Action to world leaders at the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality, among them, the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström.

Our Call to Action demands better support to women human rights’ defenders and women’s organisations globally. Today, many activists work under a constant threat of violence. They suffer harassments and slander campaigns. We cannot accept that women human rights defenders are attacked by repressive states.

This Call to Action has been developed by the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation and women’s rights activists. We invite all civil society and academia representatives to sign on. Do so by e-mailing your name and the name of your organisation/function to:

Call to action:

Women’s equal and meaningful participation is a pre-requisite for sustainable peace, human security and gender equality. Research has shown that a strong, diverse, and independent feminist movement is the most crucial factor to improve a country’s legislation on women’s rights. But women who organize for women’s rights are facing increased threats and restrictive legislation, as the space for action is shrinking for civil society. Different actors such as governments, state security, corporations, religious institutions, fundamentalist groups and right-wing and nationalist groups, all work in different ways to limit the space for action for WHRDs. While this development threatens many types of civic actors, it affects women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in specific ways along intersectional systems of power.

Women in civil society around the world are acutely aware of this development, and we know what could counter it. It is time for the decision-makers and global leaders to act on the demands of women human rights defenders.

Personal and Organizational Safety and Security

Women Human Rights Defenders face many risks because of their work and because they are women. WHRDs challenge the division of power, demand accountability from their governments and work against terrorism. They face sexual and physical harassment, smear campaigns, detention, and threats to their families. They are accused on false grounds, they are under surveillance and their possibilities to travel and attend international meetings is limited by visa restrictions and travel bans.

Crimes against WHRDs are met with impunity, signalling that it is acceptable. All this affects their psychological and physical wellbeing and security. WHRDs face a hindering, rather than an enabling, environment built on restrictive legislation and fear.

We call on the global leaders of gender equality at the Stockholm Forum to:

  • Not compromise when it comes to respecting universal human rights and enable WHRDs to work in a safe environment. Put human rights and women’s human rights on the agenda in all political and trade discussions and in all visits to repressive states.
  • Pay special attention to the role of the private sector when it comes to silencing women activists, including environmental activists.
  • In consultations with civil society, be aware of who you engage with. The presence of government, business and religion-based NGOs (GONGOs, BONGOs, RONGOs) and persons connected with government and authorities are potentially a threat and make it difficult for civil society organizations to attend or speak freely at meetings.
  • Monitor and address the negative impact of national security policies, international military missions and counterterrorism strategies. Do not accept the criminalization of WHRDs, nor the abuse of counterterrorism regulations, including via financial counterterrorism measures, to crack down on civil society groups and.
  • Demonstrate zero tolerance against violence against WHRDs, including gender-specific violence that is used in a political way to silence women (including online). Fight impunity when it comes to violence against WHRDs.
  • Pay special attention to the challenges faced by WHRDs in conflict areas, who are disproportionately affected.

Funding and financial shrinking space

Women Human Rights Defenders are actors for development, political, economic and environmental justice, gender equality and peace. To be able carry out their work, WHRDs need to be able to secure funds. Now, WHRDs have their bank accounts frozen; the regulations on civil society become increasingly complex; anti-terrorist laws make it difficult to register organizations and to open bank accounts; and banks collaborate with state intelligence or spread information publicly about WHRDs funding. 

We call on the on the global leaders of gender equality at the Stockholm Forum to:

  • Invest in women’s agency through flexible, core and long-term funding. The whole funding system needs reform to become gender sensitive. Substantially increasing women’s financial inclusion and access is a key element of strengthening WHRD’s resilience and counterforce against the myriad of disabling restrictions coming from multiple angles globally. Conservative donors are rapidly building a strong force, and a progressive civil society needs to be supported. This includes accepting other organizational forms, close attention to the needs of the specific organisations, and enabling emergency funding. Finally, regional and international movement building should be ensured as a firm component of funding support, so that women’s rights organisations can identify their own strategies for movement building.
  • Recognize the role of large donors in this development. The trend of less and less funding for women’s human rights organisations is a crucial contributor to shrinking space, as can the channelling of funds via large, regional or international organisations be, as this can interfere with women’s bottom-up movement building. Consult with a diversity of WHRDs when developing funding mechanisms.
  • Support WHRD’s critical advocacy work, which is aiming at long-term transformative change.
  • Do sufficient mapping of who you are funding, to avoid funding of GONGOs. Fund new voices and movements, without drowning out important existing ones.
  • Prevent pink-washing by large development actors, and call this out when it happens.
  • Address the lack of coordination among donors, which is impacting on civil society’s ability to do the actual work as they are overloaded trying to comply with different donors’ agendas.
  • Address the abuse of funding mechanisms for surveillance purposes.
  • Do not pull out from supporting WHRDs who are operating in extremely repressive circumstances, but find creative ways to support them.
  • Emergency funding for WHRDs under direct threat must be increased.

Recognition and access

WHRDs are almost invisible. The courageous work they do in combating discrimination, harmful traditions and violence against women is seldom recognized as an important contribution on the road to democracy and respect for women’s human rights. The international community has already committed to supporting women’s rights as human rights in an array of conventions. It is time to live up to those commitments.

We call on the on the global leaders of gender equality at the Stockholm Forum to:

  • Recognize and highlight the important work of WHRDs publicly and help disseminate information and results of their work. This includes providing supporting for feminist media channels and journalists.
  • Support movement building – including innovative ways of movement building (e.g. online) – and facilitate exchanges among WHRDs from different regions and contexts, including facilitate visa procedures, as well as global community building, so that WHRDs can learn from each other and form coalitions and networks. The push-back against women’s rights is global, so women civil society needs to be global too.
  • Engage with women civil society for real, not just as a box-ticking exercise. Visit women’s human rights organizations not only in the capitals but also in rural and distant areas, allocate sufficient time with meetings with civil society and bring their concerns into discussions with governments, ask for equal numbers of women and men when inviting country representatives to meetings, seminars and visits, etc.

Updated in: 2018-04-16