Julienne Lusange at an Integrated Security workshop held in Burundi for Congolese women's rights defenders and arranged by The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation/Anna Lithander.
Julienne Lusange at an Integrated Security workshop held in Burundi for Congolese women's rights defenders and arranged by The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation/Anna Lithander.

Empower women's rights defenders

In many countries, people working to promote women’s rights put their their personal safety and lives at risk. All over the world, women’s rights defenders are subjected to defamation, sexual harassment and death threats, just because they challenge the norms and traditions that assign women a subordinate status in society.

According to a study conducted by The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in cooperation with the Urgent Action Fund and Front Line Defenders in 2008, some of the most common types of attacks on women’s rights defenders are:

  • Sexual violence: women’s bodies become targets of physical and verbal abuse.
  • Isolation: women’s freedom of movement and communication is restricted and their financing gets cut off – all effective ways of undermining their possibilities to carry on with their work.
  • Defamation: vicious rumours are used to diminish and discredit activists. Women are publicly accused of misandry, prostitution, treachery or witchcraft.

In the Equal Power – Lasting Peace report (The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, 2012), which examines obstacles for women’s participation in peace processes, several women’s rights activists confirmed that these tactics had either been employed against them or against other activists they knew. And when we followed up two years later, the result sadly was the same (Femdefenders: The hatred against women human rights defenders – online and offline, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, 2014).

”The situation gets worse every day. The threats and murders mean that our manoeuvring space as defenders of women’s rights is shrinking,” says a women’s rights activist from the Iraqi organisation Baghdad Women’s Association in the Femdefenders report.

Harassment and threats

During the recent uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa, male and female activists protested side by side, demanding the resignation of dictators, and freedom and justice for all people. However, in the aftermath it became evident that such freedom did not extend to women and women’s rights defenders. Indeed they have been losing ground in many countries. In Egypt, for instance, there has been an increase in the public harassment of women, women’s organisations have been put under investigation by the authorities and the country’s new constitution contains paragraphs undermining women’s rights.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, women’s rights activists live in constant danger. ”Women activists get a lot of death threats. Over the telephone, by text message, email, or they send someone to warn you. All of us have received such threats. I have been threatened by local politicians, governors and members of parliament”, says one Congolese activist interviewed for Equal Power – Lasting Peace.

Difficult decisions

In addition to threats and abuse, many women’s rights defenders are struggling with feelings of guilt; towards their loved ones, because their activism takes up so much of their time, and towards the women they are supporting, because their efforts can never match the needs. Many women activists also have to face difficult decisions concerning their personal lives and their future.

”[As a women's rights activist, there] is a risk that you end up being alone. A risk that few people want to take. I can’t help thinking of how people perceive me, as a feminist and founder of a women’s organisation. It is a part of the devaluation, pointing out that you are not married because you are working on issues that men do not like. It is like a punishment system”, a women’s rights activist working in the South Caucasus explains. (Equal Power – Lasting Peace, 2012)

Integrated security

Women’s rights defenders are fighting oppressive regimes and patriarchal traditions. They need support to be able to continue their important work. Kvinna till Kvinna has developed an online manual, Integrated Security, containing strategies on how the activists can work with their own safety, and we also arrange workshops on these issues.

Another method used by Kvinna till Kvinna to increase women’s safety and opportunities involves drawing attention to the important results of their work, e.g. in reports and campaigns. We are also regularly in contact with national and international politicians to remind them to visit women activists when they travel. Getting attention from influential persons legitimises their work and means that the activists become more visible to the general public, thereby increasing their safety and opportunites.

Updated in: 2016-09-16