On Friday, 29 November 2013, International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, people around the world will recognise the activism, advocacy and courageous acts of resistance of women working to promote and defend human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people. Recognition and remembrance are necessary, but these women need support even more so. Because of their work, women such as Helen Hakena in Papua New Guinea, Nimalka Fernando in Sri Lanka and Yorm Bopha and Nim Chray in Cambodia face increasing attacks, threats, harassment and insecurity, including violations of their rights to life, liberty, free association and expression, as well as gender-based violence and attacks on their reputation, by State and private actors.
In countries like Cambodia, where extensive land-grabbing threatens the land and homes of numerous communities, women play a critical role in defending land rights and demanding accountability for human rights abuses resulting from corporate and State activity. The recent case of the Boeung Kak 13, is another example of the use and abuse of law to criminalise the work of women human rights defenders. This group of 13 women from the Boeung Kak lake region in Cambodia were arrested and jailed after peacefully protesting their eviction. Although the sentences of the Boeung Kak 13 were ultimately reduced, the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of prominent land rights activist Yorm Bopha, who was released on bail only on 22 November 2013 after spending 5 months in prison, demonstrates the continuing use of law to stigmatise, defame and undermine women human rights defenders.
Fellow Cambodian Nim Chray was also arrested when she protested evictions in Thmor Kol, a village located near Phnom Penh International Airport. “Being a full-time land rights activist in Cambodia is not easy. I am blacklisted. I am followed around by the police. And at any moment I can be killed in what the authorities can call an accident.” In the face of these difficulties, Nim finds the courage to go on: “Despite the danger, the loneliness, and the uncertainty, I can continue my activism because of support from a few committed members of my community.”
In Sri Lanka, women’s rights activists continue to struggle against state sanctioned threats. Dr. Nimalka Fernando, attorney-at-law, women’s rights activist and President of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) was subject to public defamation and threats after an interview with HIRU TV was manipulated and rebroadcasted on a Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) radio programme. On November 3rd, only fragments of Nimalka’s interview was rebroadcasted on the radio programme, `Stoning the Sinner Woman,’ in an attempt to delegitimise her work of defending human rights in her country. Furthermore, she was subjected to derogatory comments from callers, some demanding that she should not be allowed to live in Sri Lanka and that such people should be destroyed. Meanwhile, Hudson Samarhinghe, chairman of SLBC, encouraged these comments and persisted on the smear campaign against Nimalka. This incident is part of an ongoing campaign of harassment against human rights defenders by public officials. In March of last year, the Minister of Public Relations, Meryn Silva, reportedly threatened Nimalka and other human rights defenders saying, “I will publicly break the limbs of people like Sunanda Deshapriya, Nimalka Fernando and Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.” Dr. Nimalka Fernando has lodged a complaint with the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), demanding an investigation for criminal offense and violation of her fundamental rights.
Despite these threats, women’s rights defenders continue to advocate and defend human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people worldwide. Helen Hakena of Bougainville, co-founder of the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency (LNWDA) and member of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development works tirelessly to ensure that women are central to peace agreements and development initiatives in the civil war torn island. Helen continues to promote women’s rights at the local level despite attacks on women human rights defenders who are branded as witches. On November 25, Helen and the LNWDA, in solidarity with women’s rights activists globally, launched their 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence Campaign.
29 November also marks the anniversary of the opening of the First International Consultation on Women Human Rights Defenders, organised in 2005 by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and several human rights organisations in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Participants from that meeting then declared 29 November as the International Day on WHRDs. This year’s International Women Human Rights Defenders Day is also a fitting way to remember the work, friendship and inspiring leadership of Sunila Abeysekera, Sri Lankan woman human rights defender, who passed away in September of this year.
Rather than hindering the work of women human rights defenders, States must enable, support and protect them. States should strengthen laws and policies to promote gender equality, promote women’s autonomy and protect their equal participation and involvement in all decision-making processes, including through national implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
This week, the UN General Assembly, on the initiative of the Norwegian government, adopted a resolution for the Protection of Women Human Rights Defenders, highlighting the specific dangers and threats faced by women human rights defenders in the course of their work. The resolution, however, faced significant opposition from a number of States. Ultimately, this led to the omission of critical language condemning all forms of violence against women and acknowledging the particular risks faced by defenders working on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This clearly illustrates the long road ahead for women human rights defenders to achieve the protection and recognition they deserve. APWLD joins the global call for the unqualified support and protection of women human rights defenders all over the world.
For more information:
Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development