Women Human Rights Defenders: Our new issue

Anandita Ghosh Uncategorized

Whether resisting oppressive laws in Zimbabwe, peacebuilding in the former Yugoslavia, or speaking up for migrants on the US-Mexico border, women are leading the push for rights across the globe. Anandita Ghosh introduces the latest issue of the Gender & Development Journal on “Women Human Rights Defenders”

The past decade and a half have seen a steady democratic decline as authoritarian rule expands across the globe. In the last five years, press freedom across the globe has declined. Women journalists have been legally harassed, arrested, and imprisoned across several countries. Of the reported violent incidents against environmental activists globally, 70 per cent are against women. In addition to facing risks and violations as human rights defenders, WHRDs face gender-specific threats and violence, including rape and sexual violence.

Despite increasing violence against women human rights defenders, they remain vanguards demanding justice and rights for all. Women across the United States protest the reversal of the constitutional right to abortion; group protests and solo protests persist in Afghanistan against Taliban repression and women’s protests pushed the Iranian government to review mandatory headscarf laws.

This issue of Oxfam’s Gender & Development journal shines a light on such work and on the particular challenges for women defending human rights. It brings together 12 articles and 13 short pieces about women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Jordan, India, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe. In it, readers will find untold stories of courage and commitment and accounts of the novel strategies that WHRDs deploy to survive and sustain their work in times of economic and political crisis. The issue also highlights the pressures and dangers women activists face today. The issue is organised around three themes:

  • Political role of women human rights defenders

The activism of WHRDs challenges deep-rooted traditional patriarchal norms and beliefs. WHRDs engage with a multitude of issues related to human rights through strategies ranging from overt protests to negotiations within prescribed gender norms. All these strategies fold into one common political purpose – that of advancing and leading social, gender and ecological justice, and this is strongly reflected across contributions in this issue. Contributors, namely Alethia Fernández de la Reguera Ahedo and Gretchen Kuhner; Laura Aragón Castro, Lucha Castro Rodríguez, and Sophia Khromer; Yara Tarabulsi; Nicole Johnston; Manase Kudzai Chiwesheand Primrose Hove; Wafa Awni Alkhadra; Sanshan Lin, and Onyinyechukwu Durueke discuss the diverse political roles and strategies that WHRDs undertake to fight for basic human rights, provide legal, financial, and emotional support to vulnerable groups, participate to end violence and foster peace, and hold their governments accountable, in Mexico, Lebanon, former Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe, Jordan, China and Nigeria respectively. Contributions also include heartfelt tributes penned in honour of feminist activists Rula Quawas, Mary Roy, and Kiruba Munuswamy who have made immense sacrifices to fight for social justice. Masooma Ranalvi’s personal life experience challenges violent cultural practices like female genital mutilation. Rita Manchanda underscores the unintended positive political consequences of building women’s leadership through self-help groups. Thus, through a constellation of resistance strategies, ranging from the traditional to the novel and radical, WHRDs continue to challenge institutional power, patriarchies, and injustices.

  • Forging connections with people, places, and causes

Linking and politicising emerge as an important common theme in the work of WHRDs across contexts. They are connecting and mobilising international, regional, and local resources across different geographies. Examples from former Yugoslavia, Rumuekpe (Nigeria), Colombia and Lebanon are included in the Issue which showcase the ways in which local concerns such as peace building processes connect and interlink across national, regional and international domains. Similarly, Julia Hartviksen highlights the role of WHRDs in linking development related violence to gender based violence in Guatemala. The contributors in this Issue recognise the potential of WHRDs in connecting and linking struggles for human rights with other social and gender justice issues at multiple scales and levels.

  • Risks and Challenges

Despite their critical work, WHRDs face significant risks to their lives, reputation, and families. Selime Büyükgöze discusses the ways in which the State attempts to silence and discredit feminist activists in Turkey. María Adelaida Palacio and July Samira Fajardo discuss the lack of social recognition for the work that WHRDs do in the context of Colombia. Pooja Chetry sheds light on the experiences of men who defend women’s human rights in India by highlighting their experiences of discrimination, social ostracisation, and false police complaints. This Issue also pays tribute to the powerful work of WHRDs across the global South. The tributes to Cristina Bautista (killed), Yanette Bautista, Virginia Laparra, Edilia Mendoza Roa, Luz Méndez Gutiérrez, and Valdelice Veron in this issue are all testimony to the serious and sometimes deadly threats that activists face.


The collection of articles in this Issue addresses a range of transformative work that WHRDs engage in, bringing forth the particularly gendered nature of their work, the violence that they face, and their resilience and resistance. Several articles forefront the individual and collective strategies employed by WHRDs to continue their struggle for universal human rights.

Three prominent concerns emerge in this issue. First, it highlights the urgent need to recognise the strategic and tactical leadership that WHRDs demonstrate, in actively influencing and shaping peace processes, and transforming social and political futures. Second, it is clear that the powerful and intersectional work of WHRDs holds potential to influence gender equitable and ecologically sustainable policies while forging transnational feminist coalitions. It is thus time that governments and the international community recognise these efforts and provide political and economic support and protection to WHRDs. And third, these contributions point to the need to have multidisciplinary engagements with WHRDs, while also positioning WHRDs and their work within a feminist, decolonial framework; one that will allow a more just and situated analysis of the contributions of WHRDs in the so called ‘global South’.

The issue highlights gaps in scholarly, legal, and policy research on WHRDs, and the need to link this work to masculinity studies, law and politics, and wider social justice and rights movements. Connecting academic and activist work will be important, as will making connections between seemingly small, quieter actions and more prominent forms of resistance.

We hope that this issue on Women Human Rights Defenders will serve as a useful resource for scholars, development practitioners, gender justice activists, environmental defenders, and those involved in humanitarian work, and help to bring activist and academic spaces closer together. Above all, we hope it will bring much-needed political and economic attention to the work and sacrifices of the women across the globe defending and campaigning for human rights.

As authors Sofía Vargas and Carolina Oviedo say: “The world should remember the women who have left us, the disappeared, the killed, and the ones who continue their fight to live free of violence and with dignity.”

This special double issue was guest edited Nidhi Tandon and Donny Meertens, and co-edited by Shivani Satija and Anandita Ghosh. Olga Selin Hünler and Ana Heatley provided substantive comments on some of the contents. Translation support was provided by Ilana Benady.