Recognizing Women Human Rights Defenders on International Women’s Day

March marks Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Day. While we have celebrated these events for many years, this year we honor Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) who risk their lives to peacefully advance gender equality around the world.

WHRDs are women and girls working on human rights issues and people of all genders who work to promote women’s rights and rights related to gender equality.

A new report reveals that WHRDs face increasing harassment and threats from a global movement against gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights.

The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, a leading feminist women’s rights organization, released Hope and Resistance Go Together: The State of Women Human Rights Defenders 2023,  a report that found discouraging growth in harassment of WHRDs.  The foundation surveyed 458 women’s and queer rights activists and interviewed 25 activists representing WHRDs from 67 countries affected by violence or conflict.

They found that 75% reported facing harassment for their activism, a 15% increase from two years ago, and 25% of respondents have received death threats. Most harassment comes from government authorities, but increased harassment from far-right groups and anti-gender equality actors is also driving these startling statistics.

Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) across the world face resistance and violence. In 2022, at least 401 HRDs were killed for their peaceful work. But some of the obstacles facing WHRDs are distinct.

Women and members of the LGBTQI+ community tend to be grossly underrepresented in official decision-making positions, allowing even fiercer backlash and violence against WHRDs. Threats against WHRDs also often focus on gender, including sexualized defamation campaigns and gender-based violence.

The UN General Secretary stated, “Women are much more likely than men to be targeted with sexual and gender-based violence and to be subjected to verbal abuse, surveillance, and online violence. While all activists are targeted with defamation, smear campaigns, and online and offline hate speech, the attacks against women human rights defenders typically target their personal behaviour, their moral conduct or their sex lives.”

Despite these challenges, WHRDs continue their important work protecting human rights.

The report found that WHRDs are networking and forging alliances with each other, creating innovative solutions to work around government-imposed obstacles, and pushing for legislation to advance gender equality.

In Iraq, for example, where it can be difficult to register an organization if the proposed name mentions the protection of human rights, WHRDs are registering their NGOs under names that work around government restrictions. In Kenya, women’s rights organizations have won several court cases to advance gender equality legislation.

Women and queer rights activists play an essential role in advancing human rights, and creating just and sustainable peace processes. In her 2023 report, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor urged states to recognize and celebrate the successes of HRDs, specifically drawing attention to the work of WHRDs.

For example, WHRDs in the Democratic Republic of Congo helped push their parliament to finally adopt a law on the protection of HRDs in 2023. In Indonesia, WHRDs played a vital role in passing the Sexual Violence Bill in 2022. In Columbia, WHRDs involved in the Causa Justa movement succeeded in decriminalizing abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in 2020. These are just a few examples of the successes of WHRDs.

Support for women and queer rights organizations is necessary for advancing gender equality and resisting the efforts of those who oppose women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. Yet these WHRD organizations are rarely prioritized for funding. Only 0.3% of bilateral aid in conflict-affected and fragile states goes to women’s rights organizations and movements.

“In this world that seems to become harder, it’s important to remember that we cannot lose hope. Because otherwise, nothing would happen. Hope and resistance go together,” said María Teresa Blandón, a WHRD from Nicaragua.

This Women’s History Month and on International Women’s Day, we honor WHRDs. But all year and every year, WHRDs need and deserve recognition, protection, and funding for their efforts.



  • Maya Fernandez-Powell

Published on March 7, 2024


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