International Women’s Day 2017: honoring, defending and watching women human rights defenders

March 8, 2017

International Women’s Day focuses on many different aspects of the struggle for the human rights of women. I have selected three special actions this year:

(1) a short piece honoring woman who are land rights defenders;

(2) a digital protection tool for women human rights defenders (Cyberwomen);

(3) a documentary film on how rape was made into a international war crime.

[Of course this blog has had many earlier posts on women human rights defenders: ]

(1) At Common Dreams, Osprey Orielle Lake and Emily Arasim write passionately: “On International Women’s Day, Honoring Women Land and Human Rights Defenders

Women around the world stand at the forefront of rising movements to defend and protect the health of water, land, air and diverse communities. On this International Women’s Day, it is vital to honor the women defenders who, with incredible courage and effort, are taking on corporations and governments to say ‘no’ to resource extraction and the continued violation of human rights, women’s rights, and the rights of Indigenous peoples and frontline communities. Through their work, these women act so that the generations to come may yet stand a chance of inheriting a sustainable and livable planet. With increased frequency however, many of the women and men who advocate daily in defense of a just world are being systematically criminalized, attacked and murdered with impunity. According to 2016 reports by Global Witness, 2015 was the most dangerous yearon record for land defenders, with at least three people per week killed for non-violent opposition to mining and fossil fuel projects, agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, logging and other extractive industries…

Indigenous peoples defending ancestral territories represent upwards of 40% of those killed. Women, and Indigenous women in particular, face even greater challenges and dangers, as they navigate the brutal intersection of environmental devastation, cultural dislocation, and sexual violence and gender based persecution. Tragedies such as the 2016 murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceres indicate the acceleration of these trends, which have prompted United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz to warn of an “epidemic” of murder of Earth defenders.…..

On International Women’s Day, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network shares the stories of just a few of the world’s countless women human rights and Earth defenders, and raises the call to visibilize, support, and honor all frontline women defenders for their fierce dedication and unrelenting voice and action for justice:

Photo 2: ‘Women united, will never be defeated.’ (Credit: Emily Arasim/WECAN)

 ‘Women united, will never be defeated.’ (Credit: Emily Arasim/WECAN)

Melania Chiponda, Zimbabwe. After bearing witness to violence  and sexual abuse of women by security and military forces attempting to suppress local opposition to mining, Melania Chiponda of Marange, Zimbabwe began advocating as a woman defender, working independently and with WoMin. For many years, Melania has been speaking out against actions by the diamond mining industry to forcibly break the connection between women and their ancestral lands. For her work to protect Indigenous women’s land rights, and stop land grabbing and militarization of mining regions, Melania has been arrested, detained and threatened many times. She commented recently as part of the DefendHer campaign. “If you take away land from women in the rural areas, you take away their livelihoods; you take away the very thing that they identify with. Then we fight. Because we have nothing else to lose.”

Josephine Pagalan, Philippines. In the Philippines, Manobo Indigenous woman leader Josephine Pagalan is fighting to protect her people’s ancestral lands from mining and logging operations. Following the murder of several of her colleagues, Josephine was forced to leave her community to seek safety in the city, fearing that impunity in her remote village would lead to her own death. Despite harassment, Josephine continues representing the public face of the many Indigenous Lumad women who are on the frontlines demonstrating, documenting human rights abuses, and filing legal suits in opposition to the militarization, violation of community rights, and environmental devastation taking place across their homelands. “We want the government to be made accountable for the human rights violations and attacks. Mining companies promised too many things in the past but they did not deliver. We don’t want to give up our land because money can be consumed but land will not perish.

Ana Mirian Romero, Honduras. Ana Mirian Romero, leader of the Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz and San Isidro Labrador Indigenous Council, is standing for land rights for the region’s Indigenous peoples, working most recently in opposition to the Los Encinos hydro-electric dam, a project which never received free, prior and informed consent, as required by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Repeatedly since 2014, Ana Mirian has been subject to harassment, death threats, raids, beatings by police while pregnant, arson attacks and gunmen outside her home. In 2016, while being awarded the Front Line Defenders Award for outstanding contribution to the protection of human and land rights despite the immense personal risk endured, she explained, “We defend the river, the forests, and the pure air that we breathe. That is all we want – land, air and water that is not contaminated by the dams. We are persecuted and threatened for this, but we do it for our children’s future.”

Joy Braun (Cheyenne River Sioux Peoples) and LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Standing Rock Sioux Peoples), USA,  are two of the extraordinary Indigenous women defenders of the Standing Rock, Dakota Access Pipeline resistance  movement, both taking action to protect water and life since the first day of the encampments. For many months, both women and their families have been exposed to violencemilitarized police forces, raids and surveillance. Joy Braun works in the region of North Dakota where rampant fracking (which would supply the Dakota Access pipeline if it becomes operational) has been taking a devastating toll on the health and safety of Indigenous women for many years. LaDonna’s home, and the grave of her son, overlook the Missouri River at the point of Dakota Access pipeline crossing. During a Fall 2016 interview she pronounced: “First and foremost we are water protectors, we are women who stand because the water is female, and so we must stand with the water. If we are to live as a people, we must have water, without water we die. So everything we do as we stand here, we must make sure that we do it in prayer, and that we do it in civil-disobedience. We do it with goodness and kindness in our hearts, but we stand up. We will not let them pass. We stand. Because we must protect our children and our grandchildren.”

For each woman persecuted for her courageous defense of people and planet—let one hundred more rise to build the world we seek.

(2) The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) uses the occasion to boost online security for women human rights defenders who face particular threats when working online and across social media.

Female human rights defenders in Latin America are learning how to stay safe in an often hostile online environment thanks to IWPR’s Safety Awareness and Action project (SAWA), already operational with human rights organisations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has now extended its work to to Latin America. Participants in the latest round of training, who came from Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela, told IWPR than online attacks against them often had a particular gender component…..To address this issue of isolation and better support each other, trainees went on to set up a cellphone network of women human rights defenders in the Latin America and Caribbean region using the encrypted messaging platform Signal. IWPR is currently building a digital security training curriculum specifically designed to meet the needs of female activists. Those involved in the trainings have also already implemented a number of basic digital security steps, such as separating private social media accounts from organisational ones and setting up protection against data loss. Other organisations in Ecuador and Venezuela have adapted their websites to include secure protocols, while four other human rights bodies have gone on to replicate the trainings to other activist groups in their countries.

(3) In the context of International Women’s Day, I draw attention to the showing of the documentary “The Uncondemned” 

Inaugurated in 2002, the International Criminal Court is the object of sharp criticism. Atrocities continue to be committed in countless countries. and expectations have, for many, not been met, due to high costs and relatively few convictions. The ICC is powerless against the Syrian plight and the recent departure of African countries, on the (rather populist) grounds that the Court would deal only with this continent, has added to its problems.  The Uncondemned by Michele Mitchel and Nick Louvel retraces the journey of young international lawyers and Rwandan women who fought to make rape, which was previously absent from international criminal law, a war crime. Fifteen years after the fact, the documentary talks to the protagonists of this fierce struggle, passionately delivered at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. A struggle that changed criminal justice forever.

The film is shown on Saturday 18 March 2017 in the Geneva film festival (15h00 Grande Salle – Espace Pitoëff) and followed by a debate :”The International Criminal Court under fire

Philip Grant | Director of TRIAL International
Alain Werner | Director of Civitas Maxima
Saskia Ditisheim | President of Lawyers Without Borders Switzerland

Followed by Human Rights Watch’s short film 
Hissène Habré – Temps forts d’un procès historique

Gloria Atiba Davies | Victims Expert, Office of the Prosecutor, International Criminal Court
Reed Brody | Lawyer, former spokesperson of Human Rights Watch
Abdul Gadiry Diallo | President of the Guinean Organization for the Defense of Human Rights, member of the International Federation for Human Rights
Xavier-Jean Keïta | Principal Counsel, Office of Public Counsel for the Defence, International Criminal Court
Stéphanie Maupas | French freelance journalist, specialist in International Justice, author of Joker des puissants (Don Quichotte éditions, 2016)

Moderated by
Esther Mamarbachi | Producer and journalist at the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (RTS)


International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights, Geneva

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