At this present time, a draft resolution on the protection of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) is being debated within the UN General Assembly. Such a resolution, the result of hard fought struggles by activists over many years, from a multitude of countries, serves to enhance and reinforce the scope and necessity of protection of WHRDs who are at the forefront of protecting human rights in their communities.

WHRDs have long been excluded from the human rights arena and often struggled for recognition as actual rights defenders and to establish the issues they stand for as fundamentally human rights issues. Far too often, violence against women and women’s rights as a whole are treated as separate and distinct, whether from peace and security issues, or from mainstream human rights discourses. The truth is that there is no distinction between women’s rights and human rights, except in the breadth, scale and dynamics of abuse. “It is important to realise that WHRDS are among the most instrumental actors with genuine interest in the application of universal human rights hence any recognition by the UN in the form of this resolution is not just valuable, but long overdue” said Hala Alkarib, SIHA’s Regional Director.

Throughout the Horn of Africa, the fragile political context intersects with customary laws, religious militancy and conservative traditions to oppress women and violate their rights. The work of WHRDs, specifically in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, sees them being pushed and cornered, with their work and agendas becoming increasingly trapped between systemic political and societal repression. Unfortunately, WHRDs often find themselves working in isolation having limited access to protection strategies and trainings. Too often, women activists face questions and challenges over their moral standing with many called family breakers, divorced and loose women in a bid to delegitimize their work.

The timing of this resolution for SIHA could not be more apt. Whilst the debate continues in New York, SIHA is actively supporting a female lawyer recently arrested and persecuted on the basis of the human rights work she has been conducting. All too often, SIHA has identified and supported WHRDs persecuted for demanding the realisation and protection of human rights, both for fellow women, and for their broader communities. In Somalia, HRDs who have documented sexual violence have been harassed; women who have sought to speak out against rape have been arrested, in South Sudan, SIHA members have been arrested for speaking out against police brutality.  The list of WHRDs who have suffered at the hands of both state and non-state actors, by community and family members is tragically far too long to detail.

This draft resolution is a strategic means to elevate and recognise the role of WHRDs, not just in the Horn, but globally, in the pursuit of human rights everywhere and for everyone. It builds upon and strengthens international commitments to HRDs that have been made, notably through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Despite these already present mechanisms, the scale of additional risks that women as HRDs face prompted the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to dedicate an entire report on the subject (A/HRC/16/44). Such risks include, but are not limited to, arrests, mistreatment, torture, criminalization, wrongful sentencing, stigmatization, attacks, threats, death threats and killings, sexual violence and rape. The Special Rapporteur further reported that family members of WHRDs are also often targeted. SIHA can attest to such abuses through the course of its work and ongoing engagement with WHRDs who have had their daughters raped and husbands arrested.

SIHA calls on all heads of state at the general assembly to not only approve this resolution, but to domesticate and actively apply the contents of it within their state. The realisation of this resolution is essential to the creation of a just and equitable society and the capacity for women to be equal and free actors in the protection of human rights for all.

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