An International Women's Day call to defend the defenders

Berta Cáceres - a grafiti portrait

Graffiti of Berta Cáceres, the murdered human rights defender, in Honduras. 

Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and land defenders are experiencing an increase in violence against those opposing environmental devastation. OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE and EMILY ARASIM from Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International spoke with Alice Harrison of Global Witness and María San Martín of Frontline Defenders

While women are often the backbone and visionaries of movements to protect the rights of people and planet - they are also challenged with an additional burden of risks and dangers.

A tragic rise in threats, attacks and murders of those standing up to protect the Earth and human rights has been documented in countries around the world - just when protecting and defending water, climate, and forests could not be more urgent.

Women are often the backbone and visionaries of movements to protect the rights of people and planet. They are also challenged with an additional burden of risks and dangers as compared to their male counterparts - as they experience the intersection of ecological destruction and cultural displacement, as well as sexual violence and gender-based persecution. 

The signing of a legally binding pact protecting environmental defenders by twenty-four Latin American and Caribbean countries this week - two years after the murder of the Indigenous woman environmental leader Berta Cáceres - is a promising step forward.

It is indicative of the power of social movements demanding justice. Nonetheless, intensive work is still needed to bring an end to impunity by corporations and governments.

On International Women’s Day and everyday - the call to action is out. We must defend the defenders.

Q: In the context of accelerating violence and criminalisation against community and land rights defenders, how are women defenders being affected?

Alice Harrison: In recent years, Global Witness has documented a dramatic upturn in the murder of people who take a stand against companies that grab land and destroy the environment.

Killings are just the sharp end of a range of abuses faced by defenders - including physical attacks, harassment, lawsuits and threats. In many of the countries that are hardest-hit, women face a whole extra set of risks simply because they are women.

Berta Cáceres, a mother of four and one of Honduras' most prominent activists, was famously gunned down in her home because of her opposition to a dam being built on her community’s land. She had previously been threatened with sexual violence. 

Our report also told the story of indigenous activists Ana Miriam and Rosaura, who opposed a local hydroelectric project and were hospitalised following a brutal police raid on their home. Both women were pregnant at the time. Rosaura lost her baby as a result.   

While women are often the backbone and visionaries of movements to protect the rights of people and planet - they are also challenged with an additional burden of risks and dangers.

With the theft of their land, or environmental damage caused by industries like mining, agribusiness or logging, it’s harder for women to grow food or access clean water, and the work that they’re already expected to do to support their families and communities increases. A lot of female activists are pushed into activism for exactly that reason - out of sheer desperation. 

The increased exposure that comes with activism pits these women against deep-seated social and cultural norms that expect them to play a passive role in overwhelmingly patriarchal societies, and all of the risks that come with challenging those norms. 

María San Martín: At the community level for land and environmental struggles, what we have seen is that the livelihoods of both women and male defenders are threatened as a means to put pressure over them. This is affecting women the most, as they often hold responsibility for the family and for other members of the community.

The Meso-American Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders has done great work to analyse these trends and give evidence on them, and they explain that women HRDs (Human Rights Defenders) suffer the same attacks in a different way, and they also experience other attacks that affect them in different spheres as compared to the attacks that male HRD’s are experiencing.

It is very common that WHRDs face intimidation and threats that also have gendered component, such as sexist insults, threats of a sexual nature, threats of sexual violence, or threats that involve family members or children.

Women also regularly face smears or defamation attacks that use gender stereotypes, for example questioning their leadership capacity, or smearing them with reference to their sexual conduct or lack of attention to family responsibilities.

Indigenous women in particular may be more isolated, or have less access to international protection mechanisms, resources and networks of support, so it is very important that we put in place measures to address this and make sure that they do get access to protection.

What is the relationship between the suppression of women’s rights and violence against women environmental defenders?

María San Martín: For women HRDs, it is not only the burden of the threats and the attacks that they face, there are also all of the obstacles that come from the social status of women, and how that is translated into really long hours of work: how many of them are not paid for their human rights work; how they don’t have any social protections over the work that they do. 

They are overburdened with family and care and household obligations, and sometimes they are facing violence and stigma and pressure at the family level, and even amongst their movements and their communities, because they are women who are trying to participate publicly and politically.

What are the central demands and points of action and accountability from policymakers?

Alice Harrison:  The only effective prevention in the long-term requires tackling the root causes of violence. A big one is corruption.

Corruption can mean that instead of channelling profits from the sale of land and natural resources into state treasuries, corrupt elites use them to shore up power and fund their lavish lifestyles, at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. This provides massive incentives to countries’ leaders to silence defenders and shut down their activism. 

Another driving force behind this violence is the failure to consult communities on what happens to their land. When communities have this taken from them without their permission or even knowledge, they’re given little choice but to take a stand. The alternative is to make communities active partners in the design of projects from the very beginning. 

María San Martín: In terms of both the policies of authorities and government officials - and also for everyone, such as NGO’s, who are trying to support human rights defenders and environmental leaders - it is very important to have a gendered perspective for the protection work that we are doing, and address how we might be failing to implement a gendered perspective in our programs, advocacy and visibility actions. 

Visibility itself is very important, since social recognition of the role of women defenders does in the end bring more capacity for political participation, access to decision making and more effective advocacy. 

All of the narratives that are against the legitimacy and participation of WHRDs need to be addressed through the construction of alternative narratives, which recognise women and their work.

Many organisations and women defenders have also highlighted the importance of supporting and enhancing the capacities of networks of support between and for women defenders themselves, which can save lives, can empower with a huge impact, and can protect women so that they can continue their work.

Another element which has been brought to our attention recently is the need for support of work around self-care and wellness which can help address the huge stress and difficulties women HRD’s face in developing their work. 

What are key strategies and points of action for those seeking to support women land and human rights defenders facing risks of violence and criminalisation?

María San Martín: We all must voice the need and demand for application of a gendered perspective at all levels - and we need to understand WHRD’s in their local context, with their families and in their communities, and try and divert support in that way through protection mechanisms grounded at the local level.

We also need to echo their own voices and their own stories. We can help to build the alternative narratives that are really showing what women are doing and why, and how they are trying to construct, both socially and economically, other ways of living. 

These Authors

Osprey Orielle Lake is founder and executive director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International. Emily Arasim is communications coordinator at WECAN. A full version of this abridged interview is available here via


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