To be a Woman Human Right Defender

November 29 is the International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders. Being a woman defender clearly implies a differential and disproportionate level of exposure and risk. Women defenders face stigma because they have abandoned the private sphere traditionally assigned to women by society and have put strength, time and energy into the defence of human rights, thereby taking up a position of leadership in public life.


Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) suffer attacks as a result of their activism, but also because they are women and are playing a role that is questioned by society. Attacks are made against their physical, psychological and emotional integrity, but also against their families and collectives, in an attempt to drastically break down the social fabric and to place the blame for this on their work. Torture and sexual violence are common patterns of attack against WHRDs, in which their bodies are used as spaces to occupy and possess. These attacks are intended to cause fear, guilt and ultimately to prevent the emergence of new women leaders defending life and territory.

For this reason, the violence suffered by women defenders can be described as gender-based violence focused on their actions. It is vital to develop specific strategies to confront this violence.

Meeting spaces for women are very important for them to develop resilience strategies and to look for special supports in order to get out of the feeling of guilt

Traditionally, the focus on protecting defenders has focused on physical protection, forgetting or leaving aside the whole person, and other areas of their lives such as emotional, family or digital aspects. These other areas are even more relevant in the case of women human rights defenders and should be key issues when thinking about self-protection from a more holistic perspective.

According to data from Somos Defensores, from January to July 2017, one woman leader / WHRD was murdered in Colombia every 26 ½ days. For the same period in 2018, the frequency is 23 days. The percentage increase in murders of leaders and human rights defenders from 2016 to 2018 was 166.7%, according to the same source. According to figures from Indepaz, from January to September of this year, 22 human rights defenders have been murdered in the country[1].

During the special regional and national gathering of WHRDs they realize rituals

With this in mind, Peace Brigades International has developed a working strand known as “Support for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric” as we believe that self-care and mutual care are key aspects to support regional processes of struggle and resistance. This work also offers a way of building recognition and agreement among women. We need spaces in which we can collectively build together, uncover our fears, name them and process them together, sharing the burden. Recognising ourselves in the processes of other women makes us stronger, and builds understanding that “the struggle is ongoing and we are many women together”. This helps to get rid of the guilt that we carry around so unfairly and which is also a clear strategy of victimisation against women human rights defenders.

If we recognise and understand that effects and impacts are different for women, then differential self-protection tools must also be promoted and created for women defenders.


These issues were the focus of our work in October this year at the Regional Meeting on Gender and Psychosocial Support. The Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Defensoras and PBI promoted a meeting of WHRDs focused on psychosocial accompaniment, self-care with a gender perspective, and the creation of a comprehensive vision of self-protection.

Coincidentally, this day of visibility and recognition for the work of human rights defenders all over the world, coincides with an invitation made by women from Honduras to join a world-wide mass tweet for justice in Honduras, to raise awareness of irregularities and campaign for justice in the case of murdered defender Berta Cáceres, using the hashtags #CapturaALosAutoresIntelectuales, #FaltanLosAtala y #JusticiaParaBerta.

The Regional Meeting of Women Human Right Defenders of Latin america took place in october 2018 together with the Mesoamerican initiative of Women Defenders, where WHRDs came from El salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras and Colombia

Elena López-Maya

Elena López-Maya is the coordinator of the psicosocial accompaniment area

[1] El Tiempo: Van 22 defensoras de derechos humanos asesinadas este año, 11 September 2018

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