Women Human Rights Defenders Day: Standing in Solidarity with Women Leaders Against Violence

This opinion piece was written for the global women’s rights in crisis campaign #IMatter to commemorate International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. The campaign aims to build and strengthen an intersectional movement that works with women and girls in crisis and post crisis contexts, recognizing the universality of the struggle’s women experience.

Oxfam International
4 min readNov 29, 2019
I-Matter campaign graphic.

Women across the world are risking their lives each day to build peace and defend their lands, communities and freedoms. Last year alone 38 were murdered because they dared to do so.

Even this barely hints at ocean of abuse and discrimination that women defenders and peace builders are forced to overcome each day. How the patriarchy that underpins the worst excesses of our extractive and unequal economic system reacts to being challenged.

These women need our solidarity. They are asking for it. It matters.

In Colombia I’ve met leaders of the Wayuu Women’s Force in La Guajira whose defenders have to carry mobiles for “protection alarm” and wear bullet-proof vests. They are followed, filmed, trolled, abused, intimidated, imprisoned, assaulted; where the constant typical threats — “your daughters look pretty, shut up or something will happen to them” — is a deadly serious one.

Latin America is the most dangerous place for human rights defenders, particularly in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala — although nowhere in the world is entirely safe or untouched. The silence and lack of accountability from these countries is shaming.

The backlash is worse now than ever. It is deliberate and systematic.

Women Human Rights Defenders

Women defenders are often the first to be targeted. They face different and added threats than the men who support them, like smear campaigns and sexual assaults. They can face disrepute even within their own societies for not conforming to stereotypes. They are made more vulnerable where they lack organizational support.

In the words of one South Sudanese peace builder: “in South Sudan you are first targeted because you are a woman, next because you are a peace builder. You face double jeopardy.”

Poverty has a female face. Women shoulder almost all of the unpaid care work and are hit worst when decent public services are hard to access. In many countries, women have fewer rights to land and safe jobs. They are left behind when men leave to fight or flee conscription. Women’s groups struggle with donors preferring to fund projects rather than salaries and running costs.

Women and girls tend to organize themselves from Day One of a crisis or conflict, mobilizing help within their communities and resolving matters. They are the ones who keep the families together and recover their societies. That’s why Oxfam is giving priority to local women’s groups when we forge our humanitarian partnerships.

However, despite the fact that its widely accepted that women and girls play a vital, often defining role in defending human rights and building peace, they have been frozen out of official peace negotiations for years. When women are able to participate meaningfully, these deals are 35% more likely to be successful and durable.

In October 2000, UN member states committed to uphold the rights of women during war and peace, with UNSCR 1325. There have been some improvements but there is still no formal mechanism to hold states to account.

These Women Are Leaders

Women activists are not victims without political agency. They are resourceful, independent, assertive, brave and successful.

In Sudan, for example, women helped to lead the protests that brought down the old regime and the country has just appointed a woman, Neemat Abdullah, as chief justice — a first for the Arab world. Ethiopia has a new female President. In Lebanon and Iraq, women are demanding change and that they are recognised now as equals to men in the future governance of their country. Sweden and Canada now have an explicitly feminist foreign policy.

Elsewhere the picture is bleaker. Governments’ duty to respect and protect women’s rights is splintering over the world. The confrontational sexism among today’s populist leaders has opened wider the gates of violence against women and women’s rights organizations are bearing the brunt of it.

Violence and impunity thrive in circumstances where women are isolated. They thrive when we accept harmful social norms as “just the way it goes,” when women are marginalized from the decisions that affect them.

We can do more. Humankind has inexhaustible supplies of empathy — it is free, affirming and effective in ways many of us not on the frontlines cannot imagine. Women leaders tell us that international solidarity can shine a light on their struggles and is better than a bullet-proof vest.

I-Matter Solidarity Campaign

Oxfam has co-launched an international solidarity campaign called “I-Matter with 17 organizations to demand that women defenders and peace builders are seen, heard and supported.

I-Matter supports women like Amal Al-Bukhaiti, the head of the AWAM Foundation for Development and Culture in Yemen, who is fighting for equal rights and for women to be part of peace negotiations.

Women like Riya Williams Yuyada who founded Crown the Woman-South Sudan to “plant the seed of peace in children” so “that other human beings don’t have to go through the same experience as me”.

And Lilly Be’Soer the founder of Voice for Change, in Papua New Guinea, who has helped to mediate in tribal wars. Or Magaly, a Colombian farmer who helps her community defend their lands in a country “where women have fewer rights than a cow. Cows are entitled to two hectares — women none”.

I-Matter is standing beside and behind these women in their tireless pursuit of peace and equality. Because they matter.

This entry posted on 29 November 2019, by Chema Vera, Acting Executive Director, Oxfam International.



Oxfam International

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.