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Calling Out Violence Against Women Human Rights and Environmental Defenders

Women play key roles in defending the environment.

November 29 marks the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. It is a tribute to the thousands of courageous women who stand up for human rights and the environment around the world. Let us call out the violence and repression that these women face in their daily struggles. Women everywhere face multiple forms of violence, and those who stand up to fight for their communities or the environment face unique challenges because of deep-seated discrimination against women and stereotypes about their role.

In 2016, Global Witness reported that there were 200 killings of environmental defenders globally. The assassination of Indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres drew significant media attention to the wars being waged against such brave women in Honduras and beyond. Berta’s resistance against environmental destruction, specifically the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project that was set to destroy the Gualcarque River, is but one example of how when such women become too strong to silence, are “put in their place” — subjected to violence, or murdered.

Women play key roles in defending the environment. They conserve biodiversity, and provide sustenance to their communities by collecting and harvesting food and medicines. When their lands are destroyed or when they are displaced, they face increased stress and work because of their primary role as caretakers and providers of food and water. Those who take up leadership roles in these risky and hostile contexts face increased risk of violence, sexual violence and rape. Unfortunately, governments today do not recognize women’s important and legitimate role in defending their territory and right to food. Many governments do not enforce real protection measures or laws that allow such women freedom of expression and association.

Just a few weeks ago I met Lottie Cunningham a human rights and environmental defender from Nicaragua, who, as a lawyer, defends Indigenous communities against illegal corporate- and state-led land grabbing. I was deeply impacted by the precarious, violent conditions in which she and her organization operate, yet Lottie has strong resolve and courageously continues her activism. Most of the time business, state, non-state, paramilitary and private security actors — often in collusion — repress, silence and systematically criminalize these defenders and their communities and do so within a culture of impunity.

These aggressive actors use strategies such as manipulating and arbitrarily using restrictive laws and creating new laws around protest, counterterrorism and civil society organizations as well as purposely shrinking feminist and civil society spaces. I also recently met with Mapuche women in Chile engaged in a struggle to defend their land, and despite facing criminalization and militarization of their land as well as murder, the community keeps their struggle alive.

Let’s not overlook the role of transnational corporations, often funded by industrial countries, such as the company Desarrollos Energeticos SA (Desa) that led the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Honduras that Berta died fighting against. The company was financed by Dutch Development Bank, Finland’s FinnFund and a Central American regional bank. Such extractive projects in the global south, more often than not in the name of commercial, often export-led business interests, give way to land grabbing and destruction of livelihoods of Indigenous peoples and local communities, violence and rights violations and denial of their free, prior and informed consent.

While there have been resolutions passed on women human rights and environmental defenders in the UN General Assembly in 2013 and 2015, but also by the Human Rights Council, as well as funding instruments by the EU and other international funders to support environmental defenders, these courageous women still confront crackdowns, violence, repression and murder.

Our legal and policy frameworks are giving more fuel to our prevailing neoliberal economic model. This allows tolerance and lack of accountability around corporate-led land grabbing and violent and patriarchal criminalization of Indigenous Peoples and women. This is the same neoliberal model that worsens patriarchy and gender inequality, disrupts communities’ rights. It is clear that we need an alternative model and vision for development, that respects communities right to food, water, nature and simply, to life.

The Women’s Human Rights Defenders International Coalition and other groups and campaigns such as #WHRDresist campaign have already played a key role in calling attention to this problem, and laid out some of the key actions that governments can take. They must recognize women human rights defenders as legitimate actors, recognize their important role in bringing about a just society, and protect them through fully resourced, effective protection measures, in line with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

They must establish, strengthen and implement laws that recognise the land tenure and governance rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities and their free, prior and informed consent, in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They must ensure that companies and states are held accountable for any destruction of nature and life, ending impunity. They must create laws that enable a safe and peaceful environment for such women to express, assemble and protest freely. States must be prevented from manipulating national security and counterterrorism legislation to criminalize women defenders. Lastly, impartial investigations must be carried out against those responsible for violence against women human rights and environmental defenders.