A Red Flag on International Women’s Day: Women Land and Rights Defenders Facing Violence

Photo via Emily Arasim/WECAN International

At a critical time when protecting and defending water, climate, and forests could not be more urgent — 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.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International spoke with Alice Harrison of Global Witness and María San Martín of Frontline Defenders, to explore how women land and women human rights defenders (WHRD’s) in particular are being impacted by the increase in violence against those speaking out in opposition to the environmental devastation and social violations being wrought by extractive industries.

As the interviews detail, 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 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.

Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa leader from Sarayaku, Ecuador who is fighting to stop continued oil extraction in the Amazon Rainforest, recently experienced an attack on her home and received death threats. In a statement released after the assault she explained with the fierce resolve characteristic of many women defenders,

“If the intent to attack and threaten me was to instill fear to paralyze me, it failed. Following this incident, I am more motivated than ever to stand strong and work to defend the rights and territories of Sarayaku and all of the Amazon threatened by extraction. ”

While the signing of a legally binding pact protecting environmental defenders by officials from twenty-four Latin American and Caribbean countries this week (two years after the murder of Indigenous woman leader, Berta Cáceres) is a promising step forward indicative of the power of people’s movements demanding justice — 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 deepen our understanding, and strengthen our resolve to stand in solidarity with the remarkably courageous and dedicated frontline women who continue their vital work despite violent threats and assaults. We must all defend the defenders.

Indigenous women leaders from seven nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon march against extractive industries in Puyo, Ecuador — they marched in 2017 and are marching again on March 8, 2018 — Photo via Emily Arasim/WECAN International

Alice Harrison is a Senior Campaigner, and former Director of Communications at Global Witness, working to investigate and expose how natural resource wealth fuels conflict, corruption and crime.

María San Martín is the Human Rights Defender (HRD) Visibility Coordinator for Front Line Defenders, working to research and consult with HRDs regarding the use of visibility as a security and protection strategy — and develop collaborative efforts and campaigns to publicize the situation faced by HRDs, and thus expand their networks of support.

In the context of accelerating violence and criminalization 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.

A number of these came to light in a recent investigation we did in Honduras, which over the last decade has been the deadliest country in the world to be a land or environmental defender. 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.

An international human rights observer assigned to protect a woman named Concepción Gutiérrez, who had received death threats for refusing to sell her land, was sexually harassed by armed men. 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.

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. Female land or environmental defenders who we have met have become victims of smear campaigns that attempt to ruin their reputation as ‘good women’ in an effort to ostracise them from their communities and discredit their activism.

[María San Martín] — In our experience, I think it is very clear, although maybe not so visible, that women remain at the frontline of land and environmental defense. In some cases the male leaders are targeted first, since in many organisations and communities the may take up the visible leadership or spokesperson role. However, in these cases when male HRDs have been attacked, women are maintaining the struggle and resistance and are being increasingly targeted.

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, and 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 analyze these trends and give evidence on them, and they explain that women HRDs 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. For example, they have gathered a lot of evidence on how attacks against WHRDs originate from historical gender discrimination and discrimination against women.

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, which of course are much more associated with women HRDs than men.

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.

During the United Nations climate talks in Germany in 2017, women leaders from global civil society organizations hold an action to draw attention to the silencing and violence against women land defenders — Photo via Emily Arasim/WECAN International

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

[María San Martín] — The Meso-American Initiative highlights how, for women HRD’s, it is not only the burden of the threats and the attacks that they face — but that for them, 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, and that may not be respected by the traditions in certain places.

Many are trying to highlight how all of this is an additional burden to women’s rights and public and political participation, and is having strong consequences on their emotional and physical wellbeing.

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

[Alice Harrison] — Keeping land and environmental defenders safe requires action on the part of a range of actors — to prevent attacks, protect defenders at risk, and react when threats occur.

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.

When state institutions like the police and judiciary are corrupted too, the victims of land grabbing have little hope for justice. In a corruption-free world, those responsible for attacks on defenders would be prosecuted, and those who failed to support and protect them would face political, financial and judicial consequences.

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 — they become activists.

The alternative is to make communities active partners in the design of projects from the very beginning. Communities who are likely to be impacted by a project should be consulted on its potential impacts, be given all of the information they need to make informed decisions, and given the option of vetoing a project.

[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. The gendered perspective will help both in the identification of threats and the creation of protection measures, and this has important and practical implications.

Another important element for policy and advocacy is attention to the collective sphere of protection, and how protection needs to be constructed taking into account the context at the local level. Protection needs to be grounded in the places where women HRD’s are developing their work in order to be effective. They need to take into account the most personal spheres, like the family and the places where women are working, as sometimes the visibility approaches of international organizations have lead to the alienation of women from their local context, and have not taken into account the collective and the work that has been constructed around rights within whole communities.

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. So this is another element which needs to be enhanced, because a lot of the narratives are undermining and defaming WHRDs, again often using gender stereotypes and other stereotypes and traditional modes of discrimination including race and social class.

All of the narratives that are against the legitimacy and participation of WHRD’s need to be addressed through the construction of alternative narratives, which recognize women and their work.

Many organizations 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 attention a lot recently is the need for support of work around self-care and wellness and stress management. These elements may not have been typical in more traditional security measures, but can help address the huge stress and difficulties women HRD’s face in developing their work. Having a preventative approach through attention to wellbeing can be really effective in supporting women and 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 criminalization?

[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 to 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.

We have the capacity to add to these narratives, and to help them become more visible and more present in this whole story of the environment, of gender relationships, and of the type of development we want in our communities, and in the world.

** This analysis and interviews were compiled by Osprey Orielle Lake, Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International, and Emily Arasim, WECAN Communications Coordinator.

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