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Who Benefits When Women Human Rights Defenders Are Targeted?

In my work, I have the privilege of partnering with visionary activists who fight each and every day for the rights of women and their communities — and who often face retaliation for their activism.

I first met Yanar Mohammed, a prominent Iraqi feminist, just months after she founded the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq in 2003. She had set up an organization that would not only provide shelter and care for women facing sexist violence but would also expose the roots of that violence: religious fundamentalists and their enablers, boosted to power by the US occupation.

After Yanar spoke out, she received death threats from extremists seeking to silence her. But for 15 years since, undeterred, she has continued to resist misogyny and advance the rights of women and girls in Iraq.

Today in Iraq the climate of danger and fear persists. Recently, several high-profile women were murdered: women’s rights activist Suad al-Ali, model Tara al-Fares, beauticians Rasha al-Hassan and Rafifi al-Yasiri. They were targeted simply for living their lives in ways that defied strict gender conventions, such as by working professional jobs or advocating for their rights – capital offenses in the eyes of violent extremists.

In Latin America, women are similarly targeted: Last month, Juana Ramirez Santiago, a 57-year-old Indigenous human rights activist in Guatemala, was shot and killed after receiving multiple death threats. Her murder followed that of Juana Raymundo, a 25-year-old Indigenous Ixil nurse and a vocal women’s rights advocate.

In Colombia, Tulia Maris Valencia and Sara Quiñonez, an Afro-Colombian mother and daughter who are at the forefront of Colombia’s movements for environmental, racial and gender justice, have been imprisoned by the government for months, on baseless charges. Meanwhile, Colombia is the deadliest place on the planet for human rights defenders, with one activist killed every three days, on average. The government should be protecting them, not jailing them.

In the Philippines, the government has escalated a campaign of violence against human rights defenders and Indigenous Peoples. It’s a tactic to eliminate people standing in the way of exploitative agendas – like Indigenous Peoples trying to block environmental threats including logging and mining on their lands. When advocates like Victoria Tauli Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, have spoken out against these abuses, the government retaliated by officially designating them as “terrorists.”

What do all of these stories have in common? These women all have tried to remake the world, in ways big and small. They all saw an unjust status quo – one that threatens and constrains the lives of women, girls and other marginalized people – and acted in defiance. And powerful forces reacted by trying to silence them, to end their activism and to preserve that status quo.

A Guardian article about the recent killings of Iraqi women referred to them as “reckless” in the way that they had chosen to live their lives, a label that blames women for their own murders. This victim-blaming is a common trend where violations of women’s rights are concerned. When anonymous perpetrators may never be identified or when powerful government agents seem beyond the reach of justice, it becomes tempting to point the finger elsewhere: back at women.

Don’t take so many risks, some will say. Shrink yourself and your vision. Demand less. Live smaller lives. That’s what we tell women when we blame them for the retaliation against them.  

But that’s the thinking that allows impunity and injustice to reign. Instead, we have to stay focused on what is behind these abuses.

Who stands to benefit when women are harassed, assaulted, and killed? The fundamentalists in Iraq whose worldview and hold on power depend on enforcing rigid gender ideologies – and who killed Suad al-Ali, Tara al-Fares, Rasha al-Hassan and Rafifi al-Yasiri. The government agents intent on running roughshod over community rights as they seek to exploit the land – and who imprisoned Sara Quiñonez and Tulia Maris Valencia in Colombia. The criminal networks, paramilitary agents and governments who claim control over communities and their resources – and who target Indigenous Peoples with violence to squash their resistance in places as far afield as Guatemala and the Philippines.

Too often, policymakers take the easy way out, offering platitudes about the need to protect women human rights defenders while failing to name the powers that threaten them. As a coalition of women human rights defenders recently declared, “We don’t want more speeches that are soft on the governments and private interests that are devastating our land, territories, and bodies.”

Today, International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, is an opportunity to recommit yourself to stand with those women who refuse to back down, who reveal what the powerful want to keep hidden and who won’t be held back.

The next time you hear about women who are threatened or killed for asserting their basic rights, ask who benefits. The answer will uncover the policies and beliefs that we need to transform to ensure that human rights and environmental justice become a reality for all.