Protecting Women Human Rights Defenders In Meso-America Region
The Meeting of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in the Meso-American Region was held from April 23-25, 2010 in Oaxaca, Mexico. Participants discussed strategies to protect WHRDs in the various contexts of their activism. AWID spoke with Marusia López Cruz,* one of the meeting organizers, about the event.
By Gabriela De Cicco
AWID: What was the goal of the meeting, and what issues did it address?
Marusia López Cruz: The organizations that organized the meeting (Consorcio Oaxaca, AWID, Just Associates (JASS), UDEFEGUA and Alianza Centroamericana) are concerned about the increasingly frequent attacks and other human rights violations that WHRDs in the region face. In Meso-America, there is little recognition of their contributions and the risks they face.
We realized that we needed to analyze the situation of WHRDs in the region and identify protection measures, especially where these activists challenge patriarchal norms and practices (including within their own movements) and are consequently attacked by non-governmental actors. We also wanted to increase, on a region-wide scale, our capacity for timely responses to the crises WHRDs face, and to find ways to enhance their security in the context of the adverse and repressive conditions in which they work and live.
With this in mind, the goal of the meeting was to create a space for WHRDs from Mexico and Central America to think strategically about ways to prevent, report and respond to the violence that they face. It was a space to exchange information, methodologies and strategies that have been developed locally, regionally and internationally.
During the meeting we also explored the histories of Meso- American women's personal and group struggles for human rights. We discussed the different forms of violence that they face, explored how WHRDs can better exercise self-care, and suggested ways in which to implement timely responses to urgent situations that expose WHRDs to danger. We shared advocacy resources as well as lessons learnt regionally and internationally in the protection of WHRDs and the reporting of human rights violations.
AWID: What is the situation for WHRDs in the region?
Marusia López Cruz: There are many women who participate in political processes in the region and who are taking on greater leadership roles. The levels of violence against WHRDs have increased in response to this. Like their male peers, women activists are victims of repressive policies and insecurity. However, they experience specific forms of aggression because of their gender. This gender-based violence often goes unrecognized and WHRDs are excluded from access to existing mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders.
WHRDs and the organizations they work sometimes minimize the violence that they face, particularly when it is perpetrated by non-governmental actors. Many of them face discrimination, are shunned by their families and lack the social networks that would help to protect them. They are especially susceptible to attacks by non-governmental actors and even within their own organizations, especially when they challenge patriarchal norms. They are victimized to a greater degree than men by sexual violence, actions or campaigns to discredit them, and threats against their families.
The working conditions of WHRDs are extremely precarious and ensuring their protection is complex because it is not just the individual WHRD who needs protection, but her children as well.
AWID: What groups are most vulnerable, and what kinds of violence do they face?
Marusia López Cruz: There are four types of WHRDs who are particularly vulnerable to violence:
- Those who work to end domestic violence and femicide;
- Those working in conflict situations;
- Those who oppose indigenous peoples’ rights violations or expose abuses by the army;
- Those working for sexual and reproductive rights, especially lesbian feminists, trans people and abortion rights activists.
These WHRDs face many types of violence. They are most affected by sexual violence; death threats against themselves and their children; defamation, which can lead to isolation from their families and communities; discrimination; and intrafamily violence, which is often caused by their families' or partners' refusal to allow them to participate in social justice activism. WHRDs also risk being discredited by their own organizations or movements.
AWID: What are the most urgent issues for WHRDs right now? What rights are under the strongest attack and where are you losing ground?
Marusia López Cruz: We still do not have strong democracies in the region, and there is a return in some countries to authoritarian regimes as exemplified by the coup d’état in Honduras. Throughout the region, there are various forms of repression: the criminalization of protests; the existence of paramilitary groups; remilitarization in several areas; abuses committed by military personnel; a lack of institutional openness to dialogue; and an absence of citizen participation.
We can also point to an increased number of conservative laws and policies that violate sexual and reproductive rights. Many countries in the region have criminalized abortion, including countries that identify themselves as leftist, such as Nicaragua. There are also attempts to restrict or deny the rights of same sex couples, lesbians, trans people and sex workers. Underlying these developments are alliances between religious leaders and governments, which violate the principle of secularism necessary in any democratic state.
The power of organized crime in the region and the extent to which it has infiltrated and gained control of public institutions has lead to an increase in violence, insecurity, forced sex work and human trafficking. As a result, femicide and other forms of violence against women have increased.
AWID: Based on the outcomes of the meeting, what are the next steps for the group?
Marusia López Cruz: First, we will continue to share the statement that came out of the meeting with as many people as possible. The statement has been translated into English, French and German.
In each of the countries in the region, we will promote reflection on violence against WHRDs in order to increase the understanding of their situation, and involve more actors in protecting activists by creating specific security strategies that are appropriate to their diverse contexts.
We will publicize the situation of WHRDs in international human rights forums where there is often little knowledge of their situation, or little attention paid to their needs. In this regard we will produce a regional analysis of their situation. .
Many participants at the meeting expressed the expectation that we will continue to have similar reflection spaces for WHRDs in the future.
*Marusia López Cruz is a member of Just Associates (JASS), Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad (Consortium for Parliamentary Dialogue and Equity), and Petatera.