The state of women human rights defenders 2023

For more than a decade, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation has monitored the security situation for women human rights defenders globally. Hope and resistance go together—the state of women human rights defenders 2023 shows a concerning increase in harassments and threats against women’s and queer rights activists, affecting 75% of respondents and their organisations.

The 2023 mapping is based on survey responses from 458 activists from 67 countries globally, and 25 in-depth interviews.

The activists tell us how family members are increasingly affected, with one in three respondents reporting incidents against their families. Threats and harassments against activists are primarily driven by government and authorities, reflecting the global shift towards authoritarianism. Anti-gender movements, traditional and religious actors, and far-right groups also play a significant role in instigating this wave of harassment.

Download the full report in English (pdf) or read some highlights down below.

Key figures

0 in 4
survey respondents say that they and/or their organisations have been threatened or harassed.
0 in 4
of the activists have received death threats.
0 %
of survey respondents say that their own governments/authorities are behind the threats.

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Take part of the whole report, including all our findings and recommendations to the international community, donors and governments.

Download the full report in English (pdf) »

The state of women's and queer rights activists

Findings from the survey and interviews reveal a concerning rise in threats and harassment, with 75% reporting such incidents—a 15 percentage point rise from the last survey. Many activists mention that not only do they themselves experience threats and harassment, but their families are also targeted. In some cases, the threats even come from the activists’ family members, as many as 51% reporting this in sub-Saharan Africa.

Murder attempts

The gravity of these situations becomes clearer with 37 survey participants admitting to surviving actual murder attempts. The severity of these threats is notably high in South Asia, with over 30% of respondents indicating they have faced attempts on their lives.

Shrinking space

This worrying trend contributes to a shrinking civic space, exacerbating the scarcity of funding for women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights activism. It even fosters competition rather than collaboration among activists, hindering coalitions, collaboration and synergies. The main factors behind this shrinking space, as identified by respondents, include governmental fear of political change, the increase of authoritarian regimes, and the influence of anti-gender movements.

Research and experience show us that gender equality does not advance without a strong feminist movement advocating for it. So, the continued and re-enforced attempts by different groups linked together by the anti-gender rhetoric is a serious threat not only against the activists but against gender equality per se.

Silencing is a political act

The harassment against activists is often disguised as “normal” violence against women or hate crimes against the LGBTQI+ community, concealing the political intent to silence—to stop them from challenging existing power dynamics and structures.

Threats and harassment have become a part of an activist’s everyday life. And it does affect the activists. Because of the hate they received, many activists say they restrict what they share on social media, even if it is a tool in their activism. As one activist from sub-Saharan Africa says: “You need to be present on social media. But as soon as you’re active, you get hatred and threats, including messages on your phone from hidden numbers. Can you imagine how that feels?”

Many also have said no to media as they feel they will only be attacked. When women’s and queer rights activists withdraw from social media and say no to media interviews it means their voices are not heard. It is a strong indicator of the democratic backslide.

Top 3 most dangerous issues to work on

  1. LGBTQI+ rights
  2. Combating discriminatory traditional values and anti-gender rhetoric
  3. Countering corruption

The voices of women human rights defenders

The gendered difference

Activists of all kinds encounter resistance around the world. We argue, however, that women’s and queer rights activists stand out, for three reasons.

  1. Power. In many patriarchal contexts, simply speaking up as a woman or queer person is enough to become a target of hatred. Defending women’s and LGBTQI+ rights only reinforces the resistance of authoritarian regimes, religious or traditional leaders and populists.
  2. Silence. Threats and harassment that are used to silence women’s and queer rights activists are gendered. Activists are sexually harassed in the streets, assaulted in police custody, slandered as ‘bad mothers’ and ‘sluts’, and told that their daughters will be raped.
  3. Space. Women and members of the LGBTQI+ community tend to be grossly underrepresented at all levels of formal decision-making. Their only space to call for change is civil society. When civic space closes, women’s and queer rights activists lose the one platform they have to influence their societies.

Self-care strategies for activists

  • Take it easy: Set aside weekends and vacations for yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep and take breaks when you need to.
  • Lean on your people: Surround yourself with friends, family, mentors, or a supportive community. Having a strong network of people who understand and care about you can make a big difference.
  • Mind your mental health: Consider talking to a therapist if you can. It might be a bit costly, but it’s worth it. Look into group therapy courses to learn how to help yourself and others. And exercise!
  • Find fun and relaxation: Do things that make you happy and relaxed. Dance, watch Netflix, or enjoy your hobbies. These activities can help you take your mind off things.
  • Stay safe: Make sure you’re safe both online and in real life. Learn self-defence, use safety tactics, and be cautious about what you share online. Your safety is important.

Photo: Maja Janevska Ilieva

Anti-gender movements and their allies

The term “anti-gender” emerged in the late 1900s as a response from the Vatican to advancements in women’s and LGBTQI+ rights and the inclusion of gender studies in academia. Important milestones like the UN conferences in Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995), marked progress in discussing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and introducing the term ‘gender’ in a UN context. The Vatican and allied states viewed this as an ideological defeat, stating biological sex as ‘natural’ and considering gender as mere ideology.

A surge of anti-gender

Our survey results and interviews reveal a network of anti-gender and anti-rights groups globally, aligning with authoritarian movements, populists, and far-right sympathisers, and attacking women’s and queer rights around the world. Their collective actions pose a significant threat to democracy and human rights. An activist from sub-Saharan Africa noted a surge in anti-gender sentiment during the pandemic, where it became acceptable to say and do things that were not socially acceptable only a few years ago.

Disinformation and slander

Our survey results and interviews reveal a network of anti-gender and anti-rights groups globally, aligning with authoritarian movements, populists, and far-right sympathisers, and attacking women’s and queer rights around the world. Their collective actions pose a significant threat to democracy and human rights.

Activists in several parts of the world talks about that the anti-gender actors and movements have grown stronger, better connected also with authorities and richer, during the pandemic. It has made it more dangerous for women’s rights and queer rights activists.

One activist from Kenya says: “Somehow, it became okay to say and do things that weren’t socially acceptable just four years ago. People who used to hide their bigotry on social media are now doing [these things] under their own name. It’s scary.”


Take part of our main recommendations to international and regional bodies, donors and governments.

  • Safeguard and fund

    The international community must act to safeguard civic space and speak up against authoritarian regimes. It must put pressure on governments and institutions to create a more open environment for women’s and queer rights activists to work in. Funding is an essential aspect of that. Radically rethink funding mechanisms to more efficiently support women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights movements.


  • Meet and strategise

    Encourage regional solidarity! Civic space is shrinking, authoritarian and anti-gender actors are copying each other’s actions. Donors and governments should do more to facilitate women’s and queer rights activists’ participation in regional and international fora, to counter anti-gender forces’ presence in these spaces.


  • Protect and support

    Donors should provide funding for safety mechanisms, emergency protection and relocation, trauma/stress management, and psychological wellbeing—as well as investing in countering disinformation, misinformation and propaganda on feminist, gender and political issues.


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