The situation for women’s rights activists

Kvinna till Kvinna and the security for women human rights defenders

Supporting women human rights defenders is the very heart of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. Today, we support 149 women’s rights organisations in 20 countries affected by conflict in their work to strengthen women’s rights, influence and power and to achieve lasting peace.

How threats, harassments and shrinking civic space affects women human rights defenders

Threats, hatred and even physical harassment have become normalised. It does not affect women activists as much as it did a decade ago, or at least they say that it does not. Living and working with threats and harassment has increasingly become something that is “part of the ordinary workday”.

The Kvinna till Kvinna research shows that many women’s rights activists are more careful about what they say. Silencing the women’s movement is one of the main objectives of disparate forces such as anti-gender movements, authoritarian governments, patriarchal religious structures, community leaders, nationalists and alt-rights. Hatred and resistance also comes from within the civil society movement.

Some of the violence against outspoken women human rights defenders and LGBTQI+ activists are also hidden as “normal violence” against women, or “the usual” hate crimes against the LGBTQI+ community. It is important to acknowledge that this is strategies to silence those wanting to change power structures. It is important to acknowledge that threats have a gendered aspect.

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The way the women’s movement strikes back (because they do!) is by joining forces and working together. Both the women activists and female journalists whom we spoke to emphasise that even though solidarity and collaboration may be challenging, it is absolutely crucial. As one Syrian activist put it: “Solidarity is our only weapon.”

Solidarity is Our Only Weapon (2021)

Outspoken women can change the world. Sometimes change comes suddenly, while other times it requires years and years of work of the women’s movement. For about a decade, the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation has monitored the situation globally for women human rights defenders. How secure do they feel, how much hatred do they face, and to what extent do their governments support them?

In total, 334 women human rights defenders and female journalists from 74 countries participated in our survey. We also interviewed 15 experienced women activists.

This report presents an overview of which issues are the most dangerous for activists to work on; what types of threats are most common; and which actors are behind the hatred. It also outlines the strategies that activists use to manage and mitigate the violence and the threats and provides recommendations to the international community on what can be done to reverse a decades-long trend of shrinking space, and how to better support women human rights defenders.

Download the full report here (pdf)

What does the hatred look like and who is behind?

When exploring what sparks the hatred and the multiple forms of threats that women human rights defenders encounter, the key motivation is undoubtedly power. Questioning power relations triggers hatred. The work of a vocal woman activist is about challenging norms and overthrowing structures. It is about changes that ultimately imply that people in positions of power will have to take a step back.

When we asked in our survey which issues put the activist most at risk, the 334 women human rights defenders that responded identified the following top issues: corruption; LGBTQI+ people’s rights; combating discriminatory traditional values and anti-gender rhetoric; and anti-militarism.

What kind of threats do outspoken women rights activists encounter? Harassment in general is most common (40%), while smear campaigns and false accusations are in second place (32%), followed by threats of physical violence (23%) and death threats (19%). 1 in 10 has experienced sexual harassment or sexual abuse due to their activism, while 16 percent have been stalked.

Who is behind? Traditional or community leaders and religious actors are the largest group mentioned by the respondents when asked to identify who is behind the hatred. The second largest group is governments and authorities. There is also a tendency of governments becoming more authoritarian, and of societies becoming more conservative, with an increased focus on traditional values and norms.

Other civil society organisations are in third place. Right-wing and nationalist groups and politicians are also frequently mentioned, along with anti-gender trolls and social media users.

“If you hear all the time that you are a traitor and a bad person, you start thinking it might be true.”

—WHRD from South Caucasus

How can we support women human rights defenders?

The international community must step up its support to women human rights defenders and acknowledge how the threats against them are gendered. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Recognise the unique and gendered risks and threats faced by women human rights defenders.
  • Support the organising and work of local protection and emergency organisations and networks, and mechanism such as networks of safe houses.
  • Facilitate and fund women’s rights activists’ presence in regional and international fora (such as the EU, AU and the UN) in order to strategically push back anti-gender forces’ presence in these spaces. It is important to form strategic coalitions to strengthen the space for independent civil society, not the least within the UN.
  • International and regional organisations, such as EU and UN, should always meet with women’s organisations, urban and rural, when visiting a country, making sure that there is no anti-gender organisations or GONGOs present that might silence the voices of independent women’s rights organisations.
  • Publicly condemn and investigate smear campaigns and online harassment against women human rights activists.
  • Build capacity on how to arrange safe online meetings and consultations that allow for meaningful and safe interaction with women’s rights organisations.
  • Social media companies, in consultation with women human rights defenders, should establish easy to access and rapid response mechanisms to remove threatening context from social media, as well as to close down accounts that threatens activists or spread false information.


Victories for the feminist movement

A strong feminist movement is the most important factor for strengthening gender equality and women’s rights. Below you find only a fraction of all what the women’s movement achieved during 2019-2021.

  • In January 2021, abortion was decriminalised in South Korea, a decision that was in part prompted by the rise of the #MeToo movement in the country.
  • In September 2021, advocates of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights achieved a major victory when Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that penalising abortion is unconstitutional, meaning that courts can no longer prosecute abortion.
  • In July 2020, Sudanese human rights activists and the anti-female genital mutilation movement achieved a decades-long goal when Sudan’s Sovereign Council banned female genital mutilation making it punishable by three years in jail.
  • In June 2019, the Botswanan LGBTQI+ community and leading non-governmental group LEGABIBO, successfully advocated for a decriminalisation of same-sex relations to the Botswana’s High Court, which ruled in favour.
  • In May 2019, tens of thousands of people in Taiwan braved pouring rain to demonstrate in favour of same-sex marriage outside the parliament. The passing of the bill was a historic moment for the Asian LGBTQI+ rights movement, by making Taiwan the first country in the region to legalise same-sex marriage.
  • In 2019, Tunisia’s #MeToo movement #EnaZeda, prompted thousands of women across the country to share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. Women’s rights organisation Aswat Nissa offered a safe space for the discussions by starting the #EnaZeda Facebook group. In just a few weeks, 25,000 people had joined, sharing their own experiences of sexual harassment and violence directly or anonymously.
  • In August 2019, Liberia´s women’s movement achieved a massive victory when the Domestic Violence Bill was approved. Liberian women’s organisations had campaigned for the bill for many years. After countless sit-ins, marches, and advocacy meetings, it was finally passed.
  • The bill “only yes means yes” was approved by the Spanish government in March 2020, making Spain the 10th European country to define sex without consent as rape.
  • In March 2020, Sierra Leone overturned a ban on pregnant girls attending school and sitting exams. Since 2015, many pregnant girls have been stigmatised and denied their right to education, damaging their prospects of future employment.
  • For half a decade, women’s rights organisations in Palestine have been advocating against child marriage. In November 2019, these efforts finally paid off, when the Palestinian Authority government passed a new law, setting the minimum age for marriage to 18 years.
  • In Lebanon, women were key mobilisers of the October 2019 movements against political corruption and economic inequality, which forced the prime minister to resign.
  • In 2019, the women’s rights movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina got a long-awaited win, when the parliament in Republika Srpska amended its Law on the Protection against Domestic Violence and fully criminalised domestic violence.

Publications and reports on the topic