Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders

Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders

In 2010, six women’s rights organisations created the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM Defenders). The Initiative aims to link women who defend human rights throughout a region which spans Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, so that they can learn from and support each other about how to identify and quickly respond to threats and physical violence. National and regional networks also engage and lobby in international spaces such as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to ensure that defenders know how to access internationally recognised protection.

A woman human rights defender is sometimes an everyday citizen, or sometimes she is the leader of a community organisation. She is a rural or indigenous woman whose farm is being appropriated by a multinational company that seeks to extract natural resources from the land. And she is often a journalist, an attorney or a teacher. According to IM Defenders, in the period from 2010 to 2011, 13 women journalists have been murdered in Mexico and more than 100 have been attacked or threatened. It was in response to this growing crisis that IM Defenders stepped forward to prevent, document, and raise awareness about acts of violence against women defenders in the region.

With the generous two-year grant from the Dutch Postcode Lottery for 2012 and 2013, Mama Cash is supporting IM Defenders to bring more women together in networks so that they can gather knowledge and strength, as well as to establish safe havens for women under direct attack in Mesoamerica. In order to raise awareness in the Netherlands on violence against women’s rights activists in Mesoamerica, on December, 10 2012, Human Rights Day, Mama Cash kicked off the campaign ‘Vogelvrije Vrouwen’ with a spectacular portrait, of an anonymous human rights defender, spanning two soccer fields: ‘Defend women who defend human rights’. (Bekijk video)

Anamaría Hernández Cárdenas, Director of Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad Oaxaca: ‘The violence against women who defend human rights is often through attacks that are sexualised or clearly gender-based.’

The attacks against women who defend human rights take the form of rape and other physical violence, threats against the defender, threats against her family, her home, theft of personal belongings or a smear campaign to undermine her livelihood. A threat against a woman who defends human rights is more likely to be a threat to rape or kill her or her children. And in a region where close to 50% of all women have been victims of physical violence, a threat is rarely seen as empty. In Mesoamerica 24 women human rights defenders were murdered in 2010 and 2011 alone.

Women who expose corruption and demand justice are often targeted and attacked by the state and de facto powers. A survey conducted by IM Defenders amongst 55 women human rights defenders in the region, uncovered that 55% of all attacks are perpetrated by state actors; 35% are perpetrated by de facto powers, such as private companies, paramilitary and religious groups; and 15% are committed by other private actors, such as the spouses or ex-partners of women who are victims or survivors of violence. With state actors accounting for more than half of the human rights violations, the question of how to denounce attacks and threats is complicated and can, itself, be life threatening.

Hina Jilani, UN Special Representative of Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders: ‘Women defenders may arouse more hostility than their male colleagues because as women human rights defenders they may defy cultural, religious or social norms about femininity and the role of women in a particular country or society.’

From its genesis, IM Defenders has focused on the collective resources and power of women working together, organising, networking and supporting each other. The mass media tends to focus on individual cases, on extreme violence, on desperation and emergency. While these cases are real, raising awareness about an individual case is not always useful, and often puts a woman at greater risk. IM Defenders currently has three focus areas that respond to this need: protection, security and self-care. The protection mechanisms include training to prevent attacks, alert allies, the media or the general public, in many cases, report to local authorities, and have access to safe havens to escape a hostile environment. The security response involves safeguarding oneself, and often family members and colleagues, from bodily harm, protecting information and assets, engaging police and private security depending on the situation. Self-care is about staying alert, responsive and alive. Constant threats make defenders more vulnerable to attack, and everyday stress must be managed in order to quickly and efficiently identify and activate protection and security mechanisms.

The six organisations of IM Defenders are:

Mexico: Consorcio para el Dialogo Parlamentario y la Equidad-Oaxaca (Consorcio Oaxaca)

El Salvador: Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Social

Guatemala: Unidad de Protección de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala

Central America: Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres

International: Just Associates (JASS, regional office Mexico)

International: Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)

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