Madam Chair and subcommittee members, thank you very much for the opportunity and invitation to appear before you today. I congratulate all of you for taking on this important study of women human rights defenders.
In the more than a decade that I have worked at Nobel Women's Initiative, I have met and had the honour to work directly with hundreds of women human rights defenders, primarily from conflict countries. I have learned from these women not only about the risks and threats they face but also about the remarkable levels of courage they possess. I wish I could say I would exhibit the same level of courage when faced with similar circumstances; however, I'm not sure I would. These are individuals who, despite even direct threats to their safety, will boldly face off against injustice and defend the rights of their communities. While we might not all have the right stuff to do what they do, it is our responsibility to support and protect those who take these risks.
A study on women human rights defenders is topical and urgently important for a number of reasons—many of which you are very familiar with. With a global resurgence in civil strife and conflict in recent years, in countries as diverse as Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nicaragua and Venezuela, to name just a few, women human rights defenders face unique challenges.
We know from the research—some of you have heard me say this before—that women defenders are pivotal in promoting sustainable peace, and they play key roles in negotiating local ceasefires and acting as first responders in crises. Yet, as you know, they are largely excluded from peace processes and politics, are often criminalized for their work and face gender-based violence.
Second, we also know that, with the rise in authoritarianism, populism and the many different forms of fundamentalism in many parts of the world, freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms are under attack. Space for civil society and women's organizations is closing. While globally there has been much progress on women's rights—and we need to celebrate that—the truth is that the pendulum has also swung the other way and we have to be vigilant. This trend widens the inequality gap and threatens security for all women, indeed all of us, particularly those women and women's movements on the front lines of trying to prevent the backlash.
Third and perhaps most important, the oppression of girls and women because they are girls and women is still far too common. Those who break gender and social norms and speak out against injustice face a wide range of violence, including intimidation, harassment, rape, sexual torture and of course even murder.
In this global context, I don't have to tell you that it is critically important that countries who care about human rights and obviously about their commitments and principles, which they claim to be committed to, ensure that they have a comprehensive and robust strategy for protecting women and LGBTIQ+ human rights defenders—both domestically and globally.
We are here today because we believe now is the time for Canada to take such leadership. Such leadership will be key to enabling defenders, particularly women, to carry out their legitimate and important work.
In 2013, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on women human rights defenders. This resolution urges states to put in place specific gender laws and policies for the protection of women defenders and their families. It urges that defenders themselves be involved in the design and implementation of these measures.
Canada, indeed, is making some advances—for example, the development of guidelines on human rights defenders, which most of you are familiar with, called “Voices at risk”. It is now being revised by Global Affairs Canada to address, among other things, the unique situation of women. Frankly, if Canada is serious about human rights and women human rights defenders, we need much more than a set of guidelines.
My colleague Beth, in a few minutes, will review with you some areas we hope that your study will touch upon. We will provide you with names of individuals and organizations that we think will help shape your thinking and help build a complete story.
First, we thought it would be helpful to focus on who is a woman human rights defender and why she requires special consideration, support and protection.
Here I'll start with the official definition from the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, which is that women human rights defenders are those “who engage in promotion and protection of women’s rights and gender equality”, as well as, frankly, anything to do with human rights.
In concrete and human terms, based on my decade of documenting women human rights defenders, I think what's probably an easier way to remember it is that defenders are really hard to describe and come from all walks of life. They come from a range of backgrounds. They include activists, journalists, lawyers, health professionals, doctors, farmers, politicians and leaders of social movements. Many, like Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who of course won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, become human rights defenders because of lived experience and an overwhelming sense that somebody has to take up this work. Because they understand what's at stake, they need to be the ones to take up that work, and they want to prevent future human rights abuses from happening to others.
For this work, of course, they face huge risks. In 2017, front-line defenders recorded the killings of 44 women human rights defenders, which was an increase from the previous two years. However, we know that this statistic is only the tip of the iceberg and that a lot of abuse is not documented. Attacks against women who stand up to demand their human rights are widespread, and often designed to put women in their place. Not surprisingly, as in the case of Nadia Murad, who experienced sexual slavery and rape, sexual violence is often the weapon of choice. Sexual violence is used by states, and this includes military as well as police, but also by a wide range of other actors, including armies, militias, paramilitary, those working in the drug trade and private security firms working for resource companies. It is used as a way to silence women human rights defenders.
Attacks against women are often distinguished from those against men because they are more personal in nature. I'm sure as politicians, some of you in the room can attest to this. For example, women often experience threats from family members and communities, in addition to threats from state security forces and non-state actors. Family members sometimes disapprove of the defender's speaking out and violating social expectations, and react with threats and even violence. Imagine honour killings, for example. Religious extremists also attack women defenders as being sluts and as threats to the society's moral code. As well, and this is a growing area of concern, digital and online harassment often takes different forms for women defenders, with much more explicit attacks on a woman's sexuality, her alleged failure as a mother, a wife, a daughter; and her credibility and legitimacy is frequently attacked. Women human rights defenders are increasingly reporting hypersexualized smear campaigns and defamation that aim to limit their activism and erode their support.
Who among women human rights defenders are most at risk? Well, the research shows that marginalized women defenders are among those most at risk. I'll go quickly through who those women are. They include the women working on sexual and reproductive rights; younger activists, who are often more attacked; poor women; indigenous women; those women working in rural and remote locations with fewer connections to the women's movement; and, of course, those working on land grabs and resource exploitation, as Global Witness has documented,. Displaced defenders, including those women who end up in neighbouring countries or internally displaced, are also at great risk and struggle to maintain their work while also meeting the very basic needs of their families.
I'll end by saying that last November, just two months ago, I spent a week in Istanbul with a group of Yemeni women activists, many of whom were young journalists. Most of them were under the age of 30, and most of them had directly experienced the war, having brothers or sons who had been recruited as child soldiers or teen soldiers by the Houthis primarily. These were women were traumatized and had high levels of PTSD—and none of them, by the way, are paid activists. They spent a week with me learning how they could better advocate for themselves with the global community to bring attention to the women who are seeking peace and to bolster the analysis and response of women on the ground. They are the first responders, but we need to bolster the funding and resources going to these women so they can do the work they need to do.
I hope that through these comments I've built a picture of how they are a variety and these Yemeni women are typical of what it takes to take on a war but are chronically under-supported and underfunded.
Thank you, again, for taking on this study.
I'll hand off to my colleague Beth.