Statement by the Executive Director: Those who defend our rights in turn need our defense

Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Women on International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, 29 November 2018


We honour today the women whose courageous efforts—and sometimes whose lives—are given in defense of the universal human rights agenda and women’s empowerment; from feminist activists protecting the equal enjoyment of fundamental freedoms to environmentalists fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples and their lands. Across the world, they give a voice to our aspirations for justice and equality and play a vital role in the work to end all forms of discrimination, combat impunity and promote the full participation of women and LGBTI persons in public, private, political, social, civic and digital spaces.

Those who defend our rights in turn need our defense. Their brave and important work has provoked reprisals and attacks against civil society actors in all parts of the globe. Humanitarian, development and peacebuilding organizations are also increasingly facing access and funding restrictions, making the task of human rights defenders all the more precarious.

Women human rights defenders face particular dangers due to the rise of political and social conservativism as well as discrimination, including sexism and racism, that are rolling back women’s human rights, and reaffirming stereotypical gender roles that curtail their participation in public and civic spaces. Women human rights defenders are being criminalized for advocating for women’s right to make decisions about their reproductive health; ostracized by their communities for speaking out in public and digital spaces about the equal enjoyment of human rights; and subject to sexual violence and harassment for exercising their right to participate in public debate. Those who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, such as indigenous women and LGBTI activists, are particularly at risk. Yet, these violations often go unreported, undocumented and uninvestigated, perpetuating impunity and further entrenching gender inequality.

At a time where the gender equality agenda is jeopardized by the rise of misogyny, and as we head towards the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the work of women human rights defenders is more important than ever so that we continue to build a strong and resilient movement of irreversible progress towards gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, everywhere.

We stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of women human rights defenders who are leading the fight for the equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we reaffirm our commitment to support and protect them in these efforts.