Women’s rights activists increasingly under threat

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A new ActionAid survey of frontline women’s rights activists finds that they feel increasingly under threat, with nearly two thirds reporting deterioration in their safety and security in the last two years. 

ActionAid says that the targeting of activists is severely hindering progress to stop violence against women and girls, despite decades of political attention and numerous international human rights commitments.

The survey found that:

  • Almost two thirds of the women’s rights activists (62 per cent) felt less safe than they did two years ago and of these, 19 per cent said they felt much less safe.
  • Of the respondents who said they felt about the same or safer, over half (56 per cent) still reported cases of harassment or fear of harassment.
  • Eighty per cent of activists working on abortion or on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights felt less safe or much less safe with 20 per cent reporting no change. No-one working in these fields felt safer than in the past.
  • Of specified threats, half (50 per cent) came from politically motivated groups, including armed militias, 42 per cent cited governments, 35 per cent religious groups and 12 per cent police.

The survey accompanies the release of a major ActionAid report, Fearless: standing with women and girls to end violence published in advance of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals being launched in September. ActionAid says that many governments are failing in their international obligations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. 

Fearless exposes serious gaps in the implementation of commitments to end violence. These include funding shortfalls with women’s groups increasingly starved of funds while women remain marginalised from decision-making at all levels, as well as accountability failings including the non-prosecution of violent attacks.

Meanwhile women’s collective action – which is critical to challenging violence – is increasingly constrained by political repression, inequality and religious fundamentalisms.

According to the report, in a study of 70 countries, women and girls are almost twice as likely to experience violence in countries that have weaker civil rights than in countries with a stronger civil rights framework.

Samira Hamidi from the Afghan Women’s Network said: Opposition groups have repeatedly threatened me. There are no prevention and protection mechanisms by my government where any women, but particularly women human rights defenders, can be supported.”

Lucia Fry, Head of Policy at ActionAid said: “Sadly, the work of fearless women standing up against violence is being eroded by increasing intolerance of dissent and the rising influence of fundamentalist agendas that are anti-women’s rights. 

“More and more women and girls are facing the fear of violence and its consequences for them and their families. 

“As our survey shows, women activists from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil and the USA have all seen threats of and violence increase, making them insecure and hampering their efforts to improve women’s lives and end violence in society.”

This week, ActionAid launches a campaign urging the UK and the international community to champion the anticipated target on eliminating all forms of violence against women in the Sustainable Development Goals, ensuring adequate financing and the full participation of women’s organisations to ensure its implementation.

Lucia Fry said: “The last government showed good leadership on tackling violence against women internationally and we look forward to the new government taking this to the next level. This means the Prime Minister leading calls to secure the new violence against women target, and working with other governments and women’s organisations to make sure this target is met.

“If the world does not act now, women and girls will continue to pay with their bodies, their opportunities and their lives for generations to come.”


Notes for Editors

Further quotes from the survey (anonymised at the request of respondents)

  • A women’s rights activist from Cameroon said: “Sometimes we are forced to let go of sensitive issues for fear of our lives. For some time I’ve faced death threats to me and my family.”
  • A campaigner working for LGBT and women’s and children’s rights in Kenya said: “I can’t move easily at night. I’m afraid always. I live in fear. I am at the forefront trying to defend grassroots women. I know I can be shot anytime.”
  • A women’s rights activist from Nigeria said: “Two years ago I followed up on a case of rape in custody by a police inspector. The case was squashed and never got to court. The officer still prowls around outside my office so I don’t feel safe. Impunity by law enforcement is a big challenge.”

Survey details

  • Action Aid worked with the International Coalition of Women Human Rights Defenders to survey women around the world
  • 47 women’s rights activists completed a detailed personal questionnaire from more than 20 countries (some not only asked for anonymity of person but also country and organisation). Those that waived anonymity of country were from Afghanistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cameroon, Dominican Republic, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Uganda, UK, USA, Singapore and South Africa.
  • Questions asked were:
    • How more or less safe the respondent felt now compared to the previous two years.
    • What threats had been received and who from in the last two years.
    • How their work had been affected in the last two years.

Details of the ActionAid research on civil rights

Freedom of expression, assembly, association, education, and religion are all vital for women’s organisations and other civil society organisations challenging violence and gender inequality. Prevention and redress also rely on the rule of law and fair legal systems that ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. These characteristics are measured by the Freedom House Civil Liberties (CL) index with the countries with the weakest civil liberties scoring 7 and those with the strongest scoring 1. In countries defined as 'Free' (with a CL score of 2 or lower), we found that the average rate of VAWG is 24.0% whereas in countries which are 'Not Free' (with a CL score of 6 or higher), 47.6% of women and girls have experienced violence.