Defying violence and repression, women are finding new ways to connect and campaign for human rights

Anandita Ghosh Gender & Development Journal, Research, Rights

Whether resisting oppressive laws in Zimbabwe, peacebuilding in the former Yugoslavia, or speaking up for migrants on the US-Mexico border, women are leading the push for rights across the globe. Anandita Ghosh introduces the latest issue of the Oxfam-edited Gender & Development Journal on “Women Human Rights Defenders”

Illustration by Thomas Wimberly (

Despite increasing violence against women human rights defenders, they remain in the vanguard of demanding justice and rights for all. Group and solo protests persist in Afghanistan against Taliban repression; women’s protests pushed the Iranian government to review mandatory headscarf laws; and women across the United States are raising their voices against the reversal of the constitutional right to abortion.

Our new issue of Oxfam’s Gender & Development journal shines a light on such work and on the particular challenges for women defending human rights. “Human rights defenders” describes people and groups who act to promote or protect human rights peacefully (see a full explanation from the UN here). 

This issue brings together 12 articles and 13 short pieces about women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Jordan, India, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe. In it, readers will find untold stories of courage and commitment and accounts of the novel strategies that WHRDs deploy to survive and sustain their work in times of economic and political crisis. The issue also highlights the pressures and dangers women activists face today. It is organised around three themes:

1. Political role of women human rights defenders

The issue highlights how WHRDs are using a range of strategies in the face of deep-rooted patriarchal norms and beliefs, from openly challenging patriarchal and illiberal political systems to working less conspicuously and within prescribed gender norms.

Contributors chart women’s historic roles in peace processes. Nicole Johnston describes how women in the former Yugoslavia played a defining role in the transitional peace processes, forging inter-ethnic relationships and ensuring gender-based harms were recognised and perpetrators prosecuted. Meanwhile, Julia Hartviksen looks at the strategies deployed by Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in post-conflict Guatemala to challenge violence against women.

‘Importantly, the authors also look at quiet, less visible efforts that women adopt to advance social justice and peace.’

Discriminatory structures and laws also loom large in the issue. Manase Kudzai Chiweshe and Primrose Hove discuss how WHRDs in Zimbabwe have been lobbying against discriminatory inheritance laws, and for reform of marriage laws and Indigenous rights and LGBTQIA+ rights. Recently, this work was done amid COVID-19 restrictions that suspended political and civil liberties, with many activists being subjected to physical and sexual violence. Alethia Fernández de la Reguera Ahedo and Gretchen Kuhner recount how WHRDs support access to justice for migrants coming into the US from Mexico, who lack legal status and are at risk of violence from the state, military, militia, and criminals. Contributions also include tributes that honour feminist activists such as Rula Quawas, Mary Roy, and Kiruba Munuswamy who have made immense sacrifices to fight for social justice.

Importantly, the authors also look at quiet, less visible efforts that women adopt to advance social justice and peace. Wafa Awni Alkhadra shares how women in rural Jordan reclaimed communal spaces through herding and sold bread, cheese and yoghurt, building and bringing awareness about their rights.

Several contributors highlight the glaring lack of political recognition of WHRDs. María Adelaida Palacio and July Samira Fajardo document how, despite the critical role of WHRDs in working towards political stability and peace in Colombia, there is little recognition and such work is dismissed as a ‘natural’ extension of their traditional role as caregivers.

2. Forging connections with people, places, and causes

Connection is an important common theme. This could mean connecting people and places to build campaign impact or highlighting links between different injustices and causes (such as between environmental degradation and domestic violence).

In the case of the former Yugoslavia, local women’s rights organisations formed international alliances to draw attention to gendered crimes. In Rumuekpe, Nigeria, women formed alliances with each other across gang conflict lines to bring relative peace to the region.

Links between causes are a crucial part of WHRDs work today. For instance, Julia Hartviksen connects violence against women to the expansion of palm oil and degradation of land and water sources, spelling out the link between development-related (economic and political) violence and gendered violence.

3. Risks and Challenges

Throughout the issue, it is clear that WHRDs across the globe must confront real risks to their lives, reputation, and families. Authors write about the fear, stress, and despondency felt by many. WHRDS have to navigate threats, intimidation, and psychological and physical violence due to the nature of their work.

Selime Büyükgöze discusses how the state tries to silence feminist activists in Turkey. Pooja Chetry sheds light on the experiences of men who defend women’s human rights in India, who face discrimination and ostracisation. Many women activists have been disappeared and/or killed and the issue includes tributes to women who have suffered violence, such as Cristina Bautista, the Indigenous Colombian leader killed in 2019.

How can we support women human rights defenders in the future?

The issue highlights three key challenges that WHRDs face. First, there is an urgent need to recognise the essential work WHRDs do to transform social and political futures. Second, governments and the international community need to appreciate and support the specific work they do in making links between people, places and causes. And third, there is a need for academics in different disciplines to engage with the work of WHRDs and to look at the contributions of WHRDs in the so-called Global South in the context of feminism and decolonisation.

The issue highlights gaps in scholarly, legal, and policy research on WHRDs, and the need to link this work to masculinity studies, law and politics, and wider social justice and rights movements. Connecting academic and activist work will be important, as will making connections between seemingly small, quieter actions and more prominent forms of resistance.

There is also a critical need to provide more monetary and non-monetary resources for WHRDs locally, regionally, and globally. This is not just long overdue but critical for their existence and safety.

We hope the Women Human Rights Defenders issue will be useful to scholars, practitioners and activists, and help to bring activist and academic spaces closer together. Above all, we hope it will bring much-needed political and economic attention to the work and sacrifices of the women across the globe defending and campaigning for human rights.

As authors Sofía Vargas and Carolina Oviedo say: “The world should remember the women who have left us, the disappeared, the killed, and the ones who continue their fight to live free of violence and with dignity.”


Anandita Ghosh

Anandita Ghosh is assistant editor at the Gender & Development Journal.

This special double issue was guest edited by Nidhi Tandon and Donny Meertens, and co-edited by Shivani Satija and Anandita Ghosh. Olga Selin Hünler and Ana Heatley provided substantive comments on some of the contents. Translation support was provided by Ilana Benady.

Read the full articles: You can find the issue here (£) on the Taylor & Francis website and we will also be uploading the article titles to the Gender & Development website soon. Follow the Gender and Development journal on Twitter for updates.