All over the world, a female-driven political awakening is taking place. But this is met with prosecution by the State and persecution by self-vigilante groups. Their experiences are marred with patriarchal subordination, sexualised violence, threat and harassment. They face severe retribution and systematic abuse, even at the hands of the State. It is important to have an enabling environment for these soft targets who face heightened risks as compared to their male counterparts. International obligation requires the State to stop criminalising women defenders, write SHRUTIKA PANDEY & MRINALINI MISHRA

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LAST year began with anti-CAA demonstrations and ended with a nation-wide farmers’ agitation. As resistance movements were mobilised in many parts of the country, women took to the forefront in many of them.

The 101-day protest at Shaheen Bagh in response to the citizenship laws began with a peaceful sit-in by local women. The female-driven political awakening saw women betting themselves at the altar of restive, bloody street politics. A surge of women activism was met with prosecution by the state and persecution by self-vigilante groups.

Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit woman rights defender, shared her story of custodial torture and caste slurs by police officers. Male police-officers assaulted her on a deserted road after her arrest. Neha Dixit, an award-winning journalist, saw rape threats and an attempted break-in at her house.

Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit woman rights defender, shared her story of custodial torture and caste slurs by police officers. Male police-officers assaulted her on a deserted road after her arrest. Neha Dixit, an award-winning journalist, saw rape threats and an attempted break-in at her house. 

RISKS, CHALLENGES AND VULNERABILITIES

Women’s activists, recognised as Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) internationally, are given protection under the UN General Assembly Resolution, 2013. The Special Rapporteur on HRDs acknowledged the challenges faced by the women defenders. As “soft targets” they are exposed to extraordinary risks and reprisals. There is a heightened and gendered nature of risks that women defenders face compared to their male counterparts. They defy the cultural, religious or social norms of femininity. There is a persistent environment of social hostility towards their work. The rights of women defenders are violated within their homes as well, which are supposed to be safe spaces, said Kamla Bhasin and Shabnam Hashmi.

Women’s activists, recognised as Women Human Rights Defenders internationally, are given protection under the UN General Assembly Resolution, 2013. The Special Rapporteur on HRDs acknowledged the challenges faced by the women defenders. As “soft targets” they are exposed to extraordinary risks and reprisals.

Gendered and hetero-normative discrimination is the foremost challenge of a woman defender today. It originates from her perceived traditional role, integral to society’s culture. Our governments cannot accept an English-speaking women activist, which forms the reason for their heightened reprisals,” said Sadaf Zafar, who was detained for protesting against the citizenship laws.

The risk aggravates when the women belong to a minority community, as intersectional discrimination plays out. In 2015, Dalit women invited for a consultation were denied their visas by the Indian administration, which stated that “uneducated women should not travel overseas’’. Soni Sori, a leading tribal rights activist, shared her personal struggle of physical and sexual torture in prison. A public hearing by the Centre for Justice and Peace remarked that women involved in the struggles against the government’s anti-people policies were the worst affected in the prisons.

The apex court in DK Basu laid arrest guidelines, safeguarding the rights of women arrestees. While the law bars women’s arrest post-sunset, Uzma Parveen was forcefully disrobed of her burqa and dragged to the police station at midnight by male police. Despite having laid detailed arrest guidelines, the National Human Rights Commission considered another case of post-sunset arrest of a women defender as per the procedure set by law” without any supporting material on record. NHRC freed itself of the responsibility, stating the magistrate was the appropriate forum to make a complaint of procedural non-compliance.

The apex court in DK Basu laid arrest guidelines, safeguarding the rights of women arrestees. While the law bars women’s arrest post-sunset, Uzma Parveen was forcefully disrobed of her burqa and dragged to the police station at midnight by male police. 

We have seen public vilification of women’s reputations, dehumanising them in society. Kavin Malar, a Tamil Nadu-based journalist was trolled online and her face was morphed as a prostitute for commenting on the picture of a politician. When Safoora Zargar, a student-protestor, was detained in her 14th week of pregnancy, social media trolls targeted and shamed her with the fake claim of being “unwed and pregnant”.

INTERNATIONAL FRAMEWORK 

Between January 1 and October 1, 2020, Front Line Defenders recorded 39 killings of women activists globally. In her January 2007 report to the UNHRC, the UN Special Representative on HRDs observed that she acted on 449 cases of violations against women defenders from complaints received concerning 1,314 defenders, including killing, sexual violence and death threats. The UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2013 asked states to “support and protect ….women human rights defenders, who face particular risks of violence”.

Between January 1 and October 1, 2020, Front Line Defenders recorded 39 killings of women activists globally. In her January 2007 report to the UNHRC, the UN Special Representative on HRDs observed that she acted on 449 cases of violations against women defenders from complaints received concerning 1,314 defenders, including killing, sexual violence and death threats. 

In 2018, a discussion on States’ responsibility towards protecting women’s human rights defenders took place in the UN. The critical recommendations required states to recognise the work of WHRDs and provide protection. It urged UN entities to strengthen the participation of WHRDs. During a panel discussion at the UN headquarters, the panellists recommended that states fulfill their obligation of protecting the WHRDs under attack and unrepresented.

The 2019 resolution on WHRDs obligates States to take practical steps for the protection and promotion of rights. There is also a prohibition regarding the systemic discrimination against women defenders, urging the states for more significant efforts to empower the WHRDs.

The NHRC holding “A” status accreditation with the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions has a focal point for HRDs. An analysis of the HRD category cases reveals that in 2020, out of 92 cases, 30 relate to WHRDs. Despite a surge to over 30% cases relating to women defenders’, the Commission showed reluctance to develop a structural jurisprudence. The NHRC, instead of redoubling its efforts to protect women defenders, is contributing to the downward spiral of hostility by choosing to stay tight-lipped.

RESPONSIVE PROTECTION FRAMEWORK

Women defenders’ experiences are marred with patriarchal subordination, sexualised violence, threat and harassment by state and non-state actors. Women at the forefront of social movements face severe retribution and systematic abuse, even at the hands of the State. The struggles of women human rights defenders remain unseen. The need is to nurture an enabling environment for women defenders—training State authorities on non-discriminatory and gender-sensitive practices.

In the absence of holistic legislation, there is a dire need for the State to create a robust and responsive framework for monitoring threats to defenders by State and non-State actors. Efforts are to be made towards strengthening regional and national networks for protecting women rights defenders in specific. Their work should be recognised, their rights defended and justice and accountability sought.

In the absence of holistic legislation, there is a dire need for the State to create a robust and responsive framework for monitoring threats to defenders by State and non-State actors. Efforts are to be made towards strengthening regional and national networks for protecting women rights defenders in specific.

International obligation requires the State to stop criminalising women defenders. The need is to develop measures to attack the root causes of discrimination against women and ensure an HRD framework to systematically integrate a gender perspective.

(Shrutika Pandey is a graduate of the National University of Study and Research in Law in Ranchi and is working as Litigation Assistant with MANSA Centre for Social Development. Mrinalini Mishra is a graduate of the National Law University, Jodhpur. She too is a Litigation Assistant with MANSA Centre for Social Development. The views expressed are personal.) 

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