Fight for Gender Equality: “You have to remain resilient and maintain hope” 

Mary Lawlor from Ireland has worked with human rights defenders for 20 years. She was selected as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in May of 2020.

Over the years she has visited many countries including Greece, Tajikistan and Georgia, speaking to human rights defenders, many of them women.

As we mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, UNRIC spoke to Mary Lawlor about the work of women human rights defenders, the unique challenges they face, and how we can support them.

What is a human rights defender?

According to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (adopted by consensus after 13 years of negotiations), it is any individual or organisation that works to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms peacefully. Some human rights defenders are able to work without any risk, but the ones I try and protect are the people who are at risk because of their human rights work.

Can you explain your role as a Special Rapporteur? 

It is to follow the trends of what is happening to human rights defenders around the world and to take up cases with offending governments and advocate on behalf of human rights defenders. I meet with human rights defenders all the time, and everything is to be done with a gender lens. Finally, it is to advocate with states for the protection of human rights defenders.

How do you check the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is implemented?

Communication, mainly with human rights defenders. I also do two official country visits a year and a report to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly. I have done reports on the killings of human rights defenders. [For example], the murder of a 65-year-old grandmother who was against the extension of an open mine at the end of a National Park in South Africa. She was shot in front of her grandson. There are over 400 killings of human rights defenders a year.

My second report was on long term imprisonment. That is one of the cruellest violations of human rights. One of the country visits I did was to Tajikistan. On the day I was leaving, they sentenced a human rights defender, a woman journalist, to 20 years in prison. It is pervasive and it is just so cruel.

Have you worked with many women human rights defenders?

Yes, because women human rights defenders are more targeted. They are working on unpopular issues like women’s rights, LGBTI rights, or rights of minorities. They are always targeted, especially in patriarchal societies; where there’s religious fundamentalism; or where there’s militarisation and where they are seen to defy cultural norms and stereotypes, for example in heteronormative societies.  We have to try and reach the voices of women human rights defenders, which is actually more difficult than reaching the voices of men.

In Bangladesh, there is a wonderful group of young [people] who have worked together with a commissioner and have been very successful in preventing scores of child marriages. In Yemen, a women’s group called the Abductees Mothers Association try to find out where their loved ones are, whether they are in prison or whether they are dead . They have succeeded in reuniting scores of families by building trust with both sides.

What are the main human rights violations women are fighting against today?

There are offline threats, smears and intimidation. Online attacks move offline and set up an environment where women human rights defenders are seen as fair game and that they can be killed, which has happened. It is criminalisation. It is because of their gender. They are more likely to suffer sexual violence and are more likely not to have the support of their family.

Women who are human rights defenders also have amazing strategies. For example, in eastern Congo, the women I met there had ways of communicating. They would tell their husbands they were going to have a knitting evening and they used to bake bread. On the unsafe roads where they could be stopped and raped, they put notes into the bread and delivered the bread. They would also put liver in between their legs so that blood would flow down their legs, because it’s a cultural taboo to rape women who are having their period.

How can we protect and support women human rights defenders?

There must always be political will. Human rights defenders are doing legitimate peaceful activities and they should not be targeted. They should not be persecuted. They should not be killed. They are working a lot of the time for the rights of other women. Governments have to stop paying lip service. They need to put in laws and policies.

Individuals can raise the cases, go to their own government to talk, ask, send letters about a particular case or a particular situation. We see a lot of protests about the awful barbarity that is happening in Gaza, where 70% of the victims are women and children. That should never happen.

If you hear about something,  get involved in an organisation, if you don’t feel comfortable yourself. Write letters to your local parliamentarians. It is only through persistence and resistance that women’s rights will improve, and it has to be constant.

What is your message for International Women’s Day?

I grew up in a country [Ireland] that was very backward for women. My mother, who is a doctor, had to resign when she got married because she was a woman. There was no divorce. There was no contraception. There was no equal marriage. All of those things were non-existent, and it took a lot of campaigning by a lot of people to reverse this.

It shows that you need to be persistent. You need to have dedicated people who will continue to raise the injustice of issues to change things.

Find out more about Human Rights Defenders.

Special Rapporteurs

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and form part of what is known as its Special Procedures. They are mandated to monitor and report on specific thematic issues or country situations.

Special Rapporteurs are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and receive no salary for their work.


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