CSW65: Protect Women’s Civic Freedoms to Enhance their Role in Public Life

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

Twenty-five years since the ratification of the Beijing Platform for Action, and a year since women across the world participated in the Women’s Global Strike – gender justice is still not a reality for most women. Despite mass mobilisations globally with women at the forefront, and despite numerous campaigns and policy interventions orchestrated by women civil society leaders, activists and lawyers, women across the world struggle to achieve full equality.

The theme of this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW65), running from 15 to 26 March 2021, is Women in Public Life: Equal Participation in Decision-Making. Meaningfully realizing Sustainable Development Goal 5 (on Gender Equality) requires ensuring that civic freedoms for women in civil society are protected, recognized, celebrated and supported by multilateral institutions and governments across the world. This can only be done by recognizing how SDG 16 (on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) is an important conduit to guaranteeing the civic freedoms of women activists around the world who have improved human rights for all despite significant hurdles. To this end, the undersigned are calling for the UN system and governments across the world to ensure that the work of women in civil society is protected, resourced and supported in all spheres.

Rather than sit back, women and girls across the world are mobilising in solidarity to challenge the entrenchment of neoliberalism, inequality, sexism, militarism, racism and patriarchy at local, national and international levels. Around the world, women of all ages are taking to the streets and occupying virtual spaces to stand up for the human rights of all and demand systemic change. Movements such as “Ni Una Menos” in Latin America, the Czarny Protests in Poland, or the protests led by the feminist movement in Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq have challenged patriarchal systems, showing that women are a force to be reckoned with. Organizations, like the League of Professional Women in Ukraine, have led programmes enhancing women’s capacity to step into leadership roles, engage effectively in the labour force and identify the learning needs of women. While those like the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) have actively equipped and supported women activists to engage with macroeconomic policy and address inequalities.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever it is critical to reimagine ways of supporting and protecting women activists as they conduct their work to enhance public life. The mass mobilisations of protesters, featuring women at the forefront, have led to reform of political systems, review on restrictive conditions of loans with international finance institutions, and the protection of sexual and reproductive health rights. Despite these incredible gains, women’s rights organizations continue to be chronically under resourced. Women also face a triple jeopardy: from state-endorsed restrictions and violence arising from their civil society work, to misogynist backlash for parting with patriarchal norms, and for the lack of resources and community-care to deal with psychosocial pressures and harm for doing this work. Women journalists have faced deteriorating conditions while conducting their work – this has included heightened restrictions while covering COVID-19, amidst already amplified physical attacks and online harassment.[1]

Recognizing the interface between gender equality and civic freedoms, UN Special Rapporteur Clement Voule  wrote that, “the voices of women and their contributions to activism and civil society continue  to  be  undervalued,  under-resourced and undermined. While significant progress has been made to ensure women’s  participation in public life, State and non-State actors alike continue to violate women’s rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association – both online and offline.”

It is impossible that the sustainable development goals will be effectively met without addressing the multiple ways in which women’s contribution to change is systematically targeted by state and non-state actors alike. Thus, during this year’s Commission on the Status of Women, the undersigned organizations urge governments and multilateral bodies to allocate meaningful resources and implementation to match the policy frameworks that exist to realise gender equality and meaningful support for women in public life. Specifically, we call for:

  1. Governments to create enabling environments in law, policy and practice for women’s participation in public life, with particular focus on removing any barriers to freedom of assembly, association, and expression for women and girls;
  2. Governments to establish and fully resource independent national institutions to safeguard promote and protect women’s civic participation;
  3. Ensure that press freedom is prioritised and protected, rolling back any legislation that unduly criminalizes the work of journalists, and ensuring that women who are journalists are able to access justice, protection and safe working conditions while conducting their work.
  4. Governments to ensure full investigations into attacks against women human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, and to train and direct law enforcement agencies to uphold and respect the rights of women as they participate in public life;
  5. Governments to develop and implement gender-sensitive plans to roll-back COVID-19 regulations that unduly place restrictions on civic space for women in civil society;
  6. Governments to make amendments to existing legislation on assembly, in line with the UN General Comment on Article 21 of the ICCPR, recognizing and protecting the right to assembly online and in-person, with special attention given to the gendered dimensions of the right to assembly;
  7. Governments to implement the recommendations of ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment, 2019 (No. 190) –  recognizing the work of women activists, journalists, protesters and civil society leaders as work that is to be rightfully carried out free from violence and harassment.
  8. Governments to commit to structural, long-term investments, such as developing infrastructure to upscale civil society efforts and empowering women in civil society to develop sustainable alternatives, to enable the resilience, relevance, and sustainability of civil society, especially prioritising women in civil society;
  9. Governments and power holders to address the gender injustices and underlying biases that result in the under-resourcing of women’s rights organisations;
  10. Government representatives to avoid vilifying and harassing women at all levels and develop mechanisms to hold those who threaten, attack, and assault women as well as those who subject women to smear campaigns accountable for their actions, making public examples of the perpetrators so as to serve as a deterrent to others; and
  11. United Nations to actively encourage the participation of women in its fora, condemning reprisals targeting women, and ensuring the removal of barriers to this participation in line with the calls by UN Secretary General António Guterres and the UN Guidance Note on the Protection and Promotion of Civic Space.

The undersigned:

  1. Abba
  2. Action Communautaire d’Appui au Développement
  3. Action for Humanity & Social Progress
  4. Action pour la Lutte Contre l’Injustice Sociale (ALCIS)
  5. Action Sociale et d’Organisation Paysanne
  6. ActionAid International
  7. Actions for Development and Empowerment (ADE)
  8. Actions pour la Protection des Femmes (APF)
  9. Advocacy for Widows Empowerment Foundation
  10. Africa Rise Foundation
  11. African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies
  12. African Observatory of Civic Freedoms and Fundamental Rights (OCFFR-AFRICA)
  13. Afrihealth Optonet Association [CSOs Network]
  14. AJBDEM Durable
  15. AJSA (Anchalik Jana Seva Anusthan)
  16. Alliance for Development and Population Services (ADEPS)
  17. ALVA – Albanian Values – Vlerat Shqiptare
  18. Amandla Centre of Zimbabwe
  19. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
  20. AMWS
  21. Angels in the Field
  22. Anges KAVIRA
  23. Appui Solidaire Pour Le Renforcement De L Aide Au Developpement
  24. Arkemetría Social
  25. Asociación Unión de Talleres 11 de Septiembre
  26. Asociatia GEYC
  27. Association de sauvegarde de la Médina de Gafsa
  28. Association des jeunes pour le development et la protection des droit de l’homme
  29. Association des Volontaires pour le Développement Communautaire
  30. Association Femmes et Enfants
  31. Association for Promotion Sustainable Development
  32. Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons
  33. Association ‘Paix’ pour la lutte contre la contrainte et l’injustice
  34. Associazione I Bambini dell’Africa (Association les Enfants d’Afrique)
  35. Audacious Dreams Foundation
  36. Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
  37. Bicosito Bangladesh Foundation
  38. Brain Rest Project
  39. Bridged gap
  40. Building Blocks for Peace Foundation
  41. Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law
  42. Bullyid Indonesia
  43. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  44. CAPTE – Uruguay
  45. Casa Generalizia della Societa del Sacro Cuore
  46. CDIA – Coordinadora por los Derechos de la Infancia y la Adolescencia de Paraguay
  48. Centre Africain pour la Solidarité et l’Entraide entre les Communautés (CASEC|ACSAC)
  49. Centre de défense des Droits de l’Homme et Démocratie (CDHD)
  50. Centre de Recherche pour la Gestion de la Biodiversité (CRGB)
  51. Centre de Recherche sur l’Anti-Corruption
  52. Centre for citizens Conserving
  53. Centro de Investigación y profesionalización en política y economía
  54. Centro Transdisciplnario para el Humanismo Económico, A. C.
  55. CEP International
  56. Chambre Camerounaise des Acteurs en Psychologie  (CCAP)
  57. Children and Youth for Peace Agency-Sierra Leone (CYPA-SL)
  58. Christian Aid
  59. Circles of Hope Community Support Group for PLHIV/AIDS
  60. Citoyen Libre
  61. CIVICUS Alliance
  62. Coalition WILD 2020/2021 Global Mentorship Participants
  63. Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network
  64. Community Care Foundation-Uganda
  65. Community Support for Development in Kisumu (CSD Kisumu)
  66. Community Welfare and Development Fund
  67. Conacce Chaplains Internacional
  69. Congo Leadership Academy
  70. Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations (CEHRO)
  71. Creación Positiva
  72. Curtis Business
  73. Dandora Dumpsite Rehabilitation Group
  74. DHEWA (development for health education work & awareness) Welfare Society Chakwal Pakistan
  75. District Ayurved Office
  76. Dr Uzo Adirieje Foundation (DUZAFOUND)
  77. Droits de l’Homme Sans Frontières (DHSF)
  78. East Eagle Foundation
  79. Eastgate Media Zim
  80. Echoes of Women in Africa Initiatives
  81. Ecology Africa Foundation
  82. Empire Partner Foundation
  83. Empower Society Transform Lives (ESTL ) Singida Tanzania
  84. Entaxis – Action for inclusion and education
  85. Environmental Heritage foundation of Botswana Trust
  86. Equality Right Africa Organization
  87. Equip-2-Learn
  88. Espace De Réflexion Et Actions Des Filles
  89. FALCOH Foundation
  90. Federation Des Femmes Pour Le Developpement Integral Au Congo (FEDICONGO)
  91. FOKUS – Forum for Women and Development
  92. Fondation Generation Libre
  93. Fondation Marie-Claire
  94. Fondation Nicole Ilunga
  95. Formidable Initiatives for Women and Girls
  96. Forum for Empowerment and Transformation of Young Leaders
  97. Fundación Ávila Cruz A. C.
  98. Fundacion Kalu Ibaky
  99. Fundación T.E.A. Trabajo Educación Ambiente
  100. Futur Radieux
  101. Future Leaders Society
  102. Future We Want United Nation
  103. Gala Initiative Uganda
  104. GEMF
  105. Gender- Centru
  106. Gender Justice
  107. Girls Education Mission International
  108. Girls In Need
  109. Give Hope Uganda
  110. Global Learning for Sustainability
  111. GRAP
  112. Grève Internationale des Femmes.
  113. Grupo Creamos
  114. Gutu United Residents and Ratepayers Association- GURRA
  115. Haakro Welfare Association
  116. Helping Our People Excel
  117. Hope Worldwide – Pakistan
  118. Indraprastha Public Affairs Centre
  119. INEVA – International Network of Values
  120. Initiative des Femmes pour la Paix, la Promotion et le Développement (IFPPD)
  121. Initiatives des Femmes en Situations Difficiles pour le Développement Durable et Intégré
  122. INSPIRIT Creatives NGO
  123. Institute for Democratic Action & Development (IDAD)
  124. Instituto para el Futuro Común Amerindio (IFCA)
  125. International Association for Political Science Students
  126. International Presentation Association
  127. International Public Policy Institute
  128. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  129. International Women Fund Azerbaijan
  131. IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (IUCN NL)
  132. Izandla Ziyagezana Community Development Center
  133. Jade Propuestas Sociales y Alternativas al Desarrollo, A.C.
  134. Jajere youth consultative forum
  135. Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society
  136. U.L.U.- Women and Development
  137. Kadiwaku Family Foundation
  138. Kanishksocialmedia – KSM CHANNEL
  139. Karapatan Alliance Philippines
  140. Khmer National Liberation Front
  141. Kiangure Springs Environment Initiative
  142. Kijana Hai Foundation
  143. Lanka Fundamental Rights Organization
  144. Las pasionarias – Programa de Radio ENxebre
  145. Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy
  146. Legal Right Informants
  147. Let There Be Light International
  148. Life bridge for progression outreach
  149. Ligue pour la solidarité congolaise
  150. Ligue Tchadienne des Droits de l’homme
  151. Local Sustainable Communities Organisation (Losco)
  152. Love to Love
  153. Maison de la Société Civile
  154. Manna Development Agecy
  155. Media Education Centre
  156. Meera Foundation
  157. mHub
  158. Mother Daughter Empowerment
  159. Motherland Water Association of Lesotho
  160. Mouvement Citoyen Ras-le-bol
  161. Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People-MOSOP
  162. Mujer Fuerte
  163. MY World Mexico
  164. National Council of Women
  165. National Youth Council of India
  166. Nawi Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective
  167. Network for Women Economic Empowerment Peace and Development
  168. New Europeans
  169. New Life Organisation
  170. NGO “League of Professional Women” (LPW)
  171. NGO Futures LLC
  172. NGO Peace One Day Mali
  173. NGO World and Danube
  174. Nigerian Youth SDGs Network
  175. Northern Smoke Signals LTD.
  176. Nouveaux Droits de l’homme Congo Brazzaville
  177. Observatoire du Sahara pour la Paix, la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme “OSPDH”
  178. ONG AJED (Appui Jeunes Pour Le Développement)
  180. Pariwartan Sanchar Samuha
  181. Parlement Africain de la Société Civile
  182. Participatory Research Action Network- PRAN
  183. Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC)
  184. PAX
  185. Paz Civica
  186. Peaceful and Active Centre for Humanity – Peach
  188. Psychologues du Monde Afrique
  189. Queen of Peace Foundation
  190. RACI
  191. Rainforest Alliance
  192. Rashtriye Mahila Surkasha Manch
  193. Rausing Zimbabwe
  194. REDHNNA, Red por los DDHH de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes
  195. Remesha Magazine
  196. Rencontre pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme
  197. Research Centre Consult
  198. Research Institute and Youth Empowerment
  199. Réseau des jeunes pour la promotion de l’abandon des MGF et des mariages d’enfants
  200. Réseau des Organisations de la Société Civile pour l’Observation et le Suivi des Élections en Guinée (ROSE)
  201. Réseau national de la jeunesse du Mali
  202. Réseau Nigérien des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (RNDDH)
  203. Rural Women’s Network Nepal (RUWON Nepal)
  204. San Youth Network
  205. Save Dreams Liberia
  206. Save Our Youth Zambia Foundation
  207. Savie Asbl NGO PGEL LGBTIQ DRC
  208. Scarlet initiative Uganda
  209. SEVICS
  210. Shanduko Yeupenyu Child Care
  211. Sheila Reyes Peñafiel
  212. Shibganj Integrated Development Society
  213. Sisters of Charity Federation
  214. Social Mission Catalysts LLC
  215. Society for Conservation and Sustainability of Energy and Environment in Nigeria (SOCSEEN)
  216. Soroptimist International
  217. SOS Jeunesse et Enfance en Détresse “SOS JED”
  218. Sourires de femmes
  219. South Sudan Community Change Agency
  220. Speaking Influence Africa
  221. Students for Global Democracy Uganda
  222. Sustainable and Inclusive Development for Southeast Asia
  223. Sustenta Honduras
  224. Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition
  225. Tanzania Network of Women Living with HIV and AIDS (TNW+)
  227. TEDIC
  228. The Coalition for Women in Journalism
  229. The Digital Biography
  230. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights
  231. The undersigned,
  232. The Wave Ke
  233. Tim Africa Aid Ghana
  234. Toto Centre Initiative
  235. Tournons la Page Côté D’Ivoire
  236. Trans Alliance Anna Foundation Uganda
  237. Tribal Rights Watch Pakistan
  238. Tulips International Foundation
  239. Udisha
  240. UDK Consultancy
  242. Ukrainian Association for Research in Women’s History
  243. Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement (UWVM)
  244. Unique Foundation, The Gambia
  245. Valeurs
  246. Volunteer Activists Institute
  247. Volunteers Members International Human Rights Commission
  248. Wacare Organization
  249. Welfare Taskforce for Malaysian Students Abroad
  250. Welsiane Foundation
  251. Western Youth Empire
  252. WHRDMENA Coalition
  253. WIPGG Nigeria
  254. Women Against Violence and Expediency Handling Initiative
  255. Women and Modern World Social Charitable Center
  256. Women Deliver
  257. Women for Change
  258. Women in Development
  259. Women Legal Work and Marriage Counselling
  260. Women Liberty
  261. Women’s Coalition Against Cancer – (WOCACA)
  262. Women’s March Global
  263. Word Smash Poetry Movement
  264. YARD-Liberia, Inc
  265. YEPSAfrica – Youth Ending Period Stigma.
  266. Young Peace Builders (YPB)
  267. Young Professional Development Society Nepal (YPDSN)
  268. YoungMenEngage for Equality2030
  269. Youth Desk Evangelical Church Of Cameroon
  270. Youth for Pakistan
  271. Youth for Peace and Development
  272. Youth Forum for Social Justice
  273. Youth innovation centre
  274. Youth Without Borders – Tunisia
  275. 中华民国(武汉)行政院筹委会

[1] For some examples of the threats and restrictions that women face when participating in public life, please see the Appendix at the end of this letter.

Appendix: Cases of Concern

1/ Assembly offline and online:

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns enforced across the world, governments have placed restrictions on the right to protest. Many of the movements have featured strong women leadership, such as:

  • The Hirak protest movement in Algeria or Ni Una Menos in Latin America, have been faced with hurdles to gathering since early 2020 – with many criminalized under lockdown restrictions used to curb freedom of assembly – a further escalation of restrictions in an already restrictive climate for protesters.
  • In Kyrgyzstan, women were assaulted, detained and ill-treated during 8 March protests in recognition of International Women’s Day in 2020. Furthermore, as COVID-19 resulted in innumerable job losses globally, women were most affected.
  • In El Salvador, over 100 workers, led by women, staged a protest and hunger strike in February 2021 following being dismissed in June 2020 without compensation.
  • Similarly in Poland in January 2021, following further clampdowns on access to abortion, peaceful protests erupted across the country and were met with police intimidation where protesters forced to show identification and consequently charged.
  • In Myanmar, women have been estimated to be 60% of total peaceful protesters playing a critical role in leadership in the 22222 Spring Revolution following a military coup in February 2021.

In response to violence and harassment of women and girls, greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, peaceful protests also erupted in Bangladesh, India, Colombia, Malawi, Nigeria, Algeria, South Africa and Costa Rica (to name a few). In many of these cases, women were harassed, detained or intimidated for their peaceful activities.

2/ Online harassment and intimidation:

During the past year, as advocacy has moved online – women have also faced increased intimidation and harassment. Journalists have been targeted for simply doing their work – oftentimes, the use of social media platforms to target women has been pronounced. Journalists Manira Chaudhary, Evgenija Carl, Fadwa Chtourou and countless others have been targeted for simply doing their work. Similarly, women journalists from Pakistan have faced ongoing cyber-attacks, online harassment and threats – including Gharida Farooki, who experienced an attempted hacking of her Twitter account. A 2020 study by the International Center of Journalists and UNESCO found that 70% of women surveyed had been on the receiving end of harassment, threats or attacks in the past. Furthermore, the Coalition for Women in Journalism has found that in 2021 alone, at least 48 women journalists around the world are in prisons for their journalistic coverage.

For activists working in repressed or closed spaces, the online space remains one of the few spaces available to assemble and conduct effective advocacy for change. Algerian journalist, Abir Benrabah, was hospitalised in November 2020 following online harassment targeting her for her advocacy exposing harassment women and children faced online. Egypt’s #MeToo movement detailed cases of harassment, violence and rape online, prompting the passing of a new law to protect the identity of victims. Despite these gains, Egyptian women were consequently detained on loaded morality charges in September 2020 after responding to a call by the Egyptian authorities to come forward to lay charges. Egyptian journalist and woman human rights defender, Solafa Magdy, has faced sexual harassment and violence while detained.

3/ Restrictions on association:

In the midst of these difficult civic space conditions, the work of women civil society actors across the world is needed now more than ever. In many instances civil society has been on the frontline of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated crises. In Africa, COVIDWATCH Africa has documented the positive impact of civil society on the frontlines in the continent, at the same time as detailing the ways in which civil society actors have been targeted. Rather than positively responding to advocacy, research and policy recommendations from civil society, authorities have amped up use of complex surveillance technology and spyware, closure and criminalisation of civil society organizations and leaders.

  • Climate activist, Disha Ravi, was arrested in February 2021 for editing a protest toolkit shared online in support for the farmers protests sweeping across India.
  • In a series of ongoing attacks, in December 2020 the leadership of Tunisian NGO Damj was targeted through arbitrary arrests, assaults by plainclothes officers and kidnappings following a sit-in to condemn hateful comments by parliamentarian Mohamed al-Afas against the LGBTI community and feminist movements.
  • In Pakistan, four women human rights defenders were killed in North Waziristan while conducting a vocational skills training in February 2021. The women were shot in a deserted village near the town of Mirali in North Waziristan.
  • Egyptian women human rights defenders and their organisations continue to face severe reprisals. The murder of lawyer and political activist Hanan al-Barassi in broad daylight in Benghazi on 10 November 2020 also follows a disturbing pattern of violent attacks against prominent women activists in Libya, including unchecked online violence.

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