New Study Highlights Struggles and Resistance of Women Defenders

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Recently in San Salvador, a group of social movement and environmental organizations, including Pro-Vida, Colectivo Ecologista Madre Selva, ASPRODE, and Alianza Por la Solidaridad, held a forum to present a new study titled, “DesTieRRRadas: Visibilizing the Struggles and Resistance of Women Human Rights Defenders Who Face Socio-Environmental Conflicts in Guatemala and El Salvador.” Based on interviews with 18 women environmental defenders from El Salvador and Guatemala, the study documents the gender-specific obstacles and violations women face, the ways they fight back, and how the process of becoming organized—and becoming organizers themselves—has transformed their lives.

Because of their close relationship with water and land due to traditional roles of domestic/care work, women’s involvement in environmental struggles is prominent and increasing. However, their participation carries with it tremendous risks and sacrifices: Across the world, thousands of women are persecuted, assaulted, criminalized, and, in extreme cases, killed for their work in environmental struggles. Data from the Mesoamerican Registry of Attacks against Women Human Rights Defenders show that in 2015-2016, there were 2,197 attacks against women defenders in the region (a 30% increase from the previous period), including in El Salvador (102),  Nicaragua (192), Guatemala (231), Honduras (810), and Mexico (862). Most attacks are to suppress resistance to corporate projects. In the most affected regions—for example, Central America where extractivist, hydroelectric, and other projects of corporate plunder are common—that number is not expected to drop. The principal aggressor is the state: More than half of all attacks come from police, military, public officials, or government authorities who often are acting on behalf of corporations.

Although men who defend natural resources also face repression, women defenders face specific, compounded forms. The study found that a common strategy used to isolate and silence women is to question their  “womanhood,” alongside denouncements of “abandonment” of their “natural” work—that is, care and domestic labor—in order to do activist work. In some conservative communities, these denouncements are profoundly stigmatizing and have a real effect. They often come from family and community members. And this is a key point: women are attacked in their private lives, many times involving their families, daughters being especially vulnerable. This is not the case for men.

Likewise, women’s presence in public life isn’t seen as legitimate in many cases, contrary to men, but rather is regarded suspiciously (which can subject them to police and other authorities): for example, they’re out of the home because they do sex work, or they’re lesbians, or “unfaithful.” The majority of women interviewed also reported sexist treatment or abuse from associates from within their organizations, including sexual harassment or assault. In addition, media strategies that justify gender violence through defamation and sexualization of women protesters puts women defenders even more at risk.

A number of women reported that one of the hardest parts of their defense work is the family conflict it can cause. Several women said that opposition from brothers, fathers, or other family members forced them to break family ties. However, among women who maintain family or marriage relationships, some said that the men in their lives treated them differently, more respectfully, after seeing how empowered they’ve become; some women said they feel more appreciated by their partners/husbands who now have come to acknowledge their daily domestic work, whereas not long before they had treated them poorly or even abusively.

Women interviewed said it was important for them to be able to count on the support of their families and communities; however, since neither of these two sources of support is usually unanimous, new support systems are established within the movement. In general, women defenders reported finding the greatest support among other women defenders within their communities, municipalities, and local organizations with whom they share common interests. Thanks to the workshops and events that are convened by national or regional organizations, many women can make contacts and establish new support networks that in the past they didn’t have access to.

All women interviewed said that their activism has led to important personal changes. The social context in which the majority of the women defenders grew up, almost all in rural areas of Guatemala or El Salvador, was not conducive to fostering leadership abilities, but women said that their participation in the defense of natural resources has “empowered” them, transforming their lives from ones relegated to family, care, and domestic work to having preeminent roles in their communities, in many cases even international roles that they never saw themselves as having. In the cases where their activism began in adulthood or even later, many say they don’t recognize the women they were before.

Despite the risks and negative consequences, most said that they would not stop their work in the struggle for land, water, forests, and rivers--all of which has opened their eyes to the political, social, and legal realities of their countries--and that the changes they’ve experienced and the work balance they now have has given them a sense of satisfaction. In general, the women said that they’ve learned to feel freer, stronger, braver, more valuable, and, above all, much more visible in their communities as well as in their own homes. Through their participation in resistance movements, organizations, or political parties, they said they’ve become aware of their capacity to change their realities, on par with men, and that they can defend themselves and can make the same demands of governments that men do.

The interviewees said they would do the same thing all over again if new conflicts arose in their communities, where they all continue to live. It’s worth noting that the women’s struggle is deeply intergenerational and includes women from all ages: from those who gained a political and social consciousness from very young and are still young, to older women and even senior women who never before belonged to social movements but are now encouraging and mobilizing others to join. 

They highlight that the lesson they’ve learned is that the work is about protecting themselves. And this extends to other areas of their lives. Several women who faced serious situations of domestic gender violence say that since they began to mobilize they’ve become more aware of their rights as women and know how to defend themselves. “We’ve opened our eyes,” they say, and have discovered what they’re able to do on their own. Defending the right to natural resources has become a window to other rights related to gender equality.

Based on the study findings, the researching organizations made the following recommendations:

The state must publicly recognize the reality of violence against women defenders via registries that include gender discrimination/violence; it must also confront its own responsibility in violence against women. It must implement policies and measures to effectively investigate the violence, persecution, threats, and discrimination that women face and train public officials in these areas.

Social movement organizations must continue to advance a gender perspective and feminist analysis to eliminate practices that are discriminatory or aggressive toward women; ensure women’s participation in decision-making; and implement training and support for women’s safety, including equipment and special means of protection.

International communities must approve a legally binding international treaty that regulates corporations with regard to human rights to prevent the violence that women suffer in defending those rights, through mechanisms of observation and evaluation, as the 2013 UN resolution calls for.

For more information, read the full report or watch the accompanying short documentary.

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