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Women’s bodies are the battleground for civil liberties

Female activists face persecution largely because their existence is an affront to the patriarchal nature of societies.


Around the world, civic spaces are shrinking. In many countries, activists are under threat as governments increasingly use the law and violence as tools of oppression, according to a new report. For women human rights defenders, this means their bodies have become the battleground on which the fight for civil liberties is being waged.

In Egypt, such sexual violence has become a prevalent form of silencing women protesters.

A group of Egyptian women took part in a sit-in and were arrested. Later, an army general publicly admitted that officers had conducted “virginity tests” on the women, according to a 2012 report issued by the African Union’s African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The woman were also insulted, beaten and tortured with electric shocks, according to the report.

“The Egyptian military conducted the degrading ‘virginity tests’ on female protesters, which, in itself, is sexual violence, and on 4 May 2016 female protesters and journalists were physically and sexually assaulted in a protest,” says the executive director of Nazra for Feminist Studies group, Mozn Hassan.

“Between these two incidents, hundreds of women, some of whom were women human rights defenders, have been sexually assaulted. Sexual violence is a phenomena,” she says.

Each year, the Civicus State of Civil Society Report looks at the major events that have affected civil society around the world. The most recent report found that developed and developing countries are closing civic spaces with the use of legal instruments, violence, intimidation and assassinations.

For women activists, the situation is worse. Although the  African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the  2013 Maputo Protocol call on states to prevent discrimination against women, female activists face additional layers of persecution compared with their male counterparts, largely because of the patriarchal nature of societies they operate in and the challenges they pose to the status quo.

Women activists face gender-specific risks because of systemic gender discrimination and inequalities entrenched in social and cultural norms.

Activists are often subjected to arbitrary detention. For women, these periods of incarceration can be marked by, for instance, the systemic denial of sanitary pads as a way of humiliating them and breaking their resolve. Women have reported being subjected to invasive body searches by male officers especially when arrested at protests.

Although rape is used as a weapon of war in conflict zones, it is also used as a tool to silence activists. Sexual violence and verbal abuse are perpetrated against lawyers and activists who go into police stations to assist victims of domestic violence and are accused of “breaking up families”.

In Burundi, women human rights defenders see character assassination as a means to deter them from their activism. They are depicted in the media as “bitter divorced women” and their mental health status and integrity are called into question. These attacks are meant to humiliate and isolate them.

A report commissioned by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa found that these types of violations against women human rights defenders are widespread and justice is in short supply.

The gendered risks are also severe for activists working on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI) throughout Africa. Noxolo Nogwazawas a South African LGBTI activist and an organiser of the local gay pride parade committee in her community in the east of Johannesburg.

In 2013, Nogwaza was brutally raped, tortured and killed in a form of attack often labelled as “corrective rape”, ostensibly carried out by the perpetrator(s) to “cure” victims of their sexual orientation. Her killers have still not been brought to justice.

The killers of FannyAnn Eddy, founder of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association, also remain free.

In June, a Tunisian LGBTI activist, who wished to remain anonymous, summed up the threats faced by women like herself, Nogwaza and Eddy: “We, as nonheterosexual women, are much more under pressure and face more attacks because we are accused of wanting to destroy the ideals of a family unit and are seen as a threat to the welfare of children.”

The emotional and psychological affects of these attacks are long lasting.

Jestina Mukoko is an activist and the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, which records human rights violations in the country. State security agents abducted Mukoko in 2008. Held without trial and repeatedly interrogated regarding allegations that she had attempted to incite the overthrow of the regime, Mukoko endured extreme methods of tortured for 21 days.

In 2016, Mukoko released a book detailing her ordeal. Recounting to the media the severe beatings and sleep deprivation she endured, Mukoko began to cry, saying: “I thought I had healed … that I would be able to tell this story without breaking down.”

In spite of the systemic discrimination and dangers faced by women activists, many continue their work. They put their health, dignity and lives at risk to fight for the rights of others in highly patriarchal societies.

Guaranteeing the safety of these human rights defenders — and building more just societies — begins with reimagining our collective identities in the absence of deep patriarchy and sexual violence.

A woman with a voice shouldn’t be an affront to a nation.

Teldah Mawarire is a policy and research officer at Civicus, the world alliance of civil society organisations.

Sara K Brandt is a policy and research officer at Civicus, the world alliance of civil society organisations.