Raising the voices of Women Human Rights Defenders

In recent months the high profile #TimesUp and #MeToo campaigns have shone a fresh light on the topic of gender equality, and the challenges that women continue to face despite positive gains made in recent years.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #PressforProgress.

Women in developing countries have fewer platforms from which to amplify their voices, access justice and challenge power imbalances, making the challenges they face especially pertinent.

For International Women’s Day this year I want to celebrate Navy Menh and Thavy Chhoeun – Cord’s Capacity Development Advisors– and the #Progress they have made in their work supporting Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in Cambodia.

In October 2017 I travelled with Navy and Thavy to Mondulkiri province in Cambodia to meet with indigenous women and to learn more about their experiences as WHRDs. Mondulkiri is home to vast stretches of pristine forest, but in recent years illegal logging, land grabbing and Economic Land Concessions have destroyed the livelihoods of many communities here.

What is it like to be a Woman Human Rights Defender?

During my trip I learned more not only about the importance of the work of WHRDs, but also about the challenges and risks they face when working to defend people’s land rights.

A recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur named Cambodia as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental HRDs. In February 2018, three forest patrollers were murdered as they protected the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.

One of the WHRDs I met organises forest patrols four times a month to monitor and confront illegal loggers. Chamroeun (not her real name, which has been protected in the interest of her safety) invited me into her home and spoke candidly about some of the unique challenges she and other women face.

Physically, she explains that she and other women often have no choice but to bring their young children with them as it can take up to two nights to patrol a forest. They are sometimes confronted by loggers armed with guns or machetes. Women are often encouraged to position themselves at the ‘front line’ of such confrontations, in the hope that loggers will be deterred from using violence against the patrols.

Emotionally, WHRDs can become very isolated, their work perceived as glorified or even unnecessary. Many believe women should be seen and not heard, while a 2016 study by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights highlights that female activists are increasingly vulnerable to domestic violence and poor mental health. 

Financially, it is difficult for women to reconcile their forest patrol commitments with their household duties. Sometimes they have to steal from their husbands or sell their belongings to finance their work as WHRDs. 

Chamroeun tells me that within both the community and when trying to negotiate with illegal loggers and the government that ‘…it’s really difficult to be listened to as a woman’.

Strengthening the Defence of Human Rights

Over the past three years, Cord’s Navy and Thavy have worked with a number of Cambodian human rights groups to help to #Progress the work of WHRDs. They have helped to build the confidence of WHRDs to engage directly with the government and to raise their concerns in ways that are clear and constructive.

I asked Chamroeun what she had learned from Navy and Thavy. She explained that she is now better able to able to stand up and speak at community meetings, document the evidence of illegal logging that she sees on her night patrols, and to confidently present this evidence to local authorities. She is also now able to more effectively encourage other women to join her on the forest patrols, particularly those who were previously fearful of making their voices heard.

It is not just in Mondulkiri province that Cord has been able to empower women to become more confident HRDs. In Tboung Khmum province in the country’s east, we were able to help another WHRD, Soucheng, to secure land registration for over 400 households. Watch more here.

The work of colleagues like Navy and Thavy with HRDs in Cambodia has led to huge #Progress.  

Still work to be done

Towards the end of my trip, I stood at the top of a hill admiring miles of forestry and mountains. I asked Thavy what the constant buzzing sound I could hear in the background was. She explained that it was the sound of logging extractions taking place. Later that day, some of the HRDs I was with received a phone call. Loggers were approaching the forest. They left rapidly on a motorbike to go and defend their land.

When women support other women, their voices become even stronger and more powerful. My hope for #Progress going forward is for more women like Navy and Thavy to use their skills to build female confidence, build female role models, and build strong female movements.

#PressforProgress #IWD2018

With thanks to the supporters of the ‘Strengthening the Defence of Human Rights’ project: The European Union’s Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Pro Victimis Foundation.

Amy Dwyer Neigenfind, Programme Development Advisor, March 2018