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[Press Release] FORUM-ASIA Report: National Human Rights Institutions need to be gender-responsive to better protect women human rights defenders in Asia

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For immediate release

27 April 2022, Bangkok

  • Documentation by FORUM-ASIA reveals that women human rights defenders (WHRDs) continued to be the second-most targeted group of defenders between 2019 – 2021, with 460 cases of violations out of 1,899 total cases recorded across 21 Asian countries, or nearly one violation out of every four documented.
  • The most common form of violations against WHRDs included judicial harassment (270 cases) – commonly coupled with their arrest and detention (210 cases), which was oftentimes arbitrary – intimidation and threats (107 cases), and physical violence (97 cases), which led to 21 cases of killings.
  • NHRIs also face challenges, such as the lack of independence, inadequate resources and awareness to address violations against WHRDs; threats to NHRIs themselves; and repressive environments under increasingly authoritarian regimes, which hinder their ability to fulfill their mandates effectively.
  • The report identifies concrete measures that NHRIs, WHRDs, civil society organisations, state institutions, and other allies can take to advocate for and ensure stronger protection mechanisms for WHRDs in Asia.
  • National human rights institutions (NHRIs) across Asia need to address challenges faced by WHRDs by adopting stronger and more gender-responsive measures, such as focusing on the representation of WHRDs and women within NHRIs; advocating for stronger and specific legislation for the protection of WHRDs; and preventing further vilification of WHRDs and their work.

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), as the Secretariat of the Asian NGO Network on National Human Rights Institutions (ANNI), today launched the report, ‘Making Institutions Count: Strengthening Support for Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in Asia by National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs)’ along with the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF).

An expert panel discussion discussed the challenges faced by WHRDs in Asia, and what NHRIs, governments, donors, and other allies can do to ensure stronger protection mechanisms for them.


Gender-based violence faced by WHRDs

WHRDs in Asia continue to face immense challenges as they strive to defend human rights while also becoming targets of human rights violations themselves because of their work. In addition to being targeted through judicial harassment, intimidation, physical violence and even killings, the risks WHRDs faced are heightened due to the layered violence directed against them based on their gender identity.

This report explains that WHRDs experience higher risks of sexual and gender-based harassment, rape threats, and stigmatisation. The violence experienced by WHRDs is often used to discredit their work and activism. Attacks against WHRDs often extend to their private life, including targeted violence against their family members, or even being stigmatised by them.


Perspectives from  civil society and NHRIs

‘It’s necessary to adopt an intersectional approach when analysing the situation of WHRDs. In the case of Indonesia, the effect of patriarchal practices, stereotypes, and the expected gender roles appear to be the reasons for attack against WHRDs,’ said  Vita Yudhani, Advocacy Officer of the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM).

‘WHRDs from minority groups who work on land rights and environmental issues are specifically targeted both for what they do, and for their identity. This demonstrates how their work intersects with their gender and challenges.’

As unique institutions with a legal mandate to protect and promote human rights, NHRIs play a key role in ensuring that WHRDs can exercise their rights and be safe in continuing their work and activism. However, both civil society organisations and NHRIs have identified several challenges and concerns pertaining to the roles of NHRIs to better protect WHRDs in Asia.

Speaking on the Commission on Human Rights Philippines’ experience of working with WHRDs, and from her own experience as a WHRD, Commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit said, ‘WHRDs have been subjected to scorn and attacks, and are being demonised for having a critical assessment on the work of the officials. Mainstreaming gender needs to be optimised to truly advance the protection of women and WHRDs. In addition, extending support to women’s movements and holding the government accountable for violation against women’s rights are also imperative.’

Ambika Satkunanathan, Fellow, Open Society Foundations, and Former Commissioner, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, highlighted that, ‘One of the biggest problems in addressing complaints received by the NHRI on gender-based violence cases is the lack of action by state institutions, especially the police. NHRIs should inquire and put pressure against the police’s inaction to better support WHRDs.’ She continued, ‘I myself had received lots of hate when I was the commissioner; it’s not just due to my gender, but also my religion and other factors that intersect. Very often the NHRIs only address the symptoms, not the root causes such as patriarchy, racism, and prejudices.’

Other challenges in the region include the the lack of women in leadership positions within NHRIs; inadequate gender-responsive legislations and protection mechanisms and laws; the lack of trust between WHRDs and NHRIs; increasingly authoritarian governments; and drastic political developments that negatively impact NHRIs and WHRDs.


Advocating for the protection of WHRDs with NHRIs

This report makes several recommendations to  NHRIs in Asia to enhance their gender-responsiveness and mainstreaming, not only externally, but also internally within the institution. NHRIs should also ensure that protection concerns of WHRDs are adequately addressed through collaborative efforts in developing stronger protection mechanisms, advocating against repressive laws, and through thorough investigations and monitoring of cases of violence against WHRDs.

Echoing some of the concerns shared by other panellists, Kieren Pitzpatrick, Director of the APF stressed that, ‘It is important that there are appropriate legal structures at the state level that recognise WHRDs and protect them from becoming victims of human rights violations.’

‘APF’s Regional Action Plan on Human Rights Defenders can be used to address the gaps,’ said Kieren.

‘Stronger efforts are required to ensure that NHRIs in Asia commit to protect WHRDs through stronger protection mechanisms. NHRIs must ensure that protection mechanisms for WHRDs are in place, and perpetrators of violence are held accountable,’ said FORUM-ASIA as the ANNI Secretariat.

FORUM-ASIA, ANNI, and APF remain committed to advancing the cause of WHRDs in Asia, and to advocating for their protection. FORUM-ASIA and ANNI’s advocacy, documentation, and research on this issue, in tandem with the implementation of the APF’s Regional Action Plan on HRDs, will hopefully see more NHRIs in the region advocate for protection mechanisms for WHRDs in their countries in the coming years.


The full report, Making Institutions Count: Strengthening Support for Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in Asia by National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) is available at



The Asian NGO Network on National Human Rights Institutions (ANNI) was established in December 2006 as a network working on issues related to National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). ANNI has members whose work focuses on strengthening the work and functioning of Asian NHRIs to better promote and protect human rights, as well as to advocate for their improved compliance with international standards, including the Paris Principles and General Observations of the Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA) of the Global Alliance of NHRIs (GANHRI). The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) has served as the Secretariat of ANNI since its establishment.

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