Female peacebuilders face 'vastly worse' situation due to Covid-19

In 2020, nearly 35 female human rights defenders were killed

Women’s participation in peace efforts is essential, says the UN human rights chief. Reuters

Women working in peacekeeping and human rights roles face a “vastly worse” situation now than before the Covid-19 pandemic, says the UN human rights chief.

Michelle Bachelet told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that in 2020 her office had verified 35 killings of female human rights defenders, journalists and trade union members in seven conflict-affected countries where data is available.

“This number, which is certainly an undercount, surpassed the confirmed number of killings in 2018 and 2019,” she said.

Ms Bachelet said her Geneva-based office also documented patterns of attacks against women working on gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, corruption, labour rights and environmental and land issues.

“In every region,” she said, “we have seen women subjected to arrests and detention; intimidation; sexual violence, and harassment via smear campaigns,” as well as intimidation and reprisals by government and non-government “actors” against people who co-operate with the UN.

Despite the Security Council’s adoption in 2000 of a resolution demanding equal participation for women in peace negotiations and peacebuilding, “between 1992 and 2019 only 13 per cent of negotiators, 6 per cent of mediators and 6 per cent of signatories in major peace processes worldwide were women,” Ms Bachelet said.

That was before the pandemic struck in early 2020, “and before a wave of intensifying conflicts, undemocratic political transitions and disastrous humanitarian crises took hold in many societies”.

Ms Bachelet said the situation now facing female human rights defenders and prospects for women’s real participation in peace efforts is “vastly worse” and “harms all of us” because women’s participation is essential to promote peace.

She singled out examples in Afghanistan, Africa’s sub-Sahara region and Myanmar.

Women forced to flee

In Afghanistan, Ms Bachelet said many female human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and judges have been forced to flee or go into hiding after repeated threats following the Taliban takeover in August. Many women have lost all sources of income and are excluded from decision-making about their lives, the Taliban Cabinet and other key national and provincial bodies.

She urged the Security Council to ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuses in Afghanistan are held accountable. And she encouraged all countries to use their influence with the Taliban “to encourage respect for fundamental human rights” and to resettle Afghan women's rights defenders and immediately halt the deportation of Afghan women seeking protection.

In the sub-Sahara, “critical deficits in women’s empowerment are clearly a factor in the complex development, security and humanitarian crisis,” Ms Bachelet said.

Attacks by “extremely violent armed groups” increase the threat of abductions, violence, exploitation and the abuse of women and girls, and the closure of local schools, especially for girls, she said.

The UN Secretariat Building at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Reuters

Ms Bachelet, who recently visited the region, said she was encouraged that senior members of the G5 Sahel force set up by five African nations — Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania — to fight the growing terrorist threat in the region emphasised “the importance of increased integration of women in political, security and development policies to address the crisis”. She said her office will continue to support this effort.

In Myanmar, Ms Bachelet said female human rights defenders had long been a force for peace “including at the forefront of resistance against military rule,” but since the military takeover in February 2021, many women’s civil society groups have been forced to shut down.

She said women working in the medical field and the media, as well as protesters, participants in civil disobedience, social media activists and those providing shelter and food to those in need, have been targeted for assault and arbitrary detention.

“Women and girls appear to number over 2,100 of the estimated 10,533 people detained by the State Administration Council and its affiliated armed elements between February and November last year,” Ms Bachelet said.

Updated: January 19, 2022, 10:54 AM