On International Women’s Day, Honoring Women Land and Human Rights Defenders

Common Dreams
March 7th, 2017
By: Osprey Orielle Lake and Emily Arasim

Women around the world stand at the forefront of rising movements to defend and protect the health of water, land, air and diverse communities. On this International Women’s Day, it is vital to honor the women defenders who, with incredible courage and effort, are taking on corporations and governments to say ‘no’ to resource extraction and the continued violation of human rights, women’s rights, and the rights of Indigenous peoples and frontline communities. Through their work, these women act so that the generations to come may yet stand a chance of inheriting a sustainable and livable planet.

With increased frequency however, many of the women and men who advocate daily in defense of a just world are being systematically criminalized, attacked and murdered with impunity. According to 2016 reports by Global Witness, 2015 was the most dangerous year on record for land defenders, with at least three people per week killed for non-violent opposition to mining and fossil fuel projects, agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, logging and other extractive industries.

"The violation of women rights and land defenders speaks in a profound way to the derangement of our times."

Indigenous peoples defending ancestral territories represent upwards of 40% of those killed. Women, and Indigenous women in particular, face even greater challenges and dangers, as they navigate the brutal intersection of environmental devastation, cultural dislocation, and sexual violence and gender based persecution.

Tragedies such as the 2016 murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceres indicate the acceleration of these trends, which have prompted United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz to warn of an “epidemic” of murder of Earth defenders.

The violation of women rights and land defenders speaks in a profound way to the derangement of our times, and to the dangerous worldviews of domination and exploitation, which sit at the root of both degradation of Earth’s natural systems, and violence against women of the world.

Despite experiencing the impacts of environmental harms with disproportionate severity, women are rising in diverse manifestations to demonstrate that they hold the knowledge, skills and heartfelt passion needed not only to protect their homelands, but also to build substantial and creative solutions needed to avert the worst impacts of environmental destruction and the climate crisis.

In this context, standing in solidarity with women defenders is critical – to uphold fundamental human rights, to protect frontline communities, and to ensure sustainability on Earth. Frontline women can also be supported by demanding governments and corporate actors comply with Indigenous rights and sovereignty, issues which often lie at the root of violations.

On International Women’s Day, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network shares the stories of just a few of the world’s countless women human rights and Earth defenders, and raises the call to visibilize, support, and honor all frontline women defenders for their fierce dedication and unrelenting voice and action for justice.

 Melania Chiponda, Zimbabwe

After bearing witness to violence  and sexual abuse of women by security and military forces attempting to suppress local opposition to mining, Melania Chiponda of Marange, Zimbabwe began advocating as a woman defender, working independently and with WoMin. For many years, Melania has been speaking out against actions by the diamond mining industry to forcibly break the connection between women and their ancestral lands. For her work to protect Indigenous women’s land rights, and stop land grabbing and militarization of mining regions, Melania has been arrested, detained and threatened many times. She commented recently as part of the DefendHer campaign.

"We fight. Because we have nothing else to lose." 
—Melania Chiponda, Zimbabwe“If you take away land from women in the rural areas, you take away their livelihoods; you take away the very thing that they identify with. Then we fight. Because we have nothing else to lose.”

Josephine Pagalan, Philippines

In the Philippines, Manobo Indigenous woman leader Josephine Pagalan is fighting to protect her people's ancestral lands from mining and logging operations. Following the murder of several of her colleagues, Josephine was forced to leave her community to seek safety in the city, fearing that impunity in her remote village would lead to her own death. Despite harassment, Josephine continues representing the public face of the many Indigenous Lumad women who are on the frontlines demonstrating, documenting human rights abuses, and filing legal suits in opposition to the militarization, violation of community rights, and environmental devastation taking place across their homelands.

Josephine explained to Womens E-News, “We want the government to be made accountable for the human rights violations and attacks. Mining companies promised too many things in the past but they did not deliver. We don’t want to give up our land because money can be consumed but land will not perish.”

Read more at Common Dreams.