International: Structures of Violence: Defining Intersections of Militarism & VAW

Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition

On the occasion of the International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders on November 29 and the 10th anniversary of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC) critically reflects on Structures of Violence: Defining the Intersections of Militarism and Violence Against Women, the theme of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence for 2010. The experience of discrimination, intimidation and attack of women human rights defenders lies at the intersection of their gender identity and their position as dissenters in their societies, particularly when working on women’s or sexual rights.  

The Coalition identifies militarism, an ideology that subordinates all other interests to those of the military and militarisation, as one of the underlying contexts that heighten the vulnerability of women human rights defenders.  Militarism is the process whereby the structural, ideological and behavioural patterns of the state are determined by military values, ideology and institutions. Militarism creates a culture of fear and supports the use of violence, and promotes the use of military means to solve conflicts and enforce economic and political interests.  Militaristic environments that result in all forms of repression lead to human rights violations, violence against women, and impunity that endanger the lives of human rights defenders.  In the process of militarisation, governments rely more and more on security forces and coercive power to ensure stability.  In climates of militarism, cultures of violence are normalised and violence against women is facilitated .

The ideology of militarism, which underpins the governments’ enforcement of counter-terrorism measures, also extends to the use of state coercive power to restrict human rights activism, including mobilisation for women’s human rights.  On November 25, Algerian associations organised an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Algiers with participants invited from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, France, Spain, and Italy.  Preparations were made six months before the event and competent authorities were notified.  On the eve of November 24, the authorities cancelled permission verbally, enough to scare the hotel manager to cancel the event. 

In the context of militarisation, particularly in situations of armed conflict, control over women’s bodies and sexuality becomes central to maintaining social order and pursuing military objectives.  Different political interests forcibly manipulate women’s bodies and sexuality in many ways – either to mark political identities, control organisation of communities, or generate legitimacy for political agendas.  Parties to the conflict impose discipline and control by enforcing gendered codes of conduct such as rigid stereotyping of gender roles, prescribed dress codes and/or gendered restrictions on movement and access to public spaces. These restrictions are justified in the name of culture, tradition or religion, even though they may in fact be newly imposed measures. Women human rights defenders who resist these forms of militarisation are considered transgressors and punished arbitrarily, as they are not only seen as violating prevailing state norms, but also supposedly fixed cultural values.     

Heightened risks for women human rights defenders in situations of armed conflict.  Women human rights defenders find themselves caught in the crossfire in situations of armed conflict.  Those actively brokering for peace are accused as traitors by opposing forces or branded as terrorists by the State.  In many instances, they are abducted or suffer human rights violations in the hands of paramilitary units who try to break their spirit, impose social control and persecute women human rights defenders who comprise the leadership of many of the organisations of disappeared and initiatives to assist displaced people.  “Women are abducted, killed, intimidated and harassed because they dare to make the paramilitaries accountable in a country with a long history of disappearances and where we have the second largest number of displaced persons next to Sudan”, said women human rights defenders from Colombia.  

The ‘war against terror’ has further legitimised the militaristic crackdown on the exercise of fundamental human rights and freedoms worldwide. Under the cloak of the ‘war against terror’, governments have resorted to declaring a state of emergency or twisted the legal system to legitimise the issuance of counter-terrorism measures or the application of existing national security acts that criminalise political dissent.  As a result, women and other human rights defenders have been labelled as threats to national security and continue to be persecuted by government forces.  State violence has intensified and become more serious.  Increasingly, marginalised groups, particularly sexual minorities, and their defenders that question homogeneous social constructs face brutality from state agents, are forcibly displaced, evicted, ostracised or further marginalised. 

Armed conflict further foments the rise of religious and other forms of extremism that backlash on women.  In these situations, non-state actors challenge the power of the state to enforce due diligence, making it difficult to make perpetrators of violence against women and human rights violations accountable. Fundamentalist armed groups, operating under the discourses of religion, ethnicity or culture, along with other extremist forces are, in many instances, able to wrest control and advance the agenda of the extreme right by repressing the human rights of women and minorities.  Women are pushed out of public life making it dangerous for women human rights defenders to exercise their activism.  This has been the case under Taliban-led Afghanistan, yet even with the supposed implementation of democratic processes, women human rights defenders face huge challenges in exercising their rights to assembly and freedom of expression. Similarly, in Iran, women human rights defenders can be charged with violations of state-imposed dress codes as a pretext to curtail their peaceful defence of human rights.  And after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, new fundamentalist trends have been aggressively imposed by militias and armed private groups purporting to uphold religious laws that push women out of public life and make it dangerous for women human rights defenders to exercise their activism.  

Recognition of women human rights defenders and their contribution in formal and informal peace-building processes.  Seldom invited in formal peace processes, women human rights defenders create or invent their own opportunities to participate in peace-building. An Isis International study on Cultural Politics of Conflict, Peace and the UNSCR 1325 concludes that for women who live in situations of armed conflict, their participation in peace processes are “less formal, non-conventional and happen more in their everyday lives”.  They volunteer during evacuation services; facilitate inter-faith relations; organise neighbours to meet basic needs; teach or give training on values of peace and diversity; participate, to the extent that they can, in community meetings.  Gender discrimination and the gender bias in existing political structures that favour men have excluded them from formal peace processes, but more significantly, account for making their “informal, less conventional” contributions to peace-building devalued and invisible.  It is therefore important in the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 to support not only women’s role in formal venues of peace-building, but as further mandated by the Resolution, create more opportunities for “local women’s peace initiatives” to prosper and validate the contributions that women human rights defenders make in their everyday lives to foster peace and security.  

A broader understanding of ‘security’.  Full protection for women human rights defenders requires revising the prevailing concept of ‘security’.  Narrowly limited within the state’s notion of ‘national security’, an ideology of militarism underpins the existing definition, giving primacy to the use of force or exertion of military might to ensure security. Responses to defenders at risk that overemphasise addressing physical threats or anchor the definition of defenders on the basis of the risk they face mirror this masculinist valorisation implicit in this definition of security.  Women human rights defenders insist that an integrated concept centred on human security and responsive to gender-specific needs is essential in sustaining activism for women’s human rights.  

A broader understanding of security recognises that defenders are rights-holders and frames their needs for security and protection as corresponding obligations to be met by the State.  It seeks to enforce the international human rights standards with which to comply with these obligations.  It acknowledges the principle of universality and centrality of gender equality and non-discrimination, ensuring that the defence of human rights is not at the expense of women’s human rights and practicing an equitable balance in the treatment of defenders based not on a sameness approach, but on substantive equality that introduces measures to correct differences between defenders because of gender.  It underscores responding to immediate as well as underlying and structural causes of violence and discrimination against women and generating an enabling environment for the realisation of women’s human rights.  The aim is not only to keep the women human rights defenders safe, but ultimately to sustain their organisations and movements in changing the situation that put them at risk. 

Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition


Amnesty International (AI)

Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD)

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia)

Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)

Baobab for Women’s Human Rights

Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR)

Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL)

Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL)

Front Line International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (Front Line)

Human Rights First

Information Monitor (Inform)

International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH)

International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW-AP)

Isis International

ISIS-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange (ISIS-WICCE)

The Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM)

MADRE (International Women’s Rights Organisation)

Peace Brigades International (PBI)

Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF)

Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice (WIGJ)

Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)

World Organisation against Torture (OMCT)