Laura CarlsenJosefina Reyes began her career as a human rights organizer the same way as thousands of women across the globe–defending her family and her community.

The middle-aged mother staged a hunger strike to demand the safe return of her son after Mexican soldiers abducted him from their home. She lost another son to the drug war violence that has come to characterize the Valle de Juarez, where the Reyes family lives. Josefina spoke out against this violence, particularly against abuses committed by the army and police deployed to fight organized crime.

In August 2009, she participated in the first regional Forum against Militarization and Repression. On January 5, 2010, Josefina Reyes was shot to death.

Mexican Army troops have occupied the Valle de Juarez since 2008, when the federal government launched the most intensive military operation in the country as part of the war on drugs. To date, Josefina’s son, two brothers, a sister, and a sister-in-law have been assassinated. None of these crimes has been solved.

Josefina’s case is one of many, and human rights organizations fear that if something isn’t done soon it will be one of many more. Last year saw a marked rise in violence against women and harassment of women human rights defenders.

In Latin America, death threats and assassinations by unknown assailants tend to be the modus operandi. State actors, paramilitaries, and members of organized crime are widely believed to be those responsible.

But since most of the crimes are never fully investigated or prosecuted, this politically motivated violence remains unnamed and unpunished. Widespread impunity creates a breeding ground for more violence.

Special Risks

Throughout the year, reports from women’s non-governmental organizations, grassroots movements, and the press warned that women who dared to speak out against violence were falling prey to it at alarming rates. Recent UN and national human rights organizations reports confirm this impression.

They point out that both men and women who defend human rights are frequent targets. However, the situation for women human rights defenders must be analyzed separately for several reasons.

Women often lead community organizations and movements that are on the frontline of battles against human rights violations and militarism. These brave women, usually compelled to act by personal experience, take on the most powerful forces in society with little support or publicity, and with few alliances and resources. Their work is critical to describing, denouncing, and punishing violations that threaten basic freedoms throughout the world.

Yet they often face ostracism from their families, stigmatization, and slander, and the active hostility of government officials that are either the subject of their complaints or complicit in protecting the interests of the perpetrators. Neither high-profile nor well-connected, these women activists face threats and harassment alone and unprotected.

On March 10, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders will present the first report to look exclusively at women human rights defenders.

The report states that, “Women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues in the Americas appear to be most at risk of being killed or having an attempt made on their lives.” Not surprisingly, the largest number of communications regarding documented instances of death threats against women human rights defenders came from the hemisphere’s drug war capitals — Colombia and Mexico.

Women defenders confront the risk of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual abuse in their work. The threats and violence they face often spreads to their families and friends. Precisely because it is these ties to loved ones that so often motivate their organizing and protest activities, this form of repression is perhaps the cruelest of all.

Attacks on women human rights defenders are not well documented and often remain invisible except to the immediate community. This, and the lack of government recognition of their work or the risks it entails, makes them particularly vulnerable. The UN report notes, “In most cases there are no mechanisms for protection and where they do exist, there is a lack of implementation, political will or gender-sensitivity.” It states that Mexico is working toward a protection program and mechanism, but the plan still lacks a gender perspective. Moreover, protection efforts receive very little funding, even when mandated by a national or international body. At the same time, the U.S. and Mexican governments give hundreds of millions of dollars to security forces to fight organized crime.

Women and men who protest femicides (the systematic murder of women, as documented in Ciudad Juarez) — LGBT activists, defenders of sexual and reproductive rights, labor movement leaders, women leaders of displaced communities, and anti-militarization organizers — have reported the most threats and cases of violence in the Americas. They and their family members have been attacked, their homes burned or ransacked, their human rights organizations forcibly closed. Some have been forced into exile due to the threat of violence against them, as in the case of the remaining members of the Reyes Salazar family.

A special report on women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica, presented in Geneva on March 8, concludes that police and military presence has been counterproductive: “The militarization and massive influx of federal agents to combat insecurity has not successfully reversed this violent situation. On the contrary, violations of human rights by security forces — particularly against youth and women — are on the rise. In this context, human rights defenders face greater risks in carrying out their work while also lacking the necessary resources to protect themselves. Far from diminishing, we are able to affirm that violence against human rights workers, their families, and related organizations is intensifying and spreading.”

Where fear has been used to justify military responses, women not only do not receive the support they need but are frequently vilified for “rocking the boat.” As violence and fear become the norms in areas where they live and work, non-violent activism is seen as destabilizing. Women activists are frequently punished socially and physically for their protests against state security forces and corrupt officials, and for their transgressions against patriarchal norms dictating that women should not play leadership roles in community organizing and politics.

The UN report concludes that women human rights defenders encounter high risks because of a lack of political will: “Government or police officials may themselves share the prevailing conservative and patriarchal views of the community in general towards women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues, and thus may have little or no enthusiasm to intervene effectively for their protection in spite of their obligation to do so.”

Despite the risks, women continue to organize and lead human rights movements. They will need protection. Recommendations include: creating autonomous campaigns with grassroots support; achieving more visibility in the press and public; filing and documenting public complaints; mobilizing family and friends and like-minded organizations; seeking NGO accompaniment; carrying out informal security trainings; and holding psychological workshops to cope with the pressure.

National and international protective measures are a way of formally recognizing that a woman is at risk and sometimes, but not always, actually provide physical protection. Precautionary measures, particularly from the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights, provide some measure of protection and visibility.

None of these women should ever have to resort to the long bureaucratic procedure of requesting precautionary measures. The use of international mechanisms is a sign of state impunity and negligence in their home countries.

Defending the Defenders

This week’s UN report concludes that women’s security is linked to the security of their communities. Addressing this requires “a holistic approach that includes the deepening of democracy, the fight against impunity, the reduction of economic inequalities, and striving for social and environmental justice, among others.”

Unfortunately, in Mexico and other countries where the drug war model has been applied, these strategies have been displaced by strategies of enforcement and confrontation that necessitate the presence of security forces.

Protecting women human rights defenders requires that society consider their work valuable and, according to the UN Special Rapporteur, “publicly acknowledge the significant role played by women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues in the consolidation and advancement of plural and inclusive societies.”

Women human rights defenders have been threatened, tortured, raped, exiled, and assassinated. But they have not been silenced. They fight for the rights of all of us at tremendous personal risk. They must not be left alone.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.