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Women activists defy danger to protect the environment

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 5 August 2014 08:43 GMT

Female campaigners routinely face death threats, sexual assault, arrest and beatings

BALI, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Death threats forced award-winning Indonesian environmental activist Aleta Baun to leave her house for a year. Two of Berta Cáceres’ colleagues were murdered, and the Honduran indigenous leader has lost count of how many times she has been detained.

Mardiana Deren, an Indonesian nurse campaigning against palm oil and mining companies, has been run over by motorbikes and was lucky to escape a stabbing. 

Female environmental champions around the world are routinely harassed and threatened for their work to protect natural resources and curb climate change, activists told Thomson Reuters Foundation at the first “Summit on Women and Climate” in Bali this week. 

The perpetrators include corporations the activists are opposing, state agencies that see them as a nuisance, paid thugs and even members of their own community, which are often male-dominated. 

“As women, we are exposed to violence from businesses, governments and repressive institutions - but also to patriarchal violence. It is three times worse for an indigenous woman,” said Cáceres, a nominee for the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.

“The media criminalises us too. They try to take away our credibility, (they) say we’re armed groups, that we attack private investments, that we don’t exist, we’re from dysfunctional families, we’re bitches and corrupt. It’s systematic,” she added. 

Climate change is worsening living and working conditions for women - especially those in rural and indigenous communities that rely on the environment. Summit participants warned this could lead to more violence as a growing number of women take action against corporate and government interests. 

Female activists defending the environment also tend to have less support than those working on women’s rights in general, such as sexual and reproductive rights, they added. Most of the environmental leaders at the conference said they fund their campaigns themselves. 

Every year, hundreds of women are threatened and dozens are murdered, anecdotal and recorded evidence suggests. Sexual assault is common. According to the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, 12 female environmental leaders were killed in Latin America alone in the past two to three years. 

In November 2013, the United Nations adopted the first-ever resolution on women human rights defenders. But critics say strong opposition from conservative governments weakened its language.

For example, a line stating that states should “strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and women human rights defenders and refrain from invoking any customs, traditions or religious consideration to avoid their obligations” was deleted. 


Kate Kroeger, executive director of the Urgent Action Fund, says female activists are vulnerable because the nature of their work challenges accepted gender norms, which usually place women in a nurturing role at home. 

“They face the same kind of threats men do in the public sphere, but they also face threats to their physical and sexual integrity,” she said. 

The fund’s work includes providing 100 small grants per year of up to $5,000 to female activists. The money can be used to tighten security measures or evacuate the women to a safe place. 

“Women often don’t identify themselves as activists, so when a woman does … and when she summons the will to articulate the particular threats she’s facing and approaches us, we will always find a way to support her,” Kroeger said. 

Yet women activists are usually reluctant to leave their homes and families, even if funds are available. 

Cáceres, who hopes the summit will build solidarity between women’s groups, has resisted fleeing, despite several offers of help. 

“Of course there’s a conflict. I want to live and enjoy my life but I can’t do it because I feel the responsibility that this is a collective process and collective responsibility,” she said. “To leave would be totally uprooting myself.”  

The women activists at the summit are also dedicated to continuing their campaigns, even though they are in danger. 

“I do all this with my own funds and I have stood firm despite the threats,” said Deren, the nurse from Central Kalimantan in Indonesia.

“I go to the rubber forest and tap rubber at 6am. Then I go to work as a nurse. In the evening I talk to the village council about our strategies until late at night,” she added. 

Baun, who led an indigenous movement that successfully opposed marble mining in West Timor, was beaten and hacked with a machete. But she never shows a sad face or the pain she is feeling in public.

“Much like any other women-led movements worldwide, mine too is counter-current - we are going against the current,” she said. 

“As leaders, we must be prepared to face whatever challenges come … I don’t let them dominate me,” she added.  

(Editing by Megan Rowling: megan.rowling@thomsonreuters.com)

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