Countries around the world have a greater responsibility than ever to protect women fighting for human rights and social justice in the face of increasingly hostile threats, the United Nations argued Tuesday on the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day.
Warning of increased risks amid a rise in fundamentalism, unfettered greed for profits and a troubling setback in women’s rights, the U.N. human rights office noted that women human rights defenders face “unique and growing challenges” due to “deep-rooted discrimination” and called for a commitment to protecting them as an essential force of social change.
The call comes after the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders raised alarm in 2010 over the “extraordinary risks” faced by women rights defenders and those fighting against discrimination and inequality based on gender.
In Latin America, women are on the front lines of key struggles to protect natural resources, land and human rights, and they are also vulnerable to violence and attacks. According to the Mesoamerican Initiative of Human Rights Defenders, women in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico reported a total of 1,688 attacks between 2012 and 2014. Meanwhile, 32 women rights defenders were murdered in the region between 2012 and 2016, including internationally-renowned Honduran Indigenous activist Berta Caceres. The majority of killers have gone unpunished.
Here are five Latin American women championing important struggles in Latin America despite often facing grave risks.
1. Maxima Acuña, Peru
Maxima Acuña | Photo: 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize
Maxima Acuña is a Peruvian subsistence farmer who has stood up to a U.S. mining giant in a David and Goliath fight to protect her land and the environment. Acuña has refused since 2011 to hand over her land in the northern Peruvian highland area of Cajamarca to Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation for a US$4.8 billion gold and copper mine. She has suffered a slew of threats, harassment and attacks — including reports of unidentified gunmen opening fire at her home — as a result of her resistance. Acuña’s activism earned international acclaim when she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize earlier this year.
2. Luz Angela Uriana Epiayu, Colombia
Luz Angela Urina Epiayu | Photo: Semanario Voz
Luz Angela Uriana Epiayu is an Indigenous environmental activist and defender of children’s and Indigenous rights in Colombia’s northeastern Guajira department, where her community suffers the impacts of one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world. She is mother to six children, and one of her sons, Moises Daniel, suffers from respiratory problems the family attributes to air pollution emanating from the coal mine. Uriana’s activism is driven by her desire to see the Cerrejon coal mine, owned in part by BHP Billiton, shut down. Uriana has been nominated as a finalist for Colombia’s 2016 National Prize for the Defense of Human Rights.
3. Ana Mirian Romero, Honduras
Ana Mirian Romero | Photo: Front Line Defenders
Ana Mirian Romero is a Lenca women who has worked for years through local Indigenous organizations in western Honduras to protect land and natural resources from unwanted hydroelectric projects threatening to displace communities. Her movement, the Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz, also known as Milpah, is a sister movement of slain activist Berta Caceres’ Indigenous COPINH movement and has been mostly focused on resisting the Los Encinos dam, backed by the political elite and approved without the community’s consent. Romero has suffered repeated attacks, death threats, harassment and intimidation. Earlier this year, she was awarded the annual Front Line Defenders Award for her commitment to fighting for human rights despite the threats against her life.
4. Morena Herrera, El Salvador
Morena Herrera | Photo: EFE
Morena Herrera is a feminist and former left-wing guerrilla rebel who in recent years has fought for women’s reproductive rights in El Salvador, where abortion is strictly outlawed. She leads an organization called Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion that works to raise awareness about women’s rights and defends women facing criminalization for their reproductive choices. The debate over abortion rights is hotly polarized in El Salvador, and Herrera has suffered harassment and threats over her outspoken pro-choice stance. Rights defenders estimate that more than 600 women were sent to jail between 1998 — when abortion restrictions were further tightened — and 2013 over accusations that they had abortions.
5. Benilda Regina Paiva de Brito, Brazil
Benilda Regina Paiva de Brito | Photo: XII Public Ministry Congress Bahia
Benilda Regina Paiva de Brito is a Black feminist activist and human rights coordinator with the Odara Black Women's Institute, focused on raising awareness about the unique struggles of Black women and fighting against gender inequality and racism. The organization’s programs also include education and Black women’s health promotion, among others. She advocates for an intersectional approach to fighting for rights, pointing out that poor Black women suffer multiple forms of oppression and are disproportionately vulnerable to violence in the country where femicide rate is the fifth highest in the world and on average 13 women are murdered every day.