The power of togetherness: standing against the shrinking space for action

By Laura Brown, Movement and Network Capacity Manager | Apr 18, 2019

Last week I attended the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) conference in Belgrade hosted by CIVICUS. The conference was an opportunity for civil society organisations to discuss and generate solutions to the most pressing challenges affecting their ability to realise their human rights, sustain democratic values and achieve lasting impact.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘the power of togetherness’ and focused on people and organisations building alliances and working together to defend the spaces where civil society pushes for the rights and freedoms of all citizens. During the week, attendees highlighted particular rights and freedoms in need of defending, including the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly and association.

ICSW 2019

Challenges faced by civil society

We heard throughout the week that civil society, including social movements and human rights defenders (HRDs), are central to resisting attempts to limit rights and freedoms, but continue to face repeated attacks on professional and personal levels. Various methods are used to restrict freedoms: a common way freedom of expression is limited is when governments cut off access to the internet and online spaces that many HRDs use to share their views and organise. Many human rights defenders face intensified digital surveillance and an increased risk of online abuse.

Offline, people’s ability to organise collectively is also limited through being unable to meet or gather together through laws which are created to prevent and criminalise public protests. National laws about financing are also changed, affecting organisations’ ability to seek and receive funding from outside the country and engage in political activities in some cases.  

Shrinking space for women

Women’s movements have demonstrated the power of collective action to bring about the political, cultural, economic and social rights of women. Like broad social movements, women’s movements are also affected by attempts to close down their work. They face additional gender specific resistance from powerful groups who promote harmful patriarchal agendas that aim to stop all women having voice, choice and control of their own lives and bodies.  The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst, reminded participants that Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) face additional burdens to their activism because of gender inequality that limits their participation and safety.

Gendered attacks include using family members to pressure and shame women into ceasing their activities, threatening women with violence and being imprisoned with no access to their children. WHRDs have also been impacted by morality laws and homophobic speech which seek to limit or cut any work with women considered ‘immoral’ including work with lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LBTQI) women.

At the global scale, spaces traditionally seen as opportunities for progressive rights for women are also continuing to be eroded. The Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) is the global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. This space has been instrumental in promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women. Throughout its history, and again in recent years, this space has become targeted by conservative and anti-rights groups who are advocating against progressive change and aiming to dilute language in global women’s rights agreementsICSW 2019 - space for civil society

Building alliances: the power of collective action

The global women’s rights movement is active in building a safer world for WHRD, their families and communities. It does this by promoting collaboration and coordination among women’s rights organisations, supporting networks of WHRDs, increasing the visibility and recognition of WHRDs and mobilising urgent responses of international solidarity.

Strengthening the abilities of women’s movements to resist patriarchal agendas through collective action is key to achieving rights for all women and is central to Womankind’s approach to advance gender equality and women’s rights.

In the first paper of our new learning series: Stronger Together: The power of feminist programmes to strengthen women’s movements in Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe we look at ways partnership initiatives have strengthened women’s movements drawing on the work driven by our national level Women’s Rights Organisations partners.

Womankind is keen to connect people and organisations in the women’s movement and build alliances. At ICSW we teamed up with the global membership organisation Girls Not Brides (who have built a global movement to end child marriage across over 100 countries). The session highlighted the power of alliances and partnerships to bring about the rights of women and girls and discussed how the closing of civic space is critically affecting the abilities of women’s movements to be successful.

Whilst we know that strengthening connections within the women’s movement is critical, it is also not enough - women’s movements must also connect to wider platforms and alliances and find a common voice with others to drive change on a bigger scale. With this aim, I left ICSW having formed new partnerships with other rights activists by signing the Belgrade Call to Action , a civil society call to stand together to defend people’s voice for a just and sustainable world. The call asks United Nations Member States to act to reverse the closing and shrinking space for civil society, to stop the attacks on human rights defenders. Together we demand world governments stop the undermining of democratic participation, and renew the prospects for an inclusive agenda 2030, towards the full realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Womankind will be championing this call to action in key global decision-making spaces over the coming year to ensure that the lived realties of WHRD are heard and understood.

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